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Cinematographer Peverell Marley faced an unusual challenge with the 1946remake of Of Human Bondage. After decades of making Hollywood starslike Loretta Young (The House of Rothschild, 1934), Merle Oberon(Folies-Bergere de Paris, 1935) and wife Linda Darnell (Star Dust, 1940) look glamorous, he had to turn Eleanor Parker into the slatternly waitressformerly played by Bette Davis. To do so, he adopted a film noir approachwith director Edmund Goulding, though, as it would turn out, their workwould only reach audiences in a highly altered form.
Of Human Bondage had originally been filmed at RKO Pictures in 1934,with Davis performing on loan-out from her home studio, Warner Bros. Thatperformance and picture were already legends in the '40s, when Warner'sstudio head Jack L. Warner decided to try another version of the tale of ayoung doctor obsessed with a low-class waitress. Hoping he could do forone of his contract stars what the first film had done for Davis, hedecided to give the part of Mildred to the young Eleanor Parker, more knownat the time for her sweet young leading lady roles. Ida Lupino, also undercontract, would have been the perfect choice, as she was British and hadtriumphed with a similar role in The Light That Failed (1939), butshe didn't want to be identified with British parts any more.
Director Edmund Goulding was far from convinced that Parker could handlethe role, so he demanded three screen tests. After the second, he decidedshe could pull it off. To prepare, Parker studied the Cockney dialect withcharacter actress Doris Lloyd, who played a minor role in the film. "I wrote every word out phonetically and memorized the role that way," Parker later remarked.Working with the wardrobe department, she pieced together a set of late19th century costumes from what she would call the studio's "rag bag." Sheeven agreed to play the role without makeup. Her transformation was socomplete that British extras on the film thought she was the real thing,losing several bets when she revealed that she was just a small-town girl fromOhio. Unfortunately, a final death scene showing Parker ravaged by illness was considered too grim for audiences of that era and cut from the film. Another deleted segment was a heated sidewalk argument between Paul Henreid, Richard Nugent and Parker.
Yet, had the rest of the film come up to Parker's level, Of Human Bondage could have been ahit to rival the original. Unfortunately, the studio cut corners oncasting, putting the Viennese actor Paul Henreid into the role of the youngBritish doctor. They revised the novel's original storyline to give him an Austrian mother andput him in a blond wig to disguise his age, but it didn't really work. Nordid inserting dialogue at regular intervals about how young he was.
Yet in another way, Henreid helped the picture tremendously. The actor wasconcerned about Goulding's filming methods. The director would spend two daysrehearsing a scene and then shoot it in one long take, which usuallyrequired going back and doing additional takes days later to add inclose-ups and two-shots. When producer Henry Blanke was reluctant toconfront Goulding on the issue, Henreid simply blew his lines whenever hethought a take was lasting too long. Goulding had to go back and pick thescene up from just before the mistake, which allowed Marley to switch thecamera angle subtly.
Unfortunately, that wasn't enough. The film was finished in 1944, afterwhich it had a disastrous preview screening. The long takes had destroyedthe film's rhythm. Having learned about a new optical bench that allowededitors to create close-ups out of wider shots, Henreid suggested to hisagent, Lew Wasserman, that they could re-edit the film. Wassermansuggested that the producer would be more receptive to suggestions from anagent than one of the stars, so Henreid stayed up all night markingclose-ups and other shot changes in his script, then taught the changes toWasserman. He, in turn, gave his notes to Blanke, who later called Henreid and said, "Paul, I've slept on this disaster, and I have some excellent ideas on how to salvage it. Trust me, I'll save the picture." Of course, he was unaware that Wasserman's suggestions had come from his leading man!
Due to a glut of product during the later years of World War II, Of HumanBondage sat on the shelf for two years, during which time it was cutfurther by the studio. Parker lost some of her best scenes, and AlexisSmith, though given co-star billing as the writer who almost saves Henreidfrom Parker's bad influence, was reduced to a supporting role. Despitesome good reviews for Parker's performance, particularly in England, thepicture was condemned by critics and ignored by the public. Worse yet,when MGM remade the story in 1964 (with Kim Novak and Laurence Harvey), thestudio bought up Warner's 1946 version and withdrew it from televisiondistribution until recently. Finally available for viewing again, Parker'sperformance compares favorably with Davis' and far overshadows Novak'sinterpretation of the part.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Catherine Turney
Based on the novel by W. Somerset Maugham
Cinematography: Peverell Marley
Art Direction: Hugh Reticker, Harry Kelso
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Principal Cast: Eleanor Parker (Mildred Rogers), Paul Henreid (PhilipCarey), Alexis Smith (Nora Nesbitt), Edmund Gwenn (Athelny), Janis Paige(Sally Athelny), Patric Knowles (Griffiths), Henry Stephenson (Dr.Tyrrell), Isobel Elsom (Mrs. Athelny), Una O'Connor (Mrs. Foreman).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller