Monday, July 4, 2011

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

Ernest Hemingway's semi-autobiographical novel "A Farewell to Arms" has long been noted as one of the twentieth century's greatest literary works of the English language. As with any other great story, the novel would be produced into a motion picture. A Farewell to Arms, though not as a monumental success as it's written counterpart, would still make for a masterpiece of a picture with great Hollywood names like Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes attached, and directed by the great cinematic mind,Frank Borzage. In a time of WWI movies, none can say they reached the success of this love story.

A Farewell to Arms is the tragic love story of a World War I ambulance driver and nurse in the heart of Europe. Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper), an American born ambulance driver for the Italian army, meets and falls in love with British nurse, Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). The difficulty for the two is being separated from each other due to reassignments to Catherine and the serving in battle for Frederic, partially due to the jealousy of Frederic's friend and superior Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou). Somehow their love allows them to find each other through these tough tests. The romance turns tragic when the pregnant Catherine moves to settle in Switzerland, but due to halter correspondents Cate and Frederic lose contact before he discovers her move. As victory nears in the Great War, Frederic in able to find Catherine just as she dies in childbirth with Frederic by her side.

The story shared in the film is almost Shakespearean in feeling, a masterpiece of the twentieth century. Inspired by actual events in the life of Hemingway, the tale would be a classic. With fine direction and good acting it would be hard not to make this into an solidly enjoyable film. The picture does the story justice and would be remade in 1957 by Charles Vidor at the end of his career. This film falls into the realm similar as to almost every film based on a novels, in that it condenses the original story as to not make the story drag too long on the big screen. Well, that my be, but if one had not read the novel, this picture is good all by itself. It contains thrilling action, passionate love, a dash of sexuality, as well as carries a huge heart. The picture does pull on the heart stings as good tragic love story does.

Along with Hemingway attached to the story, this picture had some great names involved with this cinematic piece. Frank Borzage was one of Hollywood's busiest and most decorated directors (winning two of the first five Oscars for directing), proving once again to be a marvelous architect of great film. Here we have a thirty-year-old Gary Cooper, still rather young in his acting career right as he starts to become a great leading man. A funny story is that originally John Cromwell was set to direct the picture, and Frederic March (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Sign of the Cross) was set to star, but when Cromwell was replaced by Borzage, March refused the role, opening the door for Cooper. Helen Hayes was an acting machine, by this point already a happy owner of an Oscar for best actress. She would one day (through her 70 year career) be known as the "First Lady of the American Theater," being one of the rare people to win an Oscar, Emmy, Gammy and Tony for her body of work. Cooper and Hayes would be supported by Adolphe Menjou, never noted as a leading man, but a fine actor in supporting roles. This would be no motley crew, but a group of professionals.

The picture has a rather interesting history pertaining its content. Hemingway, known for being a rather controversial writer due to his frank descriptions, especially about love, would have his book be banned in places like Australia and British Columbia and when the film was released, it too was banned in these locations, despite the film being cleaner than the novel. Notwithstanding the forward advances of sexuality by Frederic in the film, it would be the talk about the physical difficulties of childbirth that would give censors the most trouble. To avert any problems rewrites were made to omit the discussion of hemorrhaging, labor pains, and gas. censors for some reason, did not like bodily functions at all in movies, despite how natural they may be. Another issue with the film was that Paramount produced two different ending for the picture, allowing cinema owners to choose from the original ending or a happier ending. Hollywood seemed to love producing happier endings in order to make audiences more satisfied with the story. Hemingway would create protests in order to have the original ending prints to be purchased by theater owners.

A Farewell to Arms was a highly thought of film for its day. Winning Oscars for best sound, as well as best cinematography, for Charles Lang. The picture would also be nominated for best art direction and best picture that year. This was a greatly respected film, but with the release of the much longer and more fleshed out 1957 version by 20th Century Fox, this version would in a way be forgotten. It so happens the film is public domain, a rare thing to think of for such a decorated picture. Nonetheless the picture is good and still stands well to the pictures that come out of the era.

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