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Farewell to Arms, A (Blu-ray Review)

19 Dec, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Street 12/20/11
Kino Lorber
$24.95 DVD, $29.95 Blu-ray
Not rated.
Stars Helen Hayes, Gary Cooper, Adolphe Menjou.

Back when I was programming the AFI Theater then in Washington, D.C., the Library of Congress print we showed of Frank Borzage’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s World War I perennial included two different endings — one of them compromised sad, the other actually happy. In the rarely seen happy one, which we naturally showed second as a bonus, nurse Catherine Barclay actually survives her brutal bout with childbirth — a scene whose fairly sanitized portrayal nonetheless challenged Hollywood’s censors of the day (yet even so, you can imagine what Hemingway thought of this version’s resolution).

But Borzage being Borzage (probably the king of romantics in terms of American directors), the standard-issue “sad” ending is also anti-Ernie: Catherine does die, but there’s a tone of almost operatic hopefulness — and enough of it to put even the filmmaker’s most ardent fans on the defensive (Hemingway didn’t like this version, either). This is why I myself will always prefer, say, Borzage’s The Mortal Storm, where you really do feel the power of the downbeat wrap-up of Margaret Sullavan taking a bullet.

Yet overall, I like this early version of Farewell — which, in addition to winning an the Academy Award for sound, got Charles Lang a companion Oscar for his prototypically “1930s Paramount” cinematography, which gets in the marrow not just in the love scenes but during the more grimy combat scenes as well. And as a sharp AFI colleague noted to me at the time: you really do believe that Hayes and Gary Cooper are in love here, which carries this rendering over some bumps. Adolphe Menjou and an uncharacteristically sympathetic Jack La Rue (his face almost guaranteed his being cast as hoods) are solid as well.

Unfortunately, like a lot of literary properties, this first screen version of the book fell into 'Public Domain Hell' when Warner Bros. bought the rights to the property many years later — a purchase that may or may not have helped engender a not very good Michael Curtiz World War II movie (1951’s Force of Arms). The latter isn’t regarded as a remake per se — though you could have fooled me and many others, so heartily does it sample Hemingway’s goods. Sometime after this, predominantly lousy (also substantially trimmed) prints of the ’32 started showing up carrying the Warner logo instead of that Paramount horseshoe of stars around a mountain.

Then — I’m not sure, first-hand, of the switched-logos chronology because I was too occupied as a kid listening to Fats Domino — David O. Selznick embarked on his flop 1957 swan song version of the book starring his real-life wife (Jennifer Jones) and Rock Hudson. My parents, who had a worn hardback of For Whom the Bell Tolls, had apparently never read its Hemingway predecessor so were not tipped off, and I can still remember my conservative mother slumping in her Manhattan theater seat when she and my father took me to see the Selznick picture. If memory serves, I also recall her letting out something like a groan on my behalf when Jones used the word “whore” on screen, which was likely a Hollywood first. (“Don’t worry, mom, I’m 10; I know what a whore is.”)

Hemingway’s Catherine character is an optimist, a trait Hayes thoroughly conveys here. Jones, meanwhile, almost always came off on screen as if she’d been in analysis for about a quarter century. This neurotic edginess helped her in some roles (think Ruby Gentry) and ruined her for others  — though, frankly, I’m not certain how Jones’s Oscar-winning career maker The Song of Bernadette fits with this theory because neither “neurotic” or “edgy” are words that come to mind when you think of a 19th-century peasant girl who may or may not have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary. Be that as it may, Hayes playing opposite a Cooper we see evolving from semi-cocksure to vulnerable is a pairing that clicks. And historically, you can probably advance the case that this is the movie that took Cooper from popular leading man to the next level of his career. Certainly, by 1935’s The Lives of a Bengal Lancer, he was a superstar, and it’s doubtful that the movies Cooper made between Farewell and Lancer are the ones that did it. Not even Ernst Lubitsch’s supreme-o Design for Living — just out in a new Criterion edition — because it wasn’t that well received in its day.

Good prints (and sometimes even printing material) of an original often got scrapped when literary rights changed hands for a rival studio’s screen remake, which is why so many movies of well-known novels were available for so many years (and some still) in shoddy versions. I’m not sure if that previous Library of Congress Farewell print to which I alluded was taken off the same negative as here or not; this Kino edition is from George Eastman House. And if it doesn’t quite glimmer like the 1929-49 other Paramount titles that Universal has controlled for decades (and show up on DVDs from Universal and occasionally Criterion), it is good enough to make you appreciate how Lang got his Oscar. To be sure, it’s much better looking than what I’ve seen of Kino’s new color Blu-ray of Selznick’s 1937 comedy Nothing Sacred. Only on my 57-inch screen did it show some wear; on my 37-inch screen, it more than passes.

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