Damn that song! Back in the late 1950s, there was no escaping it; along with Theme from Moulin Rouge and Around the World in 80 Days, it haunted me via its constant blaring over the airways – easy listening, cross-over rock – you name it. Of course I'm talking about Love is a Many-Splendored Thing, the ditty that became as iconic of the Eisenhower Era as Marilyn Monroe and a subway grating.
The song's legs sprinted well into the early 1960s – so much so that when the network TV announcement came for the 1955 romantic smash flick’s television debut, I was stunned. “They made a movie about that song?!” Such was its popularity – which 2014 classic picture buffs can gage for themselves via the new Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment limited edition release of...what else?...LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING.
A Valentine's Day date special-plus, this sumptuous CinemaScoped stereophonic sound superstar pairing of Jennifer Jones and William Holden remains an authentic, intelligent depiction of couple coupling, not the least due to the above very intelligent leads.
It's all based on a bestselling autobiography by Han Suyin, a widowed, brilliant Eurasian doctor working in 1949 Hong Kong, and her passionate (albeit adulterous) affair with married American foreign correspondent Mark Elliott (the book was simply called A Many-Splendored Thing – the Love part adroitly added by Fox, as Adultery was likely termed inappropriate).
They meet at a lavish soiree held by the horrible and horribly rich British gargoyles known as The Palmer-Joneses, played with despicable snobbery by Isabel Elsom and Torin Thatcher. “Don't tell us you're a Communist,” comprise Mrs. P-J's initial comments to Suyin – which would have immediately relegated the physician to a-rose-is-a-rose-is-a-Rosenberg status even in a non-1950s universe. With an exhale of relief, Suyin replies to the negative; her interest in returning to her native China revolves around her helping the growing proportions of needy children, the poor and elderly victims of increasing Soviet oppression. Adding that her husband was killed by the Commies forever squelches questions regarding Suyin's loyalty – and thus opens the door to her being primed for...well, a many-splendored thing. Good for the prigs, as it appears that “All the really nice people are being thrown out” of Hong Kong these days. Only her mixed ethnicity keeps her from being considered an acceptable equal – half English/half Chinese being, as Suyin tells her heavily aroused journalist paramour, a whispered parable for moral laxity.
BINGO! This is exactly what the instantly smitten newsman wants to hear – and he comes on like gangbusters to the stunned woman, who, aware of his marital background, underlines the impenetrable fact that she's not that kind of a girl. Since these predatory advances are by William Holden, we know that she really is – and soon will be penetrable like nobody's business, apropos for the upcoming Moon Festival.
LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING is an A-1 soap opera masterpiece, perhaps the ultimate example of big-budget smooch movie-making 1950s-style. There are many reasons for this – but primarily the picture's success is due to its three major stars.
Beautiful Jennifer Jones is genuinely great as Han Suyin, totally believable as a surgeon, as well as a conflicted lover. While she began her 1950s association with Fox via 1952's excellent Ruby Gentry (distributed by 20th, but produced by her ubiquitous husband), LOVE freed the actress from his overbearing clutches...at least temporarily. The movie's blockbuster reception came with a sweet contract; unfortunately spouse David O. Selznick would from here on in supervise her Fox productions – the results of which (encompassing pork-stuffed versions of A Farewell to Arms and Tender is the Night) more than prove that the “O” stood for over-the-hill. LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING would be her biggest post-Song of Bernadette triumph at the studio, soon to be squeezed to the max by Selznick's ridiculous demands, Zanuck's kick-in-the-ass departure and that embryonic death suck forever known as Cleopatra.
Jones is both smart and sexy in this movie, despite the prerequisite slanted eye makeup which pendulously sways from moderate to severe, depending upon her pushing the English or Chinese roots of her ancestry. Indeed, when she visits her bigoted family in China, she departs Hong Kong looking like Gale Sondergaard in The Letter. Nevertheless it's a terrific performance (she was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar and New York Film Critics awards, losing both times to Anna Magnani for The Rose Tattoo) – more amazingly so if one Googles “Han Suyin” and sees how much the two women did physically resemble each other. Go Fox!
William Holden was at his peak in 1955 (still fresh from his '53 Stalag 17 Oscar win and with a barrage of hit movies, including Bridges at Toko-Ri and Executive Suite being belted out one after another) with LOVE indubitably suggesting that he could do no wrong (Picnic was next on deck for that year. See what I mean?).
Holden's character is sort of like an extension of the devil-may-care playboy part he played in Sabrina. But maybe more so. I don't think I've ever seen the thesp exhibit more assurance than he does in LiasMST. Truly, his baby-blues sparkle like the pollutant-free waves of the Kowloon Reservoir. Perhaps it’s his finally achieved A-list prestige, or his satisfaction with the script and costar; from what I've read, I suspect it's the spectacular Hong Kong locations that did it. The actor fell in love with all locales Asian, African and/or exotic. The rumor was that a script containing a mysterious location – continents away from the Hollywood shores – was a near-guarantee of Holden's participation, even before he flipped past the title page. The narrative sidebar that in LOVE he's a womanizing journalist is justified in proper Fifties fashion by portraying his never-seen wife as an icy, crazed harpy – sort of Norma Desmond on steroids, and best locked up in a tower like Mrs. Rochester.
The third star is Hong Kong – or, more precisely, its rendering by the fantastic location camerawork of master color cinematographer Leon Shamroy (with additional second unit assist from Charles G. Clarke). As was a growing trend in the 1950s, much of LOVE was filmed where it happened – a clever way to showcase the wide vistas of travelogue-friendly CinemaScope. The grab-your-passport aerial shots alone will put you into gasping swoon mode, with Shamroy's trademark luxuriously bathed lighting interiors following a close second (Shamroy’s Best Color Cinematography Oscar nomination understandably lost out to Robert Burks for To Catch a Thief; okay, I get that).
The script by John Patrick is unquestionably emotional, but surprisingly frequently cerebral, rife with a plethora of witty dialogue. Holden's character's obvious Jennifer “jones” for Suyin's Asian side surfaces during his rhapsodic pining for an oriental number she had previously worn. “I love that dress you had on the other day,” he practically drools. “I'll make you a present of it,” she snarkily responds. Suyin’s sensuality, when fully unleashed, offers up an unending array of male fantasies. Her breathless purring of “I’ll always do what you want me to” is one of the most erotic exchanges ever uttered in a mainstream Hollywood movie, and guaranteed to make every dude in the audience envious that Mark Elliott is the luckiest S.O.B. on the planet. It’s another winning bow to Jones’ acting, and a whopping loss to the phone sex industry.
The point where the two merge is classic – again a perfect reflection of its time, shamelessly taking a waterlogged page out of the already-clichéd From Here to Eternity fun-at-the-beach playbook (these segments doubly served as the focus for the picture's poster and ad campaigns). When the couple goes for an unscheduled swim, there's no mistake at what's comin' 'round the bend, my huckleberry friend. Barely able to keep their hands off each other, the deal is sealed by a quick detour to a convenient grotto. There – wet, panting and heaving – they resort to the ultimate coded cinematic coital device: the Now Voyager dual ciggy ploy; in effect, they literally light each other's butts...It's just one frame shy of CUT to fireworks...CUT to train roaring through tunnel...CUT to laughing couple bobbing up and down on merry-go-round horses. They immediately swim to a mutual friend's abode where the guests are practically mouthing, “Ooooo, you did it!” and even “Oooo, you're gonna do it again!”
This might be disturbing if it wasn't for the fact that everyone in 1949 Hong Kong seems to be involved in illicit extra-marital shenanigans. This is magnanimously driven home in a sequence where Suyin runs into her old friend Suzanne (Jorja Curtright) – herself intertwined in a clinch with an upper-class wedded lover. That Suzanne, also Eurasian, is passing for white isn't the key issue; nor is her adultery. It's the notion that these two women are besties, as, unlike the cultured Suyin, Suzanne's role model seems to have been Mildred from Of Human Bondage. It's hard to imagine them as former college chums, unless their major was in Varying Approaches to Red Light Districting. And when Suzanne shows off her newly blonde tresses, Suyin's startled facial reaction is akin to the realization that a shade of hair dye actually comes in Blowsy Whore.
Unfortunately, anyone acquainted with CAS (Caucasian Asian Syndrome) is well aware of the pitfalls when adapted to all things Hollywood. And here is the one sore thumb downfall of Patrick's efforts. In short, whenever a movie character afflicted with CAS begins a sentence with “It is said...” you know there's a massive attack of viewer lip-biting, eye-rolling and abdominal groaning in the future. Sadly, Jennifer Jones has more Chinese proverbs at her disposal than a fortune cookie warehouse...and she's not afraid to use 'em! I legitimately felt sorry for Holden, and around the time Jones reminds her lover of the beetle analogy, I wanted to smack her silly. I know if I were Mark Elliott, Han Suyin would be Han solo.
And she eventually is, because even logical adultery has a price to pay, especially in 1955. How and why is a plot point that you'll have to experience for yourself 'cause I ain't giving any more away.
Like any pre-1960 Hollywood Asian movie, LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING features both Phillip Ahn and Richard Loo, as this was apparently the law (but it's a good law, so we won't squawk). The dandy supporting cast also features Murray Matheson and the wonderful actress Virginia Gregg. There's also a taciturn bit by a snarling Kam Tong as the only nasty doctor at the Victorian Hospital where Suyin is ensconced (telltale sign that he's a Commie, which he is – the swine).
The first-rate direction is by Henry King, generally known as a specialist in Americana. It's cool to witness his evolution as a CinemaScope craftsman, as LOVE is a huge improvement over his 1953 rousing but stolid Tyrone Power adventure King of the Khyber Rifles (the latter being the visual equivalent of a 1928 talkie). Rather than cramming every inch of the rectangular frame with bits of business, LOVE relies upon an opened-up freewheeling fluidity. Scope, after all, should be a breath-of-fresh-air square-box-liberating excursion, not a claustrophobic one. Kudos, Henry!
The soundtrack to LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING is, like its imagery, epic. Typical of Fifties stereo, the audio is multi-directional – characters talking from the left side of the frame are heard through the left speaker...answered by their screen partners from the right. Ditto sound effects, buffered by swelling music from all sides. The score, by Alfred Newman, transcends being appropriately heart-rending. Simply put, it's a beauty (and rightly won an Oscar). The aforementioned song, which is only sung by a chorus at the closing moments (but heard instrumentally throughout), doesn't bang you into nightmarish horror. That came concurrent to the pic's release – when singles, featuring Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's endeavors (for which they also won Oscars) were released by a number of artists, including Don Cornell and, most infamously The Four Aces. The Aces had scored another Fox royal flush with their cut of Three Coins in the Fountain (crooned in the movie by Sinatra); however this would be their pinnacle. Like contestants for America Wants Valium, Cornell and The Four Aces infused their music with an exuberant, tear-jerking hysteria, which (aping the success of tsunami-weeping Johnny Ray's aptly titled Cry) was, for some unfathomable reason, energetically deemed attractive way back then. Even their “happy” music is overshadowed by a wailing, moanful din – the only conceivable diagnosis being that their underwear was too tight...or that they were in desperate need of an available rest room.
The Twilight Time Blu-Ray of LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING is terrific. As one might expect, the 1080p widescreen compositions (in 2.55: 1, rather than the normal 2.35:1 to accommodate the 35MM stereo mag tracks) is crystal clear and a stunner. Shamroy and Clarke's efforts look better than they likely did in 1955, due to the digital restoration of the unstable DeLuxe original elements (which tended to fade with alarming rapidity). The stereo-surround audio (in 5.1) is equally impressive, and, is accessible as an IST (Isolated Score Track) for your listening pleasure (for Newman fans – an outstanding incentive).
An accompanying trailer rightfully conjures up all the sordid aspects of the movie (racism, adultery, hypocrisy, class snobbery – and that song), and, thus, is a fun-filled way to begin any evening.
As Suyin herself might intone, “It is said that those who wait like the stubborn beetle will miss out on the limited edition...so shake your Buddha and get yours today.”
Who am I to argue with a doctor?
LOVE IS A MANY-SPLENDORED THING. Color. Letterboxed [2.55:1; 1080p High Definition]. Stereo-surround [5.1 DTS-HD MA]. Twilight Time/20th Century-Fox Home Entertainment. SRP: $29.95.
Available exclusively through Screen Archives Entertainment [www.screenarchives.com].