Today we welcome back one of our regular guest contributors, Larry Michie, literary man of the world and former television editor of Variety.
Larry muses most on a most puzzling classic movie fact – why most film versions of Ernest Hemingway books are hard to digest today. We urge you to read on and find out why.
Ernest Hemingway has long been acknowledged as one of the most influential – and popular – writers of the twentieth century.
His distinctive style and gripping tales of love, war, honor, manliness, and loss were read, absorbed and acclaimed by generations.
As might be expected, Hemingway’s various works of fiction were turned into motion pictures by some of the leading masters of Hollywood. For reasons that could be argued eternally, most of those motion pictures have been embarrassing flops. Somehow the genius of his prose didn’t translate to film very well.
Oddly enough, one of the better films was the first – 1932’s A Farewell to Arms, a later version of which is discussed below.
The 1932 “Farewell” starred Helen Hayes as Catherine Barkley, billed over the young Gary Cooper as Lieutenant Henry. Adolphe Menjou supplied both humor and, eventually, considerable menace.
Hayes was good, but Cooper was outstanding. He owned the screen. No surprise that a decade later Cooper was tapped to play another Hemingway hero in For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The Hayes/Cooper movie is remarkably true to the novel, and the World War I scenes are handled well by director Frank Borzage (there was an Academy Award for cinematography).
One aspect of the movie that is a bit startling, considering the time in which it was made, is that the film was true to the novel, which meant that the two lovers not only had sex but conceived a child – with no more sanction by society than the anguished blessing of a priest. Menjou plays a villain’s role, conspiring to keep them apart until Lt. Henry is forced to desert so he can be with his lover.
True to Hemingway’s tale, Catherine’s child is born dead, and she herself soon expires. Pretty strong stuff for 1932, especially since the Hays Office was in existence. (The Motion Picture Production Code was set up in 1930.)
It’s only appropriate at this point to hold one’s nose and bring up the later incarnation of “Farewell to Arms,” the 1957 version starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones, with the stellar backing of Vittorio De Sica, Oscar Homolka, Mercedes McCambridge and Elaine Stritch.
Hudson was, in a word, unwatchable.
Scratch that film off your list, unless you actually enjoy pain. Not even Ben Hecht’s screenplay could rescue this turkey. Rock should have saved his energy for Doris Day.