BR: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

December 12, 2013 | By

Return to: Home Blu-ray, DVD, Film Reviews / J to L

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Film: Very Good / BR Transfer: Very Good/ BR Extras: Excellent

Label: Twilight Time / Region:All / Released: July 9, 2013

Genre: Romance / Drama / Biography

Synopsis: A Eurasian doctor living in 1949 Hong Kong falls for a married American war correspondent.

Special Features:

Audio Commentary with Film Historians Jon Burlingame, Michael Lonzo, and Sylvia Stoddard / Isolated Stereo Score Track / Fox Movietone news Footage / Theatrical Trailer / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by Film Historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment.

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Review:

Winner of three Academy Awards for Best Song, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design, plus Nominations for Best Actress, Cinematography, and Picture.

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All the elements came together in this timeless love story in which a doctor falls in love with a married man in Hong Kong, and the inevitable ephemeral romance which seems destined to end too soon. For this lavish adaptation of Han Suyin / Rosalie Chow’s autobiographical novel, Fox exploited the exotica of Hong Kong in CinemaScope – the opening shot, a blatant borrowing from the Cinerama playbook of establishing shots – is impressive for its massive scope and for capturing Aberdeen, Hong Kong, when there were no skyscrapers in sight. (Much of the waterfront acreage is densely packed with wooden and stone buildings only a few storeys tall.)

William Holden was never more handsome, and Jennifer Jones is well-cast as the headstrong Suyin whose passion for life is unleashed after their first date – a swim across a bay to a friend’s luxurious villa. Composer Alfred Newman’s over-exploitation of the title song undoubtedly helped the tune become a hit single, and the ‘scope cinematography certainly ensured the studio’s widescreen process was in 1955 a worthy rival to Cinerama (which never managed to lose its association with the travelogue genre).

Director Henry King was an old timer at Fox, and remained on the studio’s A-list for decades, frequently directing the studio’s most prestigious projects in every conceivable genre, such as A Bell for Adano (1945), The Captain from Castile (1947), and the raucous Prince of Foxes (1949). With a screenplay that deliberately lifts dialogue and narrative from the original novel (using far less Chinese ‘Mystical Speak’ than the average Hollywood melodrama), King managed to establish a careful rhythm in each scene, and in taking advantage of his stars’ dynamic chemistry, had the two actors (who apparently didn’t get along at all) engage in unsubtle touching, nuzzling, and face mushing – extended (and far more realistic) displays of physical affection than the de rigueur Big Kiss and Hug which preceded a typical fadeout or dissolve. King’s tactic subversively amped up the screen passion while remaining in line with the Production Code rules for acceptable displays of love and devotion, and the actors’ unpretentious ‘handling’ still produces significant heat for modern audiences.

Set in 1949 Hong Kong, Love reflects a series of then-contemporary conflicts between Eurasian (half-Chinese, half-European) Suyin and the snotty English colonialists who maintained antiquated class lines leftover from the Victorian era. Foreign correspondent Mark Elliot (based on Suyin’s real love affair with London Times correspondent Ian Morrison) functions as a guide for Western and European film audiences unfamiliar with the racism and culture clashes between England and Asian cultures, and his role as a war reporter also permitted the filmmakers to contemporize the film’s politics, playing up the menace of Communism and the Korean War which last much longer than Elliott’s facetious assessment of three weeks.

Being Eurasian is one of the film’s central issues, and while the script has Jones often repeating the term to remind audiences ‘Hey! This girl is different!’ it could also be read as the filmmakers’ discrete message for audiences to accept bi-racial couples and their children (especially African-American unions). Fox had a long history of making message pictures tied to topical, hot-button issues (Pinky, Gentleman’s Agreement, The Ox-Bow Incident), and Love is no less different, preaching tolerance and acceptance within the container of a classic romancer.

Twilight Time’s Blu-ray features a clean HD transfer with eye-popping colours and details that bring out the beauty of Leon Shamroy’s cinematography. The compositions are artful, yet one can see a greater comfort in adapting the widescreen ratio for drama, as there less scenes of characters sitting or sprawled across in the screen in static, contrived stances. (There are a few exceptions, but Jones lying on the grass before Holden ravishes her at their favourite hilltop rendezvous is hardly dull.)

The 5.1 audio mix isn’t heavily immersive, but music is given a high priority. Newman’s adaptation of Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s theme song is effective when discrete and humorous when, as with The Best of Everything (1959), it’s heard whenever the couple turn on the radio, or have a slow dance in nearby Macau.

TT’s BR ports over the bulk of extras created by Fox exclusively for their 2002 DVD release. The commentary track features Sylvia Stoddard (film historian, writer and screenwriter), John Burlingame (UCLA film music professor and writer for Daily Variety and the L.A. Times), and Michael Lonzo (cinematographer) in a superbly edited track that offers a great overview of Suyin, life in Hong Kong after Japan invaded Manchuria, and some witty, concise details regarding the film’s CinemaScope lensing and engrossing music score.

Lonzo’s comments are largely restricted to the intricacies of shooting, and combining location and studio footage, plus process photography, and the two cinematographers responsible for the film’s look: Shamroy, an old-timer who’s style is characterized by his use of filters with graduated colour lighting; and Charles G. Clark, the expert second unit cinematographer whose career and contributions to the film (about 40% is location work) are largely unknown by film fans. Though Lonzo knew Shamroy, there’s never any personal insight into the man (although some vivid and amusing portraits can be found on the DVD for Otto Preminger’s The Cardinal, which he also photographed).

The film’s locations are also dissected by Sylvia Stoddard, and even from the film’s opening aerial shot, audiences will be shocked at the lack of massive corporate, government and residential towers in Hong Kong (particularly the less developed Repulse Bay). Better still is her insight into author Suyin, who also wrote a two-part autobiography that covered her childhood in China, first marriage, globe-trotting and piecemeal medical education, and later years after Elliot was no longer a part of her life.

Adding sobering historical facts, Stoddard gives us a good impression of Suyin’s remarkable world – an independent-minded and smart woman who sought work in a male-dominated profession – and the realities of a recovering Asia and Europe after WW2, while the Korean War was about to explode.

A final word on Elliot’s letters to Suyin – which ultimately inspired the book – is particularly touching: as John Burlingame recounts, songsmiths Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster’s addition of the words “Love Is” to kick start the theme song, led to the film’s revised title, and there’s an amusing chronicle near the track’s end, about the song that nobody wanted to sing, but ultimately became a massive hit after the Four Aces performed the first version.

Working at the time on a book about the Newman family (which includes esteemed composers Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, and David Newman), Burlingame provides material on the score’s three main themes, and their careful application in the film, and composer Alfred Newman, still acknowledged as Film’s most honored composer, with 45 Oscar Nominations + 9 wins for Best Original and Adapted scores. (In a piece of cyclical irony, Newman’s Oscar win for The Song of Bernadette in 1943 was accompanied by a Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Jones, then making her screen debut in a film directed by Henry King.)

The theatrical trailer contains the usual hype, bright onscreen text, and money shots for this early (and very wide) CinemaScope production, and a Fox Movietone newsreel covers the “Audience Awards,” with Grace Kelly presenting Natalie Wood a posthumous stature for James Dean, and appearances by Jennifer Jones, William Holden, and producer Buddy Adler. The second newsreel, “Photoplay Awards,” is more interesting because, aside from Adler, Holden, and Jones winning (the last accepted on Jones’ behalf by Deborah Kerr), there are quick shots of Richard Egan and Joan Collins, winning awards for “Most Promising Youthful Thespians.”

Exclusive to the BR is an isolated score track of Newman’s music, and Julie Kirgo’s liner notes which cover the film’s ongoing popularity and importance in Fox’ catalogue. (The booklet also makes use of superior art direction, thankfully dropping the over-art directed still of Holden holding Jones with a weird curve in  back and arms in a moment that, naturally, never happens in the film.)

Exclusive to the 2002 Fox DVD are a restoration comparison, and a Biography installment on William Holden which covers the actor’s career and family life, and features interviews with colleagues Ernest Borgnine, Cliff Robertson, Stefanie Powers, and son Scott Holden. A familiar, slick production, Holden’s inimitable charm comes through in every film clip, and there’s a short blooper from The Towering Inferno, plus some video footage of the actor at his nature preserve in Kenya.

King would reunite with Jennifer Jones in 1962 for his directorial swan song, Tender is the Night, whereas Fox used the film’s popularity in a branded daytime soap opera on CBS (1967-1973) which focused on a series of interracial couples in San Francisco, including the daughter of Suyin and Elliot. (The videotaped series reportedly survives via a handful of kinescopes, of which one is on the Internet Archive.)

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© 2013 Mark R. Hasan

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External References:

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