Sunday, April 30, 2017

A FAREWELL TO ARMS: Blu-ray (Selznick/2oth Century-Fox 1957) Kino Lorber

Let’s face it, by the time veteran producer extraordinaire, David O. Selznick undertook the Herculean task to remake Ernest Hemingway’s immortal tale of love and war – A Farewell to Arms (1957) he hadn’t made a picture in nearly nine years. It shows - the creakiness in Selznick’s scope and candor negatively impacting an already popularized work of fiction, regarded by many in the same reverence and hushed tones as The Holy Bible (or Gone With The Wind…); Selznick and his favorite screenwriter, Ben Hecht doing their utmost to add girth, stature and cinematic merit to Hemingway’s prose (not needed) but perhaps occasionally wanting, given Hemingway’s approach to the novel. Indeed, so much of the epic quality of the novel occurs in the reader’s mind; Hemingway calculatingly structuring the high water marks in his prose around a series of decisions and plot points merely inferred rather than spelled out with interminable descriptions. Astutely, this makes A Farewell to Arms exceptionally fine literature, open to interpretation – both vast and peculiar; more than a dollop of both these un-endearing qualities on display in Selznick’s weepy. Only this time it’s the critics left to their handkerchiefs and hand-wringing. Realistically, all Selznick and Hecht have done is re-interpreted Hemingway their way. It doesn’t work, chiefly because the choices made are teetering on the verge of that same crying gag I once made while studying the book in my second year English class – A Farewell to Arms, an introduction to legs…other appendages optional. It didn’t go over well then and sure as hell does not fly in the face of Hemingway’s literary auteurs, even by 1957’s melodramatic standards. Lest we forget, ’57 was the year of Peyton Place, An Affair to Remember, and Raintree County; MGM’s gala days in Dixie Southern reply to Selznick’s more fondly recalled Southern masterpiece.
In 1918 Ernest Hemingway went off to war. In 1929 he published a book about it. In only his second work, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms spoke to a generation still reeling from the aftermath of WWI. Critically, it was a blistering account of separation and personal sacrifice. Selznick’s reconstitution of it makes valiant strides to bottle this fragile thread bareness of love turned asunder by fate and the unanticipated tragedies of war.  But the real problem with the movie - Selznick isn’t so much interested in re-making A Farewell to Arms as in recapturing the glories of GWTW, right down to this picture’s main title sequence; bold, emblazoned script dramatically trailing from left to right across the Cinemascope expanse, set against a background of stills and location footage shot by his second unit, in and around the Italian Alps. Selznick’s other blunder is casting his second wife, Jennifer Jones as the tragic heroine, nurse Catherine Barkley. Indeed, he was more blind than usual regarding Jones' participation herein. When Hemingway learned of this casting decision, and was equally informed by Selznick he would receive a $50,000 bonus from any profits derived from the picture, the Nobel Laureate wired back his considerable disdain, adding, “If, by some chance your movie, which features the 38-year-old Mrs. Selznick as 24-year-old Catherine Barkley, does succeed in earning $50,000, my suggestion to you is that you take all the money to the local bank, have it converted into nickels, and then shove them up your ass until they come out your mouth."
Ever since Selznick had wooed Jones away from her first husband, Robert Walker in the mid-1940's, he had plotted with Svengali-esque precision to will a career for her on par with the great ladies of the movie screen. It never happened, and this despite Jones’ first time out Oscar win for 1944’s The Song of Bernadette. Selznick saw Jones as the perfect putty by which he could create a star. Alas, Selznick’s folly was his devotion to Jones; his elephantine western, Duel in the Sun (1946) and Portrait of Jennie (1948); expensive blunders meant to add cache to Jones’ career and name as an ‘above the title’ star of the first magnitude, rife for money-making loan outs elsewhere.  And while Jones would continue to appear in such high-profile movies as Madame Bovary (1949), and, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1953 and likely her best), she never found her footing on such hallowed earth already occupied by the likes of other divas who had done it all on their own. Selznick left Paramount in 1932, just as the studio was preparing its own expensive production of A Farewell to Arms. Perhaps this accounted for his verve now to top director, Frank Borzage’s minor effort then, costarring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper. Alas, the rights to the property since were held at Warner Bros.; the studio desperate to release their own 1954 remake of Selznick’s original non-musical, A Star is Born in the foreign markets. As Selznick still retained the copyright for ‘Star’ a deal was struck, whereupon WB would relinquish rights to A Farewell to Arms in trade for Selznick’s release of the rights to A Star is Born in Europe. In retrospect, the really big problem for Selznick is Jennifer Jones: thirty-eight and looking at least six years older – and ‘in Cinemascope’; hardly the ingénue whom Hemingway describes as naïve, dynamic and beguiling. At times, Jones can look like her head’s been used for a punching bag; her whisky drawl as though some well-intended diction coach has just inserted too many marbles into her mouth for the recital. It’s rather embarrassing to watch Jones leaning over a shirtless Rock Hudson splayed across his hospital bed, whispering sweet nothings in his ear, one high-heeled foot lazily rocking back and forth like the stocking-sheathed pendulum of a clock; meant, I suppose to convey at least a hint of the couple’s ardor.
As for Rock Hudson; by 1957 he had miraculously established himself as a cut above the other ‘young finds’ of the 1950’s; firm hunks du jour with more chiseled sex appeal than craftsmanship behind their bods. Hudson had, in fact, delivered high caliber performances in Magnificent Obsession (1954), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and Giant (1956), the latter for which he received an Oscar-nomination as Best Actor. And Hudson would continue to hone his craft well into the 1960s, even after his ‘stud factor’ began to cool; a testament to other drawing powers at the box office. Alas, A Farewell to Arms does Hudson no favors. For one thing, the character of Lt. Frederick Henry is immobilized almost at the start of our story; gallantly wounded in both legs by shrapnel, leaving Hudson to emote some of his most ardent love-making from a horizontal disadvantage. Worse, Selznick and Hecht have concocted an utterly idiotic ‘screwball’ moment to set up this second act; Henry carted off to the military hospital, repeatedly dropped, dumped and otherwise manhandled by a semi-lucid/semi-drunk orderly; bounced from stretcher to elevator, and finally, to bed; Hudson enduring the indignation with a few scripted bitter outbursts that neither ingratiate his character to the audience nor create a sense of legitimacy for the times and severity as inferred throughout Hemingway’s novel. Hudson’s ambulance driver is the least convincing cardboard cutout of the lot, incapable of adding any emotional dimension to these windswept and war-torn landscapes, the real drama of war neither reflected in his eyes or mirrored in any of his actions. One can almost hear director, Charles Vidor shouting through a megaphone as though he were directing a silent movie, “Okay, Rock. Now you want to cry. But you don’t. You run for the bridge. Run, Rock, run!”
It is possible Selznick had already tired of the project even before a single strip of film was shot; his passion understandably dampened after his first choice of director, John Huston, refused to kowtow to his essential demands. Even before that, Selznick had undergone the humiliating experience of having to beg for sponsorship to the majors. In his prime, Selznick would have merely snapped his fingers at MGM or simply taken the reins at Selznick International; finding financing from partner, Jock Whitney to write the necessary checks. But MGM, while generally interested in the property after losing the bidding war to make Tolstoy’s War and Peace, was in the death throes of yet another corporate management shake-up. Without L.B. Mayer to point to as his arch nemesis, Loewe’s Incorporated President, Nicholas Schenck quickly learned from his stockholders the real blame for Metro’s dwindling cash flow now squarely rested at his shoulders. Depending on the source consulted Schenck either ‘retired’ or was quietly asked to ‘resign’. Either way, MGM’s interest to finance A Farewell to Arms abruptly ended with his departure. Selznick then turned to 2oth Century-Fox, having already put their money behind Darryl F. Zanuck’s indie-produced movie of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1957). Only now it was John Huston wasting a good deal of Selznick’s preliminary budget tinkering with Hecht’s script (it needed it); also, with plans of doing ‘something else’ with what he had been offered.  If Selznick’s zeal for A Farewell to Arms had waned, then his usual caustic nature to stand his ground on matters of good taste did not. Firing off a lengthy memo to Huston – essentially to force him off the project – Selznick went after Charles Vidor to replace him. And although Vidor and Selznick worked well together back in the day, their relationship on the set of A Farewell to Arms was acrimonious at best.      
Determined to add stature to his $4,353,000 opus magnum, Selznick insisted on shooting the picture half-way around the world on location in the Italian Alps, Venzone in the Province of Udine in the region of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Lazio, and Cinecitta Studios in Rome. Yet, for all his endeavors to achieve verisimilitude on the screen, Selznick would quickly discover not even all those dramatically blood-stained, burning, muddy and snow-capped Alpine peaks could detour the viewer from recognizing both the script and central performers were trivial, apathetic and mortifying; not only to the reputation of the novel, but their own, as purveyors of better art seen to its best advantage elsewhere. Worse, the picture relied almost surreptitiously on the audience having already read the novel to help fill in the blanks between infrequent fades to black – the emotional significance of whole chapters in Hemingway’s novel left open-ended on the screen or worse, substituted with scenes of less dramatic ballast and intensity to help trundle out, but then betray their memories held dear, though never to materialize on the screen. 
After its faux GWTW main titles, set to Mario Nascimbene’s rather sour and nondescript underscore, A Farewell To Arms settles on the return of Lt. Frederick Henry (Rock Hudson); an American officer serving in the ambulance corps for the Italian Army during World War I. Henry’s a scamp, attested by the lusty glances he gets from prostitutes leaning out of the upstairs windows above the local saloon; also, from the adoring, almost homoerotic gazes he receives from, Major Alessandro Rinaldi (Vittorio De Sica) who openly wishes to possess, or at least feed off of the stamina, looks and youth Henry currently possesses in spades. Nevertheless, Rinaldi is a pretty wily bastard in his own right with a string of conquests as long as his…well…we’ll leave that to providence, and, much to the amused chagrin of Father Galli (Alberto Sordi). Rinaldi shares his latest discovery with Henry, a gorgeous Brit-born nurse, Catherine Barkley, newly arrived to commit herself to the cause. The men make their short sojourn to the hospital where Henry becomes almost immediately smitten with Catherine. She is seemingly less than interested in him; exalting the memory of her dead fiancée and later, throwing a rather awkward temper tantrum, slapping Henry’s face as he makes his advances, apologizing profusely for the insult, then suffering a minor breakdown during an impromptu thunderstorm. She hates the rain – go figure. Henry is called to drive his ambulance up a perilous winding road along the Alpine ledges to tend to the wounded and dying fighting not so very far off. Instead, the enemy launches a counteroffensive; one of the mortar shells landing nearby and severely wounding him in the legs. Henry is rushed into surgery and later tended to by Catherine who finds him suddenly more attractive than irksome. A clandestine romance begins to blossom, right under the nose of hospital matron, Miss Van Campen (Mercedes McCambridge) and ably abetted by fellow nurse, Helen Ferguson (Elaine Stritch in a sort of Eve Arden-styled ‘His Girl Friday’ part – tucking bottles of wine into her uniform and playing devil’s advocate with the stringent Van Campen).   
Despite the rules, Henry and Catherine are clandestinely wed, though not before Van Campen catches the pair in their duplicity. Vindictively, she signs papers attesting to Henry’s full recovery. And while he is not exactly invalided, Henry is far from ready for active duty. Nevertheless, he is forced to the front; Van Campen seeing to it Catherine is ousted from her position at the hospital. Catherine reveals to Ferguson she is carrying Henry’s child. Living obscurely, Catherine waits for news of her beloved’s survival – or otherwise. Alas, in her fragile condition and during their separation, Catherine comes to believe Henry might have taken the easy road and abandoned her for good. Following the hellish and demoralizing Battle of Caporetto, Henry and Rinaldi do all they can to assist the fleeing locals. The exodus is fraught with casualties; people beaten into the mud and to the point of extinction. At some point, Rinaldi begins to lose his grip on reality, chanting vial retribution for those allowing these brutalities to go on. His dissention is duly noted, and, before long, Rinaldi is ushered into a military-styled tribunal and court-martialed without even being allowed to plead his case. Appalled by Rinaldi’s execution by firing squad, Henry attempts to broker favor with the tribunal. He too is sentenced to death, but manages instead to create a disturbance and flee to relative safety by jumping off a bridge into the frigid muddy waters far below. Wanted for desertion, Henry manages to reunite with Ferguson as the hospital is preparing its own evacuation at the train depot. Alas, Van Campen’s hatred for him has not mellowed with time. She attempts to call Henry out as a deserter. Once again, Henry manages a narrow escape, eventually resurfacing at Catherine’s apartment door.
Ecstatic to find him alive, Catherine bundles her beloved off to a lakeside resort bordering Italy and Switzerland. Yet, even here the authorities will likely search for him. And so, Catherine persuades Henry to steal a rowboat under the cover of night. Through a hellish rainstorm and near capture by the Italian boat patrol, Catherine and Henry manage their daring escape, resurfacing at a tiny resort on the Swiss side. Their fears of being sent back are allayed when the local constabulary, upon examining their passports, welcomes them as ‘tourists’ rather than refugees. Catherine’s pregnancy progresses. For a brief wrinkle in time, the couple’s bliss seems assured. She gives birth to what appears to be a healthy baby boy under Dr. Emerich’s (Oskar Homolka) kindly care. But only several hours later, Henry learns his newborn son has died and Catherine too now hovers on the edge of death. Powerless to prevent the inevitable, Henry remains at his wife’s bedside until she expires; departing the room with a look far more shell-shocked than anything ever experienced in war. As he wanders aimlessly through the empty streets at dusk, Henry recalls the few fleeting moments of happiness they shared together. Such is life, the dream remembered, and the promises of more never to be.
A Farewell to Arms really ought to be considered more of a belated ‘farewell to David O. Selznick’ or rather, a bittersweet goodbye to that mantel of quality for which the producer, both at Selznick International, and the various other studios where he created movie magic, was best known.  Ironically, there is nothing in A Farewell to Arms to even hint at Selznick’s fastidiousness, nor even his verve to succeed and will from the ruins another golden epoch. Selznick sold distribution of the picture for a cool million to Fox. But he was greatly depressed by its underwhelming performance at the box office. It made money – just barely. With the loss of his mother in 1959, Selznick turned his attentions toward adapting F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night for Fox. He owed them another picture. But the project stymied after Cary Grant delayed, then reneged on accepting the role of Dick Diver. Meanwhile, Spyros P. Skouras, then in charge, further informed Selznick that due to his most recent snafu with British exhibitors, he would not be allowed to progress any further beyond preparing the screenplay for Tender is the Night; a deal ironed out for his services thus far and the loan out of Jennifer Jones to costar. Reluctantly, Selznick agreed. But he never entirely forgave Skouras this intervention. In the fall, Selznick elected to attend a special ‘anniversary’ screening of GWTW in Atlanta, along with Vivien Leigh and Olivia de Havilland. Their joyful reunion was marginally offset by Clark Gable’s untimely death. But Selznick was greatly invigorated by the prestige of the evening and resounding applause and notoriety that followed the screening – a sort of vindication his particular brand of entertainment had not lost its ability to remain perennially fresh and relevant with audiences.
But for Selznick, the worst was yet to follow: Tender is the Night proving a disaster. And although Richard Zanuck pledged to make a sequel to Gone With The Wind, affording Selznick his usual level of involvement, it was by now clear to Selznick the time had come for him to face semiretirement with dignity. The mood in Hollywood had remained optimistic during the early sixties; the decided chill brought on by Fox’s titanic $40 million dollar investment in Cleopatra (1962) yet to attain its full fiscal fallout. And Selznick, having grown exceptionally weary of the industry he neither toiled in successfully or even, for that matter, was entirely certain he understood anymore, reluctantly sold off the last of his controlling interests in Gone With The Wind to MGM; the studio wasting no time to reformat the picture for a brand new ‘widescreen’ revival. On the surface, Selznick and Jones portrayed a couple at leisure and at peace. But behind closed doors they were fast becoming broke; job offers for the actress practically nonexistent and Selznick already having burned through most of the moneys paid to him for GWTW’s licensing. On June 22, 1965, Selznick, greatly buoyed by the success of Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (a moment to vindicate his own ambitions to make yet another frothy/glossy entertainment he loved best) began talks with Henry Luce in New York regarding ‘possible ventures’. It was too little too late; Selznick, suddenly departing from their discussion, complaining of chest pains and rushed to Cedars of Sinai Hospital where he died at 2:30pm. He was only 65 years old.
In the years since Selznick’s passing many an entrepreneurial spirit has come and gone through the Hollywood gristmill; some sporting the same temperament and level of ambition as a David O. Selznick; others, arguably, an analogous parallel of his genius – though never both qualities embodied in one man simultaneously. It ought to be pointed out it takes both virtuosity and showmanship to produce a classic. Selznick, often bashed today as a meddlesome interloper who ‘prevented’ talents superior to his own – like Alfred Hitchcock - from triumphing in their own particular soil of good taste, is as absurd a notion as to suggest Gone With The Wind could have been made at MGM or anywhere else without Selznick’s daily – sometimes hourly – investment of tireless energies to rein in the creatives, keep them motivated, but also keeping them honest and focused. Lest we remember, MGM tried to resurrect the legacy of a GWTW with Raintree County – a colossal misfire; ditto for television’s ambitious stab at a sequel to GWTW with Scarlett – the 1994 miniseries attempting to pick up where ‘the wind’ had left off. And Selznick, who had toiled longer, harder and with far more reasons to fail than succeed on ‘Wind’ only to prove his most ardent detractors wrong in the months following its triumphant Atlanta premiere and Oscar-sweeping success, had taken his message to the streets – or rather, the University of Rochester in 1940 where he spoke not only about the intangibles faced within the film-making process, but also his innate love for it, the passion to see good films being made in Hollywood and as positively received and revered around the world.
A Farewell to Arms is undeniably not among this cherished back catalog of Selznick memories – nor does it deserve to be. What a downer! What a shame! But its lackluster appreciation should never negate the high praise, and even loftier hopes for the future Selznick imparted to the graduating class on that sweltering hot afternoon: “To you, who feel the burning urge to influence the modes and manners, the social and political ideologies of the future through the medium of the motion picture…I say, Here is a challenge. Here is a frontier that is and always will be crying for the courage and the energy and the genius of American youth. Here is the Southwest Passage to fame and fortune and influence. Here is the El Dorado of the heart, the soul and the mind.” And so it has remained, of the millions of miles in celluloid exposed, a handful of stories, men and women, destined to be remembered for as long as youth endures and people are left to remember them. I miss the likes of a David O. Selznick - terribly so. For there has been virtually nothing like the man on Hollywood’s horizon since. Perhaps, his like shall not pass this way again. More’s the pity then, as now, for the days ahead and we who continue to dream in, of, about, and, for the Hollywood that was, never was, or rather, might possibly come around, if only the dreams we dared to dream really did come true.
A Farewell to Arms has supposedly received a new 4K restoration. At least, that is what Kino Lorber’s back packaging of the newly released Blu-ray suggests. But the results are regrettably far from perfect. For starters, I do not see signs that any sort of substantial color correction has been applied to nurse these elements back from a fairly deplorable state of vinegar syndrome. Flesh tones are the most egregious transgressors throughout; rarely looking anything close to natural; at times, adopting a garish orange palette while at others looking fairly jaundice. A Farewell to Arms was shot in Cinemascope with color by DeLuxe. Even so, it should not look half this anemic, especially since the picture has rarely been taken out of mothballs since its theatrical release. Yet, overall, the image suffers from a muddy palette of colors; reds appearing more brownish/orange than true red, grey leaning to a dull grey/beige, and blues often more grey or even blackish than blue. Every so often, color snaps together for a brief moment or two. We get some suggestion of what the Alpine landscape must have looked like, with bold green foliage on display. But even the white snow-capped mountains appear dull and dirty in this transfer. The hot searing flames as Caporetto is burned to the ground look more flat pinkish/orange than yellow and bright. Curiously, film grain appears to have been slightly homogenized. Contrast is weaker than anticipated. The image is free of age-related artifacts, but at this point who really cares? What is on display here is flat, pasty and unappealing from start to finish, the candlelit subtleties in Oswald Morris, Piero Portalupi and James Wong Howe’s cobbled together cinematography wholly obscured by this uninspiring visual presentation. The 2.0 DTS audio is satisfactory, if never remarkable; dialogue front and center and Mario Nascimbene’s orchestrations achieving considerable bombast and, occasionally, impressive clarity. There are no extra features included. Bottom line: pass and be very glad that you did!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)

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