William Holden Wednesday

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

LIAMST 3

Today’s movie for William Holden Wednesday is one of the biggest commercial successes of Holden’s career, Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.  It’s a movie that’s problematic for modern audiences in many ways, most especially in the casting of Jennifer Jones in the role of a Eurasian woman.  The thought of casting anyone but an actor of Asian descent is bizarre to us now, and seeing Jones made up to be half Chinese is jarring.

Still, it’s a movie that had aspirations to open-mindedness, with its exploration of the cultural clashes between East and West and of the racial prejudices of the day.  Plus it’s a romantic and beautiful film, with its scenic vistas of Hong Kong and its gorgeous score by Alfred Newman.  The movie also features a memorable theme song which became a pop hit for various artists in the 1950s and ‘60s.  (Andy Williams’ version is my favorite.)

LIAMST 2

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing is the story of Han Suyin, a doctor working in a hospital in Hong Kong during the time of China’s communist revolution.  Though she has strong ties with the Chinese side of her heritage, she is also half English and is part of the European set in Hong Kong.

She meets American journalist Mark Elliott (Holden) at a cocktail party and they quickly make a connection.  In spite of her hesitation – she is a widow whose focus is now her work, he’s a married-but-separated man whose wife won’t give him a divorce – a passionate romance soon blossoms between the two.

LIAMST 5

Holden and Jones are at their most gorgeous in this movie, and in spite of the fact that they couldn’t stand each other in real life (about which more below) they have great chemistry.

That’s especially apparent during a scene on the beach, with the pair of them in bathing suits.  Holden lights Jones’s cigarette with his in the most blatant use of smoking as a substitute for onscreen consummation since Paul Henreid and Bette Davis blew smoke in each other’s faces in Now, Voyager.  See it below beginning at about 8:30.

It’s a little cheesy, sure, but also pretty steamy and suggestive.  With Picnic’’s release the same year, 1955 was a good year for Holden’s image as a sex symbol.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, one of the nicest things about Bill Holden is how often he was shirtless in his movies!

LIAMST 6

LIAMST 9

In the end pressure from both Suyin’s Chinese relatives and the prejudices of the European community in Hong Kong put a strain on the couple’s romance before the dangers of wartime tear them even further apart.  I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but I will say that I can never get through this movie without having a good weep.

But back to the gossip!  From Golden Boy: The Untold Story of William Holden by Bob Thomas:

The love scenes between Holden and Jennifer Jones evoked tears from millions of American women, but the film was a rare instance when he lacked affection for his leading lady.  Miss Jones complained about her makeup, her costumes, the dialogue; and when Holden failed to sympathize, she complained about him.  “I’m going to tell David about this,” she said repeatedly; and her husband, David O. Selznick, sent a stream of memos to Fox about her complaints.

The acrimony reached the point where the two stars were scarcely speaking to each other except during their love scenes. Holden decided to seek a truce, and he presented Miss Jones with a bouquet of white roses.  She threw them in his face.

Yikes!  I’ve read elsewhere that Jones was so disturbed by Holden’s reputation for romancing his leading ladies off-screen as well as on that she did things like chew garlic prior to scenes in which she and Holden had to kiss.  Can you believe it?  Given her obnoxious behavior, I’m not sure garlic breath was the most off-putting thing about Jennifer Jones.  She probably needn’t have worried about Bill throwing himself at her feet.  She was no Audrey Hepburn, let’s put it that way!

LIAMST 1

While Holden may not have fallen for his co-star in this movie, he did fall in love with Hong Kong and eventually owned an apartment there.  In 1960 he starred in another story of interracial romance also filmed in Hong Kong, The World of Suzie Wong, and that time he had an Asian co-star in the beautiful Nancy Kwan.

See you next Wednesday for more William Holden!

Portrait of Jennie

portrait of jennie

I’m struggling with how to write about director William Dieterle’s 1948 film, Portrait of Jennie, because it’s the kind of movie it’s better not to know too much about beforehand.  But how can you convince someone who’s never watched a certain movie to do so, without talking about it and possibly giving too much away?  It’s tricky!

In brief, Portrait of Jennie  is the story of Eben Adams (Joseph Cotten), a poverty-stricken artist who is struggling to give his paintings meaning and soul.  He meets Jennie (Jennifer Jones), a strange but lovely young girl who inspires his creativity and becomes his muse.  Each time he encounters Jennie she is much older than she was the last time he saw her, even though not much time has passed.  She refers to places and people long gone, seeming to have lived through events that happened many years before.

As Jennie grows into womanhood, she and Eben fall in love.  But who is Jennie?  Where does she come from and how can this really be happening?  Is there something otherworldly and out-of-time taking place, or is Eben losing his mind?  It’s a haunting, eerily romantic story of obsession, artistic inspiration, and a love that defies the boundaries of time and death.

And already I fear I’ve said too much!

The actors in Portrait of Jennie are all simply wonderful, starting with Jennifer Jones.  Though she was in her late 20s when she played Jennie Appleton, Jones is very convincing as she ages from little girl to teenager to young woman.  Joseph Cotten gives a passionate but grounded performance as Eben Adams, providing the character with a certain realism in the midst of an ethereal story.  Cotten’s Eben is a very attractive, fascinating man and artist – one you can understand Jennie loving and searching for in spite of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles keeping them apart.

The supporting actors are great too, portrait - cotten barrymoreespecially Ethel Barrymore as Miss Spinney, Eben’s art dealer.  She’s a source of wisdom, humor, understanding and kindness at times when he needs those things most.  David Wayne plays Eben’s best friend, another loveable character who looks out for and helps his pal.  He’s also very funny, providing a touch of comic relief in a film that’s otherwise rather melancholy.

The movie is a feast for the eyes and ears.  The cinematography is gorgeous and atmospheric.  Often views are seen through a filter that makes the scene resemble an oil painting on canvas, like something Eben might have painted.  Also interesting is the use of color in the film.  Most of the movie is in black and white, but at key moments toward the end, washes of color and even vivid Technicolor are used to stunning effect.

Producer David O. Selznick had the film shot on location in New York City, and when Eben and Jennie walk through a snowy Central Park, their breath coming out in puffs of steam, you can almost feel the cold yourself.  Those moments of realism make the dreamier, more mystical moments – as when Jennie leaves Eben and disappears in the gloaming – that much more striking. 

Composer Dimitri Tiomkin incorporated music by French impressionist composer Claude Debussy into his memorable score.  Bernard Herrmann (who among his many credits wrote the score to another superb supernatural romance, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir) was initially slated to write the movie’s music, but he had to back out due to production delays.  Herrmann did write the strange little song Jennie sings to Eben at their first meeting, however.  Hearing it gives me me chills — it’s spooky and beautiful, setting the tone for the rest of the movie very well.

It’s difficult to do Portrait of Jennie justice with mere words.  It does what great movies are so good at – taking the viewer out of his or her own time, place and prosaic reality and into another world.

Much like with Peter Ibbetson, which I wrote about last month, it helps to check your cynicism a the door and give yourself over to the sheer romanticism and beauty of the movie.  When you do that, it’s easy to be swept away by the mystery and mysticism of Portrait of Jennie.