Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Ernest Hemingway seems to drift in and out of favor. His writing could be found in high school
textbooks in the 1960s, and now he's been placed up on the back bookshelves because of his macho
posturing. If he's not kicked for being a misogynist, his macho credentials are being impugned.
Hollywood's first film adaptation of a Hemingway novel
was this glossy love story by one of the better romantic directors,
Frank Borzage. It's a winning combination of pre-code frankness, movie star glamour and occasional
Hemingway tough talk. The finale erupts into an unrestrained romantic delirium that has dated badly
but probably worked like a charm when new. Image's budget disc is much better than other Public
Domain copies I've seen but still has some faults.
An American in the French ambulance corps, Lt. Frederick Henry (Gary Cooper)
falls in love with nurse Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes). She's well aware of the strict rules
on her conduct, but falls for him as well, in one night of romance. They both know that
Fred could be killed at any time, but other pressures conspire against the lovers. Another nurse
seems to have a special hatred for Frederick, and a doctor pal jealous over Catherine interferes
with their correspondence - even when Catherine goes into hiding in Switzerland to have her baby.
Wartime romances may not have imitated A Farewell to Arms, but the main conflict of the story -
do the rules of love apply in wartime? - have certainly been done to death in the meantime. When
lovestruck Gary Cooper lulls the vulnerable Helen Hayes with talk that tonight is all they might
ever have because tomorrow he may die, it certainly works. She's clearly in need of the same
emotional release that he is. Hollywood glamour helps to sell Frederick and Catherine's midnight
lovemaking as much more than a sexual encounter; it's a reverent blending of two hearts. That's
how it's supposed to be, but I'm sure generations of embarrassed women have learned otherwise.
But these idealized lovers represent the nobler romantic notions in our hearts. That's
what director Frank Borzage brings out so well. Their wartime tryst has a desperate urgency that wipes out
other concerns. What many will consider old and corny is a heartfelt attempt at romantic purity in
On the surface, A Farewell to Arms is a lavish production and technically adept, especially for
1932 when sound had barely gone beyond the 'microphone in the bush' level of sophistication. Classical
music is interwoven nicely into the show, with opera being sung at recitals and by puppets. Tristan
and Isolde is blended into the ethereal finale. The lighting is imaginative and many
setups remind us of the work of William Cameron Menzies - or is that just because of the story's
similarities to For Whom the Bell Tolls?
As for the stars, Paramount heartthrob Cooper is prettier than Broadway phenomenon Helen Hayes, and
wears almost as much makeup. Borzage gives Hayes many Garbo-like close ups in dreamy repose,
but she uses her eyes and velvety voice to express Catherine's refusal to be practical in matters of love.
The movie is as simple as "Their love played out against a backdrop of war and suffering," and
the lovers keep it simple, laughing over the fact that if they were back home in America, they'd
never behave as recklessly. One wonders if people back in 1916 were more 'moral' than they
are now, and A Farewell to Arms suggests that chastity and abstinence has a lot to do with
living under restraint, in the confines of societal influence.
Only a few pieces of Hemingway toughness are retained. War is seen as a machine manufacturing corpses
and mangled bodies, and Frederick's noble contribution is to get hit by shrapnel while eating cheese.
Catherine confesses that she fantasized about her dead fiancée becoming
her patient with a handsome saber wound or a bullet in his shoulder; and then says without emotion
that he was simply blown to bits.
Catherine and Frederick's real problem comes from Hemingway's use of supporting characters as obstructions
to romance. Fellow nurse Helen Ferguson (Mary Philips) starts out sympathatic for Catherine
but turns into a hateful creature intent on punishing Frederick for his sin against her girlfriend.
One is tempted to think that Helen is herself attracted to Catherine and therefore jealous, especially
when Frederick's surgeon-buddy Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou, with a very good Italian accent)
seals their fate for the same reason by intercepting Catherine's letters. Like Romeo and Juliet,
the lovers struggle and suffer, not realizing that their relationship has been sabotaged.
Frederick deserts his post to chase his beloved across battle lines, defying firing squads and
swimming frozen lakes to reach her side, setting up a grand tragic finale that still works if one
can muster the proper mood. It's too sincere to be entirely corny. Helen Hayes won the best
acting Oscar that year for a much more strident tear-jerker, The Sin of Madelon Claudet.
Speaking of sin, this DVD of A Farewell to Arms is the first time I've seen it intact. The 90
minute feature was always shown in a 90 minute time slot on television with commercials, so something
had to go. Made Pre-Code, the film is clear that Catherine and Frederick have sex on their first
date and continue to be lovers without benefit of marriage. There's a mock marriage ceremony
by an Italian army chaplain. They remain defiant of the proprieties to then end. Guess which material
went first when the movie was trimmed for television? 1
Image Entertainment's DVD of A Farewell to Arms is a repeat of an earlier release, now at a
lower price point. Other budget releases are out there, but Image's version is intact, and looks
fairly decent too. The track has some problems. One has to crank the volume to hear quiet dialogue,
and then when the music comes in it's deafening. Digital cleanup has made it sound better than
I've ever heard it, however.
The weird rules of Public Domain have left some films are like eyeless Comanches, doomed forever
to wander between the winds. A Farewell to Arms has a Paramount logo, but even though decent
elements might be stored at Universal, all we've seen for the last thirty years are terrible
television prints. I'd be in favor of Studios being able to reclaim title to many of these pictures,
if it would create a financail incentive to rescue them before decent copies are lost forever. Friends
more versed in Public Domain issues tell me it's not that simple.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
A Farewell to Arms rates:
Sound: Fair +
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 4, 2004
1. A Correction and
Better Information from reader Javier Aguirre, 12/5/04:
"I've been reading your reviews for two years or so, I think, but I never wrote you before. In case
you're wondering, the reason I read your reviews is that I buy many region 1 dvd-s that aren't
released around here, and also becouse you're one of the very few (to my knowledge) people on the
internet that regularly write about 'old' movies, and mainly because I like your way of reasoning
and explaining things.
I've just read your A Farewell to Arms review, which is one of my all-time favorite movies,
and I think you have some information wrong. I'm talking about the TV trimming of the movie. I
know nothing about that, but I want to share with you what I know about the public-domain version.
All that follows comes from the book
Hollywood censored: Morality Codes, Catholics and the Movies
by Gregory D. Black. The book was considered un-adaptable to the screen becouse of its risky
content (illicit sex, pregnancy, etc). The Hays Office called it 'anti-Italian' when Warner Bros
showed interest in filming it, and the Italian ambassador in Washington complained to Hays about
it. Warner backed out for fear of losing the Italian market (and maybe also other countries). In
the summer of 1932, Paramount bought the rights and said the writers would work in cooperation
with the Italian ambassador in Los Angeles.
Regarding the love story, the 'mock wedding' scene you mention was especially created with the
purpose of appeasing the local Catholic censors around the country that applied censorship on
their own before 1934. Also Catherine's nurse friend Fergie was made the voice of morality, so
she had to disapprove the relationship. Two endings were shot, the other being the happy one
where Catherine doesn't die (it says this was the ending recommended by Variety...).
On the political side, Frederic's desertion was turned into a personal decision (he being worried
by Catherine) instead of a reaction to war's absurdity and the Italian front's collapse and retreat
that Hemingway describes. The war-montage shows the horror of war but doesn't specifically condemn
the Italian army, and the movie ends with a great Italian victory, unlike the novel. The movie was
finished and shown to Italian politicians, and Paramount thought their troubles were over.
The movie was shown to the Hays Office in November. By then James Wingate had taken the place of
Jason Joy, who had approved the script in summer. They thought the love story was too explicit,
and the same for the baby's birth scene (that kind of scene was specifically prohibited in the
Code). The 'mock wedding' also backfired because they weren't sure whether the couple was married,
or if the priest was approving their relationship.
Wingate didn't give the seal of approval to the movie and Paramount refused to make cuts. Wingate
called for a movie producers' jury to decide whether the movie was moral or not. The jury was
formed by Joseph Schenck (United Artists), Carl Laemmle Jr. (Universal) and Sol Wurtzel (Fox).
Apparently they knew of Paramount's financial troubles and the money they had invested in the
film, and decided in favour of Paramount (this was the usual thing before 1934). Anyway local
Catholic censors made cuts in their cities where they saw fit, as always.
It appears that this Image release could be the final pre-code version. But the movie was
re-released by Warners in 1945 (this is not covered in the book and I can't remember where I read
it). If you watch the public-domain version of the movie, you'll notice the Warner logo at the
beginning and slightly different credits than Image's Paramount version. This was the 80 minute
public domain version that we've always known. Maybe there were more cuts made for TV showings as
you say, but I think the 1945 re-release is the mutilated cut we've always known 'til now. Thanks,
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson