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Let's journey back to the middle 1950s for a moment, when the newsstands overflowed with classy women's magazines -- Ladies' Home Journal, Redbook, etc. -- all of which featured short stories of hot romance, usually set in the privileged and comfortable class. They invariably began with a two-page color spread of artwork of a woman getting a man's attention, perhaps waving a cigarette provocatively or stepping out of a snappy new station wagon. Universal's producer Ross Hunter had this dynamic in mind when he fashioned lavish soap operas starring Jane Wyman and Barbara Stanwyck. Although official culture in the '50s lauded high morals, readers and moviegoers couldn't get enough temptation, adultery and scandal.
Over at Fox, producer Buddy Adler also knew very well that marketers had determined that a majority of family movie choices were made by the lady of the house. Catering to the needs of lonely American housewives, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing holds together as a romance in spite of its syrupy plot and slick travelogue surface. Plenty of rear-projected scenery backs up the passionate embraces of mega-stars William Holden and Jennifer Jones, who generate more than enough heat to overcome the dime-romance gloss and an overbearing score.
Set at the time that China went communist, Han Suyin's semi-autobiographical 1952 book A Many-Splendoured Thing charted her stormy personal love life, and became controversial for its unflinching look at the collision of ideologies. The film version retains some of this open-mindedness, although Ms. Suyin would later become a defender of Mao and a harsh critic of the Vietnam War.
The Cold War aside, the movie version is mainly a holiday for lovers in an exotic locale: Hong Kong, 1949. Doctor Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) must reconsider her plan to return to the communist mainland when she meets suave journalist Mark Elliott (William Holden), the kind of gentleman to whom women can't say no. The widow of a Nationalist general, Suyin never expected to fall in love again. She initially doubts Mark's sincerity when he says that his wife won't give him a divorce. The romance that develops also forces her to question her Eurasian identity. Suyin's family on the mainland expects her to fill a traditional role, and her employers in the Crown Colony hospital show their opinion of her relationship with Mark by failing to renew her work contract. Mark and Suyin are inseparable, until the Korean War breaks out.
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was one of the biggest 1950s studio concoctions to click with the public. William Holden was a major star, and Jennifer Jones showed that she could still heat up a screen. An even bigger hit was the film's over-promoted title tune, which dominated the radio for months. Its lyric line hammered home the message that LOVE! IS A MAH-NEE SPLEHNNNN-DERD THING!, as if Love was available over the counter in liquid or powdered form. The song was cruelly repurposed as a "square" romance theme in the crass John Travolta-Olivia John musical adaptation Grease.
Veteran director Henry King knew well how to put across a polished product. William Holden and Jennifer Jones make for a supremely attractive couple. He's a rough-tough war correspondent but knows how to cater to a woman's needs better than David Niven and Mister Rogers put together. She's a self-possessed modern woman without a country, trying to sort out her inner conflicts.
The female audience flocked to see what Jennifer Jones looked like a decade after her romantic heyday. To their chagrin, the slight baby-fat look of Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie had melted away, leaving Jones a thinner, even more beautiful creature. Some beautiful women live in a state of insecurity, wondering if their best-looking self is still ahead or has passed them by. Miss Jones seemed to progress from one perfect stage into another, like a butterfly climbing into a cocoon and coming out an even prettier butterfly. Jones'es high cheekbones conveniently help her achieve a Eurasian look with surprisingly little makeup. Her half-Chinese Suyin is as convincing as her half-Mexican Pearl Chavez of Duel in the Sun.
As perfectly suits the genre, humble doctor Suyin lives in a single room in the hospital building yet can outfit herself in stunning fashions at a moment's notice. The terrific-looking dresses were surely a big draw for the female audience, who were never sure if anyone was really living the good life seen in Women's Day photo layouts. Fortunately, Jones' performance is sufficiently intense to keep all this consumer glitz in balance.
Surely Hong Kong in the '50s was a picturesque, exotic destination. Mark Elliott and Han Suyin somehow never seem to go any place that isn't a clean Disneyland version of the bustling city. A short boat ride in the (clean-smelling) harbor takes the couple to a floating restaurant. A bigger boat takes them to Macao, for more elegant living. Hong Kong looks like Vegas with better scenery. Every trip to the drugstore requires a photogenic boat ride. This place is a lovers' paradise.
Serving as an iconic rendezvous spot, a lonely hilltop behind the hospital comes complete with one pretty tree to represent True Love. Graphically speaking, the tree is so romance-friendly that versions of it turned up in women's magazines for years: there's nothing here but us, the tree and the boundless sky, dear. It's the Hong Kong equivalent of the high point where lovers always go to kiss in romance novels.
In this lush fantasy Suyin and Mark are able to spend lots of quality time together. When their love becomes serious, they turn to abstract thoughts, poetic quotations like the one from which the title is derived, and the kind of syrup where lovers gaze off into the limitless skies of destiny and talk about themselves in the third person. It's pure kitsch, but Holden and Jones sell it so well, it's hard not to be taken in.
Crowded Hong Kong offers all the privacy the lovers could ever want. A short drive takes them to a deserted stretch of sand as clean as a beach on Bali. Holden waits discreetly while Jones changes into a high-fashion bathing suit, and they make like Burt & Deb in From Here to Eternity. They then swim across a bay to the palatial home of mutual friends. The house looks like a So Cal ranch mansion with an incredible (rear-projected) view. 'We just decided to swim the channel and drop in unexpected. What's to drink here?'
The political context is present, but not oversold. We hear about the 'teeming masses' fleeing Mao's new worker's paradise. Suyin adopts an adorable refugee girl whose legs she has mended. Stuffy British matron Adeline (Isobel Elsom) condescends to Suyin, and drops snide hints that her job will be forfeit if she continues to consort with a married white man. Adeline's own husband, hospital bigwig Torin Thatcher, is playing footsie on the weekends with Suzanne (Jorja Cutright), an old convent chum of Jones'es. Suzanne is also Eurasian yet passes for pure Anglo. She recommends that Suyin also play China Doll for some colonial sugar daddy.
One of Jones'es hospital colleagues is a fervent Maoist booster, who can't wait to start serving the new Red state. He pressures Jones to do the same, perhaps secretly lusting for her. Another doctor, played by Murray Matheson, is friendlier, but apparently not romantically inclined. 2
The oddest scene is a "Meet the Parents" episode in Red China. Suyin visits her home to smooth out problems with her younger sister, Suchen. 1 Apparently Suyin's parents are very understanding of modern ways. Suyin is free to choose her future with her family's blessing, even after her new Anglo boyfriend Elliott decides to drop in unannounced.
The bittersweet conclusion is handled without undue hysterics. Yes, there's tragedy in store for the lovers -- a Chinese bomb becomes a kitchen spill, thanks to some facile editing written into the script. Suyin will always have her personal hilltop to hallucinate Mark's presence and replay their timeless love. The music rises to a screechy finish, but the final visuals are graphically impressive. This is about as good as epic soap operas got, before the cynical sixties arrived.
The Twilight Time Blu-ray of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a handsome HD presentation of one of 20th-Fox's biggest success stories. Location cameras roam all over a Hong Kong yet to be covered in skyscrapers. Although the actors play many scenes against a rear projection screen, Holden and Jones are present on actual locations as well.
Retained from Fox's 2003 DVD release are a selection of promotional newsreels, a trailer and a feature commentary with writers and film historians Michael Lonzo and Sylvia Stoddard, and music consultant John Burlingame. Lovers of composer Alfred Newman will appreciate the disc's Isolated Music Track.
Julie Kirgo's insert pamphlet essay extols the virtues of this particular romantic drama and decries cynical reviewers that use phrases like soap opera and kitsch. I have a feeling that her comments may be a direct response to this reviewer's impatient review from ten years ago, which I have adapted for this Twilight Time Blu-ray review.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Suchen is played by Donna Martell, who is totally unrecognizable as the perky Colonel Breteis of the obscure 1953 space movie Project Moonbase. If the director had given Ms. Martell a single close-up, Splendored-Thing might have been an important picture for the almost-unknown actress.
2. Murray Matheson kept reminding me of the great character in David Swift's How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the advertising director whose job Robert Morse covets. It is indeed the same actor! When Suyin's doctor friend gives advice, I keep expecting him to consult a little How-To book before speaking.
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T'was Ever Thus.