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Love is a Many Splendored Thing
A grade-A kitsch soapsuds romance from the middle of the 50s when much of moviedome seemed to cater to the needs of lonely American housewives, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing holds together as a romance in spite of its slick travelog surface. To its credit, it almost ignores the Cold War issues in its setting. As phony as the rear-projected scenery thrown up to back the passionate embraces of stars William Holden and Jennifer Jones, the film succeeds against dime-romance gloss and the musical overkill of its overbearing score, because of the heat generated by its stars.
If the male audience is to be allowed its tireless, invulnerable action heroes, then there's nothing wrong with indulging female romantic fantasies. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was one of the biggest 1950s studio concoctions to click with the public. William Holden was on the rise to Superstardom, and Jennifer Jones made good with the chance to show that she could still heat up a screen. Even a bigger hit was the hugely overproduced but gloppy title tune, that overwhelms the movie by as a constant underscore. It dominated the radio for months, reminding us that LOVE! IS A MAH-NEE SPLEHNNNN-DERD THING!, as if Love could be bought at the supermarket in liquid or powdered form. Unfortunately, I always expect it to be immediately followed by Frankie Valli singing the theme song from Grease.
But the film undeniably delivered the goods. William Holden and Jennifer Jones make a supremely attractive couple. He's the rough-tough war correspondent who knows how to cater to a woman's needs better than David Niven and Misterrogers put together. She's a self-possessed woman without a country, trying to sort out her inner conflicts.
The female audience flocked to see what Jennifer Jones, the romantic icon of soapy romances from a decade before, looked like. To their chagrin, the slight baby-fat look of Love Letters and Portrait of Jennie had gone, leaving Jones transformed into a thinner, even more beautiful creature. Most women live in a state of insecurity, wondering if their best-looking image is still ahead or has passed them by, but this Jones just seemed to go from one perfect stage into another, like a butterfly climbing into a coccoon and coming out an even prettier butterfly. Even better, Jones'es high cheekbones helped her look 'Eurasian' with surprisingly little makeup; her half-Chinese Suyin is as convincing as her half-Mexican Pearl Chavez of Duel in the Sun.
Surely Hong Kong is a picturesque place to vacation, but Mark Elliott and Han Suyin live there, and somehow never seem to go any place that isn't a clean Disneyland version of the bustling city. We hear about the 'teeming masses' pushing in to escape the new order in Mao's worker's paradise, represented only by Suyin's instant adoption of an adorable refugee girl whose legs she has mended.
With space in town obscenely scarce, the two lovers still have all the privacy they could ever want. Mark uses the emergency driveway to pick up Suyin for dates. There's a choice lonely hilltop behind the hospital, complete with one scraggly tree to represent their love, which serves as a rendezvous spot. It's so romance-friendly, graphically speaking, that imitations of it turned up in women's magazines for years - nothing here but us, the tree and the boundless sky, dear, and there aren't any bugs in that clean green grass, honest. 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, and a photogenic boat ride every time one needs to go to the drugstore.
As perfectly suiting the genre, humble doctor Suyin lives in a single room in the hospital building, but can outfit herself in stunning fashions at a moment's notice. The dresses do look terrific, and 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.
A short drive takes the lovers to a deserted stretch of sand presumably near one of the busiest harbors in the world, but as clean as a beach on Bali. Holden waits discreetly while Jones changes into a classy high-fashion bathing suit, and they make like Burt & Deb in From Here to Eternity. They even swim across a bay (wow, they're in good shape, they don't even ask each other if it's a good idea) to the palatial home of mutual friends, that 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 lovers aren't very popular in town. Stuffy matron Isobel Elsom drops snide hints that Suyin's job will be forfeit unless she stops playing around with a married white man, even though her own husband, hospital bigwig Torin Thatcher, is playing footsie on the weekends with an old convent chum of Jones'es. She's also Eurasian, and presents an object example of Suyin's unhappy alternative: playing China Doll for some colonial sugar daddy.
Also, Jones'es colleague in the hospital is a fervent Maoist booster, who can't wait to get back to serving in China's flawless new society. He puts pressure on Jones to do the same, perhaps secretly lusting for her himself. Another doctor, played by Murray Matheson, is friendlier, but apparently not romantically inclined. 2 As this is a female fantasy, Holden's reporter has few outside connections, and, except for the bitty problem of a grasping wife, no impediment to spending all of his quality time lusting after the heroine.
When they get serious, the dialogue all turns to abstract thoughts on love, poetic quotations like the one from which the title is derived, and the kind of syrup-talk where lovers gaze off into the limitless skies of destiny and talk about themselves in the exalted third person. Maybe it's pure kitsch, but Holden and Jones sell it so well, it's hard not to be taken in. As they say, it's not half-baked, it's very well baked.
Evidence of this is in Suyin's trip to her family in China, to help smooth out problems with her younger sister, Suchen. 1 The stifling paternalism of the traditional route is presented, but not pushed. Suyin is free to choose her future with her family's blessing, even after her new Anglo boyfriend Elliott decides to drop in unannounced. "No, father, I have no romantic entanglements with foreigners" - Ding Dong, guess who's here.
Suyin's support group in Hong Kong is strong as well. Dumped by the hospital, she hangs out at that seaside palace with Soo Yong and Virginia Gregg, who seem to have nothing better to do than concern themselves with her problems.
The bittersweet conclusion is actually handled in a reasonable fashion. 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), but Suyin will always have the consolation of Mark's memory, and of course their personal hilltop as a place to hallucinate his presence and replay their timeless love. The music rises to a screechy finish, but the overall impression is one of proper proportion - this is about as good as epic soap operas got, before the cynical sixties set in.
Fox's Studio Classics presentation of Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing again salvages an attractive picture from the slow death of poorly-colored pan'n scan TV prints. The photograpy is slick but pleasing, even in the pointless show-off-the-CinemaScope-it-was-expensive aerial shot of Hong Kong that opens the film. The accurate print comparison feature, always welcome on these Fox discs, shows the substantial improvements made in the presentation.
The extras include the scholarly commentary, a flat Biography docu on Holden, and some welcome newsreel clips. The audio is in 4.0 surround. The stated aspect ratio is 2:55, the early CinemaScope standard, but what we're given is the normal (slightly cheated) AR used for ordinary 'Scope films.
Fox's Studio Classics line, with their carefully-finessed video restorations, are a welcome development, with memorable pictures like this one alternating with bonafide classics. Savant can't wait until the library reach gets down to the second-tier CinemaScope potboilers of the fifties, like Bigger than Life, House of Bamboo, and Garden of Evil.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing rates:
Supplements: Audio Commentary with Michael Lonzo, Sylvia Stoddard, and John Burlingame; Biograpy installment on William Holden, Newsreels of public appearances of stars, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 12, 2003
1. Suchen is played by Donna Martell, totally unrecognizable as the perky, pneumatic space cadet Colonel Breteis of the loopy Project Moonbase. If the director had given her a single closeup, Splendored-Thing might have been an important picture for the almost-unknown actress.
2. Murray Matheson kept reminding me of the great character in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the ad director whose job Robert Morse covets. It ia indeed the same actor! Now when Suyin's doctor friend gives advice, I always expect him to consult that little How-To book before speaking.