Op-ed: 100 Years…100 Passions – ‘Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing’ (#85)
I will be watching and reviewing all of the films included on AFI’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. The list contains the 100 greatest love stories in American cinema and I plan to consider how our views on romance and social issues have changed over the years as well as judging whether the romances in these films actually made me swoon. As a fan of the romance genre, I expect to love each and every one of the nominees but I also don’t know if I would consider all of them romantic.
This might be one of the more obscure entries on the list as it is not a widely discussed classic amongst cinephiles and mainstream audiences generally turn towards something like An Affair to Remember (1957) when they think of 1950s romance. I had seen it once before and I can’t say that I loved it when I first saw it but I approached it more hopefully this time as my love for its leading lady has only increased over time. I thought it would be interesting to consider this entry on the list first as it is fairly forgotten and it would be fun to talk about why modern audiences don’t respond to it. I decided to view it through the lens of Jennifer Jones as it was an important milestone in her career and helped to continue her run as a box office queen and movie star.
Jones has always been one of my favorite actresses as she was able to project a vulnerability on screen that was rare among actresses of the 1940s. She wasn’t some girlish male fantasy who felt discomfort in the face of the sort of obstacles that only women in movies tackle. She felt like a real woman as she defied her mother’s orders in The Song of Bernadette (1943) but she was also able to be deliciously campy in something as wild and overblown as Duel in the Sun (1946). Her natural beauty and presence helped her to become a star but she has remained famous because she was able to project a certain anxiousness on-screen that touched insecure women like myself.
For better or for worse her legacy will always be tied to her second husband, David O. Selznick, who was notable as the producer of classic films like Gone with the Wind (1939) and Rebecca (1940). He was also infamous for his erratic behavior behind the scenes as he tried to micromanage the productions he worked on, wrote long memos to directors while high on amphetamines, and launched extravagant campaigns to promote some of his crazier passion projects. Jones began her career under her birth name, Phyllis Lee Isley, but she met Selznick in 1941 while still married to Robert Walker and the two began an affair after she signed a seven-year contract with him. He was also married with children but he left his wife, Irene Mayer, to be with Jones, and the two were married in 1949. He had a strong hand in guiding her career and was involved in the production of most of the films she appeared in during the 1940s and 1950s.
Their collaborations became infamous as others thought that Selznick was obsessed with Jones and were concerned with the fact that he placed so much emphasis on her in his films. She achieved overnight success with The Song of Bernadette (1943) which earned her the Academy Award for Best Actress as well as being a massive box office hit. As time went on it became more and more difficult for people to tolerate working with Selznick and when he produced the box office flop The Paradine Case (1947) it made it harder for him to finance projects. This limited Jones’s opportunities but directors were also concerned about working with her as they knew that Selznick would interfere with the production of their film. Director Henry King, who directed Jones many times, said of their relationship, “David lost all judgment. He always thought that the more there was of Jennifer, the better the film would be.” She began to find it difficult to earn the juicy roles she had received in the early 1940s and financial failures like Portrait of Jennie (1948), Beat the Devil (1953) and Terminal Station (1953) caused her to be seen as a has-been who had brought down her husband.
Many of the failures she made during this difficult period of her career are now seen as classics as Beat the Devil is beloved as a campy romp that is fully aware of how silly its story it is. Critics at the time did not understand its tone and they lambasted Jones for being too over the top. A lot of Selznick’s productions featuring Jones also seemed to represent their real-life relationship as they are regularly concerned older men who met the beautiful but shy Jones and quickly became obsessed with her. Portrait of Jennie is about an artist who turns Jones into his muse but when he starts painting her he can’t stop and his obsession with her ruins his health and his career as he can’t find a way to express the momentousness of his love for her. It isn’t a stretch to say that Selznick might have been using these male characters as a surrogate for himself and these films might have been his way of showing Jones how much he adored her even if his love for her was unhealthy. Portrait of Jennie is a fascinating romantic drama because it deals with the complicated relationship that exists between an artist and his muse and Jones gives a stunning performance in the film because she seems to be drawing from real-life experiences. There is something disturbing about the story that the film tells but you believe in the wild, reckless passion that the characters feel and you are swept up in their fervent ardor for one another.
By 1955, her career was languishing and because she was 36 years old she was close to being put out to pasture by Hollywood. This was an era in which it was exceptionally difficult to be an actress over 30 as the youth was especially prized at this point in time with young female stars like Audrey Hepburn and Leslie Caron getting most of the big leading roles. Women were usually expected to appear in romantic dramas or comedies in which their sex appeal was emphasized. Most of these romances dealt with May-December romances in which considerably older leading men such as Gary Cooper romanced young women like Hepburn. Jones wasn’t young enough to play one of the gamine youths that Hepburn popularized and she wasn’t cutesy enough to be believable as a little girl. She also wasn’t a sex symbol despite her highly sexualized role in Duel in the Sun as she was still seen as the saintly Bernadette in the eyes of some audience members. This meant that mounting a comeback would be exceptionally difficult for her as she was in an industry that was hostile towards her for a variety of reasons.
Her big comeback role did fortuitously arrive in the form of Doctor Han Suyin. The rights to her 1952 memoir, entitled “A Many-Splendored Thing”, had been bought by 20th Century Fox and the film eventually fell into producer Buddy Adler’s hands. In 1955 this was highly controversial material as Suyin was a Eurasian woman and her memoir documented her affair with a white American man who had been legally married although separated from his wife when they were romantically involved. The Motion Picture Production Code banned both miscegenation, sexual relations between white people and people of color, and depictions of adultery that appeared to endorse the behavior. The original memoir was largely concerned with Suyin’s career as a doctor and her efforts to help children regain their health but producers felt that a love story would be more marketable. They shifted the focus away from Suyin’s career onto her love life and screenwriter John Patrick produced a script that managed not to offend censors at the time.
The film now concerned Suyin, a Eurasian doctor, who lives in Hong Kong during the late 1940s. She is seen as a career-driven woman but when she meets American reporter Mark Elliott, William Holden, she falls in love with him even though he is still legally married to his wife. They fight against prejudices in order to continue their affair and are happy together before his tragic death ends their love affair. This story fits into the traditional mold of the “Woman’s Picture” during the 1950s as it forces a woman to fashion her entire life around the man she is with and presents a life based around a career as unhappy and unfulfilling. The producers did satisfy the unfortunate desires of audiences at the time as they responded to the film positively and helped it to become the sixth highest-grossing film of the year. It was also critically well-received as Variety called it “As simple and moving a love story as has come along in many a moon.” These reviews and its financial success turned it into an awards contender and it became a Best Picture nominee as well as earning comeback queen Jones a Best Actress nomination.
Because of all of this acclaim, you would think that the film was actually worth watching but it has not aged well in many ways and it sends problematic messages about race. The most troubling element of the film has to be it’s treatment of race as they cast Jones, a white woman, as a Eurasian character and painted her face to make her look like a stereotypical Asian. This was a common practice at the time and it was used to get around the Production Code as censors thought that having a white actor cast as a person of color made miscegenation acceptable. Producers almost never considered casting two actors of color as the leads in a romantic drama so they would cast white actors to play people of color and this would allow them to get past the censors. They were also responding to racist audiences at the time as there was a lot of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States and many white audience members were white supremacists who thought that white people should not be romantically involved with people of color. This was a highly problematic view that held cinema back but it does explain why Jones and not a Chinese actress was cast in this role.
Her casting makes Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing difficult to watch today as you feel uncomfortable with the obvious racism of the film. It is even more disgusting because the people who made the film clearly thought that it was helping to fight racism and they try to target the racism that existed in the late 1940s within the film. We see Elliott being told that he should not get involved with a woman of Chinese descent by his friends but this conflict only appears briefly. They also have Jones say that she is “Eurasian” frequently and it makes you think that the filmmakers thought that audiences would like her more than a ‘real’ Asian if she kept telling them that she was half-white. They try to draw a distinction between people who are fully Asian and Eurasians and they also try to act like Eurasians would live just like white people. This was a common issue with prestige pictures about race from this era as they tried to take racial minorities and convince white people to accept them by claiming that they were just like white people. This just isn’t true as in order to be racially tolerant you have to accept the fact that cultures are different and people from different countries and communities will be different from you. Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing does not ask its audience to consider the fact that Chinese culture is different from American culture and Suyin immediately accepts all of the trappings of Elliott’s lifestyle.
This film would have been improved if they had cast a Chinese actress in the leading role and if they had dealt with racism more sensitively it would have been appreciated. At a time when the Chinese were subjected to horrid abuse in the United States, it might have been powerful to see a mainstream romantic drama that accurately depicted aspects of their culture as well as dealing with racial conflict. It feels like Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is only interested in exploring these ideas on a surface level and this means that it doesn’t make the important statement that it wants to make. It is still valuable as documentation of the racism that was highly prevalent in the film industry at this point in time but for fans who just want to sit down and enjoy a film this aspect of it makes it almost unwatchable.
This is by far the biggest issue with the film but now I get to the criteria that I am supposed to judge the film on and as a romance, I don’t think it works. As previously discussed most of the great romances that Jones appeared in dealt with relationships that involve obsession and co-dependent relationships. We get a fairly simple, bland love story here that doesn’t ever come to life. The two lovers are meant to be kept apart by the racism that exists in their society but they overcome this very easily and we are stuck with scenes in which they galivant around on beaches and smoke cigarettes together. The majority of the film is just scenes in which the two of them have fun together without ever facing conflict or really considering the future of their relationship. From the outset, we know very little about these characters as Suyin is a pretty young woman who is too focused on her career but we are told all of these things in exposition and when we actually spend time with her we don’t get to know more about her. She is left to be sweet and she regularly makes eyes at her love interest but we don’t understand what draws her to him.
Elliott is a character who is even more ill-defined as we know that he is the sort of strong, stoic man who was commonplace in 1950s cinema but we know almost nothing about his failed marriage and he hardly ever opens up. If we got to know about his past relationship wounded him it would have been interesting as he could have struggled to fall in love again because he does not trust people. They don’t go down this avenue and Elliott seems to fall in love with Suyin at first sight. Again, we don’t know what it is that he likes about her beyond the fact that she looks very pretty. There are close-up shots of both of their faces that are held for a long time as we see the two of them regarding one another from across the room and clearly indicating that they are attracted to each other. These shots are typical of romantic dramas from the 1950s but unlike something like Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), in which these shots represent the unfulfillable desires that both characters have, this film does not put these shots to good use.
We know almost nothing about these two so when they get together, we don’t really care. We also find ourselves not giving a damn because Jones and Holden have little to no chemistry, and they seem like two people who are entirely incompatible. This may have been because the two of them did not get along behind the scenes as they fought frequently and Jones had to contact her in husband in order to retain some control on set. Sometimes co-stars who hate one another do end up generating great chemistry as the friction between them ensures that both of them give highly charged performances. That did not happen in this case as Jones and Holden both give fairly muted turns and don’t seem excited even though they are allegedly playing people who are madly in love. Personally, I blame Holden for dragging some of their scenes down as I have never found him very compelling as a romantic lead. He was good at playing cynical, angry losers who were mad at the world so seeing him as a sappy romantic just felt wrong. Their lack of chemistry means that all of the scenes where they frolic around in exotic locations do not feel romantic as there is nothing between them and you want to squirm when they awkwardly kiss.
I am glad that this revived Jones’s career as she probably wouldn’t have made The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1957) if this hadn’t been a success and that features one of her best performances. I always feel like she deserved better roles in the late 1950s as the parts seemed to dry up even though she was still very talented and beautiful. The box office failure of A Farewell to Arms (1957) killed her momentum after her comeback in 1955 and she didn’t have the resurgence that she deserved. She worked a lot less in her later years and was given terrible parts in the 1960s that did not allow her to show off her acting skills. If she had been given better parts during that era I think she might have been more remembered today as those who don’t follow classic cinema have not heard of her. This is regrettable as she deserves to be placed in the same league as Olivia de Havilland and Joan Crawford in the minds of film fans. Having said all that I can’t see why Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was the film that allowed her to bounce back as it features one of her weakest performances. She is forced to sit still frequently and stare at everything with an expression of awe on her face. The writing does not allow her to add any depth to her character and she is never given the opportunity to bring her unique nerviness and fragility to the part.
I have already been through all of the things that I hated about Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing so now I would like to note the elements of the production that I did appreciate. I would argue that the cinematography was impressive and the location scouts did a good job as Hong Kong was used to great effect. The legendary hilltop that serves as the location of some of their most romantic trysts was actually located in rural California but it is an awfully lush hill nonetheless. Occasionally it starts to feel like a travelogue as we spend minutes at a time simply admiring locations but that was an important element of 1950s cinema as a lot of audience members did not have the money to pay for air travel and the thought of seeing other countries was absolutely thrilling. I must also note that the blue waters of the beach and the greenery surrounding some of the houses the characters visit are more engaging than the characters so I was happy whenever the cinematographer decided to show off his skills.
I must also acknowledge the fact that I did love the cheesy theme song, “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing”, as Andy Williams performed it with characteristic zeal and the sentimental lyrics were so unabashedly silly that they put a big, goofy grin on my face. The song takes on a wistful tone that the film never quite adopts and it looks back on their relationship as a tragedy rather than treating it as an excuse to have Holden take his shirt off. The song isn’t great and it is very of its time but at least it completely commits to being schmaltzy and knows exactly what it is. It reaches heights that the film never even approaches and more tender-hearted viewers might even be moved when Williams croons “Two lovers kissed and the world stood still
I really don’t see why this made the list of the top 100 American romantic films as the central romance is deeply uninvolving and even the minor virtues of the production can’t lift it above mediocrity. The nasty streak of racism also hurts it and makes it difficult to watch today as you have to get over the prejudices that were so common in the 1950s. This is not the best way to start off my exploration of the 100 Years…100 Passions list but I assume that everything will improve from here. I do expect to see films that involve racism, sexism, and other unfortunate prejudices that were common when they were produced but I hope that those films at least succeed in constructing a basic love story.