“Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing” won three Academy Awards for Best Song, Best Original Score, and Best Costume Design, plus Nominations for Best Actress, Cinematography, and Picture.
This movie will make you cry.
Why? Although already a pretty compelling adaptation of the autobiographical novel by Han Suyin (real name, Rosalie Chow) with an ultra-weepy score and theme song, what gradually chisels away one's anti-mush defenses are the exceptional performances by William Holden and Jennifer Jones - actors then at the height of their popularity among theatre goers, and theatre owners.
Director Henry King was an old timer at Fox, and remained on the studio's A-list for decades, frequently directing the studio's most prestigious projects in every conceivable genre. With a screenplay that deliberately lifts dialogue and narrative from the original novel (using less Chinese Mystical Speak than the average Hollywood melodrama), King established a careful rhythm in each scene, and in taking advantage of his stars' dynamic chemistry, he recorded many intimate, emotional nuances to shore up the flirting, the romancing and the painful tensions of their ephemeral relationship.
Set in 1949 Hong Kong, "Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing" nevertheless reflects a series of then-contemporary conflicts between Eurasian (half-Chinese, half-European) Suyin and the snotty English colonialists who maintained antiquated class lines leftover from the Victorian era, with foreign corespondent Mark Elliot (based on Suyin's real love affair with London Times correspondent Ian Morrison) acting as a guide for Western and European film audiences unfamiliar with the racism and culture clashes between England and Asian cultures.
Re-visiting the film on DVD as a “Studio Classic” for a then-contemporary hit flick, 20th Century Fox has assembled a nice collection of extras, including three commentators - Sylvia Stoddard (film historian, writer and screenwriter), John Burlingame (UCLA film music professor and writer for Daily Variety and the L.A. Times), and Michael Lonzo (cinematographer) - for a superbly edited track that offers a great overview of Suyin, life in Hong Kong after Japan invaded Manchuria, and some witty, concise details regarding the film's CinemaScope lensing and engrossing music score.
Lonzo's comments are largely restricted to the intricacies of shooting, and combining location and studio footage, plus process photography, and the two cinematographers responsible for the film's look: Leon Shamroy, an old-timer who's style is characterized by his use of filters with graduated colour lighting; and Charles G. Clark, the expert second unit cinematographer whose career and contributions to the film (about 40% is location work) are largely unknown by film fans. Though Lonzo knew Shamroy, there's never any personal insight into the man (although some vivid and amusing portraits can be found on the DVD for Otto Preminger's "The Cardinal," which he also photographed).
The film's locations are also dissected by Sylvia Stoddard, and even from the film's opening aerial shot, audiences will be shocked at the lack of massive corporate, government and residential towers in Hong Kong (particularly the once, and less developed, Repulse Bay). Better still is her insight into author Suyin, who also wrote a two-part autobiography that covered her childhood in China, first marriage, globe-trotting and piecemeal medical education, and later years after Elliot was no longer a part of her life. Adding sobering historical facts, Stoddard gives us a good impression of Suyin's remarkable world - an independent-minded and smart woman who sought work in a male-dominated profession - and the realities of a recovering Asia and Europe after WW2, while the Korean War was about to explode. A final word on Elliot's letters to Suyin - which ultimately inspired the book - is particularly touching.
As John Burlingame recounts, songsmiths Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster's addition of the words "Love Is" to kick start the theme song, led to the film's revised title, and there's an amusing chronicle near the track's end, about the song that nobody wanted to sing, but ultimately became a massive hit after the Four Aces performed the first version. Currently working on a book about the Newman family (which includes esteemed composers Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, and David Newman), there's some nice material on the score's three main themes, and their careful application in the film; and composer Alfred Newman - still acknowledged as Film's most honored composer, with 45 Oscar Nominations, and 9 wins for Best Original and Adapted scores. (In a piece of cyclical irony, Newman's Oscar win for "The Song of Bernadette" in 1943 was accompanied by a Best Actress Oscar for Jennifer Jones, then making her screen debut in that film, directed as well by Henry King.)
Also included on the disc is a Biography installment on William Holden, which covers the actor's career and family life, featuring interviews with colleagues Ernest Borgnine, Cliff Robertson, Stefanie Powers, and son Scott Holden. A familiar, slick production, Holden's inimitable charm comes through in every film clip, and there's a short blooper from "The Towering Inferno," plus some video footage of the actor at his nature preserve in Kenya.
A Movietone newsreel covers the "Audience Awards," with Grace Kelly presenting Natalie Wood a posthumous stature for James Dean, and appearances by Jennifer Jones, William Holden, and producer Buddy Adler. The second newsreel, "Photoplay Awards," is more interesting because, aside from Adler, Holden, and Jones winning (the last accepted on Jones' behalf by Deborah Kerr), there are quick shots of Richard Egan and Joan Collins, winning awards for "Most Promising Youthful Thespians."
A Restoration Comparison uses split screens to show the qualitative differences between the old VHS Full Frame master, and the 2002 restoration with and without extra tweaking for the DVD, and a brief intro regarding the creation of a new print.
Lastly, unlike other DVDs, a clean and anamorphic trailer is included, containing the usual hype, bright onscreen text, and money shots for this early (and very wide) CinemaScope production.
Between 1967 and 1973, a TV series, sharing the film's title and theme song, ran on CBS, following a Eurasian girl who emigrated to San Francisco, and a nun fighting off evil carnal desires.
Once again, 20th Century Fox makes good on a consistently superb line of “Studio Classic” DVDs revisiting earlier releases and sometimes premiering titles for the first time.
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan