From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Henry King
Before we get to my #1 favorite film, we will write about five films I loved from the 1950s. If you've done the math, this means I was a kid during these years and these films have stayed with me all these years. Two of those films are from 1955; this is the first of the two and the other is my next favorite. My mother might have cast a spell over me during these years. If she made a big deal about a movie, I tended to like it as well. In 1952 or so she read a biographical novel called A Many-Splendored Thing by Han Suyin. What I remember most about Mom reading the book is that she cried a lot. That got my attention.
Mom told me from my earliest years that there was nothing more important than love. I guess I never forgot it. I am a sucker for love, whether real or imagined, whether in a movie or a song or a book. Mom told me Han Suyin's book was a wonderful love story and like a lot of wonderful love stories, it ended in tragedy. I likely did not fully grasp the meaning of that at the time but it would come.
You know that movie magazines figured prominently in my life (and my mom's) in those days and so either she or I would tell the other that Han's book was going to be a movie. The title would change to Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (because, I would read much later, it was thought A Many-Splendored Thing would hold no meaning for Americans). One day Mom and I were in a theater and a preview came on and these words poured over the screen:
Long-heralded... long-awaited... the most talked about best seller of our time comes to the screen at last... in all it rapturous beauty.
Oh be still my heart. It was starring one of my favorite actors of all-time, William Holden, and an actress I did not much care for prior to this film, Jennifer Jones. (The previous year Jones and Holden were to costar in The Country Girl with Bing Crosby, but she got pregnant and was replaced by Grace Kelly.)
The film, one of the biggest hits of 1955, was helped, no doubt, by an enormously popular title tune. It was played throughout the movie, especially during those rapturous beauty moments and the hot clinches. It became number one as recorded by The Four Aces and I adore it to this day... a great romantic love song.
Filmed in Hong Kong, Han Suyin was an overworked doctor who threw herself into work after the death of her husband. She was half Chinese and half English or what she called Eurasian. (I guess that is a true and honest word but I have never heard it used except in the movies.) She meets war correspondent Mark Elliott and reluctantly falls in love with him. The Gods have nothing in store for us she tells him early on.
Mom and I were thrilled to the marrow watching Holden romance the comely Miss Jones. In real life Holden knew how to treat the ladies and it comes across loud and clear here. There was a countenance about her that charmed me more than it ever had before. I was rather drawn to Jones' walk... she seemed to strike out with one foot and then pull the rest of her body to it. Her Chinese costumes were most alluring (although we'll delve into that more before we close).
There was a famous scene where she has agreed to go swimming with him. They change into their suits on a small beach. She lets her hair down as he reclines on a towel gazing at her. (Holden's naturally furry chest was shaved because Fox believed women viewers preferred it that way.) Suddenly they decide to swim across an inlet to an inviting home owned by friends of Dr. Han's. The swim is enchanting and gives a promise of things to come. They climb stairs partially submerged in the sea and surprise their hosts. They have a lovely dance while the others watch them (and speculate) while the title tune plays.
Most romantic are the scenes behind the hospital, on a hill. (Once on a high and windy hill, in the morning mist two lovers kissed and the world stood still... thanks to Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster for that Oscar-winning song). She looks up and sees him at the top of the hill. He spots her and comes down the hill and says give me your hand as only William Holden can and gently pulls the woman he loves to him. They whisper sweet nothings on that high and windy hill as their relationship sets sail.
But the waters are choppy. Most importantly Mark Elliott is still married, though long-separated. Additionally, Suyin must deal with the evocation of the times, 1949 Hong Kong, and an inter-racial relationship was most frowned upon. She was slow to warm to Mark initially, but once their relationship took hold, there was no stopping her.
As was the custom, she needed approval of third uncle, the head of the family, and she and Mark travel to China for his somewhat reluctant blessing for them to marry. Mark goes on alone to Singapore to see his wife about a divorce. At first she agrees but then says no, as she has for years.
The lovers then travel to Macao for some R & R. In their hotel room there are some wonderful exchanges of loving dialogue between the two. (It may be this writing that put the film into my favorites category. Have I mentioned I am a sucker for love?) It ends with Mark quoting a passage from Francis Thompson poem called Kingdom of God... Tis ye, tis your estranged faces that miss the many-splendored thing. In real-life, it was this line that gave Han Suyin the title of her novel.
They go to a fortune teller after dinner who assures them they will have a long life together. Before the lovers can fully enjoy themselves, Mark receives a telegram that says his presence is required in Korea. It seems a little skirmish has started. Do correspondents ever get killed, Suyin asks, and Mark reassures her he will be back, saying it shouldn't last more than a few weeks.
Suyin loses her job at the hospital due to her romance and goes to live with her friends on the water. She and Mark write to one another daily, numbering their letters, which often arrive out of sequence. One day she gets one of the treasured letters at the same time a friend arrives with a newspaper article that Mark has been killed.
She is grief-stricken, partially, no doubt, because against her better judgment she allowed herself to love again and another man has died. She rushes out of the house and through the streets of Hong Kong until she arrives at that hill above the hospital. We see him through her imagination as he again says give me your hand. She goes to the top alone and we hear his voice-overs saying many of the loving things he has said to her during their short courtship. The film ends as we hear him say we have not missed, you and I, that many-splendored thing. A chorus of singers warbles the title song for the first time.
In 1955 it was gut-wrenching. In 2013, it still has meaning for me. Obviously. This is my 16th favorite film of all time...!
I thought Holden and Jones were an indelible screen team, absolute perfection. But movies being what they are gave us the lovely illusion. In real life, the two disliked one another and barely spoke unless the cameras were rolling. She apparently got the notion that he wanted to add her to his stable of costar conquests although he had no interest. She famously chewed on garlic before their kissing scenes.
Jones was an odd person, shy and rather snooty, who got even odder after she married mogul David O. (Gone With the Wind) Selznick. He was a major whiner and complainer on his own films and would even insinuate himself into the films that she made without him. So on this film she whined and complained constantly, mainly about costumes and her makeup. It took some doing to transfer her into a Eurasian. Holden, who had little interest in the script, took the assignment because he wanted to see Hong Kong for the first time, was a master of efficiency and getting the job done and resented like hell her bellyaching. Interestingly, they would work together again in The Towering Inferno in 1974 although they had no scenes together.
This was an ambitious project, totally in line with studio chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck's wish to film as many famous novels as possible. The book was so popular with the public, as was Holden, and with Hong Kong locations as an added inducement, Zanuck felt ok to have Henry King, a contract director, most famous for films starring Tyrone Power and then Gregory Peck, to helm the project rather than hiring an outside, more important, director. Then, of course, there was that song... with a popularity that no one saw coming. In addition to the Oscar for best song, the film won Oscars for musical score and costume design (whaddayathink of that, Miss Jennifer Jones?).
Oh yes, that famous hill was not in Hong Kong at all. It was in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles. Go figure.
|The real Suyin|
The real Han Suyin died last November. She had written one book before A Many-Splendored Thing and quite a few after it. Han Suyin was a pen name. Mark Elliott's real name was Ian Morrison and he was Australian, not American. Despite her two marriages after his death, he was apparently the love of her life. She gave up practicing medicine in the early 1960s to concentrate on writing and lecturing. She died in Switzerland at age 96.
Here, before you go, watch some scenes from this wonderful love story and listen to the gorgeous title song by Matt Monro.
Dancing Girls I