« Mysterious Skin | Main | The Idiot »

June 17, 2005

Love is a Many Splendored Thing

Henry King - 1955
20th Century Fox DVD

I had seen parts of this film on TV about forty years ago. While Henry King is barely remembered nowadays, I did meet him in Telluride in 1975. Since then, I have made it a point to see his films where available. More about my meeting Henry King later.

As for the film in question, yeah, it's nice to finally see it in color and cinemascope. The film is dated in its attitude towards Chinese culture, and in the casting of the very caucasian Jennifer Jones as the Eurasian Han Suyin. It is interesting to consider than only five years later, William Holder would return to Hong Kong to star with a genuine Eurasian, Nancy Kwan in The World of Suzie Wong. By 1960, civil rights were more significantly in the forefront, and Hollywood had pretty much abandoned casting white people as Asians or in bi-racial roles, with the most glaring exception being Mickey Rooney as the Japanese photographer in Breakfast at Tiffany's (why Blake Edwards, why?)

But throughout this film, I kept on thinking, how would Wong Kar-Wai make Love is a Many Splendored Thing? Thematically, this would be an appropriate film, as Wong explores themes of physical and psychological dislocation. The discretion shown by King primarily due to the cultural constraints of 1955 are not to disimilar to the discretion of Wong's adulterous couple in In the Mood for Love. Of course in the older film, the clearest indication that the relationship has been consumated is the close up of William Holden's cigarette igniting Jennifer Jones' cigarette. Of course at the time the film was made, you couldn't show Jones and Holden in bed together period. But consider that in our more graphic era that Wong deliberately chose to delete the scenes of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung fucking. In the Mood for Love's erotic power comes from the shots of Maggie Cheung's hips encased in the Cheongsam dress.

What Wong would probably bring to a remake of Love is a Many Splendored Thing is a greater sense of Hong Kong in 1949 so that the history is less distant and abstract. In King's film the surge of refugees into Hong Kong is discussed but is not visually represented. The discussions of what Chinese identity means to individuals whether politically (Hong Kong vs. People's Republic) or having a bi-racial and bi-cultural identity are only lightly touched on. Wong immerses you into a Hong Kong he knows intimately. King's vision of Hong Kong and the Chinese is that of a tourist.

A side note is that King's Ramona also explored similar themes with Don Ameche as a Native American and Lorretta Young as the half-Native American heroine.

Back to my meeting with Henry King - I went to the 1975 Telluride Film Festival where King was one of the honored directors. I was studying film at NYU at the time. I sat in on his interview for Denver Post, and as I was more knowledgable about his films than the Post critic, I essentially conducted the interview. We met outside, by a creek running through town. The somewhat pastoral setting was appropriate, looking as it did as the kind of setting for one of King's silent films or films from the 30s. I mentioned to King that I had seen The White Sister (1923) at the Museum of Modern Art. I explained that most of the audience was hostile torwards the idea that Lillian Gish was committed to being a nun, even after seeing her reportedly dead lover, Ronald Colman, alive following years of separation. As a recent convert to Buddhism, I could feel more sympathetic to Gish's reasons to remain a nun. King told me that he converted to Catholicism at the time he made Song of Bernadette. While I do not remember details other than that part of our conversation, what I do remember is that King recounted growing up in rural Virginia, and discussing his time making making movies without getting out of the silent era. He was 79 at the time. Although his produced film was Tender is the Night (1962), King still went to his office, and mentioned that he was working on a film about Mexico.

King's films can usually be remembered as amiably as the man himself. Carousel is the best of the films based on Rogers and Hammerstein musicals, especially compared to the heavy handed South Pacific and Oklahoma. The Gunfighter holds up as the epitome of films about the reluctant fastest gun in the West attempting to retire peacefully. If King is remembered at all now, it is thanks to Robert Evans. Before becomine production chief at Paramount, novice actor Evans appeared in a small role in The Sun Also Rises. In spite of a major campaign by author Ernest Hemingway and most of the stars to have Evans fired, Fox head Darryl Zanuck insisted that, "the kid stays in the picture." Unfortunately for Henry King, one of his dullest films, with a cast of stars too old for the parts they play, is the film of any significance for contemporary audiences.

Posted by peter at June 17, 2005 04:56 PM