I gave this movie a chance and I enjoyed it. Yes….there will be tears.
I have to admit “A FAREWELL TO ARMS” is equal parts Gary Cooper’s performance along with Helen Hayes’ because without Fredric there’s no Catherine and vice~versa. No doubt he is a tall quenching glass of water, but in general I feel Hayes acts rings around Cooper’s halting/hesitant/stilted delivery. I lean towards her, but I believe working with Hayes upped Coop’s acting game.
[ Parting…is such sweet sorrow, and how the heck tall ARE you? ]
~ CAME THE DAWN ~
Maybe it was the “First Lady of the Theatre” moniker that put me off her initially; you know…all that “AHHKTING” and stodgy theatrical hijinks I imagined she had. 0R it could have been my first memories of Hayes as that little cotton-topped older lady in “AIRPORT” 1970. But a light switch finally turned on in my brain and out of the darkness of my blindness, entered Helen Hayes.
My silly biases have disappeared watching Hayes play Catherine Barkley, the Nurse in Frank Borzage’s romantic “A Farewell to Arms.” I thought she was very subtle in her acting~style; probably moreso than some of my pre-code faves ( who shall remain nameless in light of Hayes’ brilliance ). She’s as cute as a button and though she doesn’t have the, shall we say “sensual bling” of a Bow, Harlow or Louise Brooks, still waters do run very deep.
~ Florence Nightingale never covered THIS in the Nurses’ Manual ~
Catherine represents those young women a decade-plus into the 20th century’s beginnings who will bob their hair, seek The Vote and want just a touch more autonomy in their lives. ( Don’t worry, they’re still a million and a half light years from burning their bras. ) She’s a little more interesting for me to watch. She’s left her small-town and is out in the world at large. Catherine leaves her provincial thinking back home, too. After all, she’s mending and healing war’s broken bodies. No, it’s not a pre-requisite to throw caution to the wind; but ‘saving’ herself for marriage is something she now questions as she speaks of her dead fiancee:
“If I had to do it all over again, I’d marry him. Or… anything.”
It’s those ‘…or anythings’ that’ll get you every time, girls.
As in Cinderella, the Lieutenant ambulance driver ( Gary Cooper ) and the nurse meet “cute”…during an air raid – Fredric with a veritable “slipper” in his hand.
May I show you something in a Size 3?
When next they meet, the Lieutenant steals the nurse from his buddy, Major Rinaldi (played by Adolphe Menjou) who had his “eyes” on her first. Neither men’s intentions were quite honorable toward Nurse Catherine. But Fredric wins out. His gentle, insistent, full court press muffles the cries of protest from Catherine. Resistance is futile. ( Resist… really? It’s Gary Cooper for cornsakes…and besides there’s a war going on; it’s practically a girl’s sacred patriotic duty to make hay. ) Afterwards, Fredric is concerned about her “afterwards”, but she is surprisingly resigned to having given up the “coin of the realm”. He seems more concerned than she, though I think she feigns her carpe-diem attitude. ( Note: his concern comes “after.” ) Sent to the front, he drives his ambulance BACK to see her to make sure she understands that this was not a mere one-nite stand. It’s his coming back to her that I think their emotional tale starts.
The young lovers both have BFFs who are adamantly opposed to their relationships. ( Makes me think of Rob Lowe’s and Demi Moore’s best friends in “About Last Night” yes, a decidedly un-classic film which has no business in this post. )
When I first saw Adolphe Menjou as the Italian Major and head doctor in charge, I scratched my head. Huh??? Wha’?? What in the name of Central Casting is this? But I must say he did grow on me by the end of the movie, even with his phony baloney Italian accent. And I loved how he called Fredric “bebe.” Rinaldi can’t believe he’s losing his ol’ running buddy to love. When he tries to cheapen Catherine in Fredric’s eyes to get him back, the lieutenant will have none of that. Menjou’s Captain Rinaldi is instrumental in separating the lovers. Sheesh, with friends like this… He later comes to understand their love is true and deep. But Catherine’s good friend is fellow nurse Ferguson never seems to understand. She’s played by Bogie’s ex-wife Mary Philips…who also played Gene Tierney’s mother in “Leave Her to Heaven.” ( How’s THAT for bits of trivia from the CineMaven. ) Ferguson seems so stuck up from the get-go. She’s deeply opposed to Catherine’s relationship even more vehemently than Rinaldi. ( When Fredric looks for Catherine later in the film, Fergie is of no help at all. Can’t she see that he came back for Catherine? Ack! ) Why is Fergie sitting on the sidelines while “hook-ups” are happening all around her. Is there more beneath her friendship?
~ LOVE’S PATH ~
It’s interesting to see Catherine and Fredric travel their individual paths on that same road of love.
Catherine and Fredric are sweet and loving and tender to each other ~ friends and conventions be damned. They’re just so plain cute together without being saccharine. ( Maybe it’s that living-together-thing. ) And when they have to part, even if Fredric has only twenty minutes before train time, he spends it with her. They live a lifetime in their little room. They live a lifetime in each other’s company. “I wish we could do something sinful. Eveything we do is simple and right,” says Catherine. How could loving each
other be sinful? It’s pre~code. And in whose eyes? ACK! Beats me. But they’re going to pay a terrrrible price for this love. One of the Hayes moments I really enjoyed was her merely reading aloud a letter she’s writing him. She paints a beautiful picture of a house she’s rented and we hear her voice-over while director Borzage pans around the squalid little room. Hayes reads the letter so matter-of-factly without the least bit of an actress-y hint she’s already memorized what she’s supposed to be ‘reading’ to the audience. That small moment caught me. It’s a small thing I know, but it shows something to me of Hayes’ gift.
As Catherine, she’s going to rough it alone, wait for him to come back from the front. When she finds out her letters have never even reached him…
Fredric’s worried about not hearing from her. He knows something’s wrong. What initially started out as just a conquest, quickly turned into love for him. And truth be told, it turns out to be more than just love. It’s some kind of symbiotic oneness they have for each other. Fredric risking every-
thing to leave his post to go back to her astounds me. He was like, “I’m leaving the Army and I’m going home.” Huh? What the… Yup, he was just going to leave and go home. See, this is the SECOND time he’s going back to her; he doesn’t care how far away he is from her…he has to get back to her. Simple. And that just plain kills me. Today, girls are wondering why he hasn’t called, texted, Instagrammed or FaceBook’d her, where “A Farewell to Arms” has the Lieutenant going through battle in, literally, the opposite direction of the war, just to get back to her…
Director Frank Borzage has some fantastic camera work, rather unexpected for me to see in the 1930’s when many were just doing long shot ~ medium shot ~ close-up. He also has his finger on the pulse of what is romantic…what is love, viscerally making us feel its ache. He’s well~practiced in it if you‘re familiar with his work. ( “Moonrise”, “History Is Made At Night”, “7th Heaven” really just to name a few ). If you read my friend’s thoughts on why this film is one of her favorites for 1932 ( scroll down and read —> here <— ) she gives a nice account of what Borzage captures.
“Please don’t die.”
Here is where IMHO Gary Cooper shines. The praying against all hope that his little prayers would be answered in that big, wide, war-crazed world. A simple request. I was stunned by his tears and the unseeing look in his eyes as he ate his bread in the little bistro. All around him celebrated war’s end, while Catherine lie in a hospital. I can’t truthfully say Cooper touched me like this for the rest of his career.
I wanted a happy ending here so badly, it hurt. My throat was burning. Fate and Hemingway had different ideas.
( H O M E )