Now that’s what I call Romantic.
“Romantic” isn’t a word I’d use to describe a book as stark and jaded as Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” (1929), about the doomed romance between an American ambulance driver and an English nurse in Italy during World War I. But it’s the most perfect word to describe its 1932 film adaptation, mounted by the great Frank Borzage, and starring Helen Hayes and Gary Cooper.
There are two not-to-be-missed opportunities to watch Borzage’s incredible coup d’auteur at the Stanford Theatre on Thursday and Friday, March 15 to 16, at 7:30 p.m.
Don’t be tempted to think that Borzage’s “Farewell” is merely a cheap watering-down of Hemingway’s novel. They tell the same exact story, and stylistically they are worlds apart, but each is a self-contained masterwork in its own right.
Borzage is an artist who truly puts one’s beliefs — in love, in the beauty of life, in God — to the test. His fervent romanticism is so extreme, they have the power of scaring the unprepared. He sure as hell scares me — and I’m a diehard Jacques Demy stan.
In softening the dark hues of Hemingway’s book, Frank Borzage has crafted an entirely different beast of a morality tale — no better, no worse. His aims are squarely at odds with Hemingway’s journalistic, no-frills realism. From the opening Jacques Demy-like camera glide across a snowy mountainside that looks like the “Price is Right” Cliff Hangers game, down to a bird’s-eye-view shot of a line of toy-car ambulances that recalls the frantic taxi-cab surge of Borzage’s divine silent melodrama “7th Heaven” (1927, another love-during-wartime story), Borzage’s film forges an Expressionist identity committed to showing truth at obtuse angles. It does not seek to replicate the style of its source (Hemingway’s terse, stripped-down prose), nor does it try to convince you that its visual representation of soldiers fighting in the trenches is anything close to the experience (the seductive mistake of many a war yarn, from “Sands of Iwo Jima” to “Dunkirk”). In Borzage’s conception, one gets the sense that the Great War was fought for dames with long gams — from shaky cardboard sets on a Paris, Paramount soundstage — within a mysterious mustard-gas fog — in and out of hospital beds, truck beds and bedrooms. Everything is pitched at a shrieking volume of blooming floweriness. (We should expect a lot of flowery lushness in the best films by Borzage; for here was a man who didn’t just want his name to be rhymed with “massage”; instead, it had to be “bore-ZAY-gee,” three-jangling-syllables-and-a-hard-“G” or bust.)
Borzage puts all of his energy into visualizing the main relationship between Hayes and Cooper with as much beauty as he can muster. When they first meet, the encounter is drunken slapstick, involving Hayes’ dropped high-heel and Cooper caressing it with puppy-like attention. When they kiss, she bizarrely bites into his chin, so that their faces meet with Cubist angularity. When Cooper gets up from his bed, blanket draped around his shoulders like a high-school football player with oversized shoulder pads, he sweeps her into his arms as she briefly disappears under his grey Superman cape. They appear to be one globular unit moving in erratic synchronicity with one another. All the while, the smell of cheap Parisian perfume wafts about, and the movie is better because of that pungent odor.
Their romance is, on paper, purely conventional. It’s happened a billion times before, and it will happen a billion more. Yet the specificity of these romantic actions — and the way Charles Lang’s unforgettable images makes it feel like the camera is recording love for the first time on film, in its natural habitat —speaks volumes to the powerful nuances in Hollywood films. The film critic Andrew Sarris, as well as the Cahiers crew of critics, those French eccentrics-with-taste (Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, Daddy Bazin), were among the first to fully explain how certain traits, tics or tricks in Hollywood cinema individualized each film. It was not all just some homogenized whole; there is a philosophical difference between a Lubitsch musical and a Maumoulian musical, between W.C. Fields’ brand of vaudeville and the Marx Brothers’, though they all worked at the same Paramount Studios.
Similarly, Borzage realizes that there are tics (which can seem subtle but are actually vast) that differentiate one couple from the next. Thus, the romance between Hayes and Cooper (lanky, tall, tender man-boy next to mousy, little, tough nurse — a pregnancy that goes every wrong way you can think of — a tragic demise) is completely different from Borzage’s sublime, low-trash couple in “7th Heaven” (Janet Gaynor’s doe-eyed pining for Charles Farrell’s beefy hulk with a soft, pubescent heart). Even though they have basically the same visual grammar (Borzage loved a good resurrection), the unbridled joy of the miraculous “7th Heaven” ending only serves to confirm our own tragic inability to transcend life, while the bleak Hemingway-penned scenario of “A Farewell to Arms” becomes a hymn, not a dirge, to lost love.
What we have in Borzage’s “Farewell” is one of the most jaw-droppingly sustained engagements of a Romantic viewpoint since Caspar David Friedrich accompanied a man and a woman on their trip to the moon. Using the slightest dollops of Friedrich’s soft-focus sublimity, Borzage starts his film in a similarly dreamlike register. Though his goal is for a similarly Friedrichian sense of evenly-applied sublimity, Borzage isn’t afraid to let his sutures show. His film is quite lumbering in its emotional sentimentality. It is an early sound film, so continuity is brazenly off at points, actions don’t match and there are leaden cuts between Gary Cooper pining over his love in a Parisian café and Helen Hayes about to endure an emergency C-section. But the choppy, stop-start quality ends up enhancing everything Borzage has to say about love. In Borzage’s view of it, love is a similar series of stops and starts — an imperfect flow of awkward gestures, facial expressions and clumsy words that add up to statements of devotion that sound campy and ridiculous to the outside viewer but ring true to the lovers themselves — who, in the end, are the only ones who matter. Borzage is breathtakingly faithful to love’s fractured nature.
Borzage is also faithful to love’s ephemerality. In the end, only the strongest memories are preserved, and even these will pass. During the love scenes in the middle of the picture, we never get a good look at Hayes’ or Cooper’s faces. They are shrouded in black. Borzage and Lang give their lovers the proper privacy of a moment. Then, once the lovers’ fate is sealed — when Hayes raps upon the Pearly Gates — Borzage brings them out into the blinding light, bombarding them with every ray of Paramount-powered sunshine he’s got. I fear what will happen to the Stanford Theatre’s screen, which may explode from the sudden surge in Love Power of this wild finale.
The sharp contrast between dark and light is just one of the myriad examples of Borzagian binaries at play. The man loves a good, simple, clean contrast. There is loudness, and there is silence, and nothing in between: An Italian priest mumbles to himself as he marries our lovers in a quiet ceremony that betrays the clatter of their bomb-bullet-battleship courtship. And just when you think Borzage has gotten comfortable with silence, slambang! We get a neo-Soviet-montage sequence of war that raises utterly holy hell. One specific cut — from a frightened boy soldier cowering in a lake one second to an explosion from the same lake the next, with no trace that a boy was ever there — sticks in the mind longer in its putrid, “Guernica”-like horror than any graphic injury in “Saving Private Ryan” or “Dunkirk.”
And then, there are the moments in “A Farewell to Arms” that defy words. I think specifically of an Ozu-like “pillow-shot,” just as Helen Hayes’ train has parted, amidst a torrent of hellish rain. As the train recedes from our vision at the bottom of the screen, rain pours clatteringly down onto a thatched roof with a loose gutter at the top. Down the gutter races a tear-like blip of rainwater, leaving behind a thin trickle. Borzage’s world cries for love, and we cry with it.
Contact Carlos Valladares at cvall96 ‘at’ stanford.edu.