“We’re both early. Give me your hand.”
Han Suyin (a pseudonym for Rosalee Chow) wrote the novel “A Many-Splendored Thing,” which told a fictionalized account of her true-life relationship with an American correspondent in 1949 Hong Kong. Purchased for the screen by Twentieth Century-Fox, the book became the responsibility of producer Buddy Adler and no expense was spared in mounting a first-rate film production. Major stars Jennifer Jones and William Holden were engaged to play the leads and extensive location shooting in Hong Kong was carried out, supplemented by studio work back in Hollywood where all the dialogue scenes were filmed. The completed film was considered a woman’s picture and was a popular one when released in 1955. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actress, and won three in the areas of music and costume design. Fox has now released Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing on DVD as the seventh title in its Studio Classics series.
Han Suyin is a doctor of Eurasian descent working at a hospital in Hong Kong. There she meets newspaper correspondent Mark Elliott, and they fall deeply in love. At first, things go well for the mixed couple, but eventually troubles arise. The leading ladies of the British expatriate group in Hong Kong make snide comments about the affair, and then Han Suyin begins to encounter prejudice at work and pressure from her family in China to return there. Meanwhile, Elliott’s wife, from whom he is separated, refuses to give him a divorce.
The couple persists in their relationship despite all these difficulties. Eventually, Han Suyin loses her hospital position, and then Elliott is suddenly assigned to cover the Korean War. Despite this, Suyin maintains her love for Elliott and faithfully awaits his return.
Anyone who has ever been in love can relate to this film. It doesn’t matter whether the location was as exotic as Hong Kong or whether the relationship had to endure the sort of difficulties of the one on the screen. It’s the emotions that are important, and they are conveyed with a sensitivity and conviction that remind one of the real thing and make one believe that the two principal characters truly were in love. One just has to see the first meeting of the two on the hill behind the hospital to gain an appreciation of their feelings for one another. Jennifer Jones and William Holden play the exchange beautifully. Notice particularly the range of expressions that play across Jones’s face as she first thinks Holden has not come, and then sees him finally appear.
But can that really be the William Holden that was so often a portrayer of smooth-talking, cynical, and later world-weary men playing the male half of the couple? Well, yes. For once, he underplays his part substantially — making the American correspondent an attractive human being. Yes, he’s still self-assured and persistent, but he manages to retain an air of considerateness and general likeability that makes it easy to understand why Suyin is attracted to him despite her best intentions. Nor does Holden try to impose his star status on the film. His role is clearly secondary in importance (if not in screen time) to that of Jennifer Jones, but there is no conscious effort to steal scenes or divert our attention overly from the central theme of a couple in love under difficult circumstances.
Jennifer Jones was rightly singled out at the time of the film’s original release for a restrained yet powerfully sincere performance. She’s no one’s idea of how a woman of mixed Chinese and European parentage might look, but she conveys a mix of body language and mental anguish that makes her feel right in the role. Jones was married to producer David O. Selznick at the time and he was renowned for interfering with productions, his own or another’s, if he felt his wife was not being presented in the best light. He was apparently preoccupied at the time that Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing was being made, for his sole involvement was a comment that he felt Jones’s hair style in the film made her look too old.
Direction was by Fox veteran Henry King. He had previously directed Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette (1943), but was also a very versatile handler of all sorts of genre films. The restrained work of the principals is presumably substantially due to his influence. He also manages a nice blend of location work that, along with Leon Shamroy’s photography, shows off many aspects of Hong Kong to advantage, beginning with a pass over the city, a point-of-view shot from a fast-moving ambulance, and the magnificent views of the city’s harbour from the hills high above where the hospital (in actuality a private home) is located.
The film is closely associated with Alfred Newman’s music that weaves the song “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” (by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster) throughout it. This is a very recognizable song that became very popular upon the film’s release and remains so. Equally as powerful, though not nearly as well remembered, is Newman’s secondary theme that he uses for the meetings of the two lovers on the hill behind the hospital. Both the title song and Newman’s score won Academy Awards.
If there is one area in which the film is somewhat less successful, it is in the aspects of the story related to the prejudice faced by Suyin. What come across as but minor inconveniences in the film were clearly much more significant issues in the novel, but they have been sacrificed substantially to focus on the relationship of the two main characters. At a time when films were becoming much longer, an extra reel or two devoted to a greater exploration of these issues would have been welcome and could only have added to the film’s impact.
Fox’s Studio Classics DVD is a substantial upgrade from its previous release. The restored 2.55:1 anamorphic presentation is a pleasure to behold. Colours are bright and vibrant, with deep blacks and good shadow detail. Especially crisp are the interiors filmed under the best studio conditions. Edge effects seldom intrude. A restoration comparison shows how much improved the image is over various previous incarnations.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 surround audio is also a benefit to this DVD. There are good directional effects across the front and occasional use of the surrounds yielding a soundtrack with nice ambience. Whenever the orchestra swells up with a presentation of the title music, there’s a pleasing fullness to the sound. French 4.0 surround and Spanish mono tracks are also provided, as are English and Spanish subtitles.
The disc’s supplements package begins with a scene-specific audio commentary from cinematographer Michael Lonzo, historian Sylvia Stoddard, and film music expert John Burlingame. The three of them manage a thoroughly entertaining and informative commentary that is definitely one of the best for a film in the Studio Classics series so far. Each provides great insight on the film in respect to their areas of expertise. Lonzo provides all sorts of detail on which scenes were shot on location and which were in the studio, as well as the nitty-gritty on Leon Shamroy’s lighting decisions and the studio’s recreations of many of the location sites. Burlingame’s music insights reflect his familiarity with Alfred Newman’s work as a result of his preparation of a forthcoming biography of the prolific film music composer. Stoddard’s comments on the historical background of the time provide a nice counterpoint to the filmmaking information.
The other supplements include an good A&E biography of William Holden, Movietone newsreels on the Audience Awards and Photoplay Awards of the time, the film’s theatrical trailer, and trailers for six other Fox Studio Classics releases (All About Eve, An Affair to Remember, Gentleman’s Agreement, How Green Was My Valley, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and The Inn of the Sixth Happiness).
Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is a fondly-remembered love story that stands the test of time by virtue of two restrained and believable performances by Jennifer Jones and William Holden. Fox has given the film a worthy DVD treatment as part of its Studio Classics series, including a sharp-looking transfer and several very fine supplements. The price of the entries in this series is a bargain, and this is another well worth adding to your collection. Recommended.