Thursday, April 23, 2015

Caught in a Bland Romance

Film: Love is a Many-Splendored Thing
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I was of two minds going into Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. On the one hand, I like William Holden in pretty much everything I’ve seen him in, so that’s on the positive side. On the other hand, it also stars Jennifer Jones, who I’ve never liked much and who always comes across as wooden on screen, at least in my opinion. I figured this was going to be pretty drippy, but I’m willing to put up with a lot for the sake of William Holden. Anyway, I needed to watch it sooner or later.

Dr. Han Suyin (Jennifer Jones) is Eurasian. While being of mixed race in Hong Kong in the post-World War II years is not specifically a problem, miscegenation is an issue. Eurasians are not quite Asian and not quite European, but are considered far more Asian than European. Cavorting with Europeans is fine socially but not romantically. So, of course that’s exactly where we are going to go here with the arrival of Mark Elliott (William Holden), an American journalist currently stationed in Hong Kong. Things are complicated by Mark being married but separated, adding an additional and unnecessary complication to the budding romance.

The romance starts slowly but proceeds inevitably for the first half of the film. There’s plenty of talk of destiny and moonlit scenes, swimming in the bay and panting. The plot is driven by a couple of specific devices. The first is the racism that comes from all quarters. No one approves of this relationship, Suyin’s Chinese family least of all. Initially, even Suyin seems to be party to this sort of institutionalized racism, although for her it is more of an emotional deadness that came from the death of her husband at the hands of the Chinese communists.

Eventually, Suyin goes back to China despite the communists and Mark follows her but that works out poorly. Mark attempts to get a divorce from his wife and that works out poorly, too. Beyond that, there’s a great deal of sighing and letter writing. It all comes off as drippy, which is what I expected.

I had a feeling this was going to be a short review in large part because I have very little to say about the film. While the plot is one that certainly could work in different hands or with a different cast, it falls flat, at least for me. Surprisingly, this has both everything and nothing to do with the cast. For a wonder, I actually think that Jennifer Jones is decent in this, which is one of the first times I’ve been able to utter that sentence honestly. And I always like William Holden. In this sense, the cast has no issues.

The problem is that I absolutely can’t buy the romance between the two of them. Jennifer Jones and William Holden evidently hated each other completely, with Jones going so far as to eat garlic before the more romantic scenes, and this lack of chemistry bleeds through every scene of the film, and this kills the entire story. It’s difficult to imagine two people less comfortable together on screen but forced to be on screen together.

There are, of course, other problems. The first is the obvious whitewashing of the cast. There are some actual Chinese actors in the film (including an uncredited cameo from the great James Hong), but they fill smaller roles. The major Asian roles, Jones in particular but also her Eurasian friend Suzanne (Jorja Cutright, from Texas) are filled by white actors. Sure, this was common at the time, but it still feels ugly and wrong, not that Jennifer Jones wasn’t used to playing non-Americans. Also, while the film seems to be anti-racism in general, Suyin is prone to superstition and looking for omens in things while the Americans and Europeans naturally scoff at such “Eastern wisdom.”

If you’re going to spend time with this, you had also better brace yourself for the title track, which plays on weeping strings at virtually every opportunity. I was sick of the damn song half an hour in, but by the end I was positively ready to scream.

Love is a Many-Splendored Thing hasn’t aged well, and I’m not sure it was that good to begin with. I’ve seen worse movies, but few that are this flat and dull all the way through. If you’ve got an hour and 40 minutes to kill…you should probably still watch something else.

Why to watch Love is a Many-Splendored Thing: William Holden is the shit and Jennifer Jones is less wooden than usual.
Why not to watch: It's hard to care when things are this dull.


  1. Was this the movie where the guy looks over a war-torn landscape and goes, "Jesus wept... Jesus wept!"? Or was that "The Inn of the sixth Happiness"?

    I saw "Many-splendored" eons ago, but remember almost nothing about it except the whitewashing. Hey, I'm half-Korean, and I can normally recognize other half-and-halfers (not to imply that that ability resides only with mixed-race folks, or that mixed-race folks spot other mixed-race folks unerringly... but the half-and-half thing is kinda my world). Jennifer Jones never looked convincingly half-and-half to me.

    1. That must be from Inn of the Sixth Happiness because I don't recognize that moment. However, I had pretty firmly tuned out for the final half hour of this one.

      The whitewashing is bad, but I've seen worse. Ricardo Montalban playing a Kabuki actor in Sayonara is probably the most egregious example I can bring to mind.

  2. I thought this movie was just okay. I agree the song is played endlessly, but I believe it did become a massively popular hit at the time. " a many-splendored thing." (sorry, couldn't resist).

    I agree Jones didn't look mixed, but I actually prefer that over them trying to artificially stretch her eyes sideways like I've seen in some older films. And if you're going to pick awful casting of Asians then Breakfast at Tiffany's is the absolute worst with Mickey Rooney playing a man who's maybe Korean, maybe Japanese, maybe Chinese - I'm not sure and I don't think Rooney was either. In any case, they have him doing about the broadest stereotype you can imagine. I'm pretty mellow when it comes to color-blind casting, but even I was sitting there thinking. "You have GOT to be kidding me."

    1. I subconsciously blocked Mickey Rooney's Breakfast at Tiffany's casting from memory. Based on his name in the film (Yunioshi), he's supposed to be Japanese.

      My main problem with this wasn't the whitewashing but the complete lack of believability of the romance. That's the main point of the film and it misses in every aspect. Give me a romance I care about or at least believe in and I'll forgive a lot. In this case, I can't forgive anything because it can't get over the first hurdle.