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Hemingway on big screen
Question of the Day
Anumber of recent DVD anthologies have emphasized movie versions of well-known books. Perhaps the most self-contained and oddly hermetic package is “The Ernest Hemingway Film Collection,” which consists of five titles derived from Mr. Hemingway’s short stories or novels that 20th Century Fox acquired and turned into features between 1950 and 1962.
Although ascribed to the Cinema Classics division of Fox Home Entertainment, this set is barely semiclassical. An optimum Hemingway movie anthology would require the cooperation of four studios and place “The Killers,” “The Macomber Affair,” “The Breaking Point,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “To Have and Have Not” and the 1932 version of “A Farewell to Arms” in one tidy package. Five of these movies were released from 1943 to 1950, and they possess more melodramatic firepower and enduring glamour than the Fox batch, the runner-up Hemingway set in a qualitative sense.
“For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “To Have and Have Not” were enormously popular co-starring vehicles in successive years during World War II. Gary Cooper, a Hemingway crony who had co-starred in the first “A Farewell to Arms” with Helen Hayes, was matched with relative newcomer Ingrid Bergman in 1943.
Humphrey Bogart and genuine neophyte Lauren Bacall commenced an authentic romance while shooting “To Have” a year later. Mr. Cooper and Miss Bergman evidently shared a romance — for the duration of the production only. He once quipped that she couldn’t seem to live without him during the shoot but became incommunicado the moment it was over.
It would be fun to have “Breaking Point” in the same collection with “To Have and Have Not” because it was the belated faithful adaptation of the same book. Howard Hawks and his collaborators treated the disreputable source material cavalierly to facilitate the Bogart-Bacall phenomenon. A few years later, director Michael Curtiz demonstrated that the antique thriller of 1937 also could be improved if played sincerely by another team: John Garfield and Patricia Neal.
One of the curiosities of the Fox collection is that it begins chronologically with the other Hemingway adaptation that starred Mr. Garfield, “Under My Skin.” This adaptation of the short story “My Old Man,” in which a boy’s admiration for his father, a crooked jockey, provides an unwitting perspective on the subject’s unscrupulous and incorrigible traits, definitely comes out of the shadows. I hadn’t remembered it.
“Under My Skin” seems the ugly duckling in this set for several reasons. It’s the only black-and-white picture amid a profusion of vintage Technicolor attractions. Unlike Fox’s other Hemingway outings, it wasn’t a prominent film. Of course, now it’s a little difficult to see why the others loomed large.
Jean Negulesco, the director of “Under My Skin,” couldn’t conceal the fact that the principal players were absent from the European background locales, which obviously relied on doubles in long shots. The same economy is more of a scenic embarrassment to “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” which can’t resist emphasizing vivid wildlife footage from Africa even though co-stars Gregory Peck and Susan Hayward clearly are confined to studio campsites and process shots. I also had forgotten how much of a novelty it was when “The African Queen,” released in the same year, 1952, authenticated the presence of Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the real Africa.
Authenticity is not the only long-term advantage lost by “Snows,” which now plays better as a laughingstock, particularly during the interlude in which Mr. Peck and Ava Gardner, a love match in the early episodes, cross paths by chance during the Spanish Civil War. She improbably reappears as an ambulance driver and he as a Loyalist recruit. Pinned beneath her vehicle, she needs to be rescued. A timely arrival, he drags her out and bellows “Stretcher bearers” several times with a vehemence that should have made the words a comedy catchphrase.
One of the intriguing aspects of the supplementary material in this collection is that several participants (they include David Brown, a former executive at Fox; Peter Viertel, who wrote the screenplay for “The Sun Also Rises”; and A.E. Hotchner, the screenwriter for “Adventures of a Young Man”) are willing to admit that the movies left much to be desired as satisfying enactments of vintage Hemingway.
Although his writing career coincided with the heyday of Hollywood, the author had a taste for perverse sexuality that flouted censorship constraints and a flair for indirect or evasive dramatization that made straightforward plotting a major obstacle. Often, the best approach to Mr. Hemingway was to use him as a starting point for a more familiar kind of movie, the methodology of “To Have and Have Not,” a triumphant romantic comedy with mystery trappings, and “The Killers,” a fatalistic crime thriller.
The Fox collection is much more evocative of the studio during the 1950s than of Mr. Hemingway’s fiction at any given juncture. By the time former studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck realized a version of “The Sun Also Rises,” published 30 years earlier, it’s much easier to be disappointed than gratified. One recognizes the desire to be faithful, but the episodes are encased in picturesque tedium.
A sense of reverent inertia also weighed down the David O. Selznick remake of “A Farewell to Arms” and Martin Ritt’s “Adventures,” a lavish expansion of a TV production called “The World of Nick Adams.”
Tourism did more for these movies than fidelity to Mr. Hemingway. That happened a lot in the 1950s, when wide screens rejuvenated the travelogue. Fox had big hits with “Three Coins in the Fountain” and “Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing” before discovering that Paris and Pamplona could loom large in “The Sun Also Rises” or Northern Italy and Switzerland in “A Farewell to Arms.”
The studio’s “big” Hemingway movies have fleeting rewards — Erroll Flynn’s flamboyance as Mike Campbell in “Sun,” Vittorio De Sica’s as Maj. Rinaldi in “Farewell,” Paul Newman’s as punchy Ad Francis in “Young Man” and Dan Dailey’s as drunken Bill Campbell in the same movie — but the pictures as a whole remain museum pieces. The shortcomings decisively stifle the good moments.
By Mark Davis
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