Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing (dir by Henry King)

(With the Oscars scheduled to be awarded on March 4th, I have decided to review at least one Oscar-nominated film a day.  These films could be nominees or they could be winners.  They could be from this year’s Oscars or they could be a previous year’s nominee!  We’ll see how things play out.  Today, I take a look at the 1955 best picture nominee, Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing!)

Before I talk about Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing, let’s play a little trivia game.

I’m going to list ten films.  Your job is to guess what they all have in common:

Did you guess?  All ten of these films came out in 1955 and not a single one of them was nominated for best picture.  That’s something that I found myself thinking about quite a bit as I watched Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing on TCM last night.  Of course, at this point, everyone knows that deserving films are often ignored by the Academy and that what seems like a great film during one year can often seem to be rather forgettable in subsequent years.

So, you can probably guess that I wasn’t terribly impressed with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing but, before I get too critical, I want to start things off on a positive note.  William Holden was, without a doubt, one of the best actors to ever appear in the movies.  He started his film career in the 1930s and worked regularly until his death in 1981.  Just consider some of the films in which Holden appeared: Golden Boy, Our Town, Sunset Boulevard, Stalag 17, Sabrina, Picnic, Network, and so many others.  Of course, not every film in which Holden appeared was a masterpiece.  He made his share of films like Damien: Omen II and When Time Ran Out.  But the thing is that, regardless of the film, Holden was always good.

That’s certainly the case with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing.  It’s not one of Holden’s better films but William Holden is his usual dependable self.  He plays Mark Elliott, a rugged American correspondent who is living in Hong Kong in the 1940s.  While the Chinese Civil War rages nearby, Mark deals with his failing marriage.  His wife is back in the States.  They’re separated but not quite divorced.  Mark owns a really nice car and, since he’s played by William Holden, he delivers the most world-weary of lines with an undeniable panache.  He also appears shirtless for a good deal of the film.  Between this and Picnic, 1955 was the year of the shirtless Holden.

The problem with Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing is not with William Holden.  Instead, the problem is with the miscasting of Jennifer Jones as Han Suyin, the woman with whom Mark Elliott falls in love.  Han Suyin was a real-life person, a doctor who wrote the autobiographical novel on which Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was based.  Han Suyin was Eurasian.  Jennifer Jones most definitely was not.  Throughout the film, Han Suyin and Mark often discuss what it’s like to be Eurasian and to be in the middle of two very different cultures.  There’s even a discussion about whether Han Suying should try to pass as European.  It all has the potential to be very interesting except for the fact that Jennifer Jones, who was so good in so many films, is in no way convincing in her role.  Whenever she mentions being Eurasian, which she does frequently, the film come to a halt as we all stare at Jennifer Jones, one of the first film stars to ever come out of Tulsa, Oklahoma.

It all leads to a rather strained movie, one that never really drew me into its cinematic world or story.  (For the record, a lot of people on twitter disagreed with me on this point.)  Ultimately, the main reason to watch it was for William Holden.  According to the film’s Wikipedia entry (how’s that for in-depth research), Holden and Jones reportedly did not get along during filming, with Jones apparently chewing garlic before their love scenes and there was a definite lack of chemistry between them.  Maybe I got spoiled by William Holden and Kim Novak dancing in Picnic but I never believed that Mark and Han Suyin were attracted to each other.  Interestingly, Jones and Holden would later both appear in another best picture nominee, 1974’s The Towering Inferno.  However, they didn’t share any scenes.

Love Is A Many-Splendored Thing was nominated for best picture but it lost to a far different love story, Marty.  This was also the final film directed by Henry King to be nominated for best picture.  Previous King films to be nominated included State Fair, In Old Chicago, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, The Song of Bernadette, Wilson, and Twelve O’Clock High.

Cleaning Out The DVR #22: The Good Earth (dir by Sidney Franklin)

(For those following at home, Lisa is attempting to clean out her DVR by watching and reviewing 38 films by this Friday.  Will she make it?  Keep following the site to find out!)


The 1937 film The Good Earth is a strange one.

It’s a big, epic film about life in China in the years before World War I.  It opens with a poor farmer named Wang (Paul Muni) marrying a servant girl named O-Lan (Luise Rainer).  O-Lan is quiet but strong and, with her support, Wang eventually starts to prosper.  He buys land and they have children.  Together, Wang and O-Lan manage to survive both famine and a political upheaval.  In fact, it’s China’s volatile politics that occasionally allow the family to survive.  When a revolutionary mob loots a mansion, O-Lan joins in just long enough to come across a bag of diamonds that the Wang uses to eventually buy the biggest house in town.  Once he’s become wealthy and complacent, Wang ends up taking on a younger, second wife (Tilly Losch) and O-Lan finds herself competing for his attention.  Ultimately, it’s only when Wang is again forced to tend to the Earth that he understands what is really important.

So, here’s the weird thing about The Good Earth.  It’s a film about China.  It covers several years of Chinese history and the story itself is rooted in Chinese culture.  All of the characters are meant to be Chinese.  When the movie was filmed, China was at war with Japan so it’s not surprising that the film was shot in California.  But what is interesting (though not really surprising when you consider the history of Hollywood) is that there are very few Chinese people in the cast and none of them play any of the major roles.

Instead, Wang was played by Austria-born, Chicago-raised Paul Muni.  O-Lan was played by German Luise Rainer.  Wang’s comic relief uncle was played by American character actor Walter Connolly while his father was played by a former vaudeville star from Ohio named Charley Grapewin.  All of the actors are heavily made up so that they’ll look Chinese but none of them act or sound Chinese.  It makes for a very strange viewing experience.

And it’s a bit unfortunate because there are some very good scenes in The Good Earth.  Technically, it’s a very strong film.  Towards the end, there’s a locust invasion that is still thrilling to watch.  The sets look great.  The costumes look great.  If you’re a history nerd like me, the story has the potential to be interesting.  But, whenever you start to get sucked into the film’s story, Wang starts to speak and sounds totally like a guy from Chicago and it takes you out of the movie.  The uneven mix of quality and miscast actors makes for a rather disjointed viewing experience.

As a big epic, it’s probably not surprising that The Good Earth was nominated for best picture.  However, it lost to another Paul Muni film, The Life of Emile Zola.