He won two Academy Awards and is generally one of the first names that come to mind when we think of Hollywood’s greatest stars, but a full accounting of Gary Cooper’s place in the cinema is still a long way off. Whether he had the lead in a western (and there were many) or a romantic comedy by Lubitsch or Wilder, whether he played a military man (Sergeant York, The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell), an American everyman (Good Sam, Meet John Doe), or the embodiment of Ayn Rand’s hilarious ideals (The Fountainhead), Cooper almost never seemed 100% there, but you couldn’t look away. Objectively, his acting was often “bad”; no De Niro-like disappearing into character for him, and he was given to arrhythmic line readings almost as much as actors who parody Christopher Walken. You might catch yourself trying to guess where his head was in a given scene; his modern-day counterpart is more likely to be someone like Michael Shannon than a more apparently at-ease professional like Michael Fassbender.
Hollywood was never more on the ball than when savvy decision-makers recognized him as something special based on his brief appearance in the Oscar-winning Wings in 1927; it took a few years, but after he starred opposite Dietrich in Sternberg’s Morocco, Cooper’s star was quick on the rise, and in the way of many actors during that period, he found plenty of work. In those early years at Paramount, he was cast in the lead or second lead in some of the studio’s most prestigious productions, under the direction of the studio’s most bankable auteurs, including Ernst Lubitsch, Rouben Mamoulian, Henry Hathaway, and Howard Hawks. Frank Borzage’s A Farewell to Arms reunited him with his Morocco co-star Adolph Menjou, as well as the lovely and fragile Helen Hayes, who’d just won the Oscar for The Sin of Madelon Claudet a few weeks before Farewell to Arms appeared in theaters.
Based on the 1929 novel by Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms shares with many of Borzage’s films an idea of romantic love that’s as transcendental as faith, and his imagery was made to match. One of the most successful directors of his era (his films were usually big earners, and he took two Academy Awards for directing), he often fixated on the upward-reaching gesture of a lover seeking to overpower distance, hindrance—even death. Watching a great Borzage movie is like being caught in a tidal flow of longing, accentuated by the fragility of the romantically idealistic men and women of his stories, who share a love in a world that conspires to keep them apart. Hemingway meant different things to different directors (Jules Furthman and William Faulkner’s script for Howard Hawks’s lighthearted To Have and Have Not famously jettisoned large chunks of Hemingway’s 1937 novel), and Borzage was more apt to chase the doomed love aspect, rather than the manliness of camaraderie in war.
If auteurists of a certain stripe need to look for the avant-garde artist working undercover as an obedient hired gun, Borzage may seem to some too obviously successful, too surface, to warrant a rescue mission, but his style in A Farewell to Arms pushes the film to strange places. Experimentalism abounds in such scenes as one in which a first-person-POV tracking shot follows Cooper’s Frederic Henry into a church hospital and through corridors, eventually to be greeted by Hayes’s nurse Catherine, who greets him (i.e. us) with a very “Grace Kelly in Rear Window” smooch. Charles Lang’s photography, which won the Oscar, enshrouds the film in ethereal, charcoal grays, or boxes its characters in pillows of black shadow. There’s no art deco on display here, no translucent evening gowns or flawless tuxedos; Paramount’s expensive reproduction of war-torn Europe is a suitably nasty hellhole. A centerpiece montage strings together an array of shockingly psychedelic images as falling bombs disintegrate fleeing migrants and refugees, while a wounded convalescent, dressed head to toe in bandages, makes contorted Christ/death angel poses in a high window, as if to weep for, and preside over, the all-consuming destruction.
It's an understatement to say that A Farewell to Arms, its gauzy, gossamer grays standing out in an era in which DPs exploited nitrate stock's potential for blazing incandescence to its fullest, was shot mostly with a lower-than-average f-stop, producing not only cloudlike, half-dreamt images but hailstone-sized grain, as well. Fortunately, Kino's authoring is on point, with no noticeable edge enhancement, and very little digital noise. The lossless monaural soundtrack also represents.
A picture gallery and trailers three great-looking Kino titles, just not this one. The trailer for Albert Lewin's Pandora and the Flying Dutchman is worth a look, even if it's done in the modern, TCM-ish style.
Tissue-thin as these things go, Kino's wafer of a Blu-ray production earns its keep with a fine transfer of a Borzage barnburner.