William Holden is my favorite actor. In his films he was always the perfect gentleman. He was truly one of a kind. This is the second time I’m posting about him, the first was a contribution to the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon examining his role in Stalag 17. I love how many of his characters were morally complex. There was always more to them and they weren’t spelled out for you in black and white.
In 1955, he took a departure from a string of darker roles and starred as a romantic leading man in the drama Love is a Many-Splendored Thing. Now, this film is an over-the-top soapy that probably looks closer to something that would be produced by the Hallmark Channel, I may be in the minority on this one but I simply adore this film! It has its flaws. For one thing, Jennifer Jones is miscast as a Eurasian and looks like she raided a Max Factor factory to achieve the look (which she doesn’t), but when you watch this film you can’t help but fall in love with William Holden even if he is married and having an affair in the role of American journalist Mark Elliott.
The film is based on a true story written by Dr. Han Suyin. Suyin is a widowed doctor of Chinese and European descent. She has a ton of walls built up and vows to never fall in love again but she meets Elliot, a war correspondent in Hong Kong during China’s communist revolution. There is an instant spark between the two. Mark is captivated by Suyin but he’s married. The course of true love never does run smooth and throughout the film they are pressured by friends, colleagues, and family to end their cross-cultural relationship.
The film’s commentary on race takes risks. If you can ignore the fact of how hypocritical it is to have an American woman portray a half-Asian in a leading role, focus your attention on the Chinese character passing herself off as American. It is an impressive element of the story considering the time period. This was happening in real life but wasn’t discussed onscreen in 1955.
Love is a Many-Splendored Thing was shot on location in Hong Kong and it’s in glorious technicolor and Cinemascope. It’s a gorgeous film to watch on televison, I can only imagine how even more beautiful William Holden looked in Cinemascope in a 1950’s movie house. The views of Hong Kong set the romantic mood of this drama. Paired with the score that features the classic titular song, it’s easy to see why this film was a huge hit upon its release. Unfortunately, it hasn’t aged very well but like most classic movies you can’t watch it with present eyes. Try to watch this film as if it were 1955.
Holden and Jones have very strong chemistry and do very well in their respective roles. The moment he sees her at a party he is immediately captivated by her. In the film, you want their relationship so desperately to work out even if they are having an affair because you can feel their love. From the outside, we all know affairs are inexcusable but watching this film I don’t see a “homewrecker” or a “jerk” who should work it out with his wife, I see two people who genuinely fall in a love; a story of you can’t help what your heart wants. There are a couple passionate kissing scenes between the two but the more sensual moments occur when the two exchange glances and even light a cigarette. The moment below seems disgusting now because they’re smoking but when you watch it in context of the film, it’s quite exotic.
The sensitivity portrayed by Holden is a perfect blend of compassion, charm and tenderness for the role. You can tell that Mark is somewhat of a troubled man but Suyin helps him forget all of that and he is made better by her. He is drawn to her independence, her traditions, and her world views. Jones has the more dominant part in the film, she’s practically in every scene, but when the two share the screen it sizzles. Some of the best scenes between the two are when you see them caught up with each other blocking out the world around them, a world that seems to be collapsing.
Off screen, it was very different. Jones was put off by Holden’s reputation as a “ladies man” among his former leading ladies. The two actors barely spoke and according to a biography on William Holden, Jones reportedly chewed garlic cloves before their love scenes! This always surprises me when I watch the film because the chemistry between the two is what makes the film a classic romance.
If you weren’t in love with William Holden already from films like The Bridges at Toko-Ri, Born Yesterday, and Stalag 17 then you will fall head over heels when you watch Love is a Many-Splendored Thing.