Classic Film Talk: ‘Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing’ (1955)

William Holden Centennial

Today we reminisce about

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955)

Directed by Henry King

Starring: William Holden & Jennifer Jones

Synopsis

Hong Kong 1949. Dr. Han Suyin (Jones) is a widowed Eurasian – half Chinese/half English – practitioner working at a local hospital. After completing her residency, she wishes to return to China in order to use her medical skills to help her people. One day, she meets American newspaper correspondent Mark Elliot (Holden), who is immediately taken with Suyin. Though Mark wishes to get to know her better, Suyin remains on the reserve primarily because he is a married man. Marks admits that his marriage has been long over and that he no longer loves his wife, who lives separately from him in Singapore. Suyin, who finds herself undeniably drawn to Mark, gradually lets down her guard and the two begin a relationship.

Many refugees are fleeing China due to the Chinese Civil War and are creating an influx to Hong Kong, which is a haven for upper-class white persons. The director of the hospital is white and sometimes will have Suyin accompany him to various social and professional events. It is not until Suyin starts seeing Mark, however, that there is a sudden disapproval of her mingling with a white man. When a family emergency arises, Suyin goes home to Chungking in China and is eventually joined by Mark, who asks her relatives for Suyin’s hand in marriage. Despite their misgivings about their cultural differences, they give the couple their blessing. Meanwhile, back in Hong Kong, Suyin is warned to be discreet of her behavior but ignores this when she travels with Mark on a romantic trip to Macau. She discovers that Mark’s wife will not give him a divorce although she continues to see him anyways. Following her return from Macau, she finds out that her residency at the hospital has not been renewed.

The love between Suyin and Mark is strong but will it be able to survive the odds?

Observations

Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing is based on the novel A Many-Splendored Thing that was authored by the real-life Dr. Han Suyin. The picture performed well enough that it was made into a soap opera that ran for 6 seasons from 1967 until 1973. In addition, the title song was reprised by several artists including: Frank Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole & The Four Aces. Critics praised the film and believed it to a cinematic triumph, at least when it came to dealing with the social themes of interracial coupling. Leonard Maltin, a “go-to” reference for opinions on Classic Film, called the film “an effective telling of a true story” and that it was “beautifully executed”. As with my thoughts on I Wanted Wings, I will once again have to go against both critical and Mr. Maltin’s appraisals.

As the film is “based on” true events, one must take into account that many of the facts were twisted/altered to meet (and please) audience demand. I noted several differences between the film and reality. Firstly, Suyin was in actuality half Chinese/half Belgian – more specifically Flemish – so her mother would have spoken Dutch and perhaps French. Secondly, Suyin adopted a child with her late husband although this only happens in the film during the later stages of her relationship with Mark. Thirdly, Mark is treated as a complete foreigner but the man on whom his character is based, Ian Morrison, was born in Peking and lived there for many years, as had his father before him. Fourthly, Mark is American in the film while Ian Morrison had Australian nationality and lived for many years in the United Kingdom. Fifthly, details of Mark’s fate differ in detail/circumstance in the film from what happened in real life. While it is certain that Suyin and Mr. Morrison faced discrimination as an interracial couple, their cultural tension was exaggerated to create a more dramatic effect.

Romance is the main theme of the film although the topics of racial identity and intercultural relationships play an important role. Racial discrimination exists in different ways, such as doctors visiting hospital wards for white patients before those with Chinese ones. White patients have luxury suites while Chinese ones are pitted together in crowded, ER-type rooms. Suyin often points out the fact that she is Eurasian even when there is no identifiable reason to do so. She is obviously conflicted with being mixed race. There is a moment in the film when she meets an old classmate from Chungking who has decided to live her existence in Hong Kong as a white woman. Her friend’s reasoning is that “you can’t be two things at once”, prompting her to choose one culture over the other. Eventually, Suyin herself will come to such a conclusion after getting into a tiff with Mark over cultural difference. She sees too many of them while he is not affected by them aside from being curious as to some of the customs. Choosing a Western man’s love over what is considered proper, she becomes submissive and tells him in an almost defeated fashion, “I’ll do whatever you want me to do.” It still remains unclear to me why she has such a change of heart from the beginning of the film.

Watching this film was a nice change because I have not seen many films set in Asia, particularly post-WWII and at the doorstep of the Korean War. There are some interesting historical tidbits and it is an added bonus that filming actually took place in Hong Kong but Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing remains a sappy love story above all else. The acting is rather standard and the plot is uneven although the 90 minute run-time means that the film is not excessively dragged out. This is very far from being a terrible film but, at the same time, it is not that great either. I expected more and felt unsatisfied at the end due to the tear-jerking finale and the feel that much more could have been done with the treatment of this literary adaptation.

 

Golden Holden

Still under joint contract with Columbia/Paramount when he made this film, Holden no doubt profited from the international filming location. He offers a good, solid performance although it was not exceptional and there are certainly times when you feel he is lacking passion when delivering his lines. (I suppose this is not surprising considering the on-set tension between he and Jones.) Much of the focus was on Jones in their scenes together and, in my opinion, it made me feel that Holden was somewhat underused as a result. Too much time is spent on him chasing Jones’s Suyin while insufficient information about Mark’s life, both personal and professional, is given. It makes no sense to me how an actor who receives top billing can fade in and fade out of the story in such a way. For the time that he is on-screen, Holden’s unfaltering masculinity and commanding presence is certainly felt.

My appreciation of Jones is less than impressive but I will admit to always finding her terribly forced, melodramatic style of acting a major turnoff. She is no different as Suyin, earning a frosty appeal as a leading lady while sounding very rehearsed in her speech delivery and overplaying nearly every scene. Her performance is probably the main factor of why my rating of this film is not higher for if Suyin had been played by another actress, the outcome would have been more positive.

 

Trivia

Jones & Holden sharing a cigarette; a scene reminiscent of a similar one between Bette Davis & Paul Henreid in ‘Now, Voyager’

  • Despite a fine chemistry between Holden and Jones, the two did not get along.
  • Jones would infamously chew on garlic cloves before her love scenes with Holden.
  • Both actors were discontent with Jones’ make-up but Jones went so far as to refuse facial alteration is certain scenes, so there are times when she looks plainly Western and other times when she appears to be more Asian.
  • Original posters of the film show that Mark’s last name was spelled with only one “t”: Elliot. Modern day databases, however, spell his name with two “t’s”: Elliott.

 

Publicity

On-set with (left to right) Jennifer Jones, director Henry King, William Holden and crew

William Holden presenting a Gold Medal Award to Henry King