Helen Hayes

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

A Farewell to Arms (1932)

(On Cable TV, September 2019) Despite the technical refinements and permissive storytelling possibilities of today’s cinema, there’s something to be said about the classic Hollywood style of the 1930s. At times overwrought, earnest, melodramatic and shamelessly manipulative, it’s still a style that has weathered the decades remarkably well. You can look at A Farewell to Arms in many ways—as a contemporary adaptation of an autobiographical Ernest Hemingway classic piece of literature, as a showcase for Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, as an archetypical wartime romantic drama. It’s all of these things, bolstered by capable leads supported by a well-oiled Hollywood machine even in the early 1930s. But the image I keep of A Farewell to Arms is the final shot, as a scene of unparalleled tragedy (the heroine dies after a stillborn child, just as the armistice is declared) is completely transformed into a triumphant, angelic moment: Our hero boldly lifting the body of his dead wife, choir music booming and the camera looking up as he carries her away. It’s pure classic Hollywood, manipulating us in not feeling too bad despite the heartbreaking facts of the moment. It’s quite an achievement, and it ends up taking a lot of the sting out of what could have been a miserable experience. No wonder that Hemingway hated it. But don’t worry—the book is still on the shelves, intact. Whereas the film itself has swept along generations of viewers.