A FAREWELL TO ARMS (Paramount, 1932), directed by Frank Borzage, is the first, so far, of three screen adaptations to Ernest Hemingway's classic 1930 novel. It is a tender love story set against the background of the Great War (World War I) involving two young people, Frederic Henry (Gary Cooper), an American lieutenant and ambulance driver in the Italian unit, and Catherine Barkley (Helen Hayes), a war nurse, who are kept apart by Major Rinaldi (Adolphe Menjou), Frederic's Italian friend, who not only loves Catherine, but doesn't want him to "lose his head over a woman."
In the supporting cast are Mary Phillips (Helen Ferguson, a nurse and Catherine closest friend who objects to her continued romance with the young American); Jack LaRue (the soft-spoken Italian priest); and Blanche Frederici (the stern head nurse). Adolphe Menjou offers fine characterization of an Italian, convincing, right down to his spoken dialect.
A highly popular war drama in its day, which concentrates more on the relationship between a lieutenant and a nurse than soldiers on the battlefield, A FAREWELL TO ARMS earned itself an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture of 1932-33, but none for its acting. Director Borzage brings out the tenderness and simplicity of the young couple in love as he had done many times during his career, especially those starring Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell over at Fox Studios. In fact, had Hemingway sold his novel to Fox, A FAREWELL TO ARMS would definitely have been awarded to the popular Gaynor and Farrell team under Borzage's direction. Yet similarities between Gaynor and Farrell and Hayes and Cooper go by the way of their sizes. Both Gaynor and Hayes were short in appearance while Cooper and Farrell stood very tall, especially opposite their shorter leading ladies. Because of the sensitivity and care as enacted by the central characters, it goes without saying that Hayes and Cooper appear to be far better suited than Gaynor and Farrell had they been offered this assignment. At first glance, Cooper gives the impression of being an odd choice for playing Fredric Henry, considering solid actors as Fredric March or Clark Gable (on loan from MGM) might have made a go of this. For the finished product, the film conveys Cooper to be properly cast after all, ranking this as one of his most finer performances of his career.
The pace to the story is occasionally slow, with the early portions lacking in underscoring, but does get better during its second half. Other than the character study and battle scenes, the movie offers some fine bonuses in ways of effective camera technique, including the hospital scene where the injured Frederic Henry is being wheeled in the hospital from a platform table where the camera assumes the place of the character, taking focus as to what directly looking down and talking into the camera range as Frederic answers the questions. This is concluded with an extreme close up of Catherine's face with only her right eye in full focus into the camera as she kisses and talks to her wounded soldier. The camera taking the place of the character technique would be used memorably more than a decade later in the "film noir" mysteries, LADY IN THE LAKE (MGM, 1946) and DARK PASSAGE (WB, 1947). While these films have used this method to an extent to most of the story, A FAREWELL TO ARMS presents this technique briefly but effectively.
Remade twice during the 1950s, first as FORCE OF ARMS (Warner Brothers, 1950) starring William Holden and Nancy Olson, and later under its original title in 1957 for 20th Century-Fox starring Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson, the third, being the better known of the earlier two, might have surpassed the original had it not been so awkward, overlong (two and-a-half hours) and overblown. The original 1932 production, eliminating many key elements from the novel, is better acted and not long enough to cause any viewer lose interest. Because of the remakes in the 1950s, the 1932 original was taken out of circulation, with availability for viewing the original very hard to obtain, and chances of it never to be seen or heard about again. Fortunately, prints did survive, leaving chances of A FAREWELL TO ARMS to surface again. Finally, as early as 1981, the initial version to A FAREWELL TO ARMS made its long awaited rebirth, on public television, initially as part of its weekly SPROCKETS series. Ever since then, television and later public domain video prints presented the original Hemingway drama 10 minutes shorter to its original 90 minutes of screen time, along with occasional poor picture quality, and even worse, the elimination of the original opening and closing credits taken from reissue prints with newer opening title cards and the substitution of the Paramount logo with that of a 1950s Warner Brothers shield, and the elimination of the closing casting credits. When A FAREWELL TO ARMS premiered on Turner Classic Movies on Sunday, February 15, 2004, as part of the cable channel's annual 31 days of Oscar, it became another long-awaited event. Aside from having it shown in its original 90 minute presentation, the Paramount logo that opens and closes the movie has been restored along with the closing cast list, as originally played in theaters back in 1932.
Has A FAREWELL TO ARMS stood the test of time? Chances are with its newly restored and clearer picture quality presentation currently available on TCM, it may stir up much more interest than the latter remakes. It also gives an incite look to the early film career of famous stage actress Helen Hayes (1900-1993) at her peak. As it stands, A FAREWELL TO ARMS, a poignant love story, which may not stir up as many tears and sobs as it once did way back when, it is, however, a worthy novel to screen offering, ranking this the first, and best, of two remakes combined. (****)