Classic Film of the Week #1: A Farewell to Arms (1932)

As part of the resurgence of this blog, I thought it was important to have a regular spotlight on the classics, as they make up such a large portion of my film viewing these days. And so here begins my new continuing series, classic film of the week, in which I will be posting a weekly review of a classic (pre-1960, any country) film I watched or re-watched that week.

I thought it was only fitting to start with a pre-code film, as these are what initially got me into classic Hollywood. Luckily, I watched a really great one this week, so here it is: A Farewell to Arms from 1932, starring Gary Cooper, Helen Hayes, and Adolphe Menjou.

A Farewell to Arms concerns the love affair between the characters of Frederic (Gary Cooper), a lieutenant in the Italian army in WWI, and Catherine (Helen Hayes), a nurse. Major Renaldi (Adolphe Menjou), best friend of Frederic, is smitten with Catherine and makes the mistake of introducing the pair, sparking a whirlwind romance that ends in the two having a one night stand just hours after meeting. They're both taken aback by their strong feelings for each other, and soon begin to live a faux married life, vowing to get legally married as soon as the war ends and they can do so without getting Catherine sent home, away from the man she loves and her duty to the war effort. However, things get even more complicated when Rinaldi decides to interfere with the couple, partly as petty revenge for Frederic's "betrayal" and partly because he wants his old, carefree friend back. Will Frederic and Catherine survive the brutal war to start their wonderful new life together, or is their love affair doomed to tragedy?

I don't know what it is about lavish pre-code romances, but they always get to me, and this one is no exception. Cooper and Hayes have the kind of chemistry every romantic-at-heart cinephile dreams of: every scene between them is so tender and passionate, making it understandable why they're willing to sacrifice so much to be together. Something that makes their relationship particularly memorable is how integral sex is to it: this is a film that takes full advantage of its pre-code status, with a surprisingly in-depth and mature look at the sex life between the couple. It begins with Catherine telling Frederic about the death of her fiancee of 8 years in the war, and how if she had known what would happen, she would have married him--"or anything". This leads to her tryst with Frederick just an hour after they meet; in a particularly scandalous pillow talk scene, Frederick discovers that Catherine was a virgin, and she explains how deeply attracted to him she is and how she didn't want to risk missing her chance a second time, with him preparing to go to the front the following morning. Later, Catherine admits what happened to her roommate, who becomes deeply perturbed and holds a grudge against Frederick for the rest of the film, blaming him for manipulating and corrupting poor, innocent Catherine. Even for a pre-code film, I was amazed by how honest and bold these scenes were in exploring the reductive views of sex that existed in this period of history, and how scary and difficult it was for women who chose to go against them. Clearly the censors agreed, because a full 12 minutes--including both of these scenes--were cut from the film when it was reissued in 1938. Luckily, these scenes survived and have been restored in modern releases of the film.

This is a romantic film through-and-through, and there isn't a lot of meat to the plot beyond that; but the performances of Cooper and Hayes are strong enough to make it a worthwhile film anyway. There's so many sweet moments between them, from their delight at a kindly priest performing a religious marriage ceremony for them and their subsequent "honeymoon" in Frederic's hospital bed, to the very tall Cooper lifting tiny Hayes in his arms and holding her as the two characters are forced to part after a glorious four months together, to Catherine's adorable, breathless glee when she thinks she's received a pile of letters from Frederic after a long dry-spell.

A Farewell to Arms stands as a perfect example of the films I love the pre-code era for: simple, yet mature films with great casts that explore compelling issues and themes that would be expunged from Hollywood for 3 decades after. While on paper it reads as a typical war-based romantic weepie, the performances of Cooper and Hayes and the daring, yet sensitive script result in a film that's so much more, a layered depiction of love and sex at a time and place that wanted nothing more than to snuff these things out. A Farewell to Arms comes highly recommended, and is available in its restored version on DVD, Blu-Ray, and as a showing on TCM.


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