Review: A Farewell to Arms (1932)

I’ve seen some pretty risque Pre-Code Hollywood films before, but Helen Hayes losing her virginity to Gary Cooper on the base of an elevated city park statue definitely takes the cake.

A Farewell To Arms has perhaps one of the most famous closing shots in all of film, which I won’t give away if only to say that the image of Gary Cooper carrying Helen Hayes in his arms is as beautiful as a painting.

This screen adaptation of the Hemingway novel concerns the ill-fated romance between an American ambulance driver and a British nurse in Italy during WWI. Hayes, the first lady of the American Theater, made few appearances in film. Here, her acting style is natural and her portrayal of Catherine Barkley thoroughly believable. Gary Cooper is Gary Cooper, no matter what his role.

A few aspects of the film struck me as particularly interesting. The first is the frank treatment of sex, surely a product of the film’s pre-Hays Code release. Nurse Barkley loses her virginity to Lieutenant Henry (Cooper) in a public park and later, when Henry is wounded and recuperating in the hospital, Hayes discreetly spends her nights with him.

Secondly, Catherine and Frederic are kept apart not so much by the war as by their friends, including Adolphe Menjou sporting an Italian accent as Frederic’s romantic rival, who throw one obstacle after another in the lovers’ way. This seemed at odds with the standard wartime romance, in which young lovers are helped in their quest to fulfill their romantic destiny before it’s snatched away by the trials of war. [***1/2 out of 5]

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