“I was blown up eating cheese.”

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Gary Cooper’s explanation of how he came to be injured is probably the line of dialogue that will stay with me longest from Frank Borzage’s A FAREWELL TO ARMS, which may just be a demonstration of how memorable dialogue is not really what the film’s for. It’s a beautifully absurd and anti-heroic line though.

The film, a WWI romance, to reduce it to the most basic level, begins with the strange miniature sequence cited earlier, which looks for all the world as if a one-legged man has gone to sleep in the middle of the miniature landscape from the flight sequence of Murnau’s FAUST.

Then we jump over to the miniature trucks, in one of which a man is bleeding to death as Gary Cooper snoozes. Arriving at a military hospital, Coop strolls sleepily off in search of assistance, but seems to get distracted by the sight of a nurse being sent home pregnant. This all set off a weird dissonance with me, since I was still worried about the injured men, still lying in their trucks awaiting attention while the hero is preoccupied with a knocked-up nurse.

Helen Hayes’ whose skeletal beauty always makes me see her as the little old lady who had a career renaissance in AIRPORT, and whom I encountered on the big screen when I was taken to see HERBIE RIDES AGAIN as a kid. It became increasingly necessary to thrust those images aside.

As in MOROCCO, Cooper is partnered with Adolphe Menjou, who here plays a comedy Italian army doctor who calls Cooper “Baby”, which is a trifle strange, but who can blame him? Cooper is a lumbering beauty, looking the way Colin Clive probably intended the Frankenstein monster to turn out, and there’s a sense that Menjou’s attempts to keep Cooper apart from his true love may be partly down to jealousy, a frustrated desire, not for Hayes, whom he’s wooing at the start, but for Cooper. It certainly seems like Hayes’ best friend Fergie (more inappropriate associations to contend with) is determined to keep the lovers apart for sapphic reasons of her own.

So, we’re in an Italian garden, and Cooper has just snatched Hayes away from Menjou (“Girls usually prefer him,” says Coop, implausibly) and it seems a bit cruel the way they just stare at him, waiting for him to get the message and piss off, and then they’re lying down together with beautiful snowflake-like crystals of light arranged in the background and then…

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Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising. It seems he didn’t take her refusal seriously until he discovered she was a virgin. As if there was no other reason she could have had for refusing. I know he’s Gary Cooper, but that seems a bit conceited (no one likes a conceited rapist, Gary). But soon she’s fine and it seems this was one of those pre-code violations that nobody minds too much (see TARZAN).

Pre-code films are weird things. When you have the code, there are all sorts of values you can take for granted, and certain plot elements, like crime not paying, which can be predicted. Even the most bizarre moments, like the happy ending + miscarriage in CAUGHT, make complete sense when you factor in the peculiar rulebook movies were following. But in pre-code films, there’s not only greater license, there’s a moral free-for-all in which anything’s up for grabs and no normal standards can be assumed to apply. It’s a lot like what I imagine Amsterdam must be like.

Anyway, Coop and Hayes are now a couple, and then he goes to the front and cuts that near-fatal slice of cheese that lands him on the operating table of Dr. Menjou…

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Asides from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice.

The religious setting comes in handy for another incredible scene, a sort of unofficial wedding, with a priest mumbling the service over a recuperating Cooper and Nurse Hayes (“At least I’m in white,”) without telling them at first what he’s up to, and in defiance of the fact that he can’t legally marry them when, as enlisted soldier and nurse, they’re both basically the property of their country. The hushed quality of the scene, with the weird mumbling Italian and Hayes and Cooper going through an incantatory evocation of the ideal wedding they’d like to have (“No orange blossoms.” “I can smell them.” “No organ music.” “I can hear it plainly.” ) manages to be both holy and romantic, and I particularly love the sudden wide shot looking past the priest, which makes him look 50ft high.

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Deserting from the forces to be with his love, Cooper wanders ironically into the first real war scene, a chaotic montage that looks like Slavko Vorkapich got drunk and decided to blow up the sets from FRANKENSTEIN. Miniature planes arc through the air on invisible wheels, explosions shower sparks, and a pram filled with live chickens is overturned. Ain’t war hell? This Bunuelian poultry catastrophe is also accompanied by armies of crucifixes, part of the overall Christian slant here. In Borzage’s hands, the Hemingway novel becomes about a man coming to God through romantic love, which may well be the BIG THEME of F.B.’s whole career.

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Amazing moments are now piling up like rugby players. Hayes has confessed to a fear she might die in the rain, and Borzage, who believes in prophecy, cuts to a downpour as she is operated on. Her hand clutches the sheets and he cuts to Cooper’s hands rowing his  boat to get to her. Could be cheesy; isn’t.

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As Cooper finds Hayes, she’s lost the baby she was having, and is now mortally ill. Cooper crosses to a café, pausing to help a dog that wants to get into a covered pail (“There’s nothing there, dog,” — Borzage loves dogs) and prays. It’s an incredible scene. Everyone’s reading about the SURRENDER, and this is Cooper’s unconditional surrender to the Creator. He prays into the flower on the café table like it was a tiny petalled microphone (“You took the baby. That was alright. But don’t let her die.”) then, in an astonishing moment, eats the flower.

Cooper at Hayes bedside gets the full Wagner soundtrack, Tristan und Isolde at maximum volume, pausing for peace to be declared. Man, filmmakers back then just went for it with Wagner, didn’t they? I mean, Bunuel uses it rather slyly, but here and in CHRISTMAS HOLIDAY it’s pouring out of the speakers without irony whatsoever.

This film may not entirely cohere, but that sort of works in its favour. Rather than being faithful Hemingway, which I gather it’s not, or a full-on religious tract, it’s much too mysterious to be a straight message movie. I believe the very expensive Borzage book, which is very good, suggests a reading of the work based on Mozart’s masonic opera The Magic Flute, which may be true, but I think I prefer the mystical confusion this film provokes to any precise allegorical interp.

Of course, you can get some lovely Christians, but it’s a way of seeing things I’ve never understood. Not only do I not believe in God, but the only God I can clearly envisage looks like Robert Crumb’s Mr. Natural cartoon and acts like Dr. Mengele, so Borzage might seem like someone I would struggle to apprehend. But I quite like the struggle.

Borzage is a Christian from Mars! Not only is he shockingly devoid of prejudice and surprisingly open about sex (even for the pre-code era), he also appears not to care a fig for ecclesiastical convention — in both this film and MAN’S CASTLE, marriages are performed (having already been consummated) that are clearly designated as having no legal force or official recognition, but which we are obviously meant to accept as, if anything, all the more valid for that. It may form part of the answer to this mystery that Borz was a Freemason, though he had grown up under the influence of Catholicism and Mormonism, so his sense of spirituality was naturally both broad and rather quirky.

It’s an exciting adventure for me to delve into such a strange, alien sensibility, to explore the world of these films leaving my own prejudices at the opening credits, and collecting them at the end to find them slightly altered, hard to recognise.

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22 Responses to ““I was blown up eating cheese.””

  1. ——————————
    Wait, did Gary Cooper just rape Helen Hayes? Sure seems like it. She’s protesting, and there’s a fade to black (which ALWAYS means penetration is occurring) and then she’s crying and he’s apologising.
    ——————————-

    How long was the runtime on your film? There are two versions of the film. One is 89 mins and the other(that I know of) is ten mins shorter. The film that I saw(with the bad sound) makes it clear that it ISN’T rape.

    What happens is that Gary Cooper tries to kiss her but she resists(what you hear during the fade) and then slugs him and he steps back. But then she apologizes, he apologizes and then says she’d like him to kiss her now. And then there’s this amazing kiss and he leans down and it fades to black. Oh and after that there’s complaints as to where the two of them are and then there’s a cut back to them lying on the grass(clearly post-coital). They just made love on the lawn of a churchyard all of a sudden.

  2. The scene where he’s taken to the hospital lying on that gurney(and from his point-of-view) is one of the most stunning scenes that I have seen. Frederic says earlier in the scene with the Female Italian foot that Arch is where the word architecture comes from and that it’s the backbone of all the arts. And then slowly on the ceiling we see these arches, then elaborate arches, then more ornate ones and then high Renaissance vaults tapering to the top…History of Architecture and we know that’s what he’s thinking and it’s all told non-verbally. It also points the way for Cooper’s work in ”The Fountainhead”.

    It’s also a reference to Borzage’s ”7th Heaven”, in the scene where Charles Farrell rushes home near the end as he keeps climbing the spiral staircase to the top, the final bit of movement is of how staring up to the camera looking like those guys staring down at Gary Cooper. It’s a startling reversal. Says a lot about space in cinema. Looking up or looking down…as long as they stare into the camera, they look the same.

    On the other hand, it can be also be a masonic thing because Freemasonry has a lot of architectural concepts and language in their fields and the staring into the expanding pyramid of arches is probably him getting a vision of himself. An then the sequence ends with Helen Hayes rushing to him and kissing him and we see his pov of her eye. Pop. imagination has long recognized the importance of the “all-seeing eye” in Masonry.

    As for Borzage’s religiosity, I have no issues with that. I am not affiliated with any religious organizations and have no personal interest in that but I have huge fascination with religious art(and music) and ideas and with how they show up in cinema. Of course there’s good and there’s bad. On one hand DeMille and Mel Gibson and on the other Borzage and Leo McCarey.

    Much of the first generation of film-makers in American cinema were of a religious bent – Ford, McCarey, Borzage, Vidor. But then that didn’t stop Ford from making fun of priests in many of his films or McCarey from dealing frankly with the essential loneliness of old age which nothing can stop or prevent Borzage and Vidor from invoking a powerful eroticism into their films.

    “Sex without religion is like cooking an egg without salt. Sin gives more chances to desire.” – Luis Bunuel who always has the first and last word on everything. He also liked Borzage’s films.

  3. I am on a roll today. Sorry for the long posts. I do try and cut down but they keep blowing up.

  4. I’ve yet to see “Vampyr” [pause for cries of shock and horror] but didn’t that also contain a long P.O.V. shot that might’ve influenced Borzage?

    Two other ones, after “Arms,” that come to mind are Barbara Stanwyck entering the hospital in Leisen’s “No Man of Her Own” and the adult entering the children’s realm in Losey’s “These Are The Damned.” That last one, because of its context, I believe is particularly influenced by the Mamoulian.

    As for what pre-”Hays Code” Cooper can do with Hayes … it’s a little bit like the perogative of an old-time Star. He can, because he’s COOP! (Think the Peggy Cass reaction to this name in “Auntie Mame.”)

  5. This was 89 mins. Your description isn’t quite right — she slaps him, then apologises, and agrees they can kiss. We cut to her friends looking for her and Menjou putting them off. Then we cut back — it’s NOT post-coital at this stage. They’re still lying down together. Now Cooper moves in more seriously, having made his pitch: “If we don’t do this now and I get killed, we’ll regret it.” She starts saying “No” and we fade out.

    When we fade back, he’s apologising and saying, in effect, that he didn’t realise she was a virgin. She cries and laughs hysterically. So it’s rape based on his total misreading of her refusal, is the most charitable view I can see.

  6. Vampyr has a POV shot looking up, it’s true.

    I would bet money that Borzage had been hopsitalized at some point, because that POV is something that hits you very forcefully when your wheeled around in a gurney. The sustained POV with characters addressing the camera seems most closely related to Mamoulian though.

    I love Arhur’s comparison of 7th Heaven with this, and will post the frame grabs to prove his point!

    Yes, Cooper gets given all sorts of lattitude because of who he is. When screenwriter Evan Hunter protested the rape in Marnie and quit, he was replaced by Jay Presson Allen. As a woman, she thought the scene could be rendered acceptable — since it was Sean Connery.

  7. I always thought that the scene with Cooper in the cafe that you cap’ at the end of this piece is the finest acting of his career; all the more so since it came in the middle of his stiff and wooden early 30s image.

    Borzage’s idiosyncratic take on religion, spirituality, and Christianity could be a book length study, methinks…

  8. The Very Expensive Borzage Book takes a religious angle (impossible not to) based around Borzage’s particular brand of Freemasonry (the order of the Ancient and Approved Scottish Rite). I’m worried that reading all Fb’s films using Mozart’s masonic Magic Flute as a key might be reductive, but what I’ve read of the book seemed very good.

    To quote Ferris Bueller, “If you have the means, I highly recommend picking one up.”

    Cooper is indeed incredible in that scene (not sure he was ever wooden, and far from being an underplayer, he’s sometimes a little too much, imho) — understated and incredibly moving. The dialogue helps immensely. I should have said more about the writers, notably Benjamin Glazer, who also worked on 7th Heaven.

  9. The politics of the “Marnie” set notwithstanding … my impression isn’t so much that Presson Allen imagined the Connery assault as “acceptable” as much as it might’ve been unstoppable. Connery’s figure — correction: *character* — is far from entirely sympathetic, after all. Frankly, speaking for myself, I feel more sympathy for the ever-wonderful Diane Baker.

  10. This discussion reminds me of the fact that Visconti once took a trip to Hollywood specifically because that’s where Gary Cooper was. Never found out of they ever met.

    BTW, any thoughts on the Selznick/Vidor (Charles) version with Rock Hudson, Jennifer Jones and Elaine Stritch?

  11. Still to see the remake (or read the book!). The casting seems possible. Obviously Gilda is stupendous, but did C Vidor make anything to compare with it?

    Presson Allen said, not that the act was acceptable, but that in terms of keeping the audience from being repelled by the character, the casting of Connery helped them to accept the story and not be put off. “How do you redeem the character?” wondered Hunter. “Star power,” thought Allen.

  12. Well he also made Cover Girl

  13. Which I STILL have to watch, after I was moaning about Columbia musicals and a few people pointed this one out.

  14. Sorry, “wooden” wasn’t supposed to be a pejorative comment. Something in him softened up from the mid-30s on, though this stiffness was always visible in his star image. I always got the impression that in the early 1930s the studio never knew exactly how they wanted to craft him, and we get performances like the one here and in Sternberg’s MOROCCO (admittedly in films by two powerful directors, the latter with, uh, a rather specific sort of male performance he elicits) which are precisely amazing *for* his woodenness. I don’t mean as an actor, but as a presence, as a physical body…

  15. Charles Vidor’s ”Love Me or Leave Me”, a Joe Pasternak musical is a great film. Doris Day said that her performance as Ruth Etting was her favourite(and she’s great) and it has one of James Cagney’s most ferocious performances(paving the way for DeNiro in ”Raging Bull”). It’s little like Ray’s ”Party Girl”(also produced by Pasternak) where it’s set in a baroque studio Chicago of the past. For Ray it’s the 30′s, for C. Vidor, it’s ten years prior. It’s a very harsh film and Vidor does it under beautiful saturated colours from Eastman. Truffaut liked that film a lot.

  16. I still don’t see that scene as being in any way rape. What she meant by that was more in the sense of it being an unusual occurence but she ends up going through with it. If she considered it rape, I don’t see her character refraining from yelling out at the top of her tongue and Cooper doesn’t cover her mouth with his hand to stop her from screaming either.

    Nowadays people see any overtly assertive act of sexuality on the part of a man as him being a possible rapist and that’s not true. There are huge differences between rapists and people like Cooper’s character in that scene.

    And Evan Hunter was fired from ”Marnie” because Hitchcock found him to be a prude. His objections to the rape scene were genuinely moral and sincere, not out of censorship or anything. Hitchcock fired him immediately at that and got Allen to complete the screenplay. ”Marnie” in any case can’t be used as a comparison, not anywhere near a normal couple, that. She’s a kleptomaniac who uses her figure and sensuality to entice and distract men and still refuses sex or considers sex repulsive while Sean Connery is genuinely interested in helping her serving as her unofficial sex-therapist. It’s perverse but so is Sternberg.

  17. Daniel: Agree that Cooper uses stiffness as part of his performance, hence my Frankenstein comparison. I didn’t frame-grab the last shot, but that’s a very James Whale image (while also being pure Borzagean sublime).

    Arhur: am in two minds about the garden. It does seem that, if it’s not intended as akin to rape, the filmmakers are trusting the audience a good deal — she’s protesting, he’s insisting, then she’s crying and he’s apologising. But certainly the audience is trusted a lot throughout this film. We don’t know if he DOES cover her mouth because it fades to black.

    Since she has already shown ambivalence by slapping, then kissing him, it seems possible that her protestations weren’t intended seriously. Then, when he realises she was a virgin, he belatedly takes them seriously, THINKING he’s violated her. She’s generally emotional afterwards and feels they’ve both sinned (“It’s not the war, it’s us.”) That could make sense of it too.

    Hunter thought of the Marnie scene as rape and couldn’t write it, Allen thought of it as miscommunication, Connery’s misguided attempt to cure his wife’s frigidity. The intention makes a difference.

    I have Love Me of Leave Me but, like a slug, have never watched it. I think I’d forgotten it was C Vidor, too!

  18. Thanks for bringing up Love Me or Leave Me, Arthur. It was a HUGE hit when it came out, being a career high-point for both Doris and Cagney. Terence Davies uses Doris’ heart-breakingly beautiful rendition of “It All depends On You” from the soundtrack of Love Me or Leave Me for a funeral scene in his Trilogy.

    Needless to say Love Me or Leave Me is a favorite of Marty’s and a big influence on New York New York.

  19. Yeah I wondered about that. It reminded me of ”New York, New York” when I saw that in the intensity and also the way that the numbers are naturalized rather than suddenly sing and dance. It’s a remarkably forward film and the ending is quite peculiar and abrupt. Not what you’d expect from a MGM Biopic. And the music is great. My favourite being her rendition of “Shake Your Blues Away…”, the Irving Berling song. It’s also surprising that it was a HUGE hit as you say but guess the truth of the film caught on.

  20. Interesting to speculate why New York New York didn’t enjoy the same success. Fashion, of course, but there always seemed something a bit off to me. It’s an amazing film in so many ways, and once you get over the surprise that Minnelli would want anything to do with DeNiro, it’s very emotionally compelling. The trouble is maybe it wears audiences out, so that by the time the Happy Endings number comes along they can’t handle it.

  21. The main reason why the film tanked was that it opened in the same week as ”Star Wars”. Lucas told Scorsese that if the film had a happy ending it would be a box-office success.

    I think ”New York, New York” is great. It’s slightly flawed like it gets kind of slow paced in the latter bits. The other thing is that the ”Happy Endings” number while conceptually an interesting idea doesn’t really come off on the screen although it’s needed. It sticks out like the ”Born in the Trunk” scene in ”A Star is Born”. But at the core it’s an amazing film.

    And I actually consider DeNiro’s performance in that film one of his best and I had no problems understanding why Liza fell for him. He’s a gifted performer but he’s also unpredictable and emotionally honest(not unlike Charles Farrell in the early bits of ”7th Heaven”) besides there is a charm to his obnoxious attitude at being a player and all. And as in Borzage, he prefers unconventional weddings though not in quite the same key. Like over-reacting and insisting on being run over by a car when she stalls at the Justice-of-the-Peace(I found that hilarious).

    The main reason why the film was so powerful is that at the end of it, the two of them still love each other and both of them know the other feels the same way but it just doesn’t work but at the same time they’re able to be good parents to a kid and be successful artists, only they have the loneliness in place of the satisfaction or what DeNiro’s character calls “major chords”. And the hospital scene where DeNiro says goodbye to her and they both realize that it can’t work is heartbreaking.

  22. [...] Aside from the Murnau influence, fading slightly as the ’30s go on, the film shows the impact of Rouben Mamoulian’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, another Paramount production, when Cooper is transported by stretcher through a Milanese hospital, which appears to be a converted church or monastery or something. It’s a lot like going to Heaven. The Mamoulian connection is that the sequence is a prolonged P.O.V. shot, with characters talking to the lens as if it were Coop. I had thought that the subjective camera hospital admission shot dated from around 1946, with A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH and POSSESSED vying for first place, but Borzage is there first by some considerable distance. It’s a magnificent coup de cinema, with elaborate forced perspective ceilings keeping up the tone of theatrical artifice. (David Cairns, “I was blown up eating cheese“) [...]

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