A FAREWELL TO ARMS was David Selznick’s last movie. Just eighteen years earlier he had made GONE WITH THE WIND and was titan in the industry. The intervening years had been difficult for the man both professionally and personally. By the mid-1940s he had fallen in love with Jennifer Jones, an actress he had systematically transformed in a star of the first rank, and would eventually divorce his first wife Irene Mayer Selznick (daughter of LB Mayer) to Mary Jones. Although he tried to match its critical and financial success, his post WIND films were no match although DUEL IN THE SUN and SPELLBOUND were massive money makers. The GWTW magic wasn’t there. But many others weren’t money makers and by 1949—much to the industry’s surprise—the Selznick Studios ceased operation and its assets sold off. Selznick took a number of years to work his way out of bankruptcy by re-releasing many of his old films that he still owned and sales to television.
But when he was finally liquid again Selznick made a deal with 20th Century Fox to remake A FAREWELL TO ARMS. It was to be a massive production staring wife Jennifer Jones and Rock Hudson. (A rising Star who Selznick rightfully predicted would become one of the biggest male stars of the era.) It also had an international cast with John Huston set to direct. When the production was in Italy, just before shooting was set to begin Huston and Selznick had massive disagreements as to what the film should be. Huston wanted to make a war story with the love story as a counterpoint. Selznick wanted to make a love story with the war as a counterpoint. David, throughout his career had made woman’s pictures and these films for the most part had been successful. And so, as the formula worked before he saw no point in deviating from it now.
To make his point Selznick wrote Huston a brutal, very long memo criticizing Huston’s approach that amounted to a personal attack of Huston as a film maker. Reading the memo a Selznick assistant told the producer that if he sent it, Huston would walk to which Selznick replied “send it.” (The two were good friends but after this never spoke again much to Huston’s regret.) Huston did walk but Selznick megalomaniacal ways made most of the top directors averse to working with him. He was intrusive, second guessed them and had them re-shoot scenes until they were exactly to his liking and not theirs. A Selznick move was a Selznick movie and anyone working with him would learn that fact very quickly. So with the first rate directors unwilling to work with him Selznick hired second-rate Charles Vidor who did what Selznick wanted and produced a bland film that despite some fine moments was a disappointment for a producer who wanted to make another GWTW. With Huston departure the great film Selznick wanted to make went with him but as Huston quickly realized after reading that memo, that great film was simply never going to happen and, the reason for that was David O. Selznick.
But what was worse was the pressure of the production—the years of binging on Benzedrine had robbed Selznick of his patience, his ability to see things objectively and basically; all the things that had made him such a great producer in the 1930s and 40s. In the past Selznick had had always been domineering but he was also been charming and the best talent had always wanted to work with him because with Selznick producing thay had always done their best work. Independent directors like William Wellman had nothing but praise for the man. By 1957 that had all changed.
To put it bluntly, he was impossible during the production actually punching longtime assistant Arthur Fellows (who was wearing glasses) in the face and ranting at others making their lives terrible. There was a reason for this. Pressure—enormous pressure. Selznick had everything on the line with this film. It was his—essentially—comeback film and he had a lot riding on it. David Selznick dreaded becoming a has-been and this was the film that he hoped would save him from that fate.
One of his sons was working as an assistant on the film and when the film was finished shooting and the son returned home, his brother asked him how it had gone. This son said of his father, “Dad is a bastard.” And that pretty much sums it up and one of the reasons why Selznick could not line up another production during the last seven years of his life. The film did decently at the box office and recovered its cost but the production had caused so many problems, had been such a headache for one and all—basically due to David—that the industry thought working with David was just too much of a bother. Selznick would say, after the film proved a disappointment, that he realized that he had lost touch with both the audience and popular taste. To others, the general consensus was that the man did not have another GONE WITH THE WIND in him or ever would. In short, a FAREWELL TO ARMS had proved that David. O. Selznick was, indeed, a has-been.
I first saw the film in the late 50s at the Laconia. For some reason I sat in the stadium seating balcony which I think was because my middle brother was also in the theater with his girlfriend and I really didn’t want to see him make out with her during the movie. It was bad enough I had to see him sleep every night and worst he always ground his teeth. I remember I thought the film was interminable but did have some unforgettable moments—mostly the war scenes. I especially remember the baby falling out of the exhausted mother’s arms as she fell asleep on the back of the truck with the baby slipping into the mud to be trampled to death.
I saw it again on black and white TV in the 70s with my first wife when I was stoned on pot. By this time I had seen GONE WITH THE WIND, and I could see Selznick’s attempts to imitate it—just look at those opening credits. And I thought the music and image of that last scene where Hudson walks away from the camera quite remarkable. If only the rest of the film could have been that good. I thought that De Sica stole the movie and Jones far too nervous for my taste. But on pot—even with those awful commercials — I was able to get into the movie and catch all the Selznick touches and I realized that this was really just a big elaborate David O. Selznick love story.
Then I watched the film for the third time the other day on Blu-Ray. This was almost 50 years after I first saw it and I saw it with the eyes of both a film buff and someone sophisticated in terms of appreciating a movie. Also, I wasn’t stoned. And, therefore, all I could think was that this disappointing adaptation (Jones was at least ten years too old and Vidor’s direction was merely workmanlike at its best and boring at its worst) was a sad end to the career of one of the greatest producers Hollywood had ever produced. And let me tell you, David Selznick was no one’s victim. He was a brilliant, witty man whom everyone who knew loved. David also was, even during the years making GONE WITH THE WIND, a self-destructive man who by the time his independent production company was in full swing in the 40s made every film a gamble on which he staked his studio until there was no longer a studio. He was a giant in every sense of the word but carried with him many demons that eventually caught up with him until he died far too early without making movies he should have made but had prevented himself from making. So, when thinking of Selznick I don’t think of those last years I think of him at the height of his powers when many in the industry would say that he owned Hollywood, which a reading of the great book, DAVID SELZNICK’S HOLLYWOOD will attest. It is and will remain the greatest coffee-table film book ever produced as befits its subject. A class act.
An aside. I once attended a showing of DUEL IN THE SUN at MOMA which King Vidor showed up to introduce, explaining what he had shot and what he hadn’t. The film had had three directors; Vidor and after he quit two others. Vidor also talked about Jennifer Jones and I found this fascinating. He said that she was a very good actress but also a very malleable one. Each day when she showed up to shoot a scene she had no idea where that scene belonged in the context of the movie and therefore the emotions that she needed to express. So, Vidor would sit down with her and describe the entire movie up until the point of the scene they were about to shoot and tell her the emotions that she needed to give to the scene. And then, with that under her belt she would go out in front of the camera and be absolutely perfect. David had told a friend that he had to marry her because if he ever left her she would kill herself. So, as they say the two were tied at the hip and another reason for the disappointment that became A FAREWELL TO ARMS.