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A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway

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First broadcast Lux Radio Theater, 4 April 1937

 

This historic production, now available as a podcast, starred Clark Gable, Josephine Hutchinson and Adolph Menjou. Introduced by Cecil B.De Mille from CBS’s studio in Hollywood, it characterized Hemingway’s novel as one of the most “graphic, true and tender accounts of the conflict” of World War I, involving “brave men and lost lovers.”

 

The production was obviously designed to recall Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes’s famous performances in Frank Borzage’s 1932 film of the novel. Not only was Borzage a guest on the show, but Gable’s performance as Lieutenant Henry was kept deliberately low-key. Here was someone who began his war experiences as someone preoccupied with duty; nothing mattered except his job as an ambulance-driver. His first encounter with Catherine Barkley (Hutchinson) was rather cold, almost frosty, as he reprimanded her for not taking care of her patients successfully. Henry did not really like women; he was far more at home with his male buddy Renaldi (Menjou), with whom he could exchange jokes and comment cynically on the conflict going on around them.

 

As the production unfolded, so Henry was transformed, as he gradually fell in love with Catherine. There were two reasons for this; first, he admired her devotion to duty, and second, he actually respected her for continuing to work despite the loss of her husband in battle. Henry knew he could never replace Catherine’s husband in her affections, but he was prepared to accept second-best. For her part Catherine admired Henry for his integrity and courage under fire (something especially associated with Gary Cooper’s screen persona).  Sadly their affair was doomed to be a short one; they took time to marry, and Catherine had a baby, but the ordeal of giving birth was too much for her, and she died in hospital soon afterwards. In this production Clark Gable was particularly affecting as he witnessed the life ebbing away from his beloved Catherine. His voice trembled slightly; but like a true soldier he refused to give way to his emotions.

 

Lux Radio Theater gained much of its fame from the presence of Hollywood stars in its casts. At one level, it gave the stars the chance to essay roles that they would never otherwise have played (Gable certainly would never have attempted one of Coop’s roles on screen). At another level, the series functioned as a publicity outlet for future screen productions. In this Farewell to Arms, de Mille managed to plug both Lloyds of London, as well as Gable’s then current production, the ill-starred Parnell (1937), where he grew sideburns for the role. We also learned how Hemingway himself had nothing to do with adapting A Farewell to Arms, either for the film or the radio version, even though Borzage alleged that he gave his tacit approval to the 1932 script.  Despite its obviously commercial origins, the series stands up well today as one which transformed classic texts (or screenplays) into three-act plays designed for radio. This technique was later to be used in television productions, especially during the 40s and early 50s. While adapters often over-simplified their original sources, they did try to render them accessible to wider audiences. A Farewell to Arms is a good example of this; Hemingway’s anti-war parable has been transformed into a love-story built round a leading actor. Nonetheless, on its own modest terms, this revival remains eminently entertaining, some seven decades after its original broadcast.

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