Monday, June 12, 2017

The Snows of Kilimanjaro (20th Century-Fox, 1952)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a feature last Thursday night, a download of the 1952 20th Century-Fox film The Snows of Kilimanjaro, produced by Darryl F. Zanuck, directed by Henry King and scripted by Casey Robinson more or less from a short story by Ernest Hemingway. I say “more or less” because the story, first published in 1938, was a simple meditation on death — a white-hunter type is stranded on the titular mountain and faces death with what Hemingway, asked to define courage, called “grace under pressure.” But like the 1946 film The Killers, which shared at least one major actor with this one — Ava Gardner — the screenwriter blew up a simple little short story into a full-length (114 minutes) feature film by relying on flashbacks, showing just what the grace-under-pressure protagonist had done in the rest of his life and how he’d ended up calmly and matter-of-factly facing his demise. In this version he’s Harry Street (Gregory Peck), and obviously writer Robinson used Hemingway himself as the pattern for him: he’s an American expat and wanna-be writer in Europe and Africa between the two world wars. In a nightclub in Paris called Émile’s (Émile, played by veteran French character actor Marcel Dalio, and his saxophone player, an uncredited Benny Carter who turns in a beautiful performance of an original slow instrumental called “Blue Mountain” by Alfred Newman, even though Bernard Herrmann wrote most of the background score, are sort of this movie’s equivalent to the marvelous supporting players of Casablanca) Harry meets Cynthia Green (Ava Gardner), a young, rootless, typically Hemingway woman who instantly falls for him, marries him and keeps his wanderlust under control just long enough for him to write his first novel and get it published. 

Then Harry announces that the couple are going to Africa, which he’s decided he needs to do to get inspiration for his next book, and Harry, Cynthia and Johnson (Torin Thatcher pretty obviously channeling Dudley Digges), a white guy who settled in Africa and more or less “went native” some time before (and is the only one of the movie’s white characters who can speak Swahili, the indigenous language of Kenya, where the African scenes take place) go on a safari and stalk and attempt to kill three rhinoceri. This whole sequence “plays” so differently now — the politically correct attitude is that those silly white people should leave the rhinos alone and find a less bloodthirsty way to amuse themselves — than it no doubt did in 1952 that it’s indicative of how a movie can date in cultural ways that have nothing to do with basic story premises or the appeal of its stars. Harry finishes his African trip and writes a book about the experience, and with the advance Cynthia is hoping they can move back to Paris and settle down for a while. Only Casey Robinson is going to keep Harry doing such Hemingwayesque things as going to Spain to write about bullfighting and witness the running of the bulls in Pamplona; getting an offer (though Cynthia persuades him to turn it down) to work as a war correspondent covering a war in Syria (that’s a headline they can just leave set up!); returning to Spain on the eve of the Spanish Civil War (in which Harry volunteers on the Loyalist side and makes the most unconvincing movie soldier in history; as he’d done before while stalking the rhinos on safari, Harry just stands up and keeps firing his rifle, while Franco’s side has machine guns and their gunners are mowing down the Loyalists right and left); and then going back first to Paris — where he meets Helen (Susan Hayward), a woman whose main attraction to Harry is that she vaguely resembles the now-deceased Cynthia. The two end up back in Africa, where Harry is infected by a toxic plant and lies dying on the side of Kilimanjaro while Helen does her level best to nurse him, and the entire movie shows us Harry’s life in flashbacks interspersed between bone-jarring cuts back to Harry dying and Helen nursing him on that damned mountain. I remember seeing a little bit of this one on a TV broadcast in the early 1970’s but turning it off relatively early (something I almost never do; my usual attitude is that even if I don’t like something, I should have enough respect for the original creators and what they were trying to accomplish I should watch or listen to or read it to the end), and though I watched it to the end this time — and got to see it in color, which helped a lot since Leon Shamroy’s vivid color cinematography is one of the film’s chief attractions — I really didn’t like it any better. 

My favorite film based on anything from Hemingway remains Frank Borzage’s 1932 version of A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes, mainly because Borzage and his writers, Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H. P. Garrett, cut out virtually all Hemingway’s B.S. about women, machismo and “grace under pressure” and presented it as a straight romantic tearjerker — even though the plot line of that story shares with this one a miscarriage ex machina. Cynthia has just found out from a mission doctor in Africa that she’s pregnant, which is one of the big reasons she wanted her and Harry to stop traveling and stay in one place long enough for her to give at least a good start to raising her kid — only his insistence that he wants to go to Spain and will do so even if it has to be without her causes her, once they’re in Spain, to throw herself at a flamenco dancer and then write him a dear-John letter, after which she throws herself down a flight of stairs (at least we assume that’s what she did: Robinson’s script says no more than she had — or faked — an “accident”) to get rid of the inconvenient baby and win Harry back. (When Harry learns that his wife has miscarried due to an “accident” and the doctor realizes she had never told him she was bearing his child, the exasperated doctor says, “Don’t you people ever talk to each other?” — the best and most sensible line in the film.) Meanwhile, Harry has ended up living on the French Riviera with the Countess Liz (Hildegard Neff — her real last name was “Knef” but the American studios, worried about how they would promote a German-born actress so soon after World War II, changed it to “Neff” — they also told her to say she was Austrian instead of German; “Hitler was Austrian,” she correctly pointed out as she refused), a much more interesting character than either Susan Hayward or Ava Gardner got to play even though Knef is only billed fourth, below the title, while the names above the title are Peck, Hayward and Gardner, in that order. 

Under the Countess’s tutelage Harry writes a string of successful romantic novels but realizes he’s sold out, which he responds to by drinking a lot and suffering writer’s block. Cynthia writes him a letter there but the Countess cruelly tears it up — of course, this crude attempt to keep her man from her rival backfires big-time; Harry gets word that she’s staying at a Spanish hotel but when he gets there no one is staying there because it’s been destroyed in the Civil War, so he volunteers with a Loyalist regiment and she turns out to be working as an ambulance driver — and they meet for one final time when they’re both wounded, him in combat and her when the ambulance she’s driving turns over and crashes, and they get one final scene together on the way to the field hospital before she croaks. Then a dejected Harry retreats to Paris and there meets Helen, whom as I mentioned he originally accosts just because he reminds her of Cynthia (which explains why Susan Hayward, a redhead in real life, had to have dark hair in this film) but he drifts into an affair with her and she accompanies him on yet another trip to Kilimanjaro, where she tries to nurse him for the film’s first 20 minutes or so. They go out on what would now be called a whitewater rafting trip to see live hippos up close and photograph them, and of course Harry wants to get the boat to go ever closer to the herd — and at one point he dives into the hippo-infested waters to rescue the son of his guide. Harry is also visited by an African witch doctor and correctly guesses both the content and the uselessness of the remedies the guy is going to inflict on him — I kept hoping that the witch doctor would turn out to be a graduate of Oxford Medical School and therefore fully conversant with Western medicine as well, but no-o-o-o-o. At the end of the movie, in an outrageous “happy ending” totally against the spirit of the whole death-doomed piece (to say nothing of Hemingway’s original!), a plane arrives on the mountainside just in time to take Harry off the mountain and fly him to a Western-style hospital so the infection in his leg won’t kill him and he and Helen can have a happy ending.  

The Snows of Kilimanjaro is a terrible movie — the actors at least keep straight faces and turn in professionally acceptable work (only Knef a.k.a. “Neff” and Leo G. Carroll in a typically droll supporting performance do better than that), but they’re up against the trashy, virtually unspeakable dialogue of Casey Robinson. Robinson’s name turned up on some genuinely great movies, notably the big Bette Davis tear-jerkers at Warners (Dark Victory, The Old Maid, All This and Heaven Too and the surprisingly good Now, Voyager), though the most famous movie he was involved with doesn’t have his name on it. He was brought onto Casablanca to write the love scenes between Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, which he did beautifully, but he turned down screen credit because at that time he was taking credit only for scripts he wrote entirely by himself — and he thereby did himself out of the Academy Award won by the people who did get credit for writing Casablanca, Philip and Julius Epstein and Howard Koch. Unfortunately, a decade later, Robinson made this film’s actors trudge through lines of such appalling banality they hardly seem like the work of the man who gave us “Here’s looking at you, kid” or “We’ll always have Paris” — and Henry King, an understated director whose great strength was getting his actors to play subtly and quietly, does the best he can but can’t get much out of his actors delivering low-keyed Kingian readings of Robinson’s romantic platitudes. Ernest Hemingway didn’t like The Snows of Kilimanjaro — he said it should have been called The Snows of Zanuck, after its producer, 20th Century-Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck — and it’s not a very likable movie, neither Hemingwayesque action tale nor “women’s picture” but some frozen-in-aspic combination of the two in which, through much of the African action, we find ourselves wishing the actors would get out of the way and let us just enjoy all that stock footage of African scenery and fauna!