Erich Maria Remarque's international best-seller was brought to the screen here with a stellar cast and a script cowritten by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The scene is post-WWI Germany, a time and place of want and astronomical inflation, where Deutschmarks are borne to the marketplace in wheelbarrows to be exchanged for a beefsteak. Three returning German soldiers--Taylor,...read more
Erich Maria Remarque's international best-seller was brought to the screen here with a stellar cast and a script cowritten by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The scene is post-WWI Germany, a time and place of want and astronomical inflation, where Deutschmarks are borne to the marketplace in
wheelbarrows to be exchanged for a beefsteak. Three returning German soldiers--Taylor, Tone, and Young--are among the many war-weary, now homeless, hopeless young men who travel from the trenches of France to their war-ravaged homeland. Prewar friends, the three reunite and decide to try their
luck in the republic-to-be's emerging automobile market, pooling their meager resources to set up a repair shop. Working with bits and pieces of salvaged wrecks, they put together a car of their own--which they affectionately dub "Heinrich"--and scramble for business in the intensely competitive
field. Motoring on a highway, the three engage in an informal race with the owner of a shiny new automobile, Atwill. Victorious, they stop to eat at an inn and are joined by the vanquished Atwill. Saying, "You wiped me off the map!" Atwill admires their scrap-heap amalgam and introduces them to
his driving companion, the lovely Sullavan. The travelers dine together, and Taylor persuades Sullavan to give him her telephone number. He renews the acquaintance the following day, visiting her in the elegant apartment in which Atwill has established the beauty, a child of wealth now reduced to
poverty. Sullavan ultimately joins the trio of comrades, but is reluctant to marry Taylor because she suffers from tuberculosis. Eventually, she is persuaded by Taylor's two friends to live what remains of her life to the fullest, and she and Taylor wed amidst the ominous setting of an unstable,
pre-Hitler Germany. Young is killed in a street riot; Sullavan, refusing further treatment for her malady, hastens her own demise. As the film ends, Tone and Taylor--joined by the spirits of their late companions (in double exposure)--face a most uncertain future.
Sullavan is superb in this bleak drama, her throaty voice and striking looks at their very best. (She was to gain an Oscar nomination for her role and was named the year's best actress by the New York Film Critics Association.) The actress was a bit difficult during filming, however. According to
a long-standing superstition, she refused to work until a rainfall occurred, and she also protested that some of coscripter Fitzgerald's dialogue was unspeakable. Producer Mankiewicz agreed with his star and, with the help of other studio writers, rewrote and excised much of the script, to
Fitzgerald's great disgruntlement and later vilification of Mankiewicz. In fact, Mankiewicz was himself a talented screenwriter and understood far better than the proud novelist the basic elements of a good visual presentation. (Other scenes were edited out for less obvious reasons, among them
several that concerned the rise of Naziism. Objections were raised by the Breen Office--the industry's self-censorship group--and the film was also cut as a result of studio chief Louis B. Mayer's reluctance to offend the Germans and lose the export market.) Although he continued to write
screenplays, and was even signed by the studio at the enormously high salary (for the time) of $1,250 weekly, this was to be Fitzgerald's only credited sceenwriting assignment. Sullavan's leading man, Taylor, is unconvincing in his role, which he had not wanted to play. Cinemogul Mayer had to
persuade the actor that the part would lend him prestige and help to erase the pretty-boy image he had developed over the course of his career. The picture is well directed by romance-drama specialist Borzage, but overlong, and only partly redeemed by Sullavan's splendid performance.
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