THE SNOWS OF KILIMANJARO, Ernest Hemingway’s 17-page 1936 short story was expanded and fashioned into 117 minutes of star-powered adventure drama that became the 3rd most popular movie of 1952. Though the famously truculent author didn’t like it—he didn’t care for the movies made from his work—the adaptation, despite flaws, is entertaining, capturing enough of the writer’s aura for those not inclined to go the elitist/purist/ or—spare us— revisionist route, and is certainly compelling thanks to the stars and lovely backdrops. *
“And there was never another time like that first time in Africa.”
Gangrene setting in from a minor wound during a safari, writer ‘Harry Street’ (Gregory Peck) balefully recalls his life and loves while ‘Helen’ (Susan Hayward), his current amour, tends to him and puts up with his facing-the-end bitterness. Flashbacks cue Harry’s previous passages through flings, fame, and failure. These include a tempestuous affair with ‘Cynthia Green’ (Ava Gardner) that begins in ‘Lost Generation’ Paris and ends in the Spanish Civil War, and a mutually ambiguous relationship with ‘Elizabeth’ (Hildegard Neff), a wealthy countess. As Harry’s delirium prods self-realization, the neighborhood’s vultures and hyenas scent not self-pity but survival.
“That’s one thing about success – even when it’s a failure. It snowballs for a while. There’s also one thing about a snowball – it has nowhere to go but downhill.”
20th Century Fox big gun Darryl F. Zanuck corralled the very popular stars, a prestige, hit-making director in Henry King and veteran screenwriter Casey Robinson, who kept the framework of the short story, then blended in elements from other Hemingway works. One flaw with nearly all film versions from the author’s creations is endemic to his style: the storylines are gripping and the characters vivid, but the once-novel (so to speak) dialog—sparse, terse, cryptic—doesn’t date as well, less so in hearing it recited rather than reading it and internalizing it (in my hackish opinion, anyway; decades on, the to-and-fro about what ‘Papa’ said and how he said it is about as much fun as listening to wine snobs buzzkill a party). Robinson had done an earlier Hemingway adaptation, The Macomber Affair, also starring Peck and set in Africa.
As was standard at the time, the cast stayed in Hollywood for the interiors, with rear-projection shots of the foreign locales. Audiences of the time weren’t unduly troubled by the technique; its obvious artificiality seems pretty blatant today. Still, the set design and lighting are excellent, and the 350-by-40 feet cyclorama used to suffice for the safari camp background is well done. Six months of location shooting was done in Kenya, Egypt and the French Riviera. Though Leon Shamroy was the lead cameraman—he got an Oscar nomination for his cinematography and Lyle Wheeler’s superb art direction was likewise recognized—it was the uncredited Charles G. Clarke who lensed the foreign location stuff and, likewise uncredited, Roy Ward Baker (A Night To Remember) handled the direction for those scenes. The rest (all the acting and stateside work) was directed by Henry King, allowed a plush $3,000,000 budget.
Peck is okay but he’s saddled with Harry not being a particularly sympathetic character, one whose situations are more interesting than he is personally; beyond good looks and ‘mystique as a writer’, the attraction he holds for the women feels rather forced. Even when he’s happy, Harry seems constricted. Hayward, too often a scenery-gulper, is restrained and effective as the put-upon companion desirous of something more than Harry’s derision; she and Peck had teamed well in the smash hit David And Bathsheba. Neff is appropriately icy and self-absorbed as the aristocrat. Best of all, Gardner is very good as the life-wounded Cynthia, Harry’s great love, a role created for the film. At 28, after a decade of being recognized mostly for her beauty and her high-profile marriages, she finally drew accolades for her talent. The 4th woman in Harry’s fevered memory bank is played by starlet Helene Stanley, but her scenes were cut from 17 minutes down to just three. **
The location footage from Africa is beautiful (apart from a dismal killing of a rhino), and the exciting shots of a slew of hippos in a river get alarming close to “back the f_ off!”—whoever did this was taking a real risk for art. Back in the States, King and Co. whipped up a brief but slam-bang battle scene for the Spanish Civil War segment, Fox’s vaunted sound crew earning their keep. After its dramatic main title theme, Bernard Herrmann’s score is quietly expressive without overdoing it; his music for another African adventure, the goofy White Witch Doctor, is more robust.
Grosses topped the scale at $18,000,000. Later, the movie fell into the dreaded “public domain” quicksand and available prints were muddy washouts: seen in a restored format it’s a winner. With Leo G. Carroll (stuffy as usual), Torin Thatcher, Marcel Dalio and Bert Freed.
* Darryl F. Zanuck, no slouch when it came to clanking brass spheres, said “If I could have been anybody else I’d like to have been Hemingway”, a wistful muse shared by many a bared chest. Though the prickly writer disparaged the result, calling it “The Snows Of Zanuck”, he was pleased with Gardner, who later embodied another of his lost souls in The Sun Also Rises (once again for Zanuck). Ava, in her autobio: “Of all the parts I’ve played, Cynthia was the first one I understood and felt comfortable with, the first role I truly wanted to play”. A year after ‘Snows‘, Gardner went to Africa for real on John Ford’s Mogambo, and earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for her earthy and appealing performance.
** At the time, 22-year-old Helene Stanley, striving in show biz since she was 10, must’ve felt this was her big break (topping parts in four other ’52 Fox flicks), but the curse of the cutting room floor dashed that. Her unseen claim to fame came from Walt Disney, as live action model for Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and One Hundred and One Dalmations, as well as being Davy’s wife Polly in Davy Crockett, King Of The Wild Frontier. Our old pal irony deals a hand: her first marriage, lasting two years, was to the decidedly un-cartoonish gangster Johnny Stompanato (of Lana Turner and L.A. Confidential infamy). No-one told Walt? For her brief bit as Harry’s first love, the naturally curvaceous lady is outfitted with one of those atomic bras the 50s favored, a way of teasing the Production Code with a not-t00-subtle code of its own.