It’s no surprise that The Constant Nymph (1943) didn’t do particularly well at the box office. Though Margaret Kelly’s novel was the second best-selling novel in 1925, a film about a grown man torn between two women—one a fourteen-year-old girl—is unlikely to have broad screen appeal, especially with Joseph Breen and the Production Code studying every word in the script.
Director Edmund Goulding was distraught over who could play the part of Tessa, the fourteen-year-old girl in love with Lewis Dodd, played by forty-two-year-old Charles Boyer. Who could make this love story believable, tender, and well, not creepy?
While dining with his friend Brian Aherne, Goulding complained, “Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen!”
“How about me?” Brian Aherne’s wife asked.1 As Edmund Goulding surveyed the “freckled, no-makeup face, the pigtails, the underweight body” of Aherne’s wife, he didn’t recognize her but thought she would be perfect.
And just like that, Brian Aherne’s wife Joan Fontaine nabbed her first role in a Warner Brothers film, on loan from David O. Selznick and working across the lot from big sister Olivia de Havilland.
After the initial film run, the rights reverted to author Margaret Kelly, who wanted the film shown only at universities and museums, so it fell out of the public eye and went unwatched for seventy years until Turner Classic Movies gained the rights to show it in 2011. In the United States at least, you can now rent the film for a few dollars off Amazon Prime.
Let’s dust it off and take a look.
Tessa Sanger (Fontaine) is one of four daughters of Albert Sanger, a musical genius nearing the end of his life. The daughters run wild but are happy in their home in the remote Swiss countryside. At fourteen, Tessa is hopelessly in love with her father’s friend Lewis Dodd, a musician who can’t quite become a success. The great Sanger feels that Lewis hasn’t lived enough—suffered enough—to yet have an emotional reservoir deep enough to produce truly great music.
Lewis is genuinely fond of Tessa as he is all her sisters, but sees her only as a child and harbors no romantic feelings. Tessa, somehow both naïve and wise, believes that as long as Lewis waits for her to grow up, he will eventually see they are perfectly matched.
When Sanger dies, Tessa and her sister Paula are sent to live with their uncle and cousin in London. Lewis becomes infatuated with Tessa’s adult cousin Florence, played by newcomer Alexis Smith. They fall in love and wed, but it is immediately clear that their marriage is a mistake. Florence is wealthy, obsessed with appearances, and though she means to be supportive, cannot understand Lewis’ music.
Tessa can. Though the film shies away from any overt sexuality between them, Tessa is clearly Lewis’ muse, the one who understands him and his music. Florence knows before Lewis himself that she has a genuine rival for his affection.
When Lewis realizes his love for Tessa and declares it to her, she admonishes him for not waiting for her to grow up and marrying Florence instead. She rejects him, determined not to steal him away from his wife. When Florence confronts him over his love for a child, she too wonders why he married her.
By the end of the film, Lewis has made up his mind to run away with Tessa until tragedy strikes down his muse. Yet through her untimely death, she has unintentionally given Lewis the key to unlock his music—he will now experience the suffering required to make him a truly great artist.
At the time of filming, Joan Fontaine was twenty-four years old. There is no universe in which she should be convincing as either a fourteen-year-girl or a legitimate rival to twenty-year old Alexis Smith’s Florence.
And yet Fontaine is convincing enough to make the film work.
It isn’t just the freckles, and pigtails, and dresses that make her look younger. Fontaine infuses Tessa with a youthful vigor—giggling, talking too quickly, fretting over the fact that her hair is wet when Lewis arrives for an unexpected visit. She runs like a colt, full of frenetic energy and not sure what to do with it all. (There’s precious few good You Tube clips, but if you want to see Fontaine playing a teenager, there’s a great clip on the film’s TCM website.)
It is the first time that Fontaine plays a teenager, and she will do so again in Letter From an Unknown Woman (1948), with similarly spectacular results.
The film is enhanced by the constraints of the production code. Because their scenes are decidedly unsexual, the film (perhaps unintentionally, and unlike the salacious novel) becomes a meditation on what makes a soul mate, rather than a precursor to Lolita. If anything, lust is what keeps Florence and Lewis together. It is not sex that Tessa and Lewis share, but something more—a bone deep agreement on what it means to live a good life—music, nature, friends, romance. Despite her mature sensuality, Florence cannot compete with that.
It’s undoubtedly worth watching.
Throughout her life, Fontaine called The Constant Nymph “the happiest motion-picture assignment of my career” and declared Charles Boyer her favorite leading man. She gushed over Edmund Goulding, and the relaxed working hours of his set—in at a leisurely eight o’clock in the morning, finished every day by four.
One can feel Olivia de Havilland seething across the Warner’s lot watching Fontaine work the movie stars’ equivalent of banker’s hours while she’d just finished up a year working on three different films—They Died With their Boots On (another costume drama with Flynn that Fontaine had turned down), The Male Animal, and In This Our Life.
When the Academy announced their nominations for Best Actress of 1943, Fontaine found herself on the list for the third time in four years for her work in Nymph.
Little Sister was no longer the girl who couldn’t dance with Fred Astaire, or the one cut from RKO’s roster for lackluster performances.
Joan had three best actress nominations, and one win.
Oliva, who so desperately wanted the recognition of the Academy, had only one nomination for Best Supporting Actress and one for Best Actress. No wins. She’d gone head-to-head with Joan in 1942 and lost.
Though she still had her role in Gone with the Wind, Oliva had to face the facts: in the lifelong competition that drove their lives and ambitions, Joan was surging ahead.
- 1 Fontaine, Joan. Bed of Roses.
- Turner Classic Movies website (https://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/71454/the-constant-nymph/#photos-videos)
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Yikes! Olivia looks like she’s just dismounted her horse in that pic! This sounds…of it’s time! And yet a popular book and an Oscar nom, so I guess times have changed!