And just what was little sister Joan Fontaine doing all this time?
Like every other actress in the late forties save Ingrid Bergman, she was falling behind Olivia de Havilland in the prestige department.
Though Joan had jumped ahead early—first to the Oscar, making prestige films at a leisurely pace under her contract with David O. Selznick while her sister toiled in the Warner Brothers salt mines, there was no doubt that by 1950 Olivia had opened up an insurmountable lead in their lifelong competition for the best film career.
Not that Joan was about to give up the fight.
Though she would receive no more Oscar nominations after 1943, Fontaine still had plenty of entertaining movies left to make.
In 1950, at age thirty-three, Fontaine shed the girlish persona that made her so successful in films like Rebecca, The Constant Nymph, and Letter From an Unknown Woman to play a mature woman in September Affair with Joseph Cotten.
The setup is simple—Manina Stuart (Fontaine) and David Lawrence (Cotten) meet when their plane to the United States has to make an unscheduled stop in Naples due to a mechanical issue. Manina is an up and coming concert pianist who’d spent time in Italy practicing with her mentor for a concert that will make or break her career. David is married with a grown son, a workaholic engineer reluctantly returning to his wife and company despite longing to leave it all behind.
Though strangers, they spend a lovely and magical afternoon in Naples, culminating in a romantic lunch in Capri, complete with wine and Walter Huston singing “September Song” on the victrola. It’s a gauzy day, one out of time, the kind you can only have in a place you’ve never been and will never return to with a person you’ll only know in that moment.
Except the moment is extended when Manina and David return to find they’ve missed their plane. Rather than immediately charter another one, they decide to spend a few days together before returning to their regularly scheduled lives.
The chemistry is palpable, and they teeter on the brink of an affair without quite going over, as Manina does not want to sleep with another woman’s husband, no matter the state of the marriage in question.
Fate intervenes and offers them a chance to start over when the plane they were supposed to be on crashes and they are presumed dead.
Realizing that each has soothed the other’s loneliness, they decide to give up their lives and stay dead to the world. They start a life that seems like paradise—David is able to free up some of his money and they buy a beautiful Italian villa way outside of town. They hire a maid and cook who doesn’t speak English, and they have nothing to do but enjoy Italy—the food, the sun, and each other.
Endless vacation. Who wouldn’t dream of it?
And yet as real as the affection is between them, the outside world beckons.
Manina practices endlessly for a concert she swears will never perform.
David meets some local men and begins to draw up plans on how to redesign the water system so that the poor are better served.
And always, always David’s wife looms between them, haunting them as if she were the one pretending to be a ghost.
Can David truly be happy while letting his wife and son believe he is dead?
I won’t spoil the ending, as the film is available (for now at least) on You Tube and is really a lovely story. (It’s worth watching alone for a glimpse of the very young Jessica Tandy as David’s wife.)
But it is no spoiler to say that every vacation—no matter how lovely—must come to an end.
September Affair was one of the first American films shot in Italy after World War II, and was made in Naples, Milan, Capri, and Venice. It is the first film Fontaine appeared in with short hair, and it gives Manina an air of sophistication that lends credence to the role.
Fontaine—who did not shy away from disparaging the films, co-stars, or directors she did not like in her autobiography—wrote fondly of September Affair, “Shooting the film was pleasant. [Director] Dieterle and Cotten were civilized and amiable. Hal Wallis was a producer of charm and concern.”
September Affair marked an important and critical turning point in Fontaine’s career, as she proved she could play a mature woman, and not just breathless girls who were mostly different takes on her character in Rebecca.
Little sister was turning out to have more than one note.
- Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.