The Male Animal (1942):  Brains vs. Brawn

At first glance, The Male Animal (1942) seems like little more than an amusing brains versus brawn comedy, but the film’s rah-rah jokes about football, alpha men, and high-minded professors are wrapped around a surprisingly contemporary debate around free speech.

Just a year out from playing a similarly absent-minded professor in The Lady Eve (1941), Henry Fonda plays Tommy Turner, an intellectual English teacher at Midwestern University, where football reigns supreme.

Tommy is uninterested in football, preferring to spend his time reading and lecturing on great literature.  He believes he is about to receive a promotion to full professorship when a student publishes an editorial stating that Tommy intends to read a letter by convicted anarchist Bartolomeo Vanzetti to his class.1

The university’s conservative brass don’t give a fig about great writing, and they don’t need one of their professors accused of being a communist on homecoming weekend! 

Tommy receives an ultimatum instead of a promotion—nix the letter or lose his job.

Tommy’s first instinct is to shy away from the fight—he isn’t advocating Vanzetti’s politics.  He sees the letter as a piece of literature only, and he has a lot to lose.  His wife Ellen (Olivia de Havilland) agrees he should forget the letter and is much more interested in the homecoming game than Tommy’s inner turmoil over the letter.

So far, so serious.

The humor is injected into the film via the arrival of Joe Ferguson (Jack Carson), Midwestern’s former football star and an old flame of Ellen’s.

Jack Carson is one of those great underappreciated character actors whom you recognize in film after film but can’t remember their name.  Carson played minor roles to perfection across four decades in films including Bringing Up Baby (1938), Arsenic and Old Lace (1943), Mildred Pierce (1945), A Star is Born (1954), and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) before moving into television in the 1960s.

He’s a scene stealer, a great supporting actor, and integral to the success of many films.

Not every name can be above the title.

Carson is perfect in Animal as Joe, the embodiment of the All-American jock, heavy on the charm and testosterone, light on the brains.  He laps up the adoration of the town, receiving a hero’s welcome for his battles won on the gridiron.  He’s loud and sometimes obnoxious, sucking up all the air in the room as he talks a million miles a minute and recreates football plays with pieces from the Turner’s dinner service set.

Tommy feels emasculated by Joe’s alpha male status, and wonders if perhaps Ellen wouldn’t be better off with Joe.

And thus, the screwball portion of the film begins—Tommy rejects Ellen, thinking that he will free her to be with Jack.  Ellen—who is still very much in love with her husband—lets her wounded pride lead the way by insisting she does want to be with Jack.

And Jack—well, he’s just gotten rid of wife number one.  Flirting and dancing with an old flame is one thing, but he’s not in the market for wife number two.

In the film’s best scene, a drunken Tommy opines to his protégé Michael about the difference between civilized men and animals.  Tommy decides that men are animals after all and he vows to fight Jack for his Ellen, the same as a sea lion would fight for his mate. 

His efforts are in vain, of course, and his drunken punches don’t land.  But Ellen’s love for him is rekindled by the effort.

In the end, Tommy realizes he can never prove his manhood with athletic feats or beating up other men. 

But he can stand up for what he believes in.

And so he insists on reading the Vanzetti letter his class (that has swelled to a full auditorium of people waiting to see if he will go through with it) and let the chips fall where they may.

Just before reading the letter, Tommy’s boss defends him to Ed Keller, the head trustee, in a conversation I can easily imagine playing out in one of today’s big state universities:

Dean Frederick Damon:  “These men [Tommy and his supporters] are not malcontents.  Some of them are distinguished scholars who’ve made this university what it is.”

Ed Keller (Trustee):  “They made it what it is?  What about me?  Who’s getting this new stadium paid for?  Who brought Coach Bob here from Southern Methodist?”

Tommy:  “He means this thing is bigger than stadiums and coaches, Mr. Keller.”

Ed Keller:  “Nothing’s bigger than the new stadium!  Why, that’s idiotic!”

After an impassioned opening for free speech, Tommy reads the letter to a packed house. 

Joe doesn’t get it, and after the reading asks, “Is that all?  Well, that isn’t such a bad letter.”

But Ellen does get it.  Through tears, she realizes it isn’t about the specific contents of the letter, but about how her husband stood up for himself, how he refused to run away in the face of overwhelming adversity.  She has a new appreciation for him now as a husband and a man.

The final moments are surely out of any teacher’s fantasy, as the students carry Tommy off in a parade, celebrating him like a football hero for his feat of intellectual honesty.

Is The Male Animal a great work of cinema?

No, let’s not go that far.

But it walks the ever-difficult tightrope of being a genuine comedy with real laughs while at the same time having a sharp point of view, and that’s more than you can say for many of the films made in the 1940’s…or today.

Endnotes

1 – The backstory of why the Vanzetti letter is controversial is not covered in the film and is not necessary to understanding the plot.  But a brief discussion here:  Vanzetti and fellow Italian immigrant Nicola Sacco were convicted on first-degree murder based on very shaky evidence and were executed via electric chair in 1927 despite many public appeals for their innocence, including by Felix Frankfurter, who would go on to become a Supreme Court justice.  The continued investigation into their executions lasted into the 1940s and audiences of The Male Animal would likely have understood the reference.  In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation the Vanzetti and Sacco had been wrongly convicted.

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Constant Nymph (1943):  Three In Four Years

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.

Alexis Smith (20 years old), Joyce Reynolds (16), Charles Boyer (42), and Fontaine (24)

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.

Olivia visits Joan on the set of The Constant Nymph

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.

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Strawberry Blonde (1941): Olivia On Ice

Olivia de Havilland thought Gone with the Wind (1939) would change things.

After the success of Captain Blood (1935), Jack Warner paired Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland again and again.  The films made money hand over fist and catapulted Flynn and de Havilland to stardom, but they weren’t considered important or prestigious by the Hollywood establishment.

De Havilland’s roles in these films weren’t fleshed out, three dimensional characters.  Flynn’s characters were the focus and he had triple the screen time.

Flynn’s films made more money when paired with Olivia de Havilland than any other starlet on the Warner’s lot.

But Olivia de Havilland was still just the girl, passively waiting to be loved or rescued.

De Havilland was bored and regretted the standard seven-year contract she’d signed with Warners so that she could play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935).  She began to lament all she was missing to play these vapid heroines—a chance at complex roles, going back to the theater.

That languishing scholarship to Mills College where she could’ve used her brain.

She couldn’t convince the brass—especially Jack Warner—that she was more than just the latest pretty face, to be used and discarded when the first line showed on her face.

She got her chance when David O. Selznick wanted her to play Melanie Hamilton Wilkes in his upcoming epic Gone with the Wind

But Jack Warner wouldn’t loan her out to Selznick.  He thought Gone With the Wind was going to be the most expensive flop of all time (he wasn’t alone), and felt Olivia de Havilland would become even more difficult after working with Selznick on his big, important film.

Of all the early studios, Warner Brothers was the least concerned with prestige and awards.  Jack Warner cared about making money and cranked out one film after another as cheaply as possible.

Olivia de Havilland had already surprised him by bringing in an agent to renegotiate her contract for more money after just her third film.  She’d figured out how underpaid she was and demanded more.

Warner gave it to her because he needed her in the Flynn films.

De Havilland did a secret screen test with Selznick and original Gone with the Wind director George Cukor.  If Jack Warner had found out about it, he could’ve sued both Selznick International Pictures and de Havilland for breach of contract.

Desperate now, de Havilland went to Jack Warner’s wife—a move that decades later de Havilland admitted was highly improper—and asked Ann Warner to intercede on her behalf.

As Warner writes in his autobiography, My First Hundred Years in Hollywood:

“Olivia, who had a brain like a computer concealed behind those fawnlike brown eyes…simply went to my wife, Ann, and they joined forces in a plot to change my mind.” 

“’I hear that Selznick wants Livvie in Gone with the Wind,’ Ann said.  ‘Can you possibly imagine anyone else in that role?  And think of the prestige for Warners.  After all, you discovered her, and made her into a star.’” 

De Havilland got the role, of course, and an Academy Award nomination.  She was following the path of Bette Davis, who also fought with Jack Warner over roles and didn’t get recognition as a great actress until she strong-armed him into letting her make Of Human Bondage with RKO in 1934.

De Havilland had proved herself and thought she would continue following in Davis’ footsteps with first-rate roles at Warner Brothers.

She thought Gone with the Wind would change things.

It didn’t.

Because Jack Warner—who was a first-rate bastard in a town full of them—held a grudge.  He didn’t like that de Havilland had negotiated for that raise so young, or complained about the quality of his studio’s pictures, or did an end run around him with his wife to get her role in Wind

He made her, he could unmake her.

She had five years left on her contract, and Jack Warner vowed to make them hell.

So after the heaven that was playing Melanie Hamilton in Gone with the Wind, Olivia de Havilland returned to Warner Brothers and grinded out one film after another.  With and without Flynn, but she was always just the girl.

Even if Warner Brothers didn’t appreciate her, her work in Wind attracted the attention of other studios, who requested her services as a loan out.  She made 1941’s Hold Back the Dawn for Paramount.

Again, she was nominated for an Academy Award for her work outside Warners, this time Best Actress, which she of course lost to sister Joan Fontaine.

And it was back to the Warner Brothers grind.

It didn’t help that her sister—her younger sister—had already made it to the altar with Brian Aherne, an actor and one of de Havilland’s former boyfriends.  Or that Fontaine had won the Oscar over her, and was now working for Selznick at the leisurely pace of roughly a film a year while de Havilland ground out three pictures a year and had been working non-stop since 1935.

De Havilland was exhausted and frustrated.  She began throwing tantrums on the set, fighting with Flynn, and refusing roles she felt were beneath her.

She had several of what were then called nervous breakdowns, but what would today be called burnout.

But she had five more years, so she looked for good scripts at home.  She found the script for The Strawberry Blonde in head of makeup department’s Perc Westmore’s office.  She liked the part of Amy, James Cagney’s wife, and fought for it despite producers initially thinking she wasn’t right for the role.

The film was based on 1933’s broadway play One Sunday Afternoon, and a remake of the original film starring Gary Cooper.  It would be remade again in 1948, also titled One Sunday Afternoon.

Warner Brothers retitled it The Strawberry Blonde, which refers not to the part played by de Havilland, but by newcomer Rita Hayworth, on loan from Columbia.

James Cagney stars as Biff Grimes, a dentist struggling to make ends meet.  He spends a Sunday afternoon reminiscing about how he met his wife, Amy (de Havilland) eight years prior.

Biff and his friend Hugo Barnstead (a delightfully oily Jack Carson) and every other man in town have a crush on Virginia Brush, the beautiful young woman they call the Strawberry Blonde.  Shallow Virginia loves the attention and makes sure to walk past the barbershop to soak up the cat calls.

Hugo arranges a double date with Biff, Virginia, and Virginia’s friend Amy, and promises that Biff can “have Virginia.”  When they arrive, Hugo double-crosses Biff and runs off with Virginia, leaving him with Amy.

Amy isn’t like anyone Biff has ever met—she’s beautiful, but she works as a nurse and has modern ideas.  It’s the 1890s, and she shocks him by insinuating that she doesn’t believe in marriage and that her mother wore “bloomers.”

But Biff soon finds out that most of this is a tough outer shell, and he falls in love with and marries Amy.  Hugo marries Virginia, though the union is an unhappy one, beset by their mutual selfishness, greed, and ambitions.

Virginia stands by Biff through thick and thin, and though Biff once pined for Virginia, by the end of the film he knows he got the better end of the deal by a mile.

The Strawberry Blonde is a pleasant way to spend the afternoon.  Cagney mugs around as Biff, and the film is full of laughs and classic songs such as, “The Band Played On,” and “Meet Me in St. Louie, Louie.”

De Havilland was mostly happy during the film, as she enjoyed working with Cagney and director Raoul Walsh.  It was a pleasant experience, and her role had more meat on the bone than those she played with Flynn.

But only a bit more meat.  This is Cagney’s film, and beneath de Havilland’s talents.  (Her role is played by Frances Fuller in the 1933 version, and Dorothy Malone in the 1948 version.  Never heard of them?  As Amy often quips in the film, “Exactly.”)

She was young, beautiful, rich, and independent.  But as she told Errol Flynn on the set of Captain Blood, she wanted respect.

And that was something she would never get from Jack Warner.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Matzen, Robert. Errrol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  • Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

This Above All (1942): Forties on Forties

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

For a certain kind of movie buff, there is nothing more romantic and glamourous than what I like to call a “Forties on Forties” film.  These are films made in the 1940’s and set in the 1940’s.  The men dressed in suits and jackets they don’t take off even at the dinner table.  Women wore dresses, gloves, coats, and pearls.  Men and women both wore gorgeous hats they take off and put on a dozen times.

Breakfast served on trays with dozens of plates.  Coffee poured for every meal from a big silver pot into delicate cups.

Train travel in private compartments.  Smoking everywhere, with men lighting cigarettes already in their woman’s mouth.

Films about adults with adult problems.  Love, lust, life, death.

And always, whether in the foreground or background, looms World War II.  (Even in Mildred Pierce, a film that seemingly avoids the war completely, Monte appreciates Mildred’s bare legs by saying he is “happy nylons are out for the duration,” a reference to nylon rationing.)

Films made during the war, when the outcome was uncertain, and after the war, with the thrill of victory temporarily papering over the deep cynicism that would eventually seep onto the screen as film noir.

I am that kind of movie buff, and This Above All is that kind of film.

Joan Fontaine immediately followed up her Oscar-winning turn in Suspicion by starring in this surprisingly tender war romance with Tyrone Power in which she plays a woman who falls in love with a British deserter. (Power would make only two more films after This Above All before interrupting his career by enlisting to himself fight in the very war portrayed in the film.)

There was a multi-studio bidding war for the rights to the bestselling novel of the same name by Eric Knight, and eventually Darryl Zanuck secured the highly anticipated film for Twentieth Century Fox.

British aristocrat Prudence Cathaway (Fontaine) announces to her shocked family that she has joined the Women’s Auxiliary Force, and as a private instead of an officer.  During a blackout, she meets Clive Briggs (Power), and they have an instant connection despite not being able to see one another in the dark. 

When they meet up the next day, their attraction grows despite their differences.  Prue is old money, patriotic, and friendly.  Clive is from the lower classes, brooding, and seemingly not telling Prue something.  She does not question him as much as she perhaps should about why he is not wearing a uniform.

Despite barely knowing one another, sparks fly and Prue agrees to accompany him on a holiday during her upcoming leave instead of visiting her family as planned. 

Zanuck had bitter fights with the production code office over the film’s original script.  He’d preemptively removed the novel’s illegitimate pregnancy in a bid for approval, but the code office howled over Prue “going away for a week, for immoral purposes.”  Zanuck and director Anatole Litvak were forced to insert scenes that clearly showed Prue and Clive sleeping in separate bedrooms, and Prue several times mentioning that while what they were doing was innocent, to an outsider it could be misconstrued.

Critics and audiences were disappointed by the watered-down romance, but Zanuck and Litvak’s hands were tied.

Clive is a haunted man.  Prue hears him screaming in his sleep (initially from the other room, of course) and he eventually breaks down and admits that he has overstayed his leave and will soon be classified as a deserter.  He despairs of his country; he does not want to fight to save a British class system that has oppressed him and kept families like Prue’s living off their generational wealth and the backs of the working class.  Already in love, Prue greets his tortured confession with tenderness instead of scorn. 

In fact, everyone in the film is sympathetic to Clive’s plight.  His friend and fellow soldier Monty insists that Clive return and not ruin his life.  His commanding officer gives him a second chance when he finally returns.

There are no recriminations, no judgements, no scorn of Clive as a weakling or a coward.  This was more surprising than any illicit affair could have been.

Patriotic Prue stands by him, and although Clive returns to his station, he does not have a dramatic change of heart.  He loves Prue and marries her, and he will help win this war so that he can eventually fight for the things he truly believes in.

“This above all,” Prue reads to him from Shakespeare’s Hamlet in the final scene, where he’s been wounded and his survival is uncertain, “to thine own self be true.”

An adult problem with an adult ending.

And a hidden gem from the “Forties on Forties.”

Sources

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

This Above All (1942) Directed by Anatole Litvak Shown: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine

A Damsel in Distress (1937): Little Sister’s Early Missteps

Throughout her life, Joan Fontaine was fond of telling reporters that it irked her older sister Olivia de Havilland that Joan “did everything first.”  By this she meant that she’d gotten married first and won the Academy Award first.

But she certainly didn’t succeed in the movie business first.

After her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the blockbuster Captain Blood, Olivia de Havilland was Hollywood’s most promising rookie of 1935.

Meanwhile, Joan was hanging on for dear life at RKO.

After six small utterly forgettable roles in utterly forgettable films, Fontaine needed to prove she could act, or her career would be over before it began.

But the blame for her failure in 1937’s A Damsel in Distress can’t be laid solely at her feet.

After seven wildly successful films together, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire decided to go their separate ways.  Rogers saw herself as an actress first and wanted to explore more dramatic roles.

And Astaire?  Well, he didn’t want to be forever linked with a single partner.  He was the lead dancer and the choreographer, after all.  He’d taught Ginger most of what she knew about dancing.  How hard could it be to teach someone else?

Poor Joan Fontaine drew the short straw.

She had to dance with Fred Astaire and make the audience forget about Ginger Rogers.

A mission more impossible than anything the IMF ever assigned Ethan Hunt.

She should’ve chosen not to accept it.

It became apparent to everyone involved that novice Fontaine would not be able to carry half the dancing in the film.  Her role was restricted to that of Astaire’s love interest, with a single dance near the end of the film.

The dance is painful, as Fontaine is wooden and obviously ill at ease when her character should be giddy over falling in love.  It’s like watching the celebrities on Dancing with the Stars, who are so glaringly outmatched by their professional partners.

Married comedians George Burns and Gracie Allen got top billing with Astaire, and the script and choreography was rearranged so that Astaire did most of the dance numbers with them.

They also provided the laughs, as Fontaine was not a skilled comedienne.  In later films she would reveal her talents, but comedy was never among them.

Burns and Allen provided the comedy and dancing.  Fontaine provided the romantic love interest.

All in all, it took three actors to replace Ginger Rogers in an Astaire film.

Perhaps Ginger had something Fred hadn’t taught her after all.

The film is a pleasant enough musical, but not worth watching but for the most ardent Astaire fans.  Lady Caroline wants her niece Lady Alyce to marry her stepson, but Alyce is in love with a mysterious American.  The servants in the house have taken bets on who Alyce will choose, and are prepared to meddle in the proceedings to ensure their win.

After Alyce has a chance encounter with dancer Jerry Halliday, the staff mistakes him for the mysterious American.  Soon Jerry is lured to Tottney Castle to “save” Lady Alyce, whom he believes is being held against her will in the family castle.  He takes along his press agent (Burns) and airhead secretary (Allen.)

Fontaine is completely absent from the film’s most memorable sequence, in which Astaire, Burns, and Allen dance their way through a fun house park, dancing through tunnels and in fun house mirrors.

By the end, Lady Alyce has forgotten all about the mysterious American and weds Jerry.

The film was not a success.  The public wasn’t interested in seeing Fred without Ginger, and Astaire went running back to Rogers and they made two more films together.  Astaire would go on to have other successful dancing partnerships—most notably with Rita Hayworth, but he was never able to mold a novice into a dancer the way he had with Rogers.

As for Fontaine, her string of unimpressive performances continued, and RKO eventually dropped her from their roster.

It’s here that I can’t help wondering—if it hadn’t been for the competitive spirit between Fontaine and de Havilland, would Fontaine have gone back to Saratoga, married, and left Hollywood behind?

But she didn’t give up, and by 1940 she’d found a role that suited her, and improbably became the second Mrs. de Winter in David O. Selznick and Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  (A role Vivien Leigh wanted desperately.)

It was a career defining role, and one of my favorite performances from the golden age of Hollywood.  Vivian Leigh, wonderful actress she is, would’ve been all wrong for the second Mrs. de Winter, a character so timid and weak we never learn her first name.

Nervous and insecure Fontaine was perfection.

An Oscar nomination for best actress followed, as did another for Suspicion in 1941.

Which leads us back to where we began, on the night when Fontaine upset big sister Olivia in Hold Back the Dawn and won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Suspicion.

Olivia had been first out of the gate, but Joan had just closed the gap.

Game on, girls.

Sources

  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.
  • Behlmer, Martin, ed.  Memo from David O. Selznick

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Captain Blood (1935): Olivia Meets Errol

Jack Warner was a gambler.  You have to be to get into the movie business.  He was once nearly killed in a car accident after winning $4,000 playing baccarat.

But he’d never taken as big a risk as casting two unknowns in his 1935 adventure blockbuster Captain Blood.

The result was worth far more than a good night at the baccarat table:  an Academy Award nomination for best picture, the top grossing Warner Brother’s film of that year, and the launch of one of Hollywood’s great onscreen couples.

Before Bogart and Bacall, before Hepburn and Tracy, there was Olivia and Errol.

Warner gave the role of the gallant doctor-turned-slave-turned pirate to Errol Flynn, an unproven but handsome actor from Tasmania.

And fresh off her success in A Midsummer Night’s Dream but still unknown to those outside Hollywood, de Havilland snagged the prime role of Arabella Bishop, Blood’s love interest.

A more lighthearted adventure than MGM’s Mutiny on the Bounty, released the same year (and the ultimate Best Picture winner) Captain Blood is a tale of romance and adventure painted on a huge canvas.

Throw in some steamy sex scenes and you’d have the film equivalent of the bodice ripper romance novels published in the 1980s that I gobbled up as a teenager.

I’m here for it.

Peter Blood is a peaceful doctor who is imprisoned and sentenced to death for providing medical attention to a rebel fighting against James II in seventeenth century England.  Reprieved of death when the King decides to sell the prisoners for slaves instead and pocket the proceeds, Peter Blood is shipped off to Jamaica. 

On the auction block, the plantation owners examine the men like cattle, pulling back their lips to inspect their teeth and testing their muscles.  Watching the proceedings is Arabella Bishop, the beautiful young niece of Colonel Bishop, an influential plantation owner.  Seeing that Peter Blood is no lowlife, she buys him to protect him from the excesses of the cruel plantation owner known for working his slaves to death.

Blood shows defiance instead of gratitude, refusing to relent even when Arabella arranges for him to act as the personal physician to the governor, giving him an elevated status over the other slaves.

Yet for all his wounded pride, Blood is grateful for Arabella’s interference and very much aware of her beauty.

A born leader, the other slaves soon look to Peter Blood as their leader, and he is increasingly radicalized against King James II and the island’s governor as he witnesses the inhumane treatment and conditions of the slaves. 

Soon, Peter Blood and his band of rebels are planning their escape.

When Spanish pirates invade the village, Blood and the other slaves escape Jamaica by stealing their ship.

Like the mutineers on Mutiny on the Bounty, Peter and his followers have committed treason and can never go home again.

And thus, Captain Blood, the fiercest pirate to sail the seven seas, is born.

Yet our Captain is a gallant and fair pirate—the spoils are shared, women are not to be imprisoned or raped, and men who lose an arm or leg are compensated.  He leads the fights and takes the first blow.  He’s a swashbuckling hero for those opposed to King James II.

And like all stubborn, gallant heroes, his Achille’s heel is the woman he can’t forget, Arabella Bishop.

When they meet again three years later, she is no less beautiful but in the clutches of the second most successful (and far less scrupulous) pirate, Levasseur (Basil Rathbone.)  Captain Blood now purchases her as his slave, and duels Levasseur to the death to prevent her from falling into his lecherous clutches.

She is as outwardly outraged (and inwardly thrilled) by his purchase as he once was of hers.

Captain Blood, who has kept his crew alive by his wits, puts himself and his entire crew in danger when he insists on escorting Arabella safely to Jamaica himself, sailing right to the governor who has obsessively pursued Blood all these years.

But in a twist of fate, Captain Blood learns that William III has taken over the British throne and has not only revoked Blood’s status as a traitor but given him a commission in the Royal Navy.

Thus Captain Blood returns a hero and becomes the governor of Jamaica to boot.

And he gets the girl.

But I didn’t have to tell you that.

Captain Blood launched both Flynn and de Havilland into major stardom.  It was the first of the eight movies they would make together between 1935 and 1941.  The most well remembered is The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), in which de Havilland played Maid Marian to Flynn’s Robin.

Sparks flew between de Havilland and Flynn onset and though he often played pranks on her in the manner of a love-struck schoolboy, de Havilland spoke warmly of him and even once said he was one of the loves of her life.

But whatever they may have wanted, Flynn was married and de Havilland was not the kind of woman to have an affair.  Later, when he was free, he once proposed marriage, but though charmed, de Havilland wore no rose-colored glasses when looking at Flynn.

Errol and Olivia on the set of Captain Blood

At ninety-two (long after Flynn’s death), she reflected, “The relationship was not consummated.  It was just as well that I said no [to marriage.]  He would have ruined my life.”1

She’s likely right, as Flynn was content to booze and womanize, and later devolved into an empty shell of a man who self-destructed on drugs, alcohol, and lust.

On the set of Captain Blood, Flynn told de Havilland that he wanted approval and money, which he counted as success.

Even then, with only two films under her belt, de Havilland had higher ambitions.

“I want respect,” she told Flynn.  “By that I meant serious work well done.”2

She would fight long and hard to earn it in Jack Warner’s kingdom.

Sources

1 Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia De Havilland and Joan Fontaine.

2 Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia De Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Warner, Jack.  My First Hundred Years in Hollywood.

Ultimate Movie Rankings Website

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935): “The Course of True Love Never Did Run Smooth”

Mickey Rooney, Olivia de Havilland in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)

Let’s rewind the tape a bit from that night in 1942 when sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine sparred for the Academy Award for Best Actress. 

Oliva Mary De Havilland was born in Tokyo to British parents in the middle of World War I.  Sister Joan de Beauvoir de Havilland (she used Fontaine as a stage name to avoid confusion with Olivia in Hollywood) came along a year later, in 1917. 

Spurred on by their mother to compete, the sisters were rivals as well as playmates.  As an adult, Fontaine admits they were “at each other’s throats1,” even as children.  Stories of their squabbling abound—Oliva cutting up her best clothes rather than handing them down to Joan, or nine-year-old Joan plotting to kill Olivia with a “plug between the eyes2,” but only after Olivia hit her first so she could claim self-defense.

By 1934, the de Havilland parents were divorced.  Olivia was living with her mother in Saratoga, California, just outside Los Angeles.  After spending most of her childhood with her mother and Olivia in Saratoga, Joan was back in Tokyo with her father.

Both girls had done their share of childhood acting in summer theater and plays, but neither had serious thoughts of becoming a professional actress.  Director Max Reinhardt signed Olivia up to be the second understudy for Hermia in his theater production of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The lavish production was the talk of Hollywood, staged at the Hollywood Bowl (which would go on to feature such acts as The Beatles, The Doors, Elton John, and The Rolling Stones, among countless other acts, and survives to this day.)  Reinhardt enlarged the stage and brought in real trees and a pond.  The players entered the theater via a suspension bridge and carried live torches.  Electric lights represented fireflies and the Los Angeles Philharmonic played the score.

It was a spectacle of sound and light worthy of a modern Super Bowl and all of Hollywood royalty talked of it and came to see the show.

As the understudy to the understudy, de Havilland would need not one but two acts of god to get onstage.

God delivered the required miracles when both Jean Rouverol and Gloria Stewart (who many years later would play old Rose in 1997’s Titanic) dropped out of the play to take film roles.

Olivia was in the game.

When Warner Brothers came calling and wanted Reinhardt to direct a film adaptation of the play, he brought only Olivia de Havilland and fifteen-year-old Mickey Rooney from the original cast to star in the film.

Olivia de Havilland wavered.  She’d only meant to spend the summer backstage before entering Mills College that fall and studying to become an English teacher.  But in the end, she signed a long-term contract with Warner Brothers that she would come to see as a blessing and a curse.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of Shakespeare’s most convoluted plots, and the film is difficult to follow if you’re not familiar with it.  Suffice it to say that it is a tale of magic, fairies, mischief, and love potions gone wrong.

Young noblemen Lysander (Dick Powell) and Demetrius (Ross Alexander) fight over the beautiful Hermia (de Havilland).  Hermia wants to marry Lysander, but her father disapproves.  Hermia’s best friend Helena (Jean Muir) is in love with Demetrius.

Oberon, King of the Fairies, comes across the lovers and dispatches his fairy Puck (Rooney) to apply a love potion that will make Demetrius fall in love with Helena and solve the problems of the four young lovers.  Unfortunately, Puck gives the potion to Lysander by mistake, with the comedic effect of having both Lysander and Demetrius now in love with Helena instead of Hermia, much to the confusion and consternation of both women.

Meanwhile, Bottom (James Cagney) and a group of tradesmen are practicing a play they wish to put on for the king.  To cause further mischief, Puck turns Bottom into a donkey, and Queen of the Fairies Titania (Anita Louise) falls in love with him in donkey form while under the influence of the love potion.

As Lysander tells Hermia, “The course of true love never did run smooth.”

Rest assured that Cagney loses his ass’s head, and all the lovers are restored to health but for Demetrius, who remains permanently in love with Helena.

Shakespeare film adaptations are always tricky. 

Actors often have trouble with Shakespeare’s dialogue, and struggle to translate the bard to film.  This is certainly not one of Cagney’s or Dick Powell’s best performances.

Audiences have never been all that interested in Shakespeare, and despite the all-star cast led by James Cagney, the film didn’t do well at the box office.  Max Reinhardt wasn’t able to transfer the magic of his open air play to celluloid.

All anyone wanted to talk about were the performances of little Mickey Rooney as the shirtless and exuberant scene-stealing Puck, and that beautiful unknown actress with the long funny name who could recite Shakespeare better than any of the well-known stars.

Before long, everyone would know her name.

Olivia de Havilland had arrived.

Sources

1 Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses, page 304

2 Jensen, Oliver O. “Sister Act.” Life Magazine, May 4, 1942, page 89

Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

The Dueling de Havillands: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) vs. Suspicion (1941)

Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland at the 1942 Academy Awards…before the winner was announced…

The 1941 Academy Award Best Actress race was stacked with women who would become legends:  Bette Davis (The Little Foxes), Greer Garson (Blossoms in the Dust), and Barbara Stanwyck (Ball of Fire).

And rounding out the top five performances of the year were sisters Oliva de Havilland (Hold Back the Dawn) and Joan Fontaine (Suspicion.)

Both had been nominated previously and their losses could easily be categorized as upsets—Olivia in 1939 for supporting actress in Gone With the Wind, and Joan in 1940 for best actress in Rebecca.

Joan Fontaine was the least well-known of the five nominees.  Notwithstanding her role in Rebecca, her career was rather lackluster at that point.  De Havilland was the far bigger star, having had box office success starring in multiple adventure films with Errol Flynn and as Melanie Wilkes in the biggest movie of all time.

If there was a favorite to win, it was de Havilland or Bette Davis.

Fontaine was the darkest of horses.

In Hold Back the Dawn, de Havilland plays Emmy Brown, a pretty young American schoolteacher who takes her class on a field trip to Mexico.  Her car breaks down just across the border in Tijuana and she spends the night at the Hotel Esperanza.  Unbeknownst to Emmy, the hotel is a hot spot for European immigrants who are waiting out their time—often years—before they can enter the United States.

Boyer and de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Romanian George Isovescu (Charles Boyer) sees naïve Emmy as his ticket out of purgatory.  A former gigolo, he turns on the charm and she’s in love before morning.  He intends to desert her as soon as they are married and he is safely across the border.

The predictable plot is nonetheless satisfying—George falls in love after marrying her, but Emmy discovers his original plot and deserts him.  George illegally crosses the border—risking jail time and the visa he has worked so hard to obtain—to win Emmy back.

It’s the kind of performance and subject matter the Academy likes to reward.

And yet it was little sister Joan Fontaine who walked away with the Oscar for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion.

Fontaine is the only actor to win an Oscar for work in a Hitchcock film.  Not Jimmy Stewart in Rear Window, nor Kim Novak in Vertigo, not Cary Grant in North by Northwest nor Ingrid Bergman in Notorious.  Not even Fontaine in Rebecca, a far finer performance in a far finer film.

Suspicion is not one of Hitchcock’s finest films, although under different circumstances it might have been. 

The film is based on the novel Before the Fact by Francis Iles. In the novel, Lina’s pregnant, and she drinks poisoned milk that Johnny offers her, knowing that it will kill her but also prevent passing Johnny’s psychopathic genes to their unborn child.  But she has written and postmarked a letter outlining his crime.  After she dies, the novel ends with Johnny mailing the letter, not realizing he is ensuring his own destruction.

Now that’s a Hitchcockian twist.

Too bad it never made it into the final film.

There are conflicting reports as to why the ending was changed—that either Grant himself or his studio did not want him portrayed as a villain.  Fontaine writes in her autobiography that it was early test audiences that objected to Grant as a diabolical wife murderer.  Likely the production code also interfered with Hitchcock’s original vision.

Regardless as to why, the changed ending leaves Suspicion a bit of a mess.  We see the story through Lina’s eyes, and Johnny’s actions become suspicious, then sinister.  He gambles, he lies, he is angry when Lina’s father dies and she receives no inheritance. 

She believes he is going to kill her for her life insurance.  When he brings her the milk featured in the novel, she’s afraid to drink it.  When he recklessly drives her to her mother’s house, she fears he’s going to push her out of the car and over a cliff.  In the end, he confesses that his bizarre behavior is because he is suicidal over the fact that he has embezzled money and will go to jail if he lives.

Grant and Fontaine in Suspicion (1941)

This unsatisfying twist unintentionally leaves Lina looking foolish, out of touch, and possibly insane for believing that her husband would harm her. 

Fontaine’s win shocked the audience, the public, Fontaine herself, and likely her sister, though de Havilland only spoke positively about Fontaine’s win in public.  At twenty-four years old, Fontaine was the youngest actress ever to win the Oscar at that time.

Gossip columnists, lead by Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons had a field day writing about how de Havilland had been upstaged by her little sister. The public thought that the feud between the sisters began that night.  Throughout their lives, neither sister ever denied there was a feud, but both downplayed the role their Oscar duel played in it.

Perhaps Joan said it best in a 1977 interview with Jeanne Wolf:

“Well, it [the feud] didn’t happen there [1941 Oscar competition].  I really think it happened when I was born.”

Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the films of Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine, their long running feud, and how their rivalry propelled them both to greatness.

After all, where would Serena be without Venus?

Just don’t ask Olivia and Joan to play doubles.

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis. Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.
  • Spoto, Donald. Spellbound by Beauty: Alfred Hitchcock and His Leading Ladies.
  • Wolf, Jeanne. 1977 interview with Joan Fontaine, found here.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

Sunrise(1927): Hollywood Rowboat Murders Go Way Back

“Tell me a story.”

It’s a phrase we learn as kids, and one that some of us never outgrow.

When great friend of the blog Eddie Harrison (journalist and writer of the excellent film-authority.com) mentioned the old silent film Sunrise (1927) as one to check out to see how to do a rowboat murder scene, I figured I’d maybe get around to watching it one day and just fast-forward to the rowboat scene.

I certainly wasn’t planning to blog about it.

For what kind of story could a film with no dialogue tell that would matter in 2021?

Serendipity intervened when I found a copy of Sunrise (Blu-ray, no less) at the library when I was scooping up a batch of classic films.

We’ve already discussed Gene Tierney’s glorious villain who cruelly allows her husband’s disabled brother to drown in Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Montgomery Clift’s inability to follow through with his plan to drown his pregnant girlfriend in A Place in the Sun (1951).

How would the attempted rowboat murder in Sunrise hold up against its successors?

Quite well, indeed.

The film stars George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor (who would go on to star in the first of four versions of A Star is Born, in the role most recently played by Lady Gaga) as a husband and wife living in the German countryside.  She is content with her husband, farm, and young child, but the husband is bored by his mundane life and plagued by money troubles.  His head is turned by Margaret Livingston as a woman from the city who tempts him.

When the film begins, the man (the characters are given no names beyond The Man, The Wife, and The Woman from the City) has already begun a guilty affair with the woman from the city.  No words are needed to describe what kind of woman she is—the nylons, high heels, and smoking tell us all we need to know.  She is visually contrasted by the wife, in long braids and a homespun dress that is good for farm work but far from sexy.

The woman from the city wants the man to drown his wife so they can run away to the city together.  At first, he violently objects, but the idea takes root.  Soon he is rowing his wife out for what she believes will be a fun day in the city.  He stands up, moves across the boat, but in the end changes his mind.  The damage is already done, however, as the wife clearly saw his intentions in his eyes and runs away from him the moment the boat hits land.

He follows her, and after an extended period of shock and apology, the wife begins to warm to him.  As improbable as it seems, they spend the day in the city rediscovering their love.  He gets a haircut and a shave, they have their photograph taken, they dance and he tries to win her a prize at a carnival.  There are moments of regret and remorse, moments of tenderness, moments of lighthearted laughter.

It shouldn’t be romantic—he tried to kill her that morning, after all.

It shouldn’t keep my interest—a silent film made ninety-four years ago, before the first talkie.

And yet it is, and it does.

There’s a scene I particularly love when the couple just happens by a wedding in progress and slips inside the church.  The man watches intently as the couple recites their vows.  In one of the film’s few title cards, the minister instructs the groom to “keep and protect [his bride] from all harm.”

The man, knowing he has made that same vow to his own wife and broken it in spectacular fashion, buries his unworthy face in his forgiving wife’s lap and breaks down in sobs.

No words necessary.

My growing film book library…

It was only after watching that I ran to my books and learned that Sunrise was one of the last silent films, and one of the first films with a synchronized musical score and sound effects.  That it was directed by F.W. Murnau, lured to American by William Fox because he wanted an esteemed German director to make an expressionist film for an American audience.  That it won Best Unique and Artistic Picture at the very first Academy Awards ceremony.  (The only film to ever win this distinction, as the category was eliminated after the first year.)  That Janet Gaynor won the first ever Best Actress Academy Award for her work in 1927. (In the early Academy Awards, actors were awarded for their entire body of work in a year.)  That it was praised for groundbreaking cinematography, and is at number 82 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Films.

But impressive as they are, none of those accolades would’ve meant anything to me if Sunrise hadn’t told me a story where I had to know the ending.

It’s unlikely I’ll make a habit of watching silent films, and it’s unlikely that I’ll recommend this film to anyone who isn’t the deepest of film buffs.

But I wasn’t bored.  It told a story that felt both universal and fresh.

Never once did I consider turning it off before the end.

That’s more than I can say for a lot of movies made today.

Sunrise reminds us that storytellers will always find a way to tell stories.  Take away the sound, and they’ll tell a story through expressions.  Take away the camera, and they’ll tell a story with words on paper.  Take away the paper and they’ll recite long poems from memory like Homer and the ancient Greeks.

“Tell me a story.”

It doesn’t matter how.

The complete film is available to watch for free on YouTube here.

Sources

  • Thomson, David. The Big Screen: The Story of the Movies.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.

A Place in the Sun (1951): Method Acting Arrives

Author’s First Note:  I’ve added a tab to the top of the site called “Golden Age of Hollywood”  Here you can find the full list of past posts, listed by category and alphabetical order.  You can also find suggested reading and source material if you want to learn more.

Author’s Second Note:  The plot of A Place in the Sun takes a surprising turn about halfway through the film.  Spoilers abound in today’s discussion.  I highly recommend watching it before reading today’s blog.


By the dawn of the nineteen-fifties, Hollywood had twenty years of talkies under its belt.  The studio system of the previous two decades had produced many of our most beloved American films.

But things were changing—the advent of television and the post World War II retreat to the suburbs bumped the role of the movie theater from the center of American entertainment.  Actors, directors, and writers had broken free of the restrictive studio system and had ever increasing freedom in the films they participated in.  Hollywood films were becoming less assembly line products of the main studios and more individual collaborative projects.

And while all those stars who had built Hollywood—Garbo, Bogart, Gable, Crawford, and Davis—still managed to make some good films, there was no denying they were on the other side of the mountain of their careers.

It never stops surprising us that even stars can’t escape time.

Audiences wanted something new, and the fifties gave way to a new crop of fresh faces and a more realistic, less glamourous acting style that was brought to popularity in 1951 with Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire and Montgomery Clift in A Place in the Sun.  Called method acting, it was developed by Lee Strasberg at his Actor’s Studio in New York City, and was eventually practiced by Marilyn Monroe, Dustin Hoffman, and Robert DeNiro.

In A Place in the Sun, Clift plays George Eastman, a poor relation who gets a low-level job in his distant uncle’s factory.  He works hard and begins dating Alice Tripp (Shelley Winters), a salt-of-the-earth fellow factory worker. 

Soon Alice is in love with George and dreaming of a future.  George, however, is slowing moving up in the Eastman company and social circles.  He catches the eye of socialite Angela Vickers, played by nineteen-year-old Elizabeth Taylor who looks and sounds so young you’ll hardly recognize her.  George and Angela fall hopelessly and foolishly in love, as reckless as Romeo and Juliet. 

George begins to see a glittering future before him—marriage to Angela, social acceptance, and wealth.

But there’s a massive fly in his ointment—Alice is pregnant and wants to marry.  Shelley Winters received a well-earned Academy Award nomination for Best Actress (and might have won but for running into the buzzsaw that was Vivien Leigh in A Streetcar Named Desire.)  Alice is clearly worth more than the whole lot of the Eastmans—she’s poor but would be the kind of wife that would stand by George through thick and thin. 

If George refuses to marry—and she can sense his wavering—she’ll lose her job and her little apartment.  A visit to a doctor who humiliates her (while George hides in the car) and refuses to give her an abortion gives her a glimpse into her future as a unmarried, penniless outcast.

Perhaps counter to the filmmaker’s intentions, Alice’s desperation to marry touched me deeper than any other emotion in the film.

With the promise of marriage, George takes Alice on a pre-honeymoon of sorts and rows her out onto an isolated lake with the intention of drowning her.  When the time comes, he is horrified by the reality of murder and abandons his plan.  But Alice falls accidentally into the water and ends up drowning after all.

We don’t see onscreen how hard George tries to save her, but we don’t doubt for a second he would’ve tried harder if it had been Angela going under.

Figuring he ought not let Alice’s death spoil his plans to wed Angela, George follows through with his original cover up plan.

The last third of the film depicts his murder trial, in which the defense admits he planned to murder Alice, but that the ultimate drowning was an accident.

The jury—and George himself—must deliberate on whether or not he tried hard enough to save Alice, or if he “committed murder in his heart.”

Rarely have I loathed a character as much as I did George Eastman.  He is moody and overly sensitive, full of long silences and self-pity.  He doesn’t have the guts to be a full out cad or villain—he wants what he wants without having to pay the price for it. 

He threw away a good woman like Alice for beauty and riches that would fade with time.

But don’t mistake loathing for Eastman for loathing of the film.  It’s compelling and the question of his guilt or innocence is visceral rather than logical.

Montgomery Clift garnered his second of three Best Actor Academy Award nominations (running into his own buzzsaw in the form of Humphrey Bogart in The African Queen.

Leave Her to Heaven

I couldn’t help but be reminded of Gene Tierney’s Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven, gleefully watching her disabled brother-in-law drown as she rowed a boat wearing sunglasses, a white coat, and gorgeous red lipstick.

There was a villain you could love.

The contrast between her and George Eastman’s frantic aborting of his own plan is a perfect showcase of the transition from the stylized, glamorous Hollywood of yore to the realism prized by the method actors.

My takeaway?  I’m not getting in a rowboat with either one of them.

Sources

  • Schatz, Thomas.  The Genius of the System:  Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era.

Want more?  Click here for an index of all posts in the series, as well as source notes and suggested readings.