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 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.

Gaslight (1944): Driving Ingrid Crazy

Sweden produced two of Hollywood’s most revered actresses.  The first was Greta Garbo, queen of the silent screen and film’s first true mega-star.

The second was Ingrid Bergman.

Bergman won her first of three Oscars for her role in 1944’s Gaslight, a performance so riveting that it beat out Barbara Stanwyck’s breathtaking turn as Phyllis Dietrichson in Double Indemnity.  (Part IV of this blog was dedicated to my bitterness that Stanwyck never won an Oscar.  But even I cannot begrudge the Academy for rewarding Bergman for her excellent work here.)

Bergman plays Paula Alquist, a young woman who moves back into the house where her aunt was murdered with her new husband.  Though at first blissfully happy, the honeymoon is soon over as Paula begins to lose and forget things.  At her husband’s insistence, she becomes a recluse, convinced she is too ill for visitors and that she is slowly losing her mind.  

She is isolated and alone but for the servants as her husband goes out every night to work on his music compositions (none of which ever seem to be completed.)

But things are not as they seem for Paula—she is perfectly sane and well.  She is the victim of her husband’s sadistic obsession.  He is the one hiding things to make her believe she has lost them.  He is the one removing pictures from the walls and then telling Paula she did it.  He has narrowed her world to that claustrophobic house, creating an alternative universe where he can slowly and deliberately drive her insane.  She has no one else to talk to, no one else to rely on, no one else to inform her of her sanity or the outside world.

I won’t reveal her husband’s motive, or how Paula eventually extricates herself from his clutches, because it is a suspenseful film of psychological manipulation that I encourage you to watch.

It’s tense, tightly plotted, and will have you squirming in your seat—not from any gruesome violence—but by watching Paula’s escalating distress at her sincere belief that she is losing her mind while her husband stands by and adds fuel to the fire.  It is a cruel and premeditated strike playing on a person’s greatest fear—that they are no longer in control of their own actions.

Bergman and Charles Boyer are wonderful and convincing in their roles as the tortured wife and sadistic husband.  Their portrayal was the third version of the gaslight story—the first was a 1938 play, followed by a film version in 1940.  The film was remade by Bergman and Boyer in 1944.

Even if you haven’t seen any of the versions, you likely know the term gaslight.  It’s used often today in the news and psychiatric circles to describe a form of psychological manipulation when one person (usually, though not always, a man) tries to control his victim by making them doubt their own perceptions and judgement.  It involves isolating, doubting, trivializing, and humiliating the other person.  It is psychological rather than physical abuse.

In the stage and film versions, Paula notices that when she is alone at night, the light dims in her gas powered lamps.  This would normally indicate that someone has turned on the gas in another part of the house.  (Like water pressure going down if too many taps are on)  Her husband insists she is imagining the gas dimming because it only happens when she is alone.  He knows, however, that she is perfectly sane because he does not actually leave the house every night to work as he tells her, but goes up into the attic and turns on the gas.

It’s a metaphor for all of his psychological manipulation, and the manipulation that is still practiced today.  To gaslight someone is more than to merely lie to them.  It is to manipulate until the person no longer believes their sense of the world is true, and no longer trusts their own judgement.

It’s a terrible way to torture someone.

But it makes for outstanding cinema.

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