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

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The Great Lie (1941): Bette Cedes the Spotlight

Peter Van Allen (George Brent) is torn between two very different women:  home and hearth Maggie Patterson and temperamental pianist Sandra Kovak.

Maggie (Bette Davis) is devoted to Peter but refuses to marry him until he stops drinking and gets a job.

Sandra Kovak (Mary Astor) likes him just as he is, a wasteful layabout.  Her career comes first, and she’s content to play packed halls and party all night with no thought of children or marriage.

The film opens with Peter waking up with a hangover and discovering he and Sandra ended last night’s particularly raucous party by marrying.

The marriage is a flash of clarity for Peter and the audience—he isn’t torn between two women, he never was.  His heart has always been with Maggie, and without a word to his new wife, he runs to her.  

They both believed they’d marry when he finally grew up.  Maggie waited; he didn’t.

She’s devastated, of course, and Peter’s presence the day after his marriage confuses and hurts her.

Yet in a twist of movie-land fate, Peter discovers he is not technically married to Sandra, as she got the dates mixed up on her divorce and was still married to her first husband during her drunken nuptials with Peter.

To his credit, Peter offers to marry Sandra again when they are both sober and single.  Yet on the day she is a free woman, Sandra travels to Philadelphia to perform, signalling that her career will always come first.

Peter takes this opening and marries Maggie instead, finally becoming the family man she always wanted.

Peter and Maggie live in marital bliss while Sandra stews over losing her man.  It’s not Peter she wants so much as to win the head-to-head competition with Maggie.

Then Peter dies in a plane crash and Sandra turns up pregnant.  (It is now clear why the convoluted marriage-not-marriage plot was necessary.  The hero of our tale is permitted a drunken consummated fake marriage in 1941, but not a drunken one-night stand.)

Here’s where things get interesting—Maggie wants a piece of Peter with her forever.  Sandra wants a career as a concert pianist unencumbered by a child.  So The Great Lie is conceived—Maggie will raise Sandra’s child as her own.  Maggie pays Sandra the bulk of her inheritance from Peter for the privilege of raising Sandra’s son.

The film shines in the scenes between the women.  In the best segment, Maggie and Sandra escape to a private cabin in the woods where Sandra can have the baby in complete privacy and thus pass it off as Maggie’s.  Patient Maggie placates Sandra, who is going mad from the pregnancy and confinement.

I’ve written a lot in this blog about Bette Davis’ skirmishes with other actresses, and her need to hold the spotlight.  It’s all true—she owned it during her lifetime and she would own it now if she were here.  But The Great Lie is the rare Davis film made great by her understated performance.  She is the patient and calm woman any man would want to marry.  

Mary Astor’s Sandra is petulant, fiery, and gets all the best lines.

“I’m not one of you anemic creatures who can get nourishment from a lettuce leaf – I’m a musician, I’m an artist! I have zest and appetite – and I like food!”

The film is a contrast of the two women, and Davis allows Mary Astor to shine in their scenes together.  Watching it I realized that I had never seen any actor—man or woman—steal scenes from Bette Davis the way Mary Astor does in this film.  

People have said that I stole the picture from Bette Davis,” Astor said.  “But that is sheer nonsense.  She handed it to me on a silver platter.”

Mary Astor knew as well as anyone that no one could steal a scene from Bette Davis unless she allowed it.

It’s no secret to readers of this blog that I like Bette best when she’s bad—but watching her homespun Maggie play off Astor’s stone cold bitch is a true delight.

Mary Astor won a well deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Sandra, and she thanked Bette Davis in her acceptance speech.

The title of the film telegraphs its big twist, and anyone who grew up watching soap operas knows Peter—who was presumed dead without a body—will show up alive before it’s all said and done.  The great lie will be exposed.  But knowing what’s coming doesn’t lessen the enjoyment of this film, a lovely product of the studio system that doesn’t transcend into legendary status but is a pleasant way to pass a cold winter night.

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

The First Divine Feud: Bette and Miriam

Miriam Hopkins and Bette Davis in Old Acquaintance

Though her feud with Joan Crawford gets all the press today, Bette Davis’ earliest and perhaps most intense rivalry was with actress Miriam Hopkins.

Their mutual loathing began back east, where they met doing summer stock theater.  Legend is that they were oil and water from the first, competitive women in a competitive field destined to clash wills.

In the theater world, Hopkins was a bigger star than Davis, and she made it to Hollywood first.  In fact, Jezebel started out life as a doomed play with Miriam Hopkins playing the leading role.  It closed to poor reviews after only thirty-two performances, a flop by any measure.

Hopkins jointly owned the play’s rights and sold it to Warner Brothers under the belief (which WB’s Walter McEwen strongly implied or outright lied) that she would reprise her role.  But the role, as we know, went to Bette Davis.

Davis winning an Oscar for her role was salt in Miriam’s wound.  She was reportedly inconsolable and wracked with jealousy.

So the stage was set for a clash of the titans when Davis and Hopkins were cast opposite one another in The Old Maid, an excellent melodrama that is often overlooked because it was made in the same year as Davis’ Dark Victory.

Based on Edith Wharton’s novel, Hopkins and Davis play cousins in love with the same man.  When Delia (Hopkins) jilts him for a wealthier man, Charlotte (Davis) comforts him with a night of passion that lands her unmarried and pregnant.  Worse, he goes and get himself killed in the Civil War before he can make an honest woman of her.  Charlotte opens an orphanage and hides her daughter Tina in plain sight among the war orphans. 

Only Delia knows the truth, and eventually adopts Tina and raises her as her own child.  Forced to pose as aunt to her only child, the sacrifice turns Charlotte old and bitter and strains her relationship with Delia.  On the eve of Tina’s marriage, Charlotte plans to tell her daughter the truth, but refrains in a moment of maternal self-sacrifice, knowing it will shatter Tina’s happiness.

The antics onset leaked into the newspapers.  On the first day of filming, Hopkins reportedly showed up wearing a replica of one of Davis’ Jezebel costumes, apparently to make Davis “blow her stack.” 

Each was constantly trying to upstage the other, running to director Edmund Goulding with suggestions and complaints.  Hopkins would hold her cigarette at an angle to purposely block Davis’ face from the camera, or refuse to engage when Davis was speaking her lines and the camera was off her.

In her memoir The Lonely Life, Davis insists she kept her temper despite Hopkins’ deliberate attempts to provoke it.  On-set, at least.  Bette admits that she, “…went home every night and screamed at everybody.”

Some of Hopkins’ provocation was justified.  She was jealous of Davis’ success, but she also knew Davis was having an affair with her husband, director Anatole Litvak.

As producer Hal B. Wallis said in an interview years after the filming, “It was an incredible feud, just fantastic.  They would each prolong their arrival on the set, trying to make the other wait. I think later the studio tried to claim it was all just publicity, but it was the real thing. Those girls hated each other.”

In fact, Warner Brothers did capitalize on the publicity of the feud, even going so far as to have Hopkins and Davis pose squaring off with boxing gloves, with poor director Edmund Goulding stuck in the middle as referee.

It wasn’t far from the truth. 

“Whatever respect they had for each other as professionals was quickly thrown out of the window when one or the other didn’t get her way,” Goulding said. “If it wasn’t lighting, it was costuming or camera angles or lines. There were times they behaved like perfect little bitches, but I loved them both, and I think the admiration was likewise.”

But the tension between them works onscreen.

It worked so well, in fact, that Warner Brothers paired them again in 1943 in Old Acquaintance, another film that told the story of a long and complicated relationship between two women.  This time Hopkins and Davis play lifelong friends and writers Millie Drake and Kit Marlowe. 

Their real-life tension is again a boon for the film, as Millie and Kit alternately love and loathe one another over their lifelong relationship.  Millie is by turns selfish, jealous, and desperately needy.  In some ways, the audience wonders why kind and clever Kit puts up with her.

In a moment of honesty, Millie’s husband asks Kit just that.  Kit, to her credit, doesn’t try to paper over Millie’s faults. 

Kit (Davis): Millie remembers the same things I do, that’s important. For instance, she’s the only person I know, who still remembers when I used to be called Chunky.

Preston Drake (Millie’s husband): I’d think you wouldn’t want to remember that.

Kit: But one does. Funny, one does.

The film is an exploration of the ability of a woman to juggle motherhood, career, and love.  Old Acquaintance firmly establishes the belief that a woman cannot have it all.  Kit is a literary darling, beloved but broke.  Millie’s books are bestsellers that have made her rich but the critics dismiss her work as trash.

In one of my favorite scenes, literary critic Belle Carter asks Kit how her new book is coming along.

Kit (Davis): Well, I write and I write, and I still don’t like it.

Belle Carter: But, at least when you do turn one out, it’s a gem! None of this grinding them out like sausage…

Belle Carter: [looks over shoulder and realizes she has offended Millie] I suppose I could cut my throat.

Millie (Hopkins): There’s a knife on the table!

So one cannot have both critical and commercial success.  Millie and Kit are also both unlucky in love, unable to balance both a career and love.

In the film’s most famous scene, Kit calmly walks over to Mille, grabs her by the shoulders and shakes her before deadpanning, “Sorry.”

Word of the scene got around the studio, and legend tells that half of Warner Brothers showed up to watch the filming.  A reporter from Life magazine even tried to get into the studio to cover the event.

Hopkins must’ve worried that Davis would let her have it.

As Humphrey Bogart said of Davis’ on-screen slaps, “Unless you’re very big she can knock you down.”

Hopkins made sure Davis didn’t knock her down, and probably just to spite Davis, relaxed so completely during the shaking that she just bobbed around “like a doll with a broken neck,” as director Vincent Sherman put it.

Davis stormed out, and was eventually persuaded to return for a second take.  Still Hopkins didn’t do what Sherman wanted, but knowing the stubbornness of both actresses, he cut his losses and moved on.

In the finished film, it’s an unintentionally campy moment in an otherwise serious and melodramatic film.

The film has a surprisingly touching ending—both have just suffered heartbreak from men, lashed out at one another for a lifetime of petty jealousies, and yet they spend New Year’s Eve together toasting one another and their long friendship.

And after the director called cut, they went their separate ways and never worked together again.

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

Dark Victory (1939): “Prognosis Negative”

#29 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Part V: Hollywood’s Greatest Year

In 1939, all the stars aligned in Hollywood.  There were 365 films released that year, and an astronomical number of them became classics.  If you found someone who knew next to nothing about classic cinema and asked them to name as many old movies as they could think of, there is no doubt they would list one—probably more—released in 1939.

By 1939, the talkies had hit their stride.  With ten years of practice, the first wave of Hollywood directors, writers, and stars were at their peak.  The production code had cleaned up the filth, making movies respectable.  Many great European filmmakers fled Hiter’s encroaching Nazism and brought their talents to Hollywood.

Snuggled between the Depression and the start of World War II, eighty million people a week went to watch their favorite stars in black and white.  With no television, the big screen was the only screen.  On any given week, six out of every ten people went to the movies.  Compare that to one in ten today (or zero in ten since the pandemic hit.)  For your twenty-three cent ticket, you got a short film, a cartoon, a newsreel, and two feature films.

For part V of this blog, we’ll revisit the best of the best from 1939, Hollywood’s greatest year.

And where else would we start than with Bette Davis?

Davis released four films in 1939, but Dark Victory is undoubtedly the best.

Honing her craft since 1931, by Dark Victory Davis has come into her own.  She plays Judith Traherne, a rich young socialite who discovers she has a fatal brain tumor.  

Judith Trahern displays everything we want in a Bette Davis character—the hip first walk, the clipped speech, those silver dollar eyes, the endless smoking and fidgeting.  

Everything about Bette Davis—and Judith Trahern—demands your undivided attention.

Judith falls in love with her doctor, who conceals her fatal condition from her.  In one of the film’s best scenes, Judith had discovered the truth of her illness.  She takes temporary refuge from facing her impending early death by raging over her doctor’s (and fiance’s) lies.

At lunch, when it is time to order, a drunk Judith declares that she’ll have a “large order of prognosis negative.”

The look on the doctor’s face says it all.  Busted.

But what makes the film special is the second half.  Judith doesn’t just wait to die—she lives.

And when Judith’s death comes, she rises to meet it.  She sends away those who love her.  Blind, she walks up the stairs and crawls into bed.  Facing her fate with solitary dignity will be her dark victory over death.

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

More Stars Than There Are In Heaven

#5 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

Before 1932, movies usually had only one or two stars to anchor the film and draw an audience.

But MGM—as we’ve discussed and they once boasted—had “more stars than there are in heaven,” so they came up with a simple but brilliant idea—instead of having one or two leads, what if they stuffed a movie full of stars and let them play off one other?

The experiment produced Grand Hotel—the first ensemble film and a precursor to modern films like Ocean’s 11 and Boogie Nights.

MGM pulled out all the stops for Grand Hotel.  They started with the grandest sets ever constructed.  The lobby was the film’s crown jewel, complete with a circular check-in desk and a dizzying spiral staircase.  The entirety of the film takes place inside this luxurious Berlin hotel, temporary home of the rich and famous.

Then they studded the cast with the highest quality stars from their stable.

John Barrymore plays Baron Felix von Geigern, an amiable thief who steals a necklace from Greta Garbo’s Grusinskaya, a temperamental Russian ballerina whose inevitable aging is impacting her career.

After disappearing and missing one of her performances without explanation, Grusinskaya shows up at her room and Garbo utters her most famous line:

“I want to be alone.”

Garbo wants, as always, to be alone

The Baron and Grusinskaya ultimately fall in love, but before they do, the Baron engages in some surprisingly sexy flirting with Joan Crawford’s Flaemmchen.  

Upon learning she is a stenographer, he asks:

“I don’t suppose you’d take some… dictation from me sometime.”

And yes, he means exactly what your dirty mind thinks he means.

John Barrymore to Joan Crawford: “Are you reducing?”

Though Flaemmchen likes the Baron very much, it turns out she is more than just a stenographer for Preysing, a lying and ruthless businessman played by Wallace Berry.

Berry makes Flaemmchen a rather indecent proposal, but as a working girl who can only afford one meal a day, she grudgingly accepts.

Meanwhile, Lionel Barrymore is Otto Kringelein, a poor factory worker who is dying.  He decides to spend what time and money he has left in the grandest hotel in the world.

Kringelein befriends both the Baron and Flaemmchen before discovering Presysing’s presence, and denouncing the businessman who has abused Kringelein and all the other workers in his factory.

If you can’t follow all that, suffice it to say that these great actors play off one another brilliantly in scene after scene as their lives intersect in surprising ways.

This was the first film starring both Barrymore brothers.  The Barrymores are an acting dynasty. John, Lionel, and their sister Ethel were all actors.  Their father and mother, Maurice and Georgia Drew Barrymore, acted on the stage in the late nineteenth century.  

Both of John’s children, John Jr. and Diana Barrymore, also became actors.

By the time John Barrymore’s seven-year-old granddaughter Drew showed up in E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (1982), she was the fourth generation of actors in the Barrymore family.

But back to Grand Hotel.

Grand Hotel Premiere

Just in case the “greatest cast ever assembled” and gem-filled script weren’t enough, MGM staged a lavish premiere party at Grauman’s Chinese theater.  While hoards of fans watched, all of MGM’s stars—whether they were in the film or not—dressed up in their finest and paraded down the carpet.

The studio recreated the film’s circular lobby desk for the premiere and had each star sign a huge hotel register book.  Each then gave a sound bite to the press and their adoring public.

Everyone who was anyone was there.

Except Garbo, of course.

It worked.  Grand Hotel was an exceptionally good movie, a box office smash and Best Picture Winner.  Interestingly, it remains the only Best Picture Winner with no other nominations. All those stars and no acting nominations.  Perhaps it makes sense, because they were so good that none shined brighter than the others.

Grand Hotel is my favorite of the films I’ve reported on thus far for this project.  It teeters just on the edge—but doesn’t quite make—a “Timeless- Watch It Tonight” rating.

But we’re all still stuck at home and if you’ve blown through Tiger King, you might want to give it a shot.

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