The Affairs of Susan (1945): Split Personalities

While John Huston and Errol Flynn were throwing punches over her sister, Joan Fontaine was making a mostly forgotten but clever comedy called The Affairs of Susan.  Richard Aiken (Walter Abel) impulsively proposes to Susan Darell (Fontaine), a woman he barely knows.  Though she has told him little about herself, he believes she is the woman he has been searching for, a “perfect lady” and “born aristocrat.”

After she accepts his proposal, Richard discovers photographs of three men in her apartment—an ex-husband, an ex-fiancé, and one to whom Susan answers “I was and I wasn’t” when Richard asks if she was married to him.

Alarmed, Richard belatedly decides to vet the woman he’s set to marry the next day.  He meets each of her previous suitors and hears the story of how they met and fell in love with Susan.  But their wildly conflicting stories only leave him more confused.

Roger Berton (George Brent) describes Susan as a young woman who is honest to a fault.  Berton, a play producer, convinced the young Susan to leave her rural home in Rhode Island, marry him and become a reluctant actress.

But Mike Ward describes falling head over heels in love with a cosmopolitan party girl, frivolous, happy, always dancing and always extravagantly dressed (by legendary costume designer Edith Head, no less).  Despite his fervent wish to marry her, Susan’s constant lying broke them up.

And finally, writer Bill Anthony insists Susan is a progressive intellectual, and an unconventional revolutionary.

Richard is baffled—is he marrying a naïve country girl, a lying socialite, or a communist?

Just who is Susan Darell?

We could ask the same question of the film’s leading lady, for there are few actresses with a wider gulf between their onscreen and offscreen personalities than Joan Fontaine.

Up until 1945, Fontaine nearly always played roles where she was, as Maxim de Winter called her character in Rebecca, a “little fool.”  In Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre, she essentially played the same character—a young, insecure woman trapped in a big house and wringing her hands while wondering if the man she loves is going to kill her.  She played a silly girl who doesn’t want to divorce her husband in The Women, a fifteen-year-old girl in The Constant Nymph, and a literal Damsel in Distress

Sweet.  Naïve.  Innocent.

Words often used to describe her characters, but never to describe Joan Fontaine.

By all accounts, she was haughty, sophisticated, and cynical. 

Queen of the cutting remark, she would’ve been a master on Twitter, shelling out pithy barbs and endlessly needling her sister in public 280 characters at a time.

It’s well documented that she was disliked on the set of Rebecca, and that the gallant Cary Grant who had warm relations with nearly all his leading ladies called her a bitch.1

She left four husbands in her wake, casting them off like last year’s sweaters.  At her death in 2013, she was not on speaking terms with either of her daughters.

And then, of course, was her feud with sister Olivia de Havilland.

In digging through every scrap I could find about the sisters and the origins of their feud, it’s clear that despite being a couple of actresses, there was no cinematic inciting event to their rivalry.  No one slept with the other’s husband or stole a coveted role through underhanded means.

There was no dramatic betrayal.

What is extraordinary about their rivalry is just how ordinary it was.

They fought and reconciled throughout their lives, and only had an irrevocable break after their mother’s death.

The stars are just like you and me after all.

The press knew of the intensity of their feud, and yet had little concrete to print.  This is why they made mountains out of their head-to-head Oscar competition in 1941, and later when Olivia turned away from Joan’s congratulations when she finally won her own Oscar (more on that later.)  Both women convincingly denied that these two incidents fanned the flames, and when asked about their feud nearly always gave examples from their childhood.

As Olivia told Hedda Hopper, “Our house in Saratoga…was homey and cozy but quite small.  So that we had to share the same room whether we liked it or not.  And we didn’t like it at all.”2

Olivia went on to say that Joan was a sickly child, and that Olivia resented the pampering that Joan received, and Joan envied Olivia for being well.  “And so, you see the seeds which were to develop…were already planted and growing.”3

No one from the outside can truly portion out the blame for their constant quarrelling.  Olivia no doubt had her faults and provoked Joan.  But in public, Olivia adhered much more to the old adage “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all” on the subject.

And if you want a lesson in the wisdom of this advice, look no further than Joan’s 1978 autobiography No Bed of Roses, a masterclass in how to unintentionally make yourself into the villain when you believe you are the hero.  This nasty tome is full of hubris, blame shifting, grievances, and untruths so obvious you barely need to fact check them.

Reader, it’s a delicious document and I praise Joan for leaving it to us in all its petty glory.

I present to you a few excerpts that cannot be left on the cutting room floor:

On learning to cook as children:  “Olivia was smarter.  She just wouldn’t learn.”

“Brown-eyed, olive-skinned Olivia, Mother told me, never toddled near the crib of her tow-haired, hazel-eyed baby sister.  Her horoscope suggests that Olivia would have fared better as an only child.”

Again, on Olivia:  “I regret that I remember not one ounce of kindness from her all through my childhood.”

On Olivia’s first husband, author Marcus Goodrich:  “All I know about him, is that he has had four wives and written one book.  Too bad it’s not the other way around.”  This remark, also made to the press at the time of Olivia’s wedding, was the catalyst for one of their longer estrangements.

On winning the Oscar over Olivia:  “Actually, Olivia took the situation very graciously.  I am sure it was not a pleasant moment for her, as she’d lost the previous year for Melanie in Gone With the Wind.”  (See what I mean?  Not nearly as big a deal to the Sisters de Havilland as having to share a crib.)

If I had three wishes from a genie, I would use one to wish into existence an Audible recording of Bed of Roses narrated by Joan herself, reading out all those zingers in her haughty, patrician voice. (Her “real” voice in interviews was much different than the breathless rambling she often used onscreen.)

And yet.

Despite how much I love the dueling de Havillands, below is my favorite picture of them.  For all their spitting and fighting, when Olivia had appendicitis while on the road promoting her film Santa Fe Trial and had to be flown back to Los Angeles for emergency surgery, Joan was waiting to meet her at the airport.4

And in 1974, when Joan had a nervous breakdown after a bad breakup, Olivia was at her side, and Joan writes in Roses that, “Olivia undressed me, put me to bed, held me in her arms as she sang a Japanese lullaby from our childhood.”

It seems that no matter how much you may hate your sister, it doesn’t mean you don’t love her.

So what really was the relationship between the sisters?

Like a marriage, only the two of them can know for sure.

Older, but perhaps no wiser, at least when it came to their feud

And who was the real Joan Fontaine?

A difficult woman, no doubt.  Vastly more complicated than most of the characters she played on screen.

And to get back to our main point, who, dear reader, was the real Susan in The Affairs of Susan?

You’ll have to find that one out for yourself.  And as this film is available for free on You Tube and is a delightful watch, you have absolutely no reason not to.

Notes

  1. Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  2. Matzen, Robert.  Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood.
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid

Full Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Eyman, Scott.  Cary Grant:  A Brilliant Disguise.
  • Fontaine, Joan.  Bed of Roses.
  • Higham, Charles.  Sisters: The Story of Olivia DeHavilland and Joan Fontaine
  • Matzen, Robert. Errol & Olivia: Ego & Obsession in Golden Era Hollywood

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

Jane Eyre (1944):  A Failed Rebecca Redux

Nobody broods like a Brontë.

In Edward Rochester, Charlotte Brontë created one of literature’s surliest heroes.

And a heroine strong enough to go toe-to-toe with him.

Jane Eyre is a nineteenth century classic that pits a brooding hero against an uncommonly feisty woman in a struggle for true love.  The novel is an undisputed gothic masterpiece, adapted again and again for the screen, most recently in 2011 with Mia Wasikowska in the titular role.

Every generation gets its own Jane and Rochester.

The 1944 version starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine was Hollywood’s second crack at a talking adaptation, after at least five silent versions.

I haven’t read the novel in decades, so I can’t pinpoint where the film deviates from the book, but the broad strokes are as I remember.

Jane Eyre is a poor orphan, mistreated first by her rich but uncaring aunt, then by the teachers in an unforgiving boarding school.  She has a stubborn and defiant streak the reader admires but that all her guardians try to metaphorically and literally beat out of her.  When she comes of age, she goes to Thornfield Hall, a large and isolated home, to become a governess.  There she meets Edward Rochester, the mysterious owner of the house.  He is ugly, ill-tempered, and haunted by demons, but Jane softens him up with her honesty and courage.

They fall in love, and all is well until the reason for his secret misery is revealed, threatening their happiness and safety.

The problem with Jane Eyre isn’t adherence to the source material.

It’s that they tore out its soul.

In the filmmaker’s defense, the relationship between Jane Eyre and Rochester is doubtless one of the trickiest to capture on celluloid.

I would argue that Eyre is a more difficult adaptation than its often-filmed cousins, Wuthering Heights, and Pride and Prejudice.  In Heights, Cathy is no damsel, but nearly as cruel and greedy as Heathcliff.  And Pride and Prejudice is an entirely different animal, an early battle-of-the-sexes story, a gentle satire of the upper class rather than a moody, gothic novel.

In Jane Eyre, Rochester has all the power—he is wealthy, Jane’s employer, and more experienced in the ways of the world.

Jane has no family, no home, no one who has ever really loved her.  She risks starvation if Rochester throws her out.

How can love truly grow with such an imbalance of power?

And yet in the novel, Jane is Rochester’s intellectual equal.  He loves her for her strength, her lack of artifice, and the (correct) belief that she would stand by him through all manner of troubles, unlike the vain and wealthy Blanche Ingram, whom everyone assumes Rochester will marry.

This film, alas, does not capture Jane’s strength.

Orson Welles captures the brutish and cold side of Rochester, but can’t seem to give him any shades of tenderness.  He bullies Jane, seeming to pull her close and push her away at whim and for his amusement.

When their wedding is disrupted, he offers her no explanation or apology, and comes off cold as ice to his bewildered bride.

Joan Fontaine is little better as Jane.  She is demure, mousy, and completely overtaken by Welles in every scene.

I’m not sure this is entirely her fault as an actress.  This film feels very much as if it is more interested in recapturing the magic of Fontaine’s portrayal of the second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca than making Jane Eyre.  From the outside, the two characters are similar—both orphans, both submissive women living in big dark castles with brooding men who harbor dark secrets.

But here’s the thing—Jane Eyre is nothing like the second Mrs. de Winter.  Jane has suffered more, and her suffering has given her a shell that protects her without destroying her humanity. 

She does not worship Rochester, as the second Mrs. de Winter worships Maxim.  She doesn’t feel like she has won the lottery when he asks her to marry him.  Jane and Rochester fall in love first, then marry.

With Maxim and the second Mrs. de Winter, it’s the other way around.

I’ve read both novels, and never linked them together in my mind.  But the ghost of Rebecca haunts this film as much as Rebecca herself haunted Maxim and his new bride.

Welles and Fontaine have zero chemistry, and the child actresses portraying a young Jane shows more defiance than Fontaine is ever allowed to.

Other adaptations are better, specifically the one from 2011, but none that I have seen truly capture the essence of Brontë’s heroine. 

I’ve decided not to spoil the ending, for though most will know it, if you don’t, I encourage you to skip all the adaptations and spend a rainy weekend with Brontë’s novel.

And if you do decide, against my better judgement, to watch the film—make sure to take note of Helen, the young girl Jane befriends at her school.  The role is uncredited, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that I knew the face.

Young Jane with her friend Helen, a very familiar face….

Eventually I realized I was watching Elizabeth Taylor, in just her third onscreen appearance.

The fact that this was the most memorable moment tells you everything you need to know about this disappointing film.

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.

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.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.”

Thus begins the letter Stefan Brand opens in 1900 in Vienna, on the eve of a duel where he will lose his honor if he flees and his life if he attends.

Though Stefan has little regard for his life these days, he has never had any regard for his honor.  He has no time to read a lengthy letter, especially written in a hand he doesn’t recognize.

And yet.

“By the time you read this letter, I may be dead.  I have so much to tell you—and perhaps very little time.  Will I ever send it?  I don’t know.”

Could you resist such an opening?

Fueled by cigarettes and cognac-laced coffee, Stefan reads through the night, discovering a fantastic tale of unrequited love.

The letter tells the story of Lisa Berndle, a young girl with a childish infatuation with Stefan Brand, a talented pianist.  Lisa falls in love with his playing, which she can hear late at night through the walls of her apartment.  Though still a young man, Stefan is much older and sees the shy Lisa only once.  His talent and looks bring a parade of women to his door.

It is perhaps understandable that he would not remember her as a child.

Yet even after her family moves from Vienna, she never forgets him, and even turns down a respectable marriage proposal because her heart belongs to Stefan, even if he does not know her name.

Years later they meet in Vienna and spend a wonderful night together.  Stefan is everything Lisa knew he would be—attentive, charming, and romantic.  Yet Stefan must leave the next morning for a musical tour, and he soon forgets her in the sea of new woman clamoring for his attention.

Until the letter, he never knew that the woman loved him so deeply, or that their wonderful night together resulted in a child.

He still does not remember her.

Years later, they meet again and he has a vague recollection of her and Lisa is prepared to throw her entire world away—her caring husband, the stable life she has built for her now ten-year-old son—for Stefan.

He lures her away with romantic words and promises.  Lisa thinks it is true love, but for Stefan, he is executing his standard seduction routine.  

He has had hundreds of romantic nights with a beautiful stranger.

Lisa has had just one.

It is nearly impossible to develop an entirely original plot line, but I believe Letter From An Unknown Woman manages it, and it is worth watching for that alone.  It is a gloomy tale of an extraordinary unrequited love. Lisa bears Stefan’s child and pines for him her entire life, and Stefan barely remembers her face and—even after the letter—cannot recall her name.

Joan Fonatine walks a tightrope as Lisa—we have to sympathize with a woman who has not outgrown a childhood fantasy and is too naïve to recognize her lover for the womanizer he is.  Veer too far one way and Lisa is so air headed that you want to shake her and tell her to wake up.  Veer too far the other and Lisa could take on the air of a celebrity stalker.

Fontaine plays it beautifully.  There are shades of her character in Rebecca here—a trusting younger woman, a mysterious older man.  But unlike Maxim in Rebecca, here Stefan never redeems himself—he is the callous cad the audience always knew him to be.

When she finally realizes that she means nothing to Stefan—that he doesn’t even remember her—the heartbreak is palpable.

But the film does not play him as a villain—that would be too easy—but as a man who had everything come too easy to him too early in life.  He does not appreciate his female admirers, just as he does not appreciate his talent.  

The tragedy of the film is that Lisa sees too clearly the life they will never have together, and Stefan never sees it at all.

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

We Interrupt 1939 To Bring You Rebecca (1940): The Unlikely Triumph of the Second Mrs. DeWinter

#31 Golden Age of Hollywood Series

By 1939 Alfred Hitchcock was a famous British director, and he wanted to come to America.  Knowing his talent, producer David O. Selznick took time out of his day making Gone With the Wind to lure Hitch into signing a contract with Selznick International Pictures.

It’s hard to imagine two more different people working together than Selznic and Hitch.  Selznic was obsessed with every detail, and saw every film he made as an epic, a one-of-a-kind crown jewel.  He meddled in every piece—micromanaging the scriptwriting, the directing, the costuming.  He wrote epic memos berating his staff for creative decisions he disagreed with and thought nothing of throwing out a raft of complete work only to start again.  He did want to make movies on an assembly line like the other studios.  He wanted one-of-kind handcrafted films.  Though he felt he thrived in chaos, it is no exaggeration to say that he nearly killed himself making Gone With the Wind.  When caught in a creative fever, he would work day and night for months or years on end.  Though he made the greatest movie of all time, he burned himself out early and was more or less out of the picture making business by age fifty.

Hitch, by contrast, was a deliberate plodder.  He thought out every scene in advance, and thus his shoot on set was clean and efficient.  He hated chaos.  He demanded absolute authority in matters of directing, but stayed out of script and production decisions that were not in his job description.

It was a collaboration that couldn’t last.  But for the few years they held it together, Selznick and Hitch made some excellent films, the first and finest of which is Rebecca.

Rebecca is a masterpiece.  A timeless tale of mystery and romance, it is one of the worthiest Best Picture Winners in Oscar history.  And because watching the mystery unfold is the chief pleasure of this film, I won’t spoil a bit of the ending or key plot points.

The film opens in the French Riviera, where a young, orphaned woman played by Joan Fontaine is swept off her feet by widower Maxim DeWinter, an older but dashing man.  After a courtship of only a few days, Maxim proposes marriage.  Deeply naive and in love, the woman accepts.  After a happy, carefree honeymoon, Maxim takes his young bride home to Manderly, a famous and ancient old family mansion by the sea.

In Manderly, our heroine is isolated, left alone for long stretches in the big empty house, and Maxim falls into extended stony silences.  Though Maxim never mentions his first wife, everyone else is quick to tell our heroine how he adored his first wife, Rebecca.

That’s right.  Joan Fonatine is not Rebecca.  She is the unnamed heroine of the story, referred to only as the second—and apparently inferior—Mrs. DeWinter.  (That bit of brilliance is a credit to Daphne DuMaurier’s novel, where the second Mrs. DeWinter is the narrator of a tale that does not bear her name.)

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, adored Rebecca.  According to her new sister-in-law, Rebecca threw the best parties, knew the best people, and wore the best clothes.  She knew how to dance, flirt, charm, host a party and run an estate like Manderly.

Our narrator doesn’t have a clue where to start.

Thanks to Hitch’s deft camera work and a haunting score, the audience begins to suspect that everything with Rebecca’s memory is not as it seems.  We begin to somehow understand the dread and terror our heroine feels at the sight of Rebecca’s stationery in her writing desk.  When Mrs. Danvers lovingly paws Rebecca’s lingerie and monogrammed pillows, her coldness toward the second Mrs. DeWinter takes on a decidedly sinister air.

The audience asks the question the second Mrs. DeWinter is afraid to ask herself.

Is Maxim haunted by his wife’s accidental death…or something more ominous?

It’s triumph owes its greatness first to Daphne DuMaurier and her sublime gothic novel of the same name.  Then to David O. Selznic, who insisted Hitch hew as close to the source material as the production code would allow.  And to Alfred Hitchcock, who kept a story about a woman who lives in the shadow of her husband’s dead first wife from becoming melodramatic schlock and instead has the audience tensing as she turns every corner in the big empty house she can’t make a home.  And finally credit goes to Joan Fontaine, who was believable and sympathetic as a woman who feels so achingly inferior she is afraid to admit to her housekeeper when she breaks a decorative china cupid.

You pull out any four of these pieces and the whole puzzle falls apart.

Together, you have that Hollywood magic.

Rebecca was released in 1940, not 1939.  So why have I interrupted the Greatest Year in Movies to discuss Hitch’s first American hit?

Today Netflix is releasing their Rebecca remake starring Lily James in the Joan Fontaine role, Armie Hammer and Kristin Scott Thomas as Mrs. Danvers.  I’ve gushed all over Selznick and Hitch’s film, but with this casting, I’m excited to see the remake.  For all their brilliance, Hitch and Selznick had their hands tied by the production code—they had to water down the novel’s ending, and I think Maxim and the heroine did their best communicating in the bedroom.  With the freedom of modern filmmaking, I’m excited to see what they will do with DuMaurier’s unforgettable tale.

Armie Hammer and Lily James in the Netflix remake. I was sold as soon as I saw the headband.

Can Netflix recreate the magic and bring something new to this classic romance?

Here’s hoping.

*You can watch Hitch’s original Rebecca for free on YouTube here.

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