September Affair (1950):  The Perils of an Endless Vacation

Joseph Cotton and Joan Fontaine in September Affair (1950)
September Affair (1950)

And just what was little sister Joan Fontaine doing all this time?

Like every other actress in the late forties save Ingrid Bergman, she was falling behind Olivia de Havilland in the prestige department.

Though Joan had jumped ahead early—first to the Oscar, making prestige films at a leisurely pace under her contract with David O. Selznick while her sister toiled in the Warner Brothers salt mines, there was no doubt that by 1950 Olivia had opened up an insurmountable lead in their lifelong competition for the best film career.

Not that Joan was about to give up the fight.

Though she would receive no more Oscar nominations after 1943, Fontaine still had plenty of entertaining movies left to make.

In 1950, at age thirty-three, Fontaine shed the girlish persona that made her so successful in films like Rebecca, The Constant Nymph, and Letter From an Unknown Woman to play a mature woman in September Affair with Joseph Cotten.

The setup is simple—Manina Stuart (Fontaine) and David Lawrence (Cotten) meet when their plane to the United States has to make an unscheduled stop in Naples due to a mechanical issue.  Manina is an up and coming concert pianist who’d spent time in Italy practicing with her mentor for a concert that will make or break her career.  David is married with a grown son, a workaholic engineer reluctantly returning to his wife and company despite longing to leave it all behind.

Though strangers, they spend a lovely and magical afternoon in Naples, culminating in a romantic lunch in Capri, complete with wine and Walter Huston singing “September Song” on the victrola.  It’s a gauzy day, one out of time, the kind you can only have in a place you’ve never been and will never return to with a person you’ll only know in that moment.

Except the moment is extended when Manina and David return to find they’ve missed their plane.  Rather than immediately charter another one, they decide to spend a few days together before returning to their regularly scheduled lives.

Joseph Cotton and Joan Fontaine in September Affair (1950)

The chemistry is palpable, and they teeter on the brink of an affair without quite going over, as Manina does not want to sleep with another woman’s husband, no matter the state of the marriage in question.

Fate intervenes and offers them a chance to start over when the plane they were supposed to be on crashes and they are presumed dead.

Realizing that each has soothed the other’s loneliness, they decide to give up their lives and stay dead to the world.  They start a life that seems like paradise—David is able to free up some of his money and they buy a beautiful Italian villa way outside of town.  They hire a maid and cook who doesn’t speak English, and they have nothing to do but enjoy Italy—the food, the sun, and each other.

Endless vacation.  Who wouldn’t dream of it?

Joseph Cotton and Joan Fontaine in September Affair (1950)

And yet as real as the affection is between them, the outside world beckons.

Manina practices endlessly for a concert she swears will never perform.

David meets some local men and begins to draw up plans on how to redesign the water system so that the poor are better served.

And always, always David’s wife looms between them, haunting them as if she were the one pretending to be a ghost.

Can David truly be happy while letting his wife and son believe he is dead?

Can Manina?

I won’t spoil the ending, as the film is available (for now at least) on You Tube and is really a lovely story.  (It’s worth watching alone for a glimpse of the very young Jessica Tandy as David’s wife.)

But it is no spoiler to say that every vacation—no matter how lovely—must come to an end.

September Affair was one of the first American films shot in Italy after World War II, and was made in Naples, Milan, Capri, and Venice.  It is the first film Fontaine appeared in with short hair, and it gives Manina an air of sophistication that lends credence to the role.

Fontaine—who did not shy away from disparaging the films, co-stars, or directors she did not like in her autobiography—wrote fondly of September Affair, “Shooting the film was pleasant.  [Director] Dieterle and Cotten were civilized and amiable.  Hal Wallis was a producer of charm and concern.”

September Affair marked an important and critical turning point in Fontaine’s career, as she proved she could play a mature woman, and not just breathless girls who were mostly different takes on her character in Rebecca.

Little sister was turning out to have more than one note.

September Affair (1950) Verdict - Give It A Shot

Sources

  • Fontaine, Joan. No Bed of Roses.

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

Joseph Cotton and Joan Fontaine in September Affair (1950)
September Affair (1950) Directed by William Dieterle Shown from left: Joseph Cotten, Joan Fontaine

A Sequel of Sorts: Hush …Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Bette Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) opening banner

When Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and gave Joan Crawford no credit for the success of the picture, their feud went into overdrive. 

You can find any number of YouTube interviews of a late-in-life Bette Davis bitterly decrying that Crawford actively campaigned against her winning the Oscar, even though a Davis win would’ve led to financial gain for both.  If Davis had won, she would’ve been the first male or female to win three best acting awards, a title she wanted desperately and never got over not achieving.

To rub salt in Davis’ wound, Crawford accepted the Oscar onstage on behalf of the absent winner, Anne Bancroft (The Miracle Worker) and couldn’t keep the smug grin off her face.

Joan Crawford accepts the Best Actress Oscar for Anne Bancroft, 1963
Joan Crawford accepts the Best Actress Oscar for Anne Bancroft, 1963

So when director Robert Aldrich brought the two divas together again for Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, the stage was set for an epic clash.  Though they played entirely different characters, it was clear Aldrich was trying to catch lightning in a bottle a second time with his Southern gothic horror story of one cousin abusing the other.

On paper, it made sense.  Bette Davis would star as Charlotte Hollis, a haggard and possibly insane spinster who decades ago chopped off her married lover’s head with a meat cleaver when he broke off their relationship.  Davis relished the role, once again making herself as ugly as possible, and cackling and carrying on throughout the film as only she can.

Joan began filming as Miriam Deering, Charlotte’s once poor cousin who has made good and returns as a sleek and sophisticated career woman to persuade Charlotte that she must move out of her childhood home as the county is tearing it down to make room for a new bridge and roadway.

(For months after I first saw this film, no one could come into my front yard without my yelling “get off my property” in my best Bette Davis impersonation.)

Alas, a Joan and Bette redux was not to be.  After Davis harassed her, stole scenes, and just generally did everything she could to make Crawford’s life on set hell, Crawford began missing work and eventually ended up in the hospital.

Was she truly ill or did she fake it to get out of her commitment?

Only Joan Crawford knows for sure.

Joan Crawford as Miriam in Hush...Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964).  The role was ultimately played by Olivia de Havilland
Diva Joan Crawford could only take so much.

With much of the filming already complete and rapidly going over budget, Aldrich was desperate for a replacement.  Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, and Barbara Stanwyck had no interest.

Vivien Leigh rejected the role saying, “I can just about stand to look at Joan Crawford at six in the morning on a southern plantation, but I couldn’t possibly look at Bette Davis.”

In the end, Aldrich persuaded Olivia de Havilland to take over for Crawford.

Olivia de Havilland as Miriam in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Crawford, who was technically fired, shaded de Havilland from her hospital room saying, “I’m glad for Olivia—she needed the part.”

De Havilland was one of the few women Davis got along with onscreen and off, due almost completely to de Havilland’s admiration of Davis’ work and patience onset.  She was perhaps even better than Crawford, as her reputation as sweet and guileless Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind only made the film all the more satisfying when Miriam turns out to be the evil cousin, and Davis’ outrageous but ultimately harmless Charlotte is redeemed.

Just before she Bewitched the world as Samantha’s mother Endora, Agnes Moorhead did an Oscar-nominated turn in the film as Velma, Charlotte’s crusty housekeeper who is onto Miriam from the jump.  Some of the best scenes in the film involve Velma glaring at Miriam and sarcastically imitating her highfalutin ways.

Agnes Moorehead and Bette Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)
Agnes Moorehead and Bette Davis

Though entertaining in an outlandish, macabre sort of way, Sweet Charlotte is not as good a film as Baby Jane.  The plot is a little nuttier, Davis’ portrayal of a woman going crazy is even more over the top, and the gore, while tame by today’s standards, was eye-raising in 1964.

The twist at the end of Baby Jane—that Blanche (Crawford) was driving the car the night she was paralyzed, not a drunken Jane (Davis), as Jane always believed, leads to Jane asking, “You mean all this time we could’ve been friends?” and gives the film an unexpected poignancy.  With a different twist of fate, could Crawford and Davis have been friends, just like Blanche and Jane?

There’s no similar flourish at the end of Sweet Charlotte.  Miriam’s motives are simple greed, and she deliberately sets out to make Charlotte believe she is going insane.  Charlotte realizes the truth, kills Miriam and makes peace with moving out of the house.

Baby Jane and Charlotte spawned an entire raft of knock-offs, including Who Slew Auntie Roo? (1972), Whatever Happened, to Aunt Alice? (1969), Dear Dead Delilah (1972), and Die! Die! My Darling (1965), campy films that Barbara Stanwyck dismissed as “about grandmothers who eat their children.”

You can have yourself a grand old time watching Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

But as Hollywood almost never remembers, sometimes it’s best to quit while you’re ahead.

Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964) Verdict:  Film Buffs Only

Sources

  • Amburn, Ellis.  Olivia de Havilland and the Golden Age of Hollywood
  • Considine, Shaun.  Bette & Joan:  The Divine Feud
  • Madsen, Axel.  Stanwyck
  • Sikov, Ed.  Dark Victory:  The Life of Bette Davis

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

Bette Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)