Archive for the ‘Joan Fontaine’ Category

The Constant Nymph

02 May

The Constant Nymph – directed by Edmund Goulding. Romance. 112 minutes Black And White 1943


The Story: An adolescent girl has a crush on a classical composer who is a friend of the family.


She was a licensed pilot, and, after a flight from their grape ranch in Indio, she and her husband Brian Aherne were tired and decided to eat out before going home. They stopped at Romanoff’s.

In a nearby booth was Edmund Goulding, who had directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, The Great Lie, and knew Brian Aherne who was also English. Since Aherne had played the lead in The Constant Nymph in 1934, Goulding thought that Aherne might help with the casting of the female lead in the remake. Joan Leslie and others had been considered. He wandered over to their table.

“Sit down and join us, old boy,” said Aherne. “And, er, this is my wife.”

“Jack Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen,” said Goulding. “It’s impossible.”

“How about me?” said Aherne’s wife.

“Who are you?” asked Goulding.

“Joan Fontaine.”

“Oh my god, absolutely right!” Goulding ran to the nearest phone to call Jack Warner, and Fontaine was confirmed the next morning.

Fontaine had played Rebecca and Suspicion (the only Oscar winning performance in any Hitchcock film), and she would be nominated for The Constant Nymph.

Goulding was generally considered to be a genius director, and that is never more apparent than in his direction of this film. He rewrote a lot of the script to its advantage. His sense of the mis-en-scene, especially in the first half, is remarkable. The frocks on Joan Fontaine are by Sears-Roebuck, which is right, and the gowns on Alexis Smith are by Orry-Kelly and are  royal – indeed, one of them looks made from a bolt-end of Bette Davis’s metallic dress in Elizabeth And Essex. The lighting and camerawork Tony Gaudio did for him, the production by Henry Blanke and Hal Wallis which guaranteed Warner’s top talent, the sets, all make for a first class entertainment. As supporting actors, we have Peter Lorre, Alexis Smith, Dame May Whitty  and Charles Coburn — whose mere appearance in any picture is a comic situation in and of  itself.

But his handling of Joan Fontaine is what is most remarkable. For she is here as she had never been before and would never be again. She had generally played and would go on to play wan heroines and milksops, a series of vapid Rowenas. But in this film she is a lively teenager, tearing around the house with her sister, with her hair anywhichway. I could not believe this tedious and strained actress could act this charming, vivacious, spontaneous jeune fille. The picture is a wonder because of her. She always said it was her favorite film. It is the best thing she ever did.

With complete authority, Charles Boyer carries the part of the composer which he is probably too short, fat, and old to play. But he is entirely seductive, as usual, with his wonderful eyes and sensual mouth and deep and resplendent voice. Boyer is a great actor and enormously popular in his day – which, in this case, means an actor backed up by great internal vitality – such as, for instance, Tom Cruise.

Boyer’s score is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, but the music side of the story does not work because it is gauche. But this is overridden by Goulding’s direction. His sense of setting and decor. And his handling of actors.

Aside from Fontaine, notice his handling of Alexis Smith, a cold actor, whom Goulding makes sure we see a different side of here. The same is true of Lorre and Coburn. Both are at first obnoxious and both we eventually root for. Indeed, we come to side with all these characters – he has written and directed them in the round — a great feat for a director.

Yes, everyone in Hollywood thought of Goulding as great director. But his Bette Davis movies, for instance, are not great as movies.  So where are his great movies?

Here’s one.

Perhaps one’s enough.



Something To Live For

06 Aug

Something to Live For – produced and directed by George Stevens. Drama. 90 minutes Black And White 1952.


The Story: An alcoholic actress is rescued by an AA sponsor who falls in love with her.


Made between George Stevens’ masterpieces, A Place In The Sun and Shane, this film seems to have no explanation for its existence at all. It is baffling to both to watch it at the time and to contemplate afterwards.

The story destroys it. It was written by Dwight Taylor, an experienced screenwriter, who certainly knew about dipsomania, since alcoholism was rife in his family: his mother was the greatest of all American actresses and alcoholics Laurette Taylor.

The film starts with Ray Milland, an AA doing outreach rescuing (by some inexplicable coincidence) an aspiring actress from a binge. He then 13-Steps her, by falling irrevocably in love with her. She loves acting, but is failing at it. We then learn Milland has a job as an art director in (by some inexplicable coincidence he is failing at it). He also has a pregnant wife and two children (one of whom by inexplicable coincidence turns up at a rendezvous between Milland and the actress). The actress also turns up at a party (by some inexplicable coincidence), which Milland and his wife attend. The wrap-up takes place at the actresses opening night on Broadway to which (by some inexplicable coincidence) his wife at the last minute obtains center-of-the-orchestra tickets. And so it goes.

Perhaps the rockiness of the script defeated George Stevens’ famed treatment and handling, but little of what he does resuscitates the narration. There are his shots through windows and there are his slow fades and there are his usual and unusual angles and set-ups – but none of this can seize the material: it is too slick for talent to grasp.

The problem also lies, as it often did with Stevens, in the casting, about which he could be lackadaisical. The Diary Of Ann Frank is ruined by miscasting the leading role with a teenage fashion model. Max Von Sydow a blue-eyed Swede, good actor though he is, is hardly a Middle-Eastern Jew named Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told. Elizabeth Taylor could never have been a showgirl we are asked to accept her as in The Only Game In Town.

Here we have three Academy Award actors in the major roles, and none of them belong in them. Teresa Wright as the little wife does her plaintive routine in a thankless role. But casting Ray Milland and Joan Fontaine as the art director and the actress smears the material, making it Englishish. Milland had won an Oscar for playing a drunkard in The Lost Weekend, and he is good here as a reformed alcoholic sexually obsessed with the actress, but, through no fault of his own, his particular vocal projection does not belong in this hard-headed New York City material.

And then there is Joan Fontaine, an actor almost always miscast, except as a country mouse. Her vocal projection is strangled. She always plays the flaxen-haired, vapid, flaccid, fair Rowena of Ivanhoe. The part is really meant for an actor who is willing to exploit her mean streak, as Bette Davis did to win an Oscar for doing the part in Dangerous. But Fontaine falls back on pathos, her stock in trade. (Even her hair-do seems miscast.) Stevens used her in a minor role in Gunga Din, where she is fine, and in Damsel In Distress dancing with Fred Astaire, in whose arms she is completely out of place, as here. Why?

Stevens sometimes used actors who just happened to be on the studio roster and lucking-out, as he did with Shane. But here, at Paramount, the skewed casting is exacerbated by the colliding of coincidence and by the forcing of drinks on the two recovering drunkards. Drinks are thrust at them, dangled before them, shoved on them, poured into their water glasses. Alcoholism does not work that way. Alcoholism is an inner mental condition, a lure in the physical system. It exists as a sovereign space in the imagination. Having once succumbed to the salvation of the first drink, the license to continue is unleashed. It is not a moral or ethical defect nor one of want of fiber, but a chronic disease, like diabetes. The script does not grasp this and the rendering of the material by the director does not show he understands it.

George Stevens was a director with flawless consideration for his audience and what they could do and were very willing to do. I would love to understand why he thought he could do anything for an audience with this cast in this material at all. But it is interesting how each work of a master is not necessarily a masterpiece. For, as W. Somerset Maugham pointed out, only the mediocre achieve a level.







The Bigamist

15 Nov

The Bigamist – directed by Ida Lupino. Melodrama. 80 minutes Black and White 1953.


The problem with the picture is that its story is told as narration rather than as drama, by which I mean not just the voiceover but that the scenes which the actors engage in do not reach beneath the crop-dusting of the telling. Everything operates as it were from above.

The story is a Hollywoodization of the unsavory subject of bigamy, which means the subject has no recognizable human content, only an approval rating. We are supposed to see that these are all just very nice people in a pickle.

Why was Lupino involved as a director? Well, it was an issue-film, such as she often made — but a poor script, and the next to the last studio picture she made, The Trouble With Angels remaining.

As an actress unlike, say, Barbara Stanwyck, Lupino was common without having the common touch. She is by turns hard-bitten and sentimental, and never less than neurotic. So, as an audience, we are supposed to believe what is said about her rather than how she really appears to be, and we don’t. We feel cheated. “Damaged goods” is Lupino’s ambiance. That’s how she really appeared to be in every part she ever played. And true enough, no one, save Ida, could murmur, “Ya kill me,” and actually land the line as a romantic come-on without making one laugh. As an actress, she’s an odd presence in films. There is always something sightly insane about her. Or rather, she is always on the brink of sanity. It’s a quality that narrows her range, and makes her a hard actress to cast properly, but, unlike here, when she has a well-written and suitable role, she is unbeatable. Her brilliant performance in Roadhouse is the most telling rendition of the damaged-goods role ever put on film.

Joan Fontaine, who once won an Oscar in a leading role, is a sympathetic performer — or, perhaps one should say a pathetic performer. One usually pities rather than admires her, but here she is asked to play the part of a competent, smart, business woman, very much in charge of herself, and she does a pretty fair job. Two more Oscar Winners star here: Edmond O’Brien, who walks through the part of the bigamist, rather than crawls, and Edmund Gwenn who overacts the inspector sadly — but then, he is given dismal lines. We are supposed to approve of his disapproval of the bigamist, and we don’t. I do not accept Santa Claus as my moral compass — do you?

The censorship necessary, at the time, for the subject of bigamy comes from the casting of an actor as the bigamist who has no sex appeal whatsoever. With Edmund O’Brien we never suppose that his bigamy is the outcome of his sex drive, but only his need for companionship while on the road. This emasculates the material, reduces its entertainment value, and demolishes its human subtext. Essentially he becomes a man without a foible who falls by accident into this situation — so where is the drama? Propriety has rubber stamped an issue-film into a B-picture — without the energy of vulgarity that often gives B-pictures vitality.


The Bigamist

29 Apr

The Bigamist — directed by Ida Lupino. Drama. A man falls into marriage with two quite different sorts of women. 80 minutes Black and White 1953.


The story is told as voice-over, rather than as drama, which means that the scenes which the actors engage in do not reach beneath a conflicting narrative mode. The story is just a Hollywoodization of the subject of Bigamy anyway, which means the subject has no recognizable human content, only an approval rating. We are supposed to see that these are all just very nice people in a pickle. The only female director of her era, why was Lupino involved? Maybe because the movie is anti-heroic for the male. It’s her penultimate picture as a director; she does a beautiful job with The Trouble With Angels, but that’s it. As an actress Lupino was common without having the common touch, unlike, say, Stanwyck. As wife # 2, she is by turns hard-bitten and sentimental in her choices, and never less than neurotic. So, as an audience, we are supposed to believe what is said about her here rather than how she really appears to be, and we feel cheated. “Damaged goods” is a good description of her ambiance. And true enough, no one could make the romantic utterance, “Ya kill me,” and actually land the line without making one laugh. As an actress, she’s an odd presence in films. Confine your attention to her brilliant performance in Roadhouse or in High Sierra. As wife #1, Joan Fontaine, who once won an Oscar in a leading role, is a sympathetic performer — or, perhaps one should say a pathetic performer. One usually pities her rather than one feels for her, but here she is asked to play the part of a competent, smart, business woman, very much in charge of herself, and she does a pretty fair job. Two more Oscar Winners star here: Edmond O’Brien, who walks through the part, and Edmund Gwenn who overacts the inspector sadly – but then he is given dismal lines. We are supposed to approve of his disapproval of the bigamist, and I don’t, for I do not accept Santa Claus as my moral compass. So it is a B-picture without the energy of vulgarity that often gives B-pictures vitality. One hoped for more, but this is the era of studio collapse; they move towards competing with the lowest common denominator TV had to offer, and it finished them.


Gunga Din

12 Apr

Gunga Din — produced and directed by George Stevens. Comic Action Adventure. 117 minutes Color 1939.
George Stevens was 17 when he jumped over the wall of the Hall Roach Studios. What he found on the other side was a Western, Rex, King Of The Wild Horses, and its sequels. As assistant cameraman he went off into the rugged mountains and made up movies, and ever after he said that the Western was his preferred genre. What this gave us is, of course, Shane but it also produced The Greatest Story Ever Told, shot in those settings and Gunga Din a sort of Eastern Western, situated in spectacular mountains and in a frontier fort and a remote town, and with a host of bloodthirsty savages.

Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, authors of His Gal Friday, wrote the story, which, naturally therefore, has one of a trio of soldiers of the Raj wanting to get married and the other two sabotaging his immanent retirement by engaging all of them in putting down the Thugees, a tribe of native killers – read The Taliban.

To say there is a plot to this were to rearrange the meaning of that word, for the movie is one thing after another, a comic scene at the fort, followed by a big battle scene, comic scenes back at the fort, another battle scene, another comic scene back at the fort, and so forth.

The battle scenes are as funny as the comic scenes, for Stevens had learned gag comedy at The Roach Studios so the movie resembles Indiana Jones, or rather Indiana Jones resembles Gunga Din, for Jones kept up with Din by aping it in scene after scene. Stevens’ visual imagination in devising interesting and entertaining slaughters was unequalled. They involved thousands of actors and, to insure no one was hurt, they had to be carefully imagined, very slowly rehearsed, then repeated a bit faster, then faster still, then shot at full speed.

But Stevens also knew what to look at with his fort scenes, where the comedy depends not on gags but on the expressions on actors’ faces. Each of the sergeants – Douglas Fairbanks Junior is Scottish, Victor McLaglen is Irish, and Cary Grant is Cockney – has rich comic scenes to play, and from the start they are all involved in comical branagans. Grant has his lust for booty, McLaglen a darling elephant, and Fairbanks the milksop Joan Fontaine.

Stevens knows exactly what to look at with his camera, which is manned by the great Joe August, who even gives us an in-tight Place-In-The-Sun closeup of Fontaine. Abner Biberman and Eduardo Ciannelli play the outright villains outrightly. And Sam Jaffe is just lovely as the waterboy, Gunga Din, a middle-aged man who saves the day and who is the hero of Rudyard Kipling’s poem from which the picture is loosely derived. They originally wanted the great child actor Sabu, so Jaffe said he played it exactly as Sabu would have, and he’s just marvelous.

Alfred Newman’s music is rousing, and the thousands of troops on the parade grounds and threading through huge mountains is spectacular. Cary Grant is especially gratifying in, for him an unusual, lower class part and also a dopey one. There are comic effects on his face you will never see from him in any other film. All you need do is sit back and look at him to be entertained. He was lower class in origins, and it shines through with a warm, particular and special wit.

Stevens seldom moves his camera so the adventure takes place without intrusion, and he seldom used reaction shots, so the energy between actors is never broken. It is one of the most “complete” films ever made, and remained a George Stevens’ favorite.

The film has never been out of circulation since its immensely popular first showing in the year of the movie miracles, 1939.


A Damsel In Distress

03 Apr

A Damsel In Distress — directed by George Stevens. Musical. A fan-plagued hoofer seeks refuge in an English castle with two chums and falls for the lady of the manor. 93 minutes Black and White 1937.

* * * *

Everyone badly wanted Joan Fontaine fired from this, and one wonders why they cast her to begin with if she could not dance, but George Stevens put his foot down, and he was right. Fontaine was young and vulnerable, only 19, and she and her career would have crumbled. As it is, she said that the film set it back four years. Actually she dances well enough in the one number she has with Astaire, but it is carefully staged on woodland turf where Hermes Pan’s choreography has an excuse to be limited. Otherwise she’s rather dear. The difficulty is that Astaire’s partners always needed to dance comic turns as well as romantic ones because that’s where the love-drama was stated and resolved, and this could not happen with Fontaine or later with Joan Leslie or Paulette Goddard. Comic dance was Astaire’s forte. He had come from many Broadway years in a brother/sister act whose dances were not romantic but comic. When you look at Astaire’s solo turns in film you can see that most of them are humorous in energy and, when partnered, necessary to the love story. Recall how Ginger Rogers supplied the dance argument that set up the dramatic foundation of their courtship. With Rogers and Astaire, romance begins with comic dance bickering. George Stevens had already directed Rogers and Astaire in Swing Time, their best musical, but Astaire wanted to make a musical without her. He was tired of and afraid of fixed partners, such as his sister Adele had been and Rogers was becoming, and Rogers wanted to do her own films too, so Astaire made Damsel, and it was a financial failure, his first. but it’s too bad it is not more often seen. It failed perhaps because it needed an American girl: Rogers is ur-American but Fontaine is English; Rogers also is classless because she is show-biz, while Fontaine is clearly UC.  Also the love plot is thin, made up for by excellent supporting people, including Reginald Gardiner who at one point hilariously sings grand opera.  The Gershwins wrote the score, which gives us  “Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “A Foggy Day In London Town,” and spiffy comic numbers. These Astaire dances with two very experienced vaudevillians, George Burns and Gracie Allen, and the three of them are super together, particularly in a production number in an amusement park, which won Hermes Pan the Oscar that year for Dance Direction. Gracie Allen was that punned combination of innocence and an empty head that produced unintended wisdom, such as would later become Marilyn Monroe’s stock in trade, and George Burns is the studio couch on which she bounces. Stevens’ skill in direction is seen right away in the most exuberant dance Astaire ever filmed, actually performed in moving traffic – and later in the moving traffic of a party as Astaire and Montagu Love sit on castle stairs strategizing the love-plot. P.G. Wodehouse wrote the book, for in those days he did libretti (even, if you will, that for Showboat). The most interesting aspect of the picture in a way is the most relaxed and natural performance of Astaire’s career. This means that he is more internally visible and does less mugging, a holdover from his long-installed stage technique, such that his presence on the screen is humanly comic. Stevens had a way with actors, which was mainly to leave them alone and let them do what they really wanted. This gave all his many comedies a free-and-easiness priceless to this day. The movie is a charmer. Give yourself a treat.


This Above All

19 Jul

This Above All – Directed by Anatole Litvak. Wartime Romance. An upper crust girl falls for a man with a past in WWII England. 1 hour 50 minutes. Black and White 1942.

* * * * *

Young Joan Fontaine had a habit of marrying handsome suspicious neurotic men. She had that year won the Oscar for Suspicion with Cary Grant and had Rebecca to her credit. It brought out her skill as a good-hearted victim-girl. She is quite lovely in this, with that same sweet smile that graced her sister. Fontaine’s talent consists of a vulnerable charm and a humorous, good natured femininity, so characteristic of the female actors of that era, and quite welcome to one’s eyes here. You can see what she can do well, in her big early speech, when she tells off the formidable Gladys Cooper: “When you and Uncle Wilfred talk, I seem to hear words oozing from the holes of a moth eaten sofa,” which is a pretty good line. She delivers all the meaning, and holds back all the meanness — which is correct for this character and situation. And you feel for her difficulty in having to do that interminable speech later about How We British Must Soldier On! She lyricizes it into The Far Horizon, which is a mistake: she should simply deliver it right into Power’s eyes. But who can blame her; a speech of that length would daunt the doughtiest actress, which she certainly was not. Tyrone Power is another matter. He had remarkable eyes, and a face completely animated when speaking, so that his inner life moves invisibly through it. I say “invisibly” because he is not “doing his face”. Rather his inner spirit passes through his face, without grimace, without movement, and that genuineness is what people are really picking up from him, reading without eyes. Myrna Loy said of him: ‘He had a very strong sense of other people, heightened by a kind of mysticism, a spiritual quality. You could see it in his deep, warm eyes.”  And so the handsomest man in Hollywood never uses his looks to get what he wants. That’s not the way he was wired. When she asked him what he would like to be if he were not Ty Power: “‘I would like to be the wind, so I could be light and free and be anywhere I want at any time., I could go all around the world and look in people’s windows and share their joys and sorrows.’” It make him a highly sympathetic, responsive and fluid actor. Good for him. Young actors who want to learn film acting would do to watch him.


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