The Constant Nymph

The Constant Nymph, 1943, Warner Bros. Starring Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a concert pianist, is in a slump, and for inspiration he seeks out his friend Albert Sanger (Montagu Love) in Switzerland. Sanger has four daughters, all of whom adore Dodd, but Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is particularly enamored of him.

Shortly after his arrival, the Sanger girls’ worst fear is realized when their father dies. They are left penniless, but in the care of their wealthy uncle, Charles Creighton (Charles Coburn). Creighton visits Switzerland with his daughter, Florence (Alexis Smith), who also becomes enchanted by Dodd, and he returns her feelings. Florence and Dodd are married, leaving Tessa heartbroken. For Tessa, who has a heart condition, this stress is a serious problem.

The life of ease and wealth proves uninspiring to Dodd, however, and the newlywed couple soon discover they are no longer happy together. Equally dissatisfied with their lives are Tessa and her sister Paula, who have been sent to boarding school.

Tessa has never gotten over her feelings for Dodd, and through his music, he appears to now be returning them. But she is young, and he is married, and any union between the two seems unlikely to be destined.

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith

The Constant Nymph was nominated for one Academy Award, Best Actress for Joan Fontaine, who lost to Jennifer Jones for her role in The Song of Bernadette. The nomination was deserved; Fontaine created an engaging and memorable character, one that is said to be among her favorites. She was cast after director Goulding had conducted a difficult search for a star who could play a 14-year-old convincingly and with depth, rejecting Joan Leslie, the studio’s choice.

Charles Boyer wasn’t as happy with his part, saying he felt the character lacked strength and sensitivity. Peter Lorre is also featured in one of his most “normal” roles, as the new husband of Tessa’s older sister Toni, and an excited father-to-be.

Charles Boyer Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph
Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine

The movie had been out of circulation from 1951 to 2011 as rights to the story reverted back to Margaret Kennedy, the author of the book on which it was based. This was an unusual situation for Warner Bros., who typically bought story rights in perpetuity. Kennedy stated in her will the film could only be shown in universities and museums, and it was rarely seen even in those venues. In 2011, Turner Classic Movies introduced a restored edition at its annual Classic Film Festival.

This is a fine film, with a story that is well-told and realistic despite its melodrama, and sharp performances from the entire cast. It has a more esoteric approach than most films of its day, focusing a bit more on the ethereal (and perhaps ephemeral) aspects of life, yet it brings the audience into the realities of one of life’s most painful situations, the loss of love.

Grand Hotel

Grand Hotel, 1932, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Greta Garbo, Lionel Barrymore, John Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Joan Crawford. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 112 minutes.

Five diverse individuals, each battling his or her own demons, are staying at the Grand Hotel where their lives and stories intersect. All lives are changed during that stay, some improve, some are left with nothing.

Otto Kringelein (Lionel Barrymore) is a retired assistant bookkeeper with only a short time to live. He’s decided to play out his last days in luxury, and despite his meek nature, demands an elite room. Baron Felix von Geigern (John Barrymore) is an aristocrat without a penny to his name, forcing him to resort to thievery to maintain his standard of living. His latest victim is to be ballerina Grusinskaya (Greta Garbo), whose declining career has led her to despair.

joan-crawford-lionel-barrymore-in-grand-hotel
Joan Crawford, Lionel Barrymore

There’s also Kringelein’s former employer, General Director Preysing (Wallace Beery), whose business is depending on a merger that has fallen through, and ladder-climbing Flaemmchen (Joan Crawford), the stenographer he hires for a business meeting with potential investors.

The Baron, despite his tawdry livelihood, is a gentleman and the one pivotal to moving all lives forward, whether to disaster or triumph. His fate seals that of the others.

john-barrymore-lionel-barrymore-starring-in-grand-hotel
John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore

This pre-code film was the first to use an all-star ensemble cast, a tradition studios carried out for years to come. It also is known for its deft storytelling. The winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture, it was not nominated in any other category, the only film in the Award’s history to hold that dubious distinction.

Garbo’s famous line “I want to be alone” is uttered by her character in Grand Hotel, and is credited with solidly establishing her reputation as a recluse and loner. Later she clarified the real-life meaning of the phrase for herself when she said, “I just want to left alone.” In addition to that famous line, this film, along with Anna Karenina, is often credited as the movie that proved her star power was not just in silent films, but was also found in the new “talkies.”

She was initially reluctant to be in Grand Hotel, in part because she felt that, at the age of 27, she was too old to play a diva ballerina. Studio head Irving Thalberg convinced her otherwise, and promised she could select the actor who would play Baron von Geigern, her love interest in the story. Initially she wanted her former fiancé John Gilbert, but his career was in a decline, and she accepted Thalberg’s suggestion of John Barrymore instead.

joan-crawford-wallace-beery-in-grand-hotel
Joan Crawford, Wallace Beery

Thalberg had to convince Beery and Crawford to star in the movie as well, but lucky they did, given its success. Crawford in particular was credited for rising to the level of the performances of her well-established co-stars and gaining credibility as an actress in talking pictures.

The movie had a huge budget for the time, a good portion of which was spent on the phenomenal Art Deco set.

Grand Hotel established a new style of film, one of many characters whose lives may or may not be entwined, that Neil Simon, among others, later copied in some of his productions. It also was the direct inspiration for the production of Dinner at Eight a year later. It is a credit to the then still-young movie industry that it holds up so well today.

Dark Victory (1939)

Dark Victory, 1939, Warner Bros. Starring Bette Davis, George Brent. Co-starring Geraldine Fitzgerald, Humphrey Bogart. Directed by Edmund Goulding. B&W, 104 minutes.

Stubbornly confident and exasperatingly independent, socialite Judith Traherne is accustomed to doing what she wants, when she wants, with few cares. She’s also adored by her stablemaster Michael O’Leary (Humphrey Bogart), who humors her belief her horse Challenger is a champion. He and her best friend, Ann (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are among the first to realize something is significantly wrong after she uncharacteristically takes a fall while riding Challenger.

Ann insists Judith see her family physician, who refers her to a specialist, Dr. Frederick Steele (George Brent). Dr. Steele is a well-respected man of science who’s planning to retire from medical practice in the immediate future and focus on research. Instead, after diagnosing a brain tumor, he performs surgery, but is not able to completely remove the tumor. Dr. Steele knows his patient, with whom he is falling in love, will die soon. However, he chooses not to tell her for several months, giving her time to enjoy her life while she can.

Judith does find out, however, and the change that comes over her is made moving and not maudlin by Davis’ wonderful performance.

Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent
Bette Davis, Geraldine Fitzgerald, George Brent

Davis, who was recently divorced from her husband and had also just ended an affair with Howard Hughes, and Brent, also facing life alone after divorce, began an affair during the filming of this movie that lasted for another year. Davis felt she was “too emotional” to adequately perform in Dark Victory, but producer Hal B. Wallis encouraged her to continue, telling her to channel her despair into the role. Later she was said to have called this one of her favorite characters.

The film received three Academy Award nominations, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Davis) and Best Original Score. It lost the Best Picture and Best Actress awards to Gone With the Wind and the Best Original Score to The Wizard of Oz.

Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart
Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart

The role of Michael O’Leary gave Hollywood its first opportunity to see leading man possibility in Humphrey Bogart. Today, with his stardom and persona so well established, he seems out of place in the part, but at the time it was a huge career boost for him. While hindsight, of course, is 20/20, it truly is easy to recognize his star quality.

(Reportedly, a short time later when producers were casting The Maltese Falcon, Geraldine Fitzgerald turned down the role of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, in part because Bogart wasn’t a big enough star. )

The New York Times raved about Davis’ performance, calling her “superb” and “enchanted and enchanting.” To those who would dismiss the film as “emotional flim-flam,” their critic wrote, “the mood is too poignant, the performances too honest, the craftsmanship too expert.”

It does, indeed, rise above the sentimental subject matter. Dark Victory is one of Bette Davis’ finest early performances. A movie all of her fans must know and any classic movie fan should watch at least once.