The Constant Nymph

Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine in 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.

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Rebecca

laurence-olivier-joan-fontaine-starring-in-rebecca

Rebecca, 1940, United Artists. Starring Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier. Co-starring Judith Anderson, George Sanders. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock. B&W, 130 minutes.

A naïve young woman of lowly means (Joan Fontaine), whose lack of confidence keeps her from so much as revealing her name, has met the dashing and wealthy Maxim de Winter (Laurence Olivier), owner of the renowned Manderley estate. The two marry after a whirlwind courtship of only two weeks. It is Maxim’s second marriage; his first wife, Rebecca, tragically drowned in a sailing accident only a year before.

Quite in love, yet unprepared for the demands her married lifestyle requires, the young bride’s insecurities are played upon by both the forbidding and foreboding long-time Manderley housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) and Rebecca’s rakish cousin, Jack Favell (George Sanders). The late Rebecca still has a stronghold on the entire estate, and the new Mrs. de Winter finds herself faltering under it.

An unexpected discovery leads to a shocking revelation, and the newlywed couple teeter on the brink of credibility and consequences.

laurence-olivier-joan-fontaine-in-rebecca
Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine

The first American film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, Rebecca was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, including Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. It won two, for Best Picture and Best Cinematography, Black & White.

Based on the now-classic novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier, the film is true to the book in virtually every way, save for a plot element that was necessary to change to meet Motion Picture Production Code standards. Hitchcock deftly worked that change so it is barely notable in the overall storytelling, and the impact of the story is not lessened.

Fontaine’s performance in particular is noteworthy; the subtle changes in her demeanor tell the bride’s story. While Fontaine had appeared in several films before this time, including small roles in Gunga Din and The Women, this became a breakout role for her. It led to other significant parts, including the lead in Suspicion the following year, for which she won the Oscar.

george-sanders-joan-fontaine-laurence-olivier-in-rebecca
George Sanders, Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier

George Sanders, who made a career of playing incorrigible characters, is pitch perfect as the wicked cousin determined to destroy Maxim, and in the process, take down the second Mrs. de Winter, the woman who replaced his highly favored cousin. And while you feel little sympathy for Mrs. Danvers, the character was given depth by the performance of Judith Anderson, who received an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Hitchcock employed numerous tricks to set the mood for the story, including creating an emphasis on the omniscient presence of Mrs. Danvers in the young wife’s life by rarely showing the older woman walking or moving. She was nearly always seen standing still, seeming to appear out of nowhere, setting the fragile bride on edge in her own home.

joan-fontaine-judith-anderson-in-rebecca
Joan Fontaine, Judith Anderson

No less a character in the movie than the fine cast was Manderley, the de Winter estate. According to Hitchcock, the estate seen in its entirety was done in miniature, and was not represented by any existing structure in England or elsewhere.

Producer David O. Selznick stepped in after the initial cut of Rebecca was completed and made numerous changes, which, while some feel markedly made the film better and helped capture the moodiness and dark elements of the story, reportedly did not make Hitchcock happy. As a result, he is said to have changed his directing style after this film so that each scene was shot precisely as he wanted it and little extra footage was available for further edits.

A taut psychological tale of romance and betrayal, Rebecca is a film that has stood the test of time with its fine performances, artful direction and cinematography, and a captivating, complex story of the grip an untimely death can have on those left behind.

The Women (1939)

Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer in The Women

The Women, 1939, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Starring Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Joan Fontaine, Paulette Goddard, Mary Boland. Directed by George Cukor. B&W, 133 minutes

This biting satire of the lives of Park Avenue women has lost none of its punch since it first was released more than 75 years ago. The movie is rich with characters, sub-plots and razor-sharp wit, and the story line itself is as old as marriage.

Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) is a devoted, trusting wife who learns, with the unsolicited help of her less-than-true friend Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), about her husband’s affair with a perfume counter clerk, Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford).

Rosalind Russell in the The Women
Mimi Olivera, Rosalind Russell

Sylvia has no problem sharing details, real or imagined, with other friends in their social circle, and soon the story has made the society pages. Despite pleas from her husband to stay, Mary chooses to divorce him. In the meantime, multiple other marriages are in trouble as well.

We’re nowhere near the end of this fine film here, but I’m leaving it to you to discover the rest. It ends in a classic screwball-comedy confrontation at a posh event that brings things to the final, melodramatic (yet satisfying) outcome.

The legendary Anita Loos and screenwriter/director Jane Murfin adapted the screenplay from the Broadway hit written by the equally renowned Clare Boothe (Luce). (Other writers, including F. Scott Fitzgerald, are said to have made uncredited contributions to the script.) The play was much racier, requiring re-wording of large portions of dialogue, which was heavily laden with innuendo too rich for acceptance by the Motion Picture Production Code.

Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford The Women
Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford

While men play a significant role in the movie, you don’t see hide nor hair of them throughout (with the exception of two minor pictures in advertisements). Apparently even the animals were female. There’s nothing contrived about this, however. While you’re aware of the absence of men, you won’t find a single scene that needs a man to make it realistic.

In a lucky break, director George Cukor had been fired from the making of Gone With the Wind a month before production on The Women began. Lucky, because, in addition to his skills as a director, Cukor was adept at handling the real-life rivalries between his stars, including a fierce professional battle between Shearer and Crawford.

There’s a Technicolor fashion show by top couture designer Adrian that’s a bit out-of-place, unnecessary to the plot, but fascinating all the same with its designs that range from stylish to outlandish.

Paulette Goddard Joan Crawford Rosalind Russell Norma Shearer in The Women
Paulette Goddard, Joan Crawford, Rosalind Russell, Norma Shearer

Surprisingly, The Women received no Academy Award nominations, but that was, after all, 1939, a year many consider the best for the Golden Age of Hollywood, with movies including Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz,  Stagecoach, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Today most critics agree The Women stands its own with those other fine films.

If you saw the 2008 remake, forget it. There’s no comparison in wit or star power.  Stick with the original.