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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The Maltese Falcon (1941)

Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet The Maltese Falcon

The Maltese Falcon, 1941, Warner Bros. Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre. Directed by John Huston. B&W, 100 minutes.

In foggy San Francisco, world-weary private detective Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) has taken on a new case from beauty Ruth Wonderly (Mary Astor). Spade’s partner, Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan), is clearly attracted to Miss Wonderly and agrees to go undercover that night on her behalf. While seeking out the man she believes can help her, he is fatally shot — and so is the subject of his search.

Spade discovers, or rather confirms, that Ruth Wonderly is not her real name, and she is apparently Brigid O’Shaughnessy. The two are caught up in a passionate affair, yet that seemingly doesn’t cloud his judgment in uncovering clues in the case.

Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor
Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor

Spade does determine the real crux of Brigid’s concern is the Maltese Falcon, an ancient small statue encrusted in rare jewels that is being transported to San Francisco. Enter Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre), a small, slick man whose loyalties aren’t clear and character is, and the “Fat Man,” Kasper Gutman (Sydney Greenstreet), whose dedication to anyone or anything is centered around obtaining the elusive statue.

Considered by many the first of the film noir style movies, it set a standard for such that was challenging to meet. The film was based on the novel by Dashiell Hammett, which was originally serialized in five parts in a popular magazine of the time, Black Mask. The novel was far more provocative than censors of the time would allow movies to be, although as a film The Maltese Falcon does a good job of letting in a strong sexual element.

It was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Greenstreet and Best Adapted Screenplay for John Huston. This was also Huston’s directorial debut, along with Greenstreet’s screen debut, at the age of 61, after a long stage career.

Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre in The Maltese Falcon
Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre

The movie was made three times; this was the third and undoubtedly the best. Uncharacteristic to the times, Huston’s screenplay stayed true to the original story, and his directing carried the atmosphere of the novel to the screen. Taking a complex story written by one of the most accomplished mystery writers of our time and bringing it to the screen in a manner true to the original is an enormous task, and Huston did it.

George Raft was first offered the role of Sam Spade, but he considered the movie unimportant and was unhappy at the thought of working with a first-time director. He had also turned down the lead in High Sierra, the role that had then launched Bogart’s leading man career, and is rumored to have later turned down the part of Rick in Casablanca. A rumor that is just as likely to be a good story as the truth, but it is a good story.

The role of Brigid was first turned down by rising star Geraldine Fitzgerald, who, among other reasons, didn’t want to star beside then B-movie actor Humphrey Bogart. Mary Astor had no such reservations and leapt at the chance to play the complex, dark woman whose motives and actions were always suspect.

Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon.png
Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart

Greenstreet and Lorre played off each other well — Greenstreet the self-confident, bigger-than-life character and Lorre the small, nervous, somewhat odd and unpredictable man. They appeared together in nine more films, notably Casablanca a year later. Their supporting roles in that film were as critical to the story as was Bogart’s leading man performance.

The Maltese Falcon is a film you can see one hundred times over and never view in quite the same way twice. It is complex, underplayed yet exciting, and full of subtle, rich details that fill the screen. A must-see for all classic film fans.

 

 


Arsenic and Old Lace

Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, Cary Grant in Arsenic and Old Lace

Arsenic and Old Lace, 1944, Warner Bros. Pictures. Starring Cary Grant, Priscilla Lane, Josephine Hull, Jean Adair. Directed by Frank Capra. B&W, 118 minutes.

A dark comedy with a pair of innocent-minded serial killer aunts and their bewildered, yet loving, nephew is funny, fast-paced and full of surprises, with a chain of events that maintains suspense and unfolds into a Halloween tale like no other.

Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) has just married the girl next door, Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane), and before the two leave on their honeymoon, they stop to give the news to their respective families. For their part, the Brewster sisters, Abby & Martha (Josephine Hull, Jean Adair, reprising their Broadway roles), who raised Mortimer, are thrilled he’s finally settling down with the lovely Elaine.

Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant, Arsenic and Old Lace
Priscilla Lane, Cary Grant

But during his visit, Mortimer discovers his kindly aunts have taken on a new cause, that of releasing lonely elderly gentlemen from their earthly pain with a sip of poisoned elderberry wine. The morbid work of burying the bodies in the basement is done by deluded Uncle Teddy (John Alexander), who believes he’s Theodore Roosevelt, digging the Panama Canal.

About the time the full impact of his aunts “very bad habit” has begun to sink in on him, another blow is dealt to Mortimer — the return of his long-lost brother, Johnathan (Raymond Massey), along with Johnathan’s plastic-surgeon friend, Dr. Einstein (Peter Lorre). The two have their own body in tow, that of one late Dr. Spenalzo.

Johnathan isn’t from the same benevolent branch of the family tree as Mortimer and the aunts, and he plans to do the rest of them in, one way or the other.

While this film features Cary Grant in one of his most over-the-top comedic performances, the strength of the dialogue is often in its dry and understated style.

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull Arsenic and Old Lace.png
Jean Adair, Josephine Hull

It’s a continued contrast of extremes throughout the film that keeps the humor fresh. There’s a lot going on in this macabre combination of screwball comedy/horror film, yet somehow, the story is cohesive and, despite the numerous plot twists, never contrived beyond the nature of whatever genre this film might actually fall into.

The rest of the cast includes such strong, scene-stealing character actors as Edward Everett Horton and James Gleason. After a point, the whole show just lets loose, and it’s Mortimer himself whose surrender to the situation best sums up the whole zany scenario.

The movie was was originally filmed in 1941, in part because of Grant’s availability at that time, with the agreement it wouldn’t be released domestically until the Broadway run of the play was complete. It has been said to have been shown to serviceman overseas before its 1944 release, but no official record of that exists today.

Frank Capra chose this project because it took him away from the “feel good” films he’d become known for and into a wacky plot with no particular redeeming value, save its dark humor and non-stop antics. It’s not a film fans of either Capra or Grant point to as pivotal parts of their careers, yet it remains immensely popular and a part of pop culture today.