Sunday, November 07, 2010

Tonight's Movie: Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

I've always wanted to see HOLD BACK THE DAWN (1941), dating back to when I was a child and noticed a striking photo from the film in my parents' copy of THE AMERICAN MOVIES REFERENCE BOOK: THE SOUND ERA. I wondered then what Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland were doing in the picture; thanks to YouTube I now know they were kneeling in a church.

When I read a few days ago that HOLD BACK THE DAWN was available to see online I decided I'd better watch it as soon as possible, as films have a way of disappearing from YouTube, and since it's a Paramount film another opportunity to see it might not come along in the near future. Watching a film online is not my preference, but it was worthwhile; the print was excellent. The TCM logo appeared a couple of times, so perhaps there's hope this film will show up again on Turner Classic Movies one day.

HOLD BACK THE DAWN is simultaneously darkly cynical and lushly romantic, reflecting the styles associated with director Mitchell Leisen and screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. The film has a trio of megawatt stars, Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, and Paulette Goddard, and it was nominated for a slew of Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Actress (deHavilland), Best Screenplay, and Best Cinematography (Leo Tover).

The plot concerns a Romanian war refugee, Georges Iscovescu (Boyer), who desperately wants to live in America but is stuck in a Mexican border town waiting for a visa. By chance Georges runs into his former dance partner, Anita (Goddard), who advises him to marry an American, which will cut his wait down to four weeks. Then Georges can get a quickie divorce and he and Anita will hit the nightclub circuit.

Georges meets a naive American schoolteacher from Azusa, California, Emmy Brown (de Havilland), and within hours persuades her to marry him. But Georges doesn't count on two things: first, that he'll fall in love with Emmy for real; and second, that a spiteful Anita will interfere in his marriage.

de Havilland is absolutely luminous in this film; her Emmy seems lit from within, and the scenes depicting Emmy and Georges's honeymoon have a magical quality -- especially the fiesta sequence, during which Emmy and Georges' marriage is blessed in church. It was a picture of this scene which stayed with me for decades, despite never having seen the movie until now.

Brackett and Wilder actually wrote HOLD BACK THE DAWN with de Havilland in mind. Paramount was able to obtain her from Warner Bros. for the film in exchange for Fred MacMurray appearing in DIVE BOMBER (1941) with Errol Flynn.

Boyer plays a darker character than usual -- a real heel who is gradually redeemed, first by Emmy's unquestioning devotion and then by two incidents which stun him into realizing what he has in Emmy. It's to Boyer's credit that viewers don't completely hate the manipulative Georges.

Goddard is beautiful and has a great way with some of the wicked Brackett-Wilder dialogue; she's terrific in her big confrontation scene with de Havilland. Nonetheless, it's Olivia's film all the way, and she greatly deserved her Oscar nomination. Ironically, she lost to her own sister, Joan Fontaine, who won for SUSPICION.

The immigration issues discussed at length in the movie make this film almost as timely today as it was during World War II. The movie has terrific atmosphere and some striking photography, such as a scene where de Havilland's reactions to Boyer are reflected in a window. The one letdown was the film's ending, which was about 30 seconds too short. One can only assume that logistical difficulties with the cast must have prevented the perfect closing shot.

Rosemary DeCamp is particularly noteworthy among the supporting cast for her performance as a pregnant Austrian refugee who is determined her child will be born in America, although her husband's tuberculosis is preventing their entry into the U.S.

The supporting cast includes Walter Abel, Eric Feldary, Nestor Paiva, Victor Francen, and Charles Arnt.

Director Leisen plays a director named Dwight Saxon in the film's opening sequence and again near the end. Look for Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy near the start of the film.

HOLD BACK THE DAWN has been released on a Region 2 DVD in Spain.

For more on this film, check out a review by clydefro, who notes "It sounds patently obvious, but de Havilland really was some kind of actress." Another post of interest is at Self-Styled Siren.

It's very wrong that hundreds of Paramount films continue to be so hard to access. They're an essential part of American cinema history and our cultural heritage, and they deserve to be widely seen.

November 2012 Update: More thoughts on the film after a screening at UCLA, with Olivia de Havilland's daughter in attendance.

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