Saturday, January 11, 2014

Tonight's Movie: Frenchman's Creek (1944) at UCLA

It may only be January, but I believe I can safely say that tonight's screening of FRENCHMAN'S CREEK (1944) at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater will rank as one of my favorite viewing experiences of 2014.

The film was shown along with ADVENTURES OF CASANOVA (1948) as part of a double bill in the series This Strange Passion: Arturo de Cordova.

Since I had missed the opportunity to see the film when it was shown as part of a series honoring director Mitchell Leisen in the fall of 2012, I was very happy to have a fresh chance to see it on a big screen.

I knew virtually nothing about the film at the outset, other than it was based on a novel by Daphne Du Maurier. The film's leading lady, Joan Fontaine, had previously starred in the adaptation of another Du Maurier novel, the Best Picture winner REBECCA (1940).

As the 35mm print of FRENCHMAN'S CREEK unspooled, it revealed itself to be a Technicolor marvel; the visuals alone, photographed by George Barnes and an uncredited Charles Lang, would make the film worth seeing.

The fabulous costumes were designed by Raoul Pene Du Bois and, according to David Cheirichetti's MITCHELL LEISEN: HOLLYWOOD DIRECTOR, Leisen himself. Extensive filming in the area of Albion, California, replicated the coast of Cornwall.

Most importantly, the film features a delightful performance by Joan Fontaine, in a swashbuckling story which was quite unusual for the Production Code era.

The film is set in 17th-century England, and Fontaine plays Dona St. Columb, a noblewoman who is frustrated by her marriage to childlike Harry (Ralph Forbes). Harry refuses to take seriously Dona's complaint that his friend Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone) is attempting to force his affections on her, so Dona takes her two children and decamps to the family estate in Cornwall, which -- other than the mysterious caretaker (Cecil Kellaway) -- has been uninhabited for several years. Or so she believes.

Dona quickly learns her home has been regularly used as a refuge by a pirate (Arturo de Cordova), but rather than being troubled by the presence of a pirate ship near her home, Dona is thrilled.  The pair begin a love affair which is only interrupted by the arrival of Harry, Rockingham, and a group of men who intend to battle the pirates.

Fontaine does a remarkable job conveying Dona's initial ennui and then her frank lust for the pirate -- the state of their relationship is not in doubt despite Production Code restrictions -- as well as her childlike joy at breaking free of the confines of her station in life to join the pirates on an adventure.

She also conveys Dona's very real terror when she finds herself alone with Rockingham near the end of the film; I loved that her character handled the situation completely on her own, which might be considered an illustration of the empowerment Dona had found.

Perhaps the most curious thing about Dona is that Dona clearly enjoys her children, as depicted during a picnic sequence, yet she doesn't seem to give a thought to her children when she decides to tag along on a pirate adventure. Of course, like other women of her social station, she was used to having a nurse handle the bulk of their daily care, but she doesn't seem to even consider what will happen to them if the trip doesn't go well. That said, responsibility to her children does guide her when she makes a critical choice at film's end.

My main criticism is that the film runs slightly too long at 110 minutes. It might be said the film has two endings; I thought the end had arrived at one point and was a bit surprised when it then went on quite a while longer. It would have worked better if they'd simply used the first natural ending point, as the final story sequence added nothing of importance.

De Cordova made a number of English-language films, but I don't believe I'd seen him in anything before. I thought he did a fine job as the pirate, and indeed, I enjoyed seeing a completely new-to-me face starring opposite a beloved leading lady. (As a side note, there were moments when Fontaine looked and sounded remarkably like her sister Olivia de Havilland, which is not something I typically notice when watching a Fontaine film.)

The fine supporting cast included Nigel Bruce and Moyna MacGill, mother of Angela Lansbury.

I was curious about the expensive-looking set on the Cornish coast, but in an interview in the Chierichetti book, art director Ernst Fegte revealed a trick used to make the film look like it had "fabulous productive values," building a full-scale ground floor that actors could enter but using a "hanging miniature" for the rest of the mansion.

According to Chierichetti's book, FRENCHMAN'S CREEK was not a happy set, and Fontaine herself was dismissive of the film. Critical reception of the movie and De Cordova's performance seems to have been mixed over the years -- here, for example, is a 2008 post by the Self-Styled Siren, a Fontaine admirer -- but I wonder if this might be a film ready for reassessment, as I found it beautifully made and quite entertaining.

It may have been easier to take a film such as this for granted in years past, but seven decades on, the film struck me as a hidden treasure, rather appropriate for a film about pirates. It's grand fun for anyone who enjoys a colorful, romantic swashbuckler.

This Paramount film had a VHS release from Universal in 1998. Universal also gave the film a Region 2 DVD release in Spain, but it is not available in the United States. That's a situation I very much hope changes in the future.

2015 Update: FRENCHMAN'S CREEK is now available on DVD in the Universal Vault series.


Blogger Unknown said...

It's funny that you mention Fontaine looking like de Havilland in the movie (which I haven't seen). I've never thought they looked particularly alike, but when I first glanced at your post, I thought the first image (not the poster) WAS de Havilland. I think it's the hairstyle - de Havilland had a number of films with this sort of hairdo, and Fontaine didn't, and I guess they do look similar enough facially to trick our brains.

10:56 AM  
Blogger panavia999 said...

I loved this movie and the novel when I was a teenager. Basil Rathbone... WOW...menacing. I always remembered that last scene on the stairs.
So I bought the VHS recently yo revisit it and it still holds up rather well.
I think the Monterey/ Carmel area was always the go-to place for "Hollywood Cornwall."

2:08 PM  

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