The film is narrated by Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), who is on the run and trying desperately to get some money. He sneaks into the Paramount lot, to tell his story to Hollywood director, Mr. Saxon (played by Hold Back the Dawn's actual director, Mitchell Leisen). The war in Europe is raging, and Georges has escaped Europe to Mexico, intent on settling in the U.S. However, the U.S. immigration quota for Romania (Georges' place of birth) has already been exhausted, and there is a long waiting list. Georges finds himself stuck in a seedy little bordertown hotel, with other hopeful immigrants, waiting from five to eight years for a spot to open up. The arrival of Anita Dixon Shaughnessy (Paulette Goddard), Georges former dancing partner and lover, presents another option: marry an unknowing American and get a green card as the spouse of a U.S. citizen. Once in the country, divorce the duped spouse, and go off with Anita. Georges sets his sights on Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a shy schoolteacher in Mexico for the day.
The film contains some absolutely outstanding performances. Charles Boyer is wonderful as a cad who gradually changes into a decent person (and in some sense, much against his will). As he begins to fall in love with Emmy, we can see his inner battle between his growing feelings for her and his desire to resume his wayward life. As Emmy, Olivia de Havilland is sweet and generous, but with an inner core of strength that becomes apparent towards the film's end. Her conversation with Anita, and her comment that she is "from a small town. We don't have any of those fine hotels. We eat at the drugstore... But we leave a tip just the same" is both biting and assertive. Finally, Paulette Goddard gives us an Anita who is grasping, passionate, and self-serving, but is also an absolute riot. That our immigration officer, Mr. Hammock (played with verve by Walter Abel) is also attracted and amused.
This film features a number of memorable performances by the supporting cast. Of special note is Rosemary deCamp as Berta Kurz. Patiently waiting to get into the US, the pregnant Berta is all the more sympathetic because of her desire to make a better life for her child. Without giving too much away, her actions to make sure that her child will have a secure future will have you rooting her her. Hold Back the Dawn was released in September of 1941, just before the war in the U.S. starts, but after the war in Europe has forced thousands of refugees to flee the Nazis. Though never stated, it seems obvious that Berta and her husband are Jews, fleeing the holocaust. It's interesting that the film never discusses WHAT the characters are running away from, yet you cheer for them all the same.
Costuming for the film is done by Edith Head; here she creates a variety of costumes, with bold, elaborate clothing for Anita, and simpler, more everyday garb for Emmy. The costuming tells us a great deal about the characters, adding even more dimenions to the characterizations.
Watch for the scene where Georges is escaping from the police. It's quite well done, but has some humorous moments. Also, George's encounter with an American woman at the bullfight is also quite funny. Watch their faces as her marital status becomes apparent. Finally, the lovely scene in which Emmy names some olives that Georges shook from a tree (you have to see the film to find out why) is gentle and romantic.
The film is based on an autobiographic story by Ketti Frings, with a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Bracken. This TCM article discusses some of the story and script changes, causing some annoyance to all of the authors. Despite the changes, this is still a remarkable script.
Robert Osborne, in an introduction to the film on TCM noted that deHavilland was in the unenviable position at her home studio of Warner Brothers of having to go outside the studio to find good roles. Here, she goes to Paramount, and ends up with an Oscar nomination. It is worth noting that, at Oscar time, Olivia DeHavilland was pitted against her sister Joan Fontaine (for the film Suspicion), the first time siblings had competed for the same award. Joan, of course, won, beginning rumors of a feud between the sisters. This Hollywood Reporter article looks at the story behind the feud.
As we leave you, here is a brief scene of Georges romances Emmy in pursuit of a green card: