Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Joan is Constant

Composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) is frustrated with his current composition, an atonal work that does not seem to be gelling. He decides to visit Switzerland, the home of her dear friend Albert Sanger (Montague Love), a musician of sorts and the father of three young daughters, Toni (Brenda Marshall), Paula (Joyce Reynolds), and Tessa (Joan Fontaine). Lewis brings with him a little musical piece he composed for the children; when he plays it for Albert, Albert encourages him to expand on THAT piece, and forget the atonal work. But when Albert dies suddenly, Lewis takes on some of the responsibility for the girls, especially after he meets - and marries - their cousin, Florence Creighton (Alexis Smith).  There is, however, a big problem. The ethereal Tessa is deeply in love with Lewis.

The Constant Nymph (1943) is based on a 1924 best-selling novel by Margaret Kennedy. This was the third iteration of the story to be presented on film - it had been done as a silent film in 1928, with Ivor Novello, Mabel Poulton, and Benita Hume as the three leads (and adapted by Alma Reville), and again in 1933, with Victoria Hopper, Brian Aherne, and Leonora Corbett. This version of the film sticks pretty close to the novel, which in some ways may work to its detriment, especially in our modern age. As is pointed out by fellow blogger at Paula's Cinema Club, it's a bit difficult to look past the fact that, by the film's conclusion, Tessa is about 15 years old. The idea that this so much older man has fallen in love with her is uncomfortable, to say the least. If only screenwriter Kathryn Scola had made Tessa a BIT older, the film would be more palatable.
Yet, when I initially saw the film (on TCM, after it had mostly disappeared from view), it reminded me of a film and a novel that I really love. Because the theme of The Constant Nymph is very much that of an unattainable love. The other film, Portrait of Jennie (1948) and the novel, Tryst by Elswyth Thane, both focused on young women in love with men that time and fate had removed from their grasp. The difference between them and The Constant Nymph is that the characters are just enough older to make the relationships acceptable. As viewers, we really wanted to look beyond Tessa's age, but this was difficult, as she herself kept alluding to it.

Nevertheless, the performances of Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer were excellent. Ms. Fontaine is convincing as a teen-ager (though she does appear to be in her late teens, not really 14), and Mr. Boyer is romantically intense. Ms. Fontaine was nominated for an Academy Award for her work in this film (she lost to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette; the other nominees were Jean Arthur in The More the Merrier,  Ingrid Bergman in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and Greer Garson in Madame Curie); she succeeds in creating a characterization that is both young and unworldly, enthusiastic and frail. Boyer was not enthusiastic about the script (TCM article) - he felt Lewis was being booted about by the women and had no real strength. Warner Brothers, however, met his price ($150,000 and top billing) so he accepted the role, and gave a sympathetic performance.
The same cannot be said for Alexis Smith, who is unimpressive as Florence. Ms. Smith affects a rather odd accent which is more snooty than truly English. It's genuinely difficult to understand what Lewis could possibly see in Florence - from the moment we meet her, she is a nag and a shrew. She has no understanding of his music or his ambitions, and is more concerned with the fame that marriage to him might bring her. As a result, her epiphany at the film's conclusion is forced. 

Peter Lorre is delightful in the small role of Fritz Bercovy.  Mr. Lorre plays the part as a man genuinely in love with Toni Sanger (though it's hard to say why. Ms. Marshall's portrayal gives us a woman who is almost as unlikable as Florence!). Fritz also deeply cares for his two little sisters-in-law, and though he is a tad absent-minded, he is also kind. Peter Lorre began his film career in Germany, with the highly-regarded M (1931). By 1933, however, he had left Germany - as a Jew, he knew the dangers that were facing him with the rise of Fascism. He worked in England for awhile, and eventually emigrated with his wife, Celia Lovsky, to America, where he found work, often as a villain. But what a villain - All Through the Night (1941), The Maltese Falcon (1941), and Casablanca (1942) are just the tip of an impressive resume. Mr. Lorre and Ms. Lovsky divorced by1945; though he would remarry twice, they remained friends, with Ms. Lovsky often serving as his publicist and manager.  Because of chronic pain, he became addicted to morphine, an addiction he fought and conquered, but it did affect his ability to get roles. He died in 1964 from a stroke, leaving behind his wife and daughter.
Music is very much a factor in the film; the lovely score and Lewis' concert piece were composed by Erich Marie Korngold.  Mr. Korngold was on the set, and was involved in the story development and provided the piano dubbing for Mr. Boyer and Mr. Love.  The tone poem, "Tomorrow," became quite popular, and Mr. Korngold published it as his Opus 33 (Korngold Society) You can listen to the suite below.
Charles Boyer was not the first choice for Lewis - the film rights were originally purchased as a vehicle for Errol Flynn.  One wonders if the January-February 1943 trial of Flynn on charges of statutory rape had something to do with the change in the lead (it certainly would have been an even more problematic film with Flynn playing Lewis). Other roles were also in flux - Joan Leslie was, at one point, cast as Tessa, and both Wendy Barrie and Eve March tested for the role. Margaret Sullavan, Merle Oberon, Bette Davis and Olivia De Havilland were also considered for parts in the picture. (AFI catalog).  In 1944, the film would be adapted for radio as part of the Lux Radio Theatre, with Charles Boyer repeating his screen role and Maureen O'Sullivan taking on the part of Tessa.
The New York Times review was ecstatic, calling the film "a fine tribute to the virtues that have made the book endure." In many respects, it is an excellent film; we found that we wanted to find ways to mentally change Tessa's age to make the story more acceptable to a 21st century audience.

We'll leave you with this trailer:

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