Wednesday, December 18, 2013

From the Warner Archive: The Constant Nymph (1943)

Several months back, I happened to be on the Twitter machine one night and Jill at Sittin’ on a Backyard Fence had instituted a bit of fun whereupon she asked people to name a classic film that presumably everyone has seen but yourself.  The first one I named was The Constant Nymph (1943); Jill gave me a pass on this one for reasons I’ll explain here in a sec…but I maintain it was a proper answer because ever since its premiere a couple years ago on The Greatest Cable Channel Known to Mankind™ TCM had scheduled the movie on a number of occasions…and I’ve missed it every time, because parents and Atlanta Hawks games.

Still, Jill is right that I shouldn’t feel too bad if I had never gotten around to seeing this one.  Based on the 1924 novel by Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph’s 1943 film version was actually the third go-round for the material (it had previously been filmed in 1928 and 1933), but because of a sticky copyright issue (the script for the 1943 film was culled from Kennedy’s novel and a 1926 play adaptation by Kennedy and Basil Dean…meaning the film’s rights were split between two different sources) Nymph had been out of circulation since the 1950s.  It was resurrected for its first public screening at the 2011 TCM Film Festival, and on November 22 of that same year, the Warner Archive made it available on MOD DVD.  A month ago, I tossed it into a shopping cart along with some other Archive titles (yes, they were having a sale—damn them!)…and with the passing of Ms. Joan this Sunday at the age of 96, I thought it would be a good time to acquaint myself with a film she considered one of her personal favorites.

Nymph centers on Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a penniless composer who knows the “mathematics” of his craft but puts little passion into his work.  He pays a visit to his mentor, Albert Sanger (Montagu Love), at his chalet in Belgium—where he is welcomed most enthusiastically by Sanger and his four daughters.  One of them, Tessa (Fontaine), has more than the usual teenage crush on Dodd; she is passionately in love with him, but her adolescent awkwardness tends to mask this as mere infatuation.  Father Albert cashes in his chips during Lewis’ visit, and before his death Sanger made Dodd promise to make certain the family is taken care of (Sanger’s wife lights out with another man not long after Al is put in the ground) by contacting the brother of his first wife, a wealthy Englishman named Charles Creighton (Charles Coburn).

Creighton arrives at the Sangers’ with his daughter Florence (Alexis Smith), who soon swoons over the considerable charms of Lewis…and the two of them quickly tie the knot.  They return to England, where Florence quickly takes command of Lewis’ career (such as it is) by presenting him to members of her societal circle as if he were a show pony (something that makes Dodd uncomfortable).  Lewis will eventually create great music and become the toast of London—but this is something that Tessa can take the credit for, as her love for him stokes his inspiration.  The jealous Florence seethes with rage at the thought of losing her husband to her cousin…but sadly, she’s been dealt a losing hand.

I’ve not made any secret of the fact that my favorite Joan Fontaine performance is that in Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), a most underrated film that acquired considerable cachet among classic movie buffs and was unavailable on DVD (on Region 1, that is) for a good many years until Olive Films released the movie to both disc and Blu-Ray in October of 2012.  The Constant Nymph is sort of a dress rehearsal for that performance: both characters play women pining for the love of a self-centered jerk (with a little musical talent) whose lives end up in tragedy as a result (Tessa in Nymph has a serious heart condition—and at the risk of a spoiler I don’t have to tell you where that’s headed).  But I have no problem understanding why the actress considered Nymph one of her favorites; it’s a marvelous performance, and the twenty-five-year old Joan is incredibly convincing as a gangly, spirited young girl of fourteen (though this is not without its disturbing implications, as you can probably figure out…and the management asks that you refrain from making the obvious jokes about Appalachia).

To be honest, I didn’t think I was going to like The Constant Nymph because of its classification as a “chick flick,” or to use the more correct nomenclature, “women’s picture.”  I don’t dislike these sorts of movies, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess that they’re not generally my cup of cinematic chamomile.  Nymph was helmed by a director who specialized in that sort of thing, Edmund Goulding (Dark Victory, The Old Maid, The Great Lie), and much of his direction is that of your typical Warners weepie (oh, the father is going to die—who could have seen that coming?).  As long as I’m ticking off what I didn’t like about Nymph, I’m also going to have to single out Charles Boyer.  Just can’t grasp the man’s appeal.  He’s got an oleaginous quality about him that works fine if he’s playing a bad guy (I actually like him in Gaslight…and Hold Back the Dawn, in which he’s poison to Fontaine’s sister, Olivia de Havilland) but is off-putting if he’s a romantic lead.  They don’t come right out and say it in Nymph, but he’s a bit of a creep (being in love with an underage girl doesn’t win the audience to your side, kid)…and why he’s simply unable to say to Alexis Smith’s character “I married you for the money” is anybody’s guess.

Actress Smith always got criticism for her brittle, “ice queen” demeanor in many of her performances, but I really thought she was first-rate in this movie, particularly since she works wonders with what essentially is a thankless role (she’s the villain of the piece, and yet generates sympathy because it’s apparent that while she really loves the Boyer character she’s willing to forfeit that love).  TDOY fave Peter Lorre is also splendid in a change-of-pace turn as a sensitive schnook who marries Tessa’s sister Toni (Brenda Marshall).  One thing that amused me about Nymph is that Tessa’s other sisters—Toni, Paula (Joyce Reynolds) and Kate (Jean Muir)—gradually disappear from the narrative as the movie works its way to the climactic triangle between Tessa, Florence and Lewis despite having taken the time to establish their importance.  (I was also a bit saddened seeing Jean Muir because it reminded me of how her career was damaged by the blacklist; coincidentally, Muir had an uncredited bit in last week’s From the Warner Archive offering, Bureau of Missing Persons [1933].)

As for the supporting players, Charles Coburn is his usually fusty, silly-ass peer of the realm (complete with monocle)…though I did titter a bit when he refers to servant Eduardo Ciannelli as “Robert-O” rather than Roberto.  Dame May Whitty also does nice work in a miniscule role as an aristocratic friend of Coburn’s family (I kind of wanted to see more of her character—the scene where she and Coburn converse in the back of her automobile after a session of riding horses is nicely done).  Marcel Dalio, so memorable as the croupier of Rick’s Café Americain in Casablanca, has a wonderful bit in the beginning of the film as Boyer’s sarcastic landlord; when his wife relates to him that Boyer is troubled and that he shouted out loud that he is not a composer, Dalio cracks: “I would have shouted it to him long before if boarders were easy to find.”

I recently finished reading the Peter Biskind book My Lunches with Orson, a series of transcribed mealtime conversations between celebrated director Welles and not-in-the-slightest-celebrated director Henry Jaglom (sue me—I don’t care for Jaglom’s work).  Orson, at that moment in his life when bitterness seems to have eaten away at his soul like acid, remarked that neither Joan Fontaine “nor her sister Olivia de Havilland could act. I never understood their careers.”  This is a load of old cobblers, of course: Livvy’s performance in The Heiress (1949) is one of the finest in the history of cinema (and most deserving of the Oscar she won—though you’ll have to convince me of the trophy she got for 1946’s To Each His Own) and as for Joan, I can watch Unknown Woman over and over again and still marvel at her work.  Despite a few of the flaws in The Constant Nymph, I thought Joan was stunning in the role of Tessa Sanger; DVD Savant Glenn Erickson says it best when he praises Fontaine as “the best example of a particular weepie cliché, the winsome, forthright child-woman, the one that either gets trampled on or lands the big-name male star in a final embrace.”  He goes on to say: “If Tessa weren't truly innocent she could be really annoying, as she inadvertently drives a fat wedge between Lewis Dodd and his helpless, clueless bride. Few actresses can make this specialized material work.”

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