Saturday, February 18, 2017

OVP: Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Film: Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
Stars: Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Walter Abel
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Oscar History: 6 nominations (Best Picture, Actress-Olivia de Havilland, Adapted Screenplay, Score, Art Direction, Cinematography)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Charles Boyer, I have found through the years, is a bit of an acquired taste that I don't believe I'll ever properly acquire.  This is a pity for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that Boyer starred in a lot of OVP films, including four that he was nominated for Best Actor for.  As a result of that, I will be seeing a bunch of him whether I want to or not (much like Spencer Tracy), though I will admit that, since this isn't one of the films that won him Oscar acclaim, I didn't know he was headlining this movie prior to clicking the play button on my DVR.  As a result, I started this in a disappointed mood and no amount of melodrama (something I'm usually clamoring for) was going to save me from a pretty paint-by-numbers picture.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows a gigolo named Georges (when is Boyer not playing a gigolo?), who wants to find a way into the United States as a citizen, and realizes from his old flame Anita (Goddard) that he can in fact become an American citizen by marrying one (clearly this took place before FOX News).  After an unpleasant first encounter, he manages to charm a lonely schoolteacher named Emmy (de Havilland) into being his wife, but quickly has an immigration inspector (Abel) tailing them and trying to suss out if they're truly in love or whether Georges is swindling Emmy.  During his sly evasion of the law (masquerading as a honeymoon), Georges of course falls in love with Emmy, and though she eventually finds out his pretense and tosses him to the curb, this isn't one of those "sad ending" romances (even if part of me thought that would have played better), and they reunite at the border late in the picture.

The film has very little comic relief save for some boys letting off firecrackers and a side story about a pregnant woman trying to find a way to have her baby become an American (again, FOX News would have a field day with this, and how she eventually pulls it off by giving birth in an embassy), but it should work in theory.  Straight romances were generally pretty good in the 1940's, arguably their heyday because they could believably sell, say, a woman who marries a man after a short conversation or a cad falling in love after a lifetime of nefarious attitudes.  Look at something like Brief Encounter or Waterloo Bridge from the era as a picture that can prove you can have romance without any issue of plausibility.

No, the film doesn't fail in that regard-it fails in the world of its two leads.  Boyer and de Havilland have very little chemistry together onscreen-she's too naive to function, he's too much of a Lothario to be remotely believable.  The final third of the film (where Boyer is largely absent, thanks in part to him having a fight with writer Billy Wilder, who never again would do a screenplay for a film he didn't direct) is easily the best part, perhaps because it focuses on the two leading women, and de Havilland comes alive a bit when she's unhindered by her goody-two-shoes and faces off against the other arch in her love triangle (and Goddard, easily the best part of the cast, is aces as Anita), but at that point we've spent too much time kind of hoping that Georges would get his comeuppance and have to live with what he did to Emmy-that he gets away nearly scot-free after behaving so abominably left me the wrong way.

Suffice it to say, I don't get the Best Picture nomination (well, I get it as it was a big hit starring two of the era's major headliners), but the rest of the nominees are a bit more hit-and-miss.  Victor Young's score is solid even if occasionally forgettable (he sure loves his swells), and the cinematography is okay, only occasionally finding some solid lighting in the movie studios (it's not even in the same hemisphere as what Gregg Toland was doing in Citizen Kane that same year though), and the writing/art direction are fine if pretty routine (I liked the look of the mechanic's office with the art direction, at least, arguably the most worthy nomination).  As for de Havilland, who famously stopped speaking to her sister after she lost the Oscar for this film?  Neither she nor Fontaine deserved that little gold man that year, so it was really Barbara Stanwyck or Bette Davis who should have held the grudge.

There you have have it folks-Best Picture nominees two days in a row!  What are your thoughts on Hold Back the Dawn-anyone want to defend one (or all six) of its nominations?  Who was the Best Actress of 1941 in your opinion (one of those rare years where all five women were previous nominees, and perhaps the only year where they all went in and came out later with another Oscar nomination)?  Share in the comments!

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