Saturday, 1 September 2012

The Constant Nymph (1943)

“The Constant Nymph” was a major production in 1943. It starred Joan Fontaine (who got an Oscar nomination for it), Charles Boyer and Alexis Smith, with Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre and Brenda Marshall as support. Korngold wrote the score, and it was directed by Edmound Goulding, one of Warners’ directors responsible for a few women’s pictures of the period, including “Dark Victory” and “The Great Lie”.

Due to rights, the film lingered in the vaults of Warner Bros for about sixty years. This unavailability has, of course, raised its profile in some circles while ensuring the film faded out from the general public’s memory (“Letty Lynton”, a Joan Crawford 1932 film, is still to resurface). I am delighted it is finally available (it was screened in the US last year, and since made available by Warner Archives) and, of course, I was also looking forward to it – but it really did not live to my expectations (which weren’t much higher than those of, say, “The Gay Sisters”).
There are many ways to describe the story, but the simplest is to say it’s the obsession of one girl for a older composer who ends up marrying her cousin. This is a tale of obsession but packaged as a great love story. With some elements of "Lolita" added to the mix.

The problems of the film are the usual ones. They all start with a weak script. To me, obsession barely disguised as romantic heroism is a hard sell. Particularly when cliches are everywhere. From the idyllic childhood of a free spirit (ah, to be raised in Swiss Alps!), through the extreme unrealistic reaction of two teenage girls on the possibility of moving to London (and where did they learn English?) to the dreadful tear inducing end, complete with sacrifices from both women...

The second problem is the cast, or rather the mis-casting. Boyer was never good at anything, really (the closest I got to like a performance of his was “Madame de…”), so not much surprise there. He is also way too old for the part. He is supposed to be, as far as I could tell, a young composer. Funnily enough, someone who could have done really well with the part, was, I think, Ronald Reagan – who was about the right age, and I could see inspire such crush. As for Joan Fontaine, (who I usually like) let’s just say that she was not a teenager (in fact she was older than Alexis Smith). And it shows – the close-ups are of a woman in her mid-twenties, closing on thirty; not of a sixteen year old. But also, she’s all wrong – or directed all wrong. She’s unsubtle (you can tell how this going to end fairly early on), hysterical and manage to irritate the hell out of me. The remaining cast, except Alexis Smith (who is the best thing in it), play uninteresting versions of parts played elsewhere. 

But a lot of the blame has to go for the director, who clearly had no strength to keep his work (assignment?) together. He should have constrained Fontaine and try to keep the audience a bit more interested.

On the plus side, Korngold did a lovely score and Smith made the best out of the limitations of the bad script and managed to instill some heart into her performance. Although this is another problem: I was really rooting for her and I know I am not supposed to. 

On a footnote, spent a lot of the film trying to remember how many films I had seen the London house set in. From memory, "The Gay Sisters", "Now, Voyager" and I am pretty sure a couple of more Bette Davis films ("The Old Maid"?). I was trying to find out if it was still standing, but to no avail. 


Judy said...

It's a few months now since I watched this one, but I liked this film more than you did, Miguel - then again I'm quite keen on Goulding and this sort of emotion picture. I agree that the main actors are too old, but thought Fontaine just about got away with playing a schoolgirl - I do agree that Alexis Smith is very good in it and I found myself sympathising with her character too. I've also read the book recently, which I quite liked though it has some flaws, and was interested to see that it isn't nearly as romantic as the film. Enjoyed your review and I will watch out for that house in other movies!

Miguel said...

Don't get me wrong - I love 1940s melodramas, particularly the sort WB did for Davis and Stanwyck. I was expecting to like this.

If you find the house elsewhere, please let me know. I am fairly curious.