It seems to me that Charles Boyer is underrated; I don’t see him being praised or even discussed very often. Having revisited several of his films I am more convinced than ever that he is one of the finest actors of Hollywood’s golden age. Two recent Blu-ray releases prove my point: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) from Arrow Academy and Cluny Brown (1946) from Criterion. The films couldn’t be more different, but Boyer is superb in both of them.
All you really need to know about Cluny Brown is that it was directed and produced by Ernst Lubtisch; in fact, it was the last film he completed before his death in 1948. Everything about it is fresh, original, and delightful to behold. The setting is England in 1938, before the outbreak of World War Two. Boyer plays a celebrated Czech refugee who is also a charming eccentric. He meets his match in a plumber’s niece named Cluny Brown (Jennifer Jones, in a delicious comedic performance) who shares his quirky outlook on life. They both invade a staunch English country household—he as a guest and she as a newly-hired maid—and succeed in befuddling the owners as well as the servants. Jones gives a delicious comedic performance while Boyer is a treat to watch as a wily trickster with a Cheshire-cat grin.
Samuel Hoffenstein and Elizabeth Reinhardt adapted Margery Sharp’s best-selling novel, which springs to life with that inimitable Lubtisch touch. The triumphant final scene with Boyer and Jones may have been scripted just as it plays, without dialogue, but I defy you to name another director who could have pulled it off as beautifully as the Master. His expertise in casting is also on display as every role, no matter how small, is played to perfection. Richard Haydn, Reginald Owen, Sara Allgood, Ernest Cossart, and Sir C. Aubrey Smith are just a few of the players on hand. Una O’Connor delivers a hilarious performance without uttering one intelligible word!
Criterion has provided a worthy array of bonus features including a lively conversation about Lubitsch heroines with critics Molly Haskell and Farran Smith Nehme, a video essay by film scholar Kristin Thompson, and a lovely essay in the program booklet by author and poet Sin Hustvedt. The new digital transfer is shimmering.
Hold Back the Dawn is a romantic drama written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and directed by Mitchell Leisen. The story is told in an arresting flashback setup: Boyer sneaks onto a soundstage at Paramount Pictures and convinces a director (played by Leisen himself) to hear his story. He is a French-Romanian refugee who has been living just across the U.S. border in Tijuana. When he chances to encounter a prim American schoolteacher (Olivia de Havilland) who is shepherding a rowdy herd of youngsters on a field trip, he woos her and convinces her to marry him. That’s the springboard for a clever, intricate screenplay that is packed with incident, shifts in tone, and a roster of colorful supporting characters. Paulette Goddard plays Boyer’s onetime lover and partner in crime who still carries a torch for him. (How their relationship got by the censors is a mystery to me.)
The film earned six Academy Award nominations: Best Picture, Best Actress (de Havilland, at her best here), Best Screenplay, Best Cinematography (Leo Tover), Best Music (Victor Young), and Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black and White (Hans Dreier, Robert Usher, and Sam Comer). It had formidable competition that year, including Citizen Kane, How Green Was My Valley, and The Maltese Falcon, just for starters, but it is an exquisite-looking film and Arrow’s pristine, high-definition transfer shows it off at its best.
Boyer’s character is a manipulator and a heel, yet still compelling because of the actor’s charisma. Midway through the story he and de Havilland flee from Tijuana in her car and find themselves in a sleepy Mexican village. This idyllic sequence, involving a church celebration, brings about a change in this antihero and his relationship with his bride.
The Arrow release includes an on-camera assessment of the film by film critic Geoff Andrew, an intelligent commentary by Adrian Martin, an audio interview with Olivia de Havilland from 1971, and a radio adaptation of Hold Back the Dawn with Boyer, de Havilland, and Susan Hayward.
The only thing missing is a recap of the film’s backstory, which is almost as interesting as the picture itself. The screenplay is based on a treatment called “Memo to a Movie Producer” by Ketti Frings, who was then writing magazine articles under her real name, Katherine Hartley. (Her treatment was expanded into a novel, which was published at the same time as the movie’s release.) She drew on her own experiences: her husband, Kurt Frings, was Swiss and was given a low priority to enter the U.S. under its quota system. As a result, he bided his time in Tijuana while she worked in Hollywood and commuted across the border to be with him every weekend. He was not a con man and violently objected to the character that Brackett and Wilder created for the movie. In fact, after becoming a citizen he was a successful Hollywood agent whose clients included Olivia de Havilland! His wife enjoyed great success as a screenwriter and playwright, winning a Pulitzer Prize for adapting Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. The couple divorced after twenty years of marriage.
Boyer was at his peak during this period. At this year’s TCM Classic Film Festival my wife and I revisited Leo McCarey’s Love Affair (1939), in which he and Irene Dunne give irresistible performances. A proper home video release is long overdue but unlikely; it seems to exist only in inferior public-domain copies. (TCM screened a 35mm print from the Museum of Modern Art.) I’d also love to see a later Boyer gem, The Happy Time (1951), which has never been released in any form of home video. But for now I’m grateful for Hold Back the Dawn and Cluny Brown.