Sunday, January 20, 2013
Like so many classic films, Hold Back the Dawn is one of those that played on late night television back in the day but has an obscure status among younger fans of golden age movies. Not as well known as higher profile pictures of its era, it is a solid classic nonetheless and deserves its rightful place as a bonefide gem. Produced by Paramount in 1941, it is a unique and intriguing film with a backstory which is just as interesting, if not more so.
As the picture begins, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) is making his way across the lot of Paramount Pictures, obvious by his gait and expression, a man on a mission. He is searching for, and eventually finds, director Mitchell Leisen, to whom he wants to sell his story, hoping for some fast money. As his tale unfolds we discover the reason for his need of a quick buck.
Iscovescu is a Rumanian ballroom dancer cum gigolo, who finds himself in Tijuana, Mexico, trying, like so many others in the town, to get into the U.S. He bumps into his ex-dancing partner, sexy vixen Anita Dixon (played by sexy vixen Paulette Goddard). She explains that, as a girl of mixed international heritage (she is half Australian, half French), she got her American citizenship via quick marriage (and subsequent quick divorce) to an unsuspecting native. Her tale gets Iscovescu's sordid wheels turning and he roams the streets of the Mexican border town in search of marital prey from the USA. Enter Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a young, spinster-ish American schoolteacher. The suave heel uses all his European charms, along with his thickest accent, to woo the wide eyed innocent into a whirlwind wedding. What he doesn't realize is that U.S. immigration agent (Walter Abel) is in town, sniffing out fraud and his radar is on Georges in full force.
Hold Back the Dawn was directed by Leisen, a former set and art director, whose peak years at Paramount these were. Like George Cukor, his directing style favored the leading ladies in his films and his design background added an elegant visual element to his pictures. With Dawn, the setting is a dusty, hot border town in Mexico, not exactly the Ritz. Yet Leisen conveyed a certain sophistication in both character development and camera work, which was matched by the writing of master team Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. There was, however, no love lost between Leisen and Wilder. Their feuds over script changes are well documented and, like Preston Sturges before him, were the impetus for Wilder becoming a director in his own right. One of the more explosive incidents during filming involved a scene where Boyer had to talk to a cockroach in his depressing, isolated hotel room. The scene was a commentary on Iscovescu's immigration status, with the bitter emigre asking to see the roach's "papers." Boyer thought the scene was degrading and refused to play it. Leisen sided with the star, infuriating Wilder. With the scene cut, Wilder and Brackett exacted their revenge on Boyer by rewriting the remaining scenes of the movie in favor of his leading lady de Havilland. With the attention devoted to the actress by Leisen, the last portion of the script tipped in her direction and her own talent allowed to blossom in a quality production, de Havilland ended up with her first Best Actress Oscar nomination (she had been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category for her role of Melanie in Gone with the Wind).
Suspicion, a romantic suspense thriller directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Their sibling rivalry in Tinsel Town was exacerbated by this competition and the personal rift was only widened when Fontaine was proclaimed the winner on Oscar night (pictured above).
The film is a reflection on the community of American citizen wannabes in Tijuana during the 1930's and 1940's as much as it is on the plight of the main characters. Rosemary de Camp gives a poignant portrayal as a pregnant European who, along with her husband, is awaiting her final entry papers, desperate that her baby be born on United States soil. It is also interesting to see the interaction of American citizens making day trips across the border. These lighthearted visits by tourists are a proverbial slap in the face to those pining to cross the ever taunting border. Not to pass over the always lovely Paulette Goddard, her Anita is a fiery contrast to the more wholesome charms of de Havilland's Emmy. In fact, there is a certain irony that Emmy comes across so hum-drum at first, as Olivia de Havilland is so physically appealing, a fact not lost on Anita during their face to face meeting.
Hold Back the Dawn was also nominated by the Academy as Best Picture, a deserved recognition. An absolute perfect cast, good direction and writing, make it a film which should be viewed and remembered in the annals of classic movie history. Catch it if you can.
*Note: The film being shot by Mitchell Leisen at the beginning of Hold Back the Dawn is I Wanted Wings starring Veronica Lake, and actually Paramount release in 1941.