A few preliminaries before I launch into a synopsis of this little-known but lovely little film.
This is the third film of Charles Boyer’s that I’ve reviewed on this blog (the other two are Gaslight and Love Affair). As in Gaslight, in Hold Back the Dawn too Boyer plays a less-than-scrupulous man who marries not for love but for less savoury reasons—after having convinced the woman in question that he’s deeply in love with her.
Now for the coincidence. This is also the third film of Olivia de Havilland’s that I’ve reviewed on this blog (the other two are The Charge of the Light Brigade and Not as a Stranger). As in Not as a Stranger, in Hold Back the Dawn too de Havilland plays a gullible woman duped into marrying a man she’s convinced loves her—though his motives for the marriage are very mercenary.
So now that I’ve given away the gist of the plot, let’s get down to letting the rest of the cat out of the bag.
The film begins in Hollywood, at the Paramount Studios, where a desperate-looking visitor named Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) tries to plead and then bulldoze his way in to meet a director, Dwight Saxon (Mitchell Leisen). He finally succeeds in slipping in, onto the set, where he waits until Saxon is free for a while. Georges then re-introduces himself to Saxon: it turns out the two men had met while Saxon was visiting Europe some years before. Saxon having recalled who his unexpected guest is, Georges tells him he desperately needs $500. And no, he’s not trying to touch Saxon: he’s offering something in exchange—a story.
Though Saxon tries to shake him off, Georges is tenaciously adamant on telling his tale.
The story he tells Saxon is in flashback, in a Mexican town beside the US border. This is where Georges, a Roumanian fleeing from the ravages of World War II in Europe, has arrived, eager for a US visa. Back home, Georges had lived by charming [the pants off] wealthy women. Now, he’s looking forward to continuing his career in the US, but receives a nasty shock when the immigration officials inform him that the Roumanian quota for immigrants to the US is full up. 7 or 8 years, says the official, and maybe Georges Iscovescu will be permitted into the States.
Georges is devastated at the thought of staying on in this dump. His hopes sink even further as the months go by, and by the time July rolls around, he’s close to despair—and broke.
A chance collision with a tiny schoolbus full of naughty boys being driven around by their waspish teacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland) makes matters even worse for Georges. He gets into a tiff with Emmy—he criticising uncultured Americans, she staunchly defending her countrymen—until she moves off, angrily crashing into the car in front.
Still fuming, Georges returns to his hotel, only to run into an old flame, the beautiful part-Australian, part-Polish Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard). Anita is much like Georges: self-confident, mercenary, fond of the good life, and unburdened with scruples.
In the course of their conversation, Georges notices a wedding ring on Anita’s finger, and she tells him she’d married a jockey called O’Shaughnessy, whom she’s since divorced. The reason for the marriage? Immigration. If you’re married to an American, you see, you can enter the US within 4 weeks, and get citizenship after 3 years. O’Shaughnessy’s a thing of the past now, and Anita is floating around in Mexico trying to find a rich man to keep her in jewels, dresses and the other necessities of life.
Anita’s given Georges an idea—which he gets a chance to implement that very day since hundreds of Americans have driven down across the border into Mexico to watch bullfights and generally enjoy themselves. One of those American women, easily charmed by Georges, would be perfect bait… a quick wedding, then across the border after a month, and then a divorce. It couldn’t be simpler.
Unfortunately for Georges, most of the American women around seem to be either married or the sort he couldn’t bring himself to marry, even if only in name.
By the end of the day, he’s hovering on the brink of despair when he sees Emmy Brown at the local garage, trying to get the mechanics to repair the school bus, which was damaged in the crash earlier that day.
Georges makes a few subtle enquiries and finds that Emmy is unmarried; that the school principal back home will be worrying where she and her students have disappeared; and that the mechanics will probably take a couple of hours to fix the bus. Georges surreptitiously kicks one of the car parts (should that be ‘bus parts’?) down the drain—thus effectively delaying the repair work—and offers to accompany Emmy to his hotel, from where she can phone home to let the principal know where she is.
Emmy does so. Meanwhile Georges has turned on the charm: he tells Emmy her eyes remind him of a woman he once loved, but who jilted him; he looks at her with wistful longing; and is all that is irresistibly attractive to the wide-eyed and naive Emmy.
While Emmy’s been phoning the principal, the mechanics discover that one of the parts—part of the distributor, which Georges had kicked down the drain—is missing. There’s no way Emmy and the boys can return to the US tonight; they’ll have to wait till the morning before another part can be obtained.
Emmy offers various increasingly desperate suggestions, until Georges succeeds in persuading her that the best course of action would be for the boys and her to spend the night at the hotel. And because no rooms are available, they finally bed down in the lobby. Georges helps them settle in, then heads upstairs to his own room, where he finds Anita. She tells him she’s got the room next to his, but he responds by telling her not to waste his time—and when she says, in an uncharacteristically dreamy-eyed way that she’ll give him anything he wants, he settles for her wedding ring…
…which Emmy wakes up in the wee hours of the pre-dawn to find on her finger. Even before she discovers the ring, Emmy finds Georges sitting opposite her. He tells her of his love for her, of how the very sight of her has brought him back from the brink of what seemed like death. And he finally draws her attention to the ring—his mother’s wedding ring, he tells her—on her finger. Yes, a wedding ring: he wants to marry her. Now.
So they get married that very day, and Emmy is deliriously happy. Her joy is, however, only temporary, because the schoolbus has been repaired and the school principal—a Mr MacAdams (who was Emmy’s fiancé, as it now transpires)—has been calling up frantically. Emmy tells him of her wedding (she’s suitably sheepish about it) and assures him that she’ll bring the boys back at once.
Emmy and Georges’s parting is strained. She’s sad to be going away from him, even if it’s only for a few days. And he, though he knows this is all a charade and that he’ll divorce her after a month, is beginning to feel uncomfortable—especially when Emmy asks him to put the ring again on her finger while reiterating the wedding vows.
But that is all forgotten soon after: Emmy leaves, and Georges goes up to his room, to a warm welcome from Anita. Anita, with whom he laughs over how he’s going to say goodbye to Emmy. Anita, who helps him draft a request letter, citing his marriage to an American as reason for Georges to be permitted into the US. Anita, with whom he makes plans to meet up in New York and paint the town red…
Will Georges’s plan succeed? Will he and Anita be able to fulfil their dreams of wealth and ease in the US? Or will something that neither of them had imagined, come in the way? And why did Georges end up in Hollywood, desperate for $500?
If you like dreamy and somewhat melodramatic romances, don’t miss this one. It’s a winner.
What I liked about this film:
Everything! But, in particular:
The acting. Olivia de Havilland got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Emmy Brown, and Charles Boyer—swiftly becoming one of my favourite actors—is equally superb as the cynical and unprincipled seducer who manages to make her believe he loves her. Not only is their acting excellent, the chemistry between them is fabulous: some of the scenes made me go so wobbly in the knees, I had to rewind and go back to the beginning of the scene all over again. And again.
The supporting cast. There are little vignettes throughout the film of the other refugees staying at the hotel, waiting hopefully for their turn to be allowed to enter the US. There is, for instance, the heavily pregnant Berta Kurz (Rosemary DeCamp), whose husband Josef (Eric Feldary) has a bad case of TB and may not have long to live:
There is Professor van den Leucken (Victor Francen), who, along with his daughters, is probably already more American than most Americans: he knows obscure facts about the US and its history; and they celebrate the 4th of July with Boston baked beans and doughnuts.
There’s even the barber Bonbois (Curt Bois), who’s just made the startling discovery that he may well be a descendant of Lafayette and thus automatically entitled to an American citizenship:
And closely connected to all of these people, in fact the man who knows the ins and outs of their lives (or tries to know), is Inspector Hammock (Walter Abel), of the Immigration Department. It is his job to figure out who’s genuine and who’s not, who’s trying underhand means of getting a foot in the door, and who’s really in need.
They’re all interesting characters, and even though the story is basically about Georges, Emmy and Anita, the brief glimpses of the lives of these people help round the story off and prevent it getting into a rut.
What I didn’t like:
Personally, there’s nothing I didn’t like about Hold Back the Dawn—possibly because I’ve been brought up on a diet of Hindi films, and so am quite amenable to melodrama, miracles and the importance of religious/social symbols and traditions. Some viewers may, I suppose, find it a trifle idiotic that a hardened gigolo like Georges Iscovescu could feel uncomfortable about repeating the ‘sacred’ words of his wedding vows—or some of the other words he ends up having to say, or actions he ends up doing.
The end. It just needed 30 seconds more to make it complete for me. It was heading towards being absolutely divine, but then it abruptly faded out into The End, and I was left saying “What—?” I hasten to add, though: it wasn’t a bad end as far as I was concerned, just hurried.
Never mind. Despite that, and despite the melodrama, I loved this film. It satisfied every romance-loving pore of me, and I simply loved seeing Boyer and de Havilland together: besides being tremendous actors, they look so wonderful.
Little bit of trivia:
Hold Back the Dawn is based on a novel called Memo to a Movie Producer, by Pulitzer Prize-winner Ketti Frings. Ketti (born Katherine Hartley) had met her soon-to-be-husband, German Kurt Frings, while holidaying in St Moritz, where Frings was a ski instructor. After they got married, the Fringses realised that it would take a long time for Kurt to get immigration, and he ended up living in a Tijuana community of war refugees while waiting for his quota to come up. Ketti, in the meantime, stayed and worked in the US, travelling down to Mexico on weekends to be with Kurt.
In 1940, when Kurt was finally with her in the US, Ketti finished writing her novel—a semi-autobiographical one, as you’ve probably guessed (though there’s no proof that Kurt tried to pull a fast one on Ketti!)—and decided to sell it to Paramount. Her ploy was simple: she asked for 15 minutes of a producer’s time, and then used only 15 seconds of that allotted time to place the manuscript on his desk, say “thank you”, and leave. She hoped he’d use the remaining 14 odd minutes to read her work—which he did. 48 hours later, Paramount had bought the script.