Earlier this year, when Olivia de Havilland passed away, someone I know was reminiscing about her films and mentioned Light in the Piazza as being a particular favourite. I had never even heard of Light in the Piazza, let alone anything else, so I decided to have a look. It did turn out to be a mostly enjoyable film, but I didn’t find it worthy of being a tribute to Olivia de Havilland (what I reviewed instead as a tribute was this).
But Light in the Piazza is worth talking about, because it’s an unusual film. Unusual in its subject matter, and unusual in the fact that its leading lady acts her age: Olivia de Havilland was in her mid-forties when she acted as Meg Johnson, and she brings to the role all her wealth of experience.
If there’s one person whom I regarded as the last of the great stars of the glory days of Hollywood, it’s the beautiful and very talented Olivia de Havilland. I’ve watched several of de Havilland’s films, and have invariably found her very watchable—she brought a dignity and grace to her roles that made her stand out. Plus, she was a very good (and very versatile) actress, seemingly effortlessly playing standard ‘damsel in distress’ roles (especially in the eight films she did with Errol Flynn), as well as much more nuanced characters, like the immortal Melanie of Gone With the Wind, the mentally tormented Virginia Cunningham of The Snake Pit, and the naïve, gullible Catherine Sloper, the eponymous heiress of The Heiress.
Over a career spanning five decades, Olivia de Havilland won two Oscars (for The Heiress and To Each His Own), and was nominated for many other awards, including various national medals and awards by France, the US and the UK.
Although she had her share of controversy (especially regarding her supposedly strained relationship with her sister, actress Joan Fontaine), de Havilland was in some ways a pioneer too. It was because of her refusal to go on playing ‘sweet young thing’ roles that she ended up suing Warner Bros. —and winning, a landmark decision which led to the law now known by her name. She also went on to be the first female president of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
I’ve been writing this blog for the last eight years now, and in all that time, while I’ve reviewed some really obscure films, I’ve steered clear of reviewing many of the great classics—mostly because of a fear that I won’t have anything new to say. So much has been written (by people infinitely more qualified than I can ever hope to be) about films like Pyaasa, Citizen Kane, etc that there’s really no reason why anybody would want to read my musings.
But. A couple of weeks back, after years of putting it off, I finally finished reading Gone with the Wind. I’d seen the film when I was in my early teens, and remembered little of it besides the basic story. I decided therefore that it was high time I rewatched the film. Since the book was so fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but compare it to the film. And since the film is so beautiful (literally; every other frame looks like a painting), I ended up with a folder full of screenshots.
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 Gaslightand 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.
I have no compunctions about admitting that when it comes to cinema, frivolity is right up my street. Comedy (even slapstick), romance, war, noir, Western, musical, sword and sandals: all is grist to my mill. Happy endings, the vanquished villain, the long fadeout on the kiss between the beautiful heroine and her handsome hero, and I’m happy too.
Which is why I was surprised at my own reaction to Not as a Stranger. It isn’t frivolous, not by a long shot; the heroine and the hero are ill matched; and the hero (maybe protagonist would be a better word) isn’t even a particularly nice character. Despite all of that, I still liked it—a lot.
Guts. Glory. Revenge. Honour. Two brothers in love with the same girl. A tale based on Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s classic poem of the Battle of Balaklava, The Charge of the Light Brigade. Errol Flynn. What more could one ask for?
Well, much better scripting, for one. More believable settings for another, and less melodrama. Flynn, master swashbuckler, delivers as always in this film, but other than that, there wasn’t enough to make it a memorable one for me. Into the trashcan ride these six hundred.