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Joan Fontaine has became one of my very favorite actresses, just like
her sister Olivia de Havilland, after seeing her in such Classics as
"Rebecca", "Suspicion", "Jane Eyre" and that masterpiece, "Letter from
an Unknown Woman". That mesmerizing
constantly-frightened-insecure-frail look of hers has totally bewitched
me; her classic features surrounded by an ethereal aura; her
distinction and class, even in waif-like roles like the one she plays
here and in "Letter…".
This film, just as "Letter from an Unknown Woman" is about Love, sometimes unrequited but always "intense". Young Tessa Sanger (Joan Fontaine) is deeply in love with much elder composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), who hasn't been able to succeed as musician. Tessa's father (another musician) played by Montagu Love, says that Lewis will have to love and suffer because of it, to attain an achievement as a composer.
The wondrous music by masterful German composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold is a marvel, pure poetry, which sets the perfect mood for this melancholic Love Story; it was really a privilege for Warner Brothers Pictures to have had the fortune of counting him as one of the members of its staff; Korngold's music is an awesome contribution to the Motion Pictures.
As I said before Joan Fontaine's perfect as the young Tessa. She was something like 26 years old when this movie was filmed and she portrays convincingly and believably the love-stricken teenager. Boyer is good as the intense composer and plays sensitively his scenes with Fontaine. Kudos too for Alexis Smith, who plays Florence, Tessa's elder cousin with great skill and sentiment.
Others in the magnificent cast are Charles Coburn as Tessa's lovable uncle, Brenda Marshall as Tessa's sister, Dame May Witty as a Dowager British Aristocrat, Peter Lorre as a friend of the Sanger family, Eduardo Ciannelli as Roberto, a faithful servant of the Sanger family, Jean Muir, etc.
Again, it's a shame that this wonderful, utterly moving film is out of circulation due to legal issues, if they didn't exist it should belong to TCM's Library (just like "Letty Lynton").
This film is one of the hardest to find great films of its day. Joan Fontaine considers it to be one of her two best performances, the other being her work in Letter From An Unknown Woman. Both films share an abundance of similarities. In each, she devotes her life to her love of a musician. Music is as significant and intrinsic to the films as any major character. In addition, the two films both allow Fontaine the dramatic luxury of playing her characters as children. She pulls this off more successfully than any other actress I have seen. In fact, my favorite parts of both films were the early scenes in which she was playing her characters at their most youthful. The Constant Nymph offers some fascinatingly complex characterizations, including Alexis Smith's Florence, whom we hate and feel sorry for at the same time (for stealing away Charles Boyer from Joan Fontaine). This is a very special film with some truly beautiful music. Catch it if you can!
Having heard for years that THE CONSTANT NYMPH was one of Joan
Fontaine's favorite performances and knowing that Erich Wolfgang
Korngold wrote the score for it, I looked forward to the film with much
anticipation when I finally had a chance to see it.
Unfortunately, aside from good performances from Charles Boyer and Alexis Smith, I found Miss Fontaine's Tessa just too cloying and simpering to be realistic. I thought she played the awkwardness of youth much better in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN, a really much more solid and forceful role. Tessa just seems to be a girl inordinately fond of a musician who doesn't realize, until too late, what the girl means to him.
Oddly enough, the scenes between Boyer and Alexis Smith are more developed than any of the quieter scenes between Boyer and Fontaine. Smith makes the wife a sympathetic creature because her jealousy is easy to comprehend.
An altogether disappointing film aside from a glorious score by Korngold that leads to the final concerto where he fully develops the love theme for Boyer and Fontaine.
Unfortunately, most of the sets for the country scenes early in the story look like painted backdrops so that one never gets the feeling that Tessa's environment is a real one. Nor does the story give Joan Fontaine ample opportunity to fully flesh out her character since she is missing from much of the middle portion of the film.
For a great Fontaine performance, I suggest viewing LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN with Joan at her best.
Although I was only 13 years old the first time I saw this film, it moved me. That may be because I could relate to the Joan Fontaine character. Sometimes we fall in love with a movie for reasons we cannot recall. In any case, I have been searching for a copy (VHS or DVD)for years and find that it is no longer available. I am disappointed to learn that. My sister and I saw this movie together; we cried, it was so lovely. We have discussed it over the years and have both tried to remember certain scenes and some dialogue, but the background music was the most memorable. In fact, we both forgot that it was Charles Boyer who was in the film; we were mistaken in thinking it was Brian Aherne, and that may be one of the reasons we could not find it!
Based on a novel by Margaret Kennedy, this film The Constant Nymph,
starring Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine, is a typical 1940's studio
retelling of a classic style romance, the story of a fragile young
girl's infatuation and adoration for an older, attractive musician.
While I think the production values and the sensuality of Letter From An Unknown Woman are superior to this film, this story also manages to captivate the viewer with its own brooding romanticism, solid performances, and beautiful music by Erich Korngold (Amazon sells CDs of this music in several movie soundtrack anthologies). Thankfully my copy of this film is pristine and that improves one's enjoyment of it.
Striking Alexis Smith as the unloved wife delivers a mighty performance, and almost steals the picture from Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer. The supporting actors are also very good, including Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre, Brenda Marshall, Dame May Witty, and Jean Muir. I admit I was a bit frustrated by the character of the musician played by Charles Boyer. Men who marry women just because they are attracted to them and not because they love them irk me to no end. That was the situation here and it sets the viewer up for a very frustrating experience by the end of the picture.
The Constant Nympth is a decent romantic melodrama, with a very touching conclusion, but it's not outstanding or unforgettable, like Letter From An Unknown Woman surely is.
After more than half a century of being withdrawn from circulation,
this ripe example of romantic film making in the best high style that
was so typical of Warner Bros' output in the 1940s, has finally been
set free from copyright limbo by the TCM Lawyers, following a financial
settlement with the heirs of Margaret Kennedy (author of the novel on
which the film is based) and Basil Dean (the film director who
co-authored the play with her, another key source for the screenplay).
Finally released for television last month (though only in the USA) it will soon make its long awaited debut on DVD. Was it worth the wait? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding yes.
The story (recounted by others here, so I won't weary you with another resume) inspired cast, director and especially the composer, to a rare degree and while the film retains obvious links to its stage origins and has a stylised, often unrealistic look, this approach suits the material eminently.
While the plot revolves around a curious triangle between a neurotic composer (Boyer) a worldly and wealthy woman (Smith) and a teenage girl (Fontaine) it has a subordinate agenda that most reviewers miss entirely.
Few are aware that Erich Wolfgang Korngold campaigned for this film and became closely involved in its production, even to the extent of influencing script development. Originally, he wanted Lewis Dodd to write a simple love song that would eventually develop into a romantic opera, but that idea was dropped, probably due to cost. It was replaced by a climactic transformation into a symphonic poem for mezzo soprano, wordless women's chorus and large orchestra.
Korngold kept the notion of an evolving musical work and made the battle between romanticism and dissonant modernity a key element that parallels the battle for the composer's soul, fought between the simple heart of the constant nymph with the cold, brittle modern woman played by Alexis Smith.
Korngold felt the battle between atonality and dissonance and more direct romanticism very keenly in his own life and relished the chance to create a score where romanticism triumphed.
The musical sequences are outstanding and when Sanger (Montagu Love) or Lewis Dodd (Boyer) play the piano, that is Korngold himself we hear on the soundtrack.
The elaborate Swiss mountain set incorporating the Sanger home was constructed on Warner's largest sound stage and was subsequently redressed to become the Yorkshire moors for the film DEVOTION, a risible biopic of the Brontes, made shortly afterwards and which was originally intended for Fontaine and her sister Olivia De Havilland. In the event, only De Havilland appeared - Fontaine preferred to make JANE EYRE at Fox instead.
CONSTANT NYMPH is enlivened by some familiar faces in the cast, including Peter Lorre, who is largely wasted, and Charles Coburn as an irascible Uncle - a part better suited to Sydney Greenstreet, who presumably wasn't available.
The finale, presenting Korngold's lush symphonic poem TOMORROW, is nicely done and the mezzo soprano seen on stage is actually Clemence Groves, a local Los Angeles concert singer who is also heard on the soundtrack and was the wife of George Groves, a key sound dept technician at Warners.
Those who are eagle-eyed will spot a poster for Korngold's legendary opera Die tote Stadt on the wall of Sanger's study, that is clearly visible in the scene early in the film between Dodd and Sanger, and placed on the wall by the film's associate producer Henry Blanke as a tribute to his friend Korngold, who didn't even notice it until told of the gesture at the film's premiere.
This is a one-of-a kind film that is unlikely to be remade. It's well worth seeing and has a hypnotic appeal that bears repeated viewing.
TCM recently managed to clear the rights of this film from the literary
executors of Basil Dean (who coauthored the play version) and Margaret
Kennedy (who authored the novel and play adaptation). The television
premiere was on TCM on September 28, 2011. The original 1924 novel has
been reprinted in paperback but I have not read it yet.
It seems that the 1943 Hollywood adaptation cleans most of the sex out of the story which was dealt with in the novel. Also the book focuses on the entire Sanger family while the film (and play) focuses on the central triangle of Tessa, Lewis Dodd and Florence. I think that Boyer and Fontaine are somewhat miscast as Tessa and Dodd though both perform excellently. It seems that in the novel the pair become lovers though Tessa is underage and they actually do escape together to Brussels. Also, the sister Toni Sanger already has had a sexual affair with Birnbaum, played in the movie by Peter Lorre as Fritz Bercovy. In the film both affairs remain chaste - at least until Toni Sanger is safely married to the Birnbaum/Bercovy character.
In the film, the pedophilia issue is dodged by having Dodd and Tessa realize and acknowledge they are lovers/soul mates without any form of consummation - even kissing. Their love is idealized and unrealizable on this earth. One love scene that was probably played for real in the book or play is done as a "dream vision" by Tessa while she listen's to Dodd's symphony on the radio.
Fontaine is too old but shows a remarkable lack of vanity - wearing no makeup and using an awkward, hyperactive physicality to suggest an adolescent girl. Boyer comes off as too much the mature European roué - Robert Donat, Errol Flynn and Leslie Howard were all considered for the part. Not enough is made of Lewis' social nonconformity - in the book he is also the son of wealth who repudiates his class and its values. Alexis Smith as Florence, the unhappy excluded wife comes off best in some ways - her character has a genuine conflict going on and is proactive. Smith as another poster mentioned is simultaneously hateful, understandable and pitiful and she fights for a relationship that is essentially doomed. Florence's attraction to bohemian artistic types is in conflict with her basic inability to sympathize with their lifestyles and values. This conflict is truthfully captured by Smith and Goulding.
The studio sets in the Austrian Tyrol scenes look like a mix of Kentucky farm and English moors and are not convincing. There is a genuine sophistication here but without the characters taking that final fatal step into the forbidden, some of the guts of the story is lost. The previous two adaptation of the book - a 1928 silent with Ivor Novello and Mabel Poulton (preserved by the BFI) and an unavailable or lost 1934 remake with Victoria Hopper and Brian Aherne evidently hewed closer to the novel.
I saw this film on television when I was in my early teens but unfortunately, due to legal problems over the screenplay rights, it cannot be shown on television or released to video at this time. I have collected several recordings of Korngold's beautiful score including a moving performance of his Tone Poem "Tomorrow". The film's star, Joan Fontaine, has said this is, along with "Letter From An Unknown Woman" (1948) her favorite among her films. Fortunately the film is safeguarded in the Turner vaults and hopefully they will be able to bring this truly wonderful movie back into the public eye in the near future.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This is an amazing film. It has a great soundtrack, fine Direction, and
an outstanding cast. In this case Alexis Smith plays the oldest of 3
lead actresses, yet in real life she was younger than either Ms.
Marshall or Joan Fontaine. I must admit though that when Smith dresses
up for the concluding concert, she looks luscious, even in black &
Fontaine is outstanding in her performance playing very well with Charles Boyer and for that matter in her scenes with Smith. She is the young one who seems to be trying to romance Boyer the entire film.
This is a rare film to feature a few scenes with Boyer together with legend Charles Coburn. Add in some scenes of Fontaine and Peter Lorre and we see some historic stuff here. The acting by all these folks is superb. It is great that the lawyers for TCM manage to get this film out of legal limbo to show it. (Wish they could do the same magic for CBS series The Defenders from the 1960's).
This film is an old fashioned romance with Fontaine having a rare heart condition which pulls at the heart strings. After seeing this, it is another winner from the 1940's Warner Brothers studio which produced a lot of great films during the War. I saw no flaws in the restoration by the Library of Congress on this print either. A fine film, indeed.
Saw this film in theatrical release back in the 1940's and remember so well
the music by Korngold. Outstanding acting by Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine
and the first film appearance of Alexis Smith. Most notable was the final
7/8 minutes of the film which presented a full scale cantata for solo
soprano and orch written by Korngold. It was a "first" Something like this
had never been done before in a Hollywood film. I have searched for years
to obtain a video but without success.
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