In honor of Joan Fontaine's 99th birthday, which is tomorrow, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you what she described as her favourite of all of her films.
Directed by Edmund Goulding, The Constant Nymph (1943) begins when composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) travels to Switzerland after his latest symphony is badly received in London. He stays at the home of his old friend and fellow musician Albert Sanger (Montagu Love), causing great excitement among his four daughters: Kate (Jean Muir), Toni (Brenda Marshall), Tessa (Joan Fontaine) and Paula (Joyce Reynolds). Despite the fact that she is only a teenager, Tessa is in love with Lewis and dreams of helping him reach his full promise as a composer. Worrying about his sheltered daughters' future, the ailing Sanger instructs Lewis to contact his wealthy brother-in-law, Charles Creighton (Charles Coburn), when he dies.
Upon Sanger's death, Kate decides to travel to Milan to study music, while Toni marries wealthy family friend Fritz Bercovy (Peter Lorre). Complying with Sanger's dying wishes, Lewis sends for Creighton, who arrives with his beautiful, grown daughter Florence (Alexis Smith). Lewis and Florence immediately fall in love, and when they announce their engagement, Tessa — who has a bad heart — faints at the news. Creighton arranges for his nieces to attend boarding school in England, after which Lewis and Florence marry.
Six months later, Lewis is frustrated by his wife's efforts to manage his career and the couple quarrel frequently. At the same time, Tessa and Paula run away from school to the Dodd house in London. Tessa's presence inspires Lewis to write new music, leading a jealous Florence to believe that her husband is falling for the teenage girl. On the opening night of his new symphony, Lewis finally realizes that he reciprocates Tessa's love and proposes to her, but she refuses because he is married to her cousin. The excitement causes Tessa to have another fainting spell and Florence insists that she stay at home, rather then attend the concert. Lewis returns to Tessa before the end of the concert, which becomes a success, and is followed by Florence, who tells him that she will not stand in his way if he wants a divorce. Her release is too late, however, as all the conflict has been too much for Tessa's frail heart and she has died.
Tessa Sanger: It was unfair to both of us for you to marry her. You were so mad to get that you forgot all about me! Oh, if only you'd waited a bit.
The eldest of four children of a well-to-do English barrister, Margaret Kennedy grew up in a respectable upper-middle-class environment. She was educated at Cheltenham Ladies' College, a traditional girls' boarding school, followed by Somerville College, Oxford, where in 1919 she took second-class honors in Modern History. While at Somerville, she developed an interest in writing and became friends with «a rich seam» of future female novelists, including Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, Hilda Reid and Sylvia Thompson.
In 1922, Kennedy published her first written work, A Century of Revolution, a commissioned History textbook about the effect of the French Revolution on Europe. Her first novel, The Ladies of Lyndon, followed a year later and garnered some praise from critics, although it received little attention from the general audience. However, Kennedy's second book, The Constant Nymph, achieved an astonishing popular and international success upon its publication in 1924. Augustine Birrell of the London magazine New Statesman described it at the time as «one of the best novels old or new, that had ever absorbed a reader's attention during the still hours.»
|LEFT: Margaret Kennedy c. 1920s. RIGHT: First edition of The Constant Nymph.|
After the release of The Constant Nymph, Kennedy collaborated with Basil Dean on a stage adaptation of the novel, which opened at the New Theatre in London in September 1926. Starring Edna Best as Tessa Sanger, a sickly young girl, and Noël Coward as Lewis Dodd, the older English composer whom she loves, the three-act play was an instant success and quickly moved to Broadway, where Glenn Anders and Beatrice Thomson took over the lead roles.
In 1928, Dean produced a British silent screen version of The Constant Nymph, co-starring Mabel Poulton and Ivor Novello as Tessa and Lewis. Directed by Adrian Brunel from a script by Alma Reville, the film was a critical and commercial hit, being named the best British feature of that year. Five years later, Dean directed a «talkie» adaptation with Victoria Hopper and Brian Aherne. Both early screen treatments take place in the novel's original setting, the Austrian Tyrol.
|Two scenes from the 1928 screen version of The Constant Nymph.|
In 1941, Warner Bros. head of production Hal B. Wallis purchased the rights to The Constant Nymph and assigned the new adaptation to British director Edmund Goulding. A mutifaceted filmmaker, Goulding began his career as an actor, before turning to writing and directing on the London stage. After serving in the British Army during World War I, he moved to Hollywood and found steady employment as a screenwriter at various studios, until MGM contracted him in 1925. Goulding was soon put to work with some of the studio's biggest female stars, turning out pictures that were «the epitome of Depression-era elegance as defined by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.» Most notable of these was Grand Hotel (1932), which won the Academy Award for Best Picture. In the mid-1930s, Goulding moved to Warner Bros., achieving further recognition with such films as Dark Victory (1939) and The Great Lie (1941)..
|LEFT: Brenda Marshall and Peter Lorre. MIDDLE: Joan Fontaine and Alexis Smith. RIGHT: Peter Lorre, Charles Coburn and Joan Fontaine.|
Being a writer himself, Goulding kept revising the script penned by Kathryn Scola, which made pre-production on The Constant Nymph a challenging and time-consuming process. Finding an actor to play the male lead also proved to be a difficult task. Studio chief Jack Warner originally suggested Australian Errol Flynn, but Goulding wanted to maintain Lewis Dodd's British nationality and sought Robert Donat and Leslie Howard instead. However, both actors were unavailable at the time, Howard in particular due to war responsibilities.
Eventually, the role of Lewis Dodd was rewritten so that the character's nationality became unimportant, leading Charles Boyer to be cast. Briefly trained at the Paris Conservatory, Boyer began his acting career in his native France, before signing with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in the early 1930s. He made his American film debut opposite Ruth Chatterton in The Magnificent Lie (1931) and went on achieve stardom in such films as Conquest (1937) and Algiers (1938), both of which earned him Academy Award nominations for Best Actor.
|Charles Boyer and Joan Fontaine as Lewis and Tessa in The Constant Nymph.|
Warner initially wanted Joan Leslie to play Tessa, but Goulding felt that she was not quite right. Around the same time, Goulding happened to meet his old friend Brian Aherne at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. Aherne was accompanied by his wife Joan Fontaine, who had recently won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940). The couple had just returned to Los Angeles from their grape ranch in Indio and Fontaine was wearing a gabardine «flying suit» with her hair in pigtails. Aherne invited Goulding to join their table, where the director explained his struggle to find a suitable actress to star in The Constant Nymph: «Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen!» «How about me?» Fontaine suddenly asked. «Who are you?» asked Goulding, staring at the freckled, non-made-up face framed by pigtails. «Joan Fontaine.» Suddenly Goulding beamed with recognition and said, «You're perfect!» The next day, Fontaine officially had the role.
|Joan Fontaine as Tessa Sanger in The Constant Nymph.|
Despite the fact that Goulding had not immediately recognized Fontaine, she came to adore the director, later writing that «playing the part of Tessa in The Constant Nymph was the happiest motion-picture assignment of my career.» She also became quite fond of her co-star, saying, «Charles Boyer is my favorite leading man. He is a true actor, a gentleman, a man of infinite kindness and feeling. He didn't care where the lights were, or who would get the critical reviews. All he cared about about was you and the quality of the film.»
Although Boyer enjoyed working with Fontaine, he did not like the film overall. In fact, he only accepted the part of Lewis Dodd on the condition that he get top billing and a $150,000 salary. Boyer thought Lewis was too thinly drawn and was manipulated by the women characters much more than having a life of his own. He also felt that Florence Creighton, the role eventually assigned to Alexis Smith, was so humorless and unlikable that Lewis's love for her was unbelievable, consequently making Tessa's love for him also dubious.
The release of The Constant Nymph was delayed for a year partly because it made no reference to World War II — and the films that did were more important to release as soon as possible. When it was finally released on June 23, 1943, it performed poorly at the box office. However, critical reviews were extremely favorable, with The New York Times calling Fontaine's performance «a superb achievement [...] Goulding deserves mention for telling a long story (almost two hours) with a pace that rarely wearies [...] Conceived with a deep sympathy and understanding, the Hollywood effort is a fine tribute to the virtues that have made the book endure.» Fontaine earned a third — and final — Oscar nomination for Best Actress for her performance as Tessa, but lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette (1943).
American Classic Screen Interviews edited by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Walsh (Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010)
Women and the Popular Imagination in the Twenties: Flappers and Nymphs by Billie Melman (Macmillan Press, 1988)