Skip to main content

Film Friday: «The Constant Nymph» (1943)

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.

Charles Boyer, Alexis Smith, Peter Lorre and Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph.

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.
 
Joyce Reynolds, Joan Fontaine, Charles Boyer and Alexis in The Constant Nymph.

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).


2
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)

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Golden Couples: Gary Cooper & Patricia Neal

It was April 1948 when director King Vidor spotted 22-year-old Patricia Neal on the Warner Bros. studio lot. A drama graduate from Northwestern University, she had just arrived in Hollywood following a Tony Award-winning performance in Lillian Hellman's Another Part of the Forest . Impressed by Patricia's looks, Vidor approached the young actress and asked if she would be interested in doing a screen test for the female lead in his newest film, The Fountainhead (1949). Gary Cooper had already signed as the male protagonist, and the studio was then considering Lauren Bacall and Barbara Stanwyck to play his love interest.          Neal liked the script and about two months later, she met with the director for sound and photographic tests. Vidor was enthusiastic about Patricia, but her first audition was a complete disaster. Cooper was apparently watching her from off the set and he was so unimpressed by her performance that he commented, « What's that!? » He tried to con

Golden Couples: Henry Fonda & Barbara Stanwyck

In the mid- and late 1930s, screwball comedy was in vogue and practically every actress in Hollywood tried her hand at it. Barbara Stanwyck never considered herself a naturally funny person or a comedienne per se , but after delivering a heart-wrenching performance in King Vidor's Stella Dallas (1937), she decided she needed a « vacation » from emotional dramas. In her search for a role, she stumbled upon a « champagne comedy » called The Mad Miss Manton (1938), originally intended as a Katharine Hepburn vehicle. Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda as Melsa and Peter in The Mad Miss Manton .   Directed by Leigh Jason from a script by Philip G. Epstein, The Mad Miss Manton begins when vivacious Park Avenue socialite Melsa Manton finds a corpse while walking her dogs in the early hours of the morning. She calls the police, but they dismiss the incident — not only because Melsa is a notorious prankster, but also because the body disappears in the meantime. Sarcastic newspaper editor

Films I Saw in 2020

For the past four years, I have shared with you a list of all the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 and 2019 , so I thought I would continue the «tradition» and do it again in 2020. This list includes both classic and «modern» films, which make up a total of 161 titles. About three or four of these were re-watches, but I decided to include them anyway. Let me know how many from these you have seen. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favorites. Sherlock Jr. (1924) | Starring Buster Keaton, Kathryn McGuire and Joe Keaton The Crowd (1928) | Starring James Murray, Eleanor Boardman and Bert Roach Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) | Starring Henry Fonda, Alice Brady and Marjorie Weaver Brief Encounter (1945) | Starring Celia Johnson, Trevor Howard and Stanley Holloway The Bells of St. Mary's (1945) | Starring Bing Crosby and Ingrid Bergman The Girl He Left Behind (1956) | Starring Tab Hunter and Natalie Wood Gidget (1959) | Starring Sandra Dee, Cliff Robertson an

Wings of Change: The Story of the First Ever Best Picture Winner

Wings was the first ever film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Since then, it has become one of the most influential war dramas, noted for its technical realism and spectacular air-combat sequences. This is the story of how it came to be made.   A man and his story The concept for Wings originated from a writer trying to sell one of his stories. In September 1924, Byron Morgan approached Jesse L. Lasky, vice-president of Famous Players-Lasky, a component of Paramount Pictures, proposing that the studio do an aviation film. Morgan suggested an «incident and plot» focused on the failure of the American aerial effort in World War I and the effect that the country's «aviation unpreparedness» would have in upcoming conflicts. Lasky liked the idea, and approved the project under the working title «The Menace.»   LEFT: Byron Morgan (1889-1963). RIGHT: Jesse L. Lasky (1880-1958).   During his development of the scenario with William Shepherd, a former war correspondent, Morga

80 Reasons Why I Love Classic Films (Part II)

I started this blog six years ago as a way to share my passion for classic films and Old Hollywood. I used to watch dozens of classic films every month, and every time I discovered a new star I liked I would go and watch their entire filmography. But somewhere along the way, that passion dimmed down. For instance, I watched 73 classic films in 2016, and only 10 in 2020. The other day, I found this film with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. that I had never heard of — the film is Mimi (1935), by the way — and for some reason it made me really excited about Old Hollywood again. It made me really miss the magic of that era and all the wonderful actors and actresses. And it also made me think of all the reasons why I fell in love with classic films in the first place. I came with 80 reasons, which I thought would be fun to share with you. Most of them are just random little scenes or quirky little quotes, but put them together and they spell Old Hollywood to me. Yesterday I posted part one ; here i

Top 10 Favourite Christmas Films

Christmas has always been a source of inspiration to many artists and writers. Over the years, filmmakers have adapted various Christmas stories into both movies and TV specials, which have become staples during the holiday season all around the world. Even though Christmas is my favourite holiday, I haven't watched a lot of Christmas films. Still, I thought it would be fun to rank my top 10 favourites, based on the ones that I have indeed seen. Here they are.  10. Holiday Affair (1949) Directed by Don Hartman, Holiday Affair tells the story of a young widow (Janet Leigh) torn between a boring attorney (Wendell Corey) and a romantic drifter (Robert Mitchum). She's engaged to marry the boring attorney, but her son (Gordon Gebert) likes the romantic drifter better. Who will she choose? Well, we all know who she will choose.   Holiday Affair is not by any means the greatest Christmas film of all time, but it's still a very enjoyable Yule-tide comedy to watch over the holi

The Gotta Dance! Blogathon: Gene Kelly & Judy Garland

In 1940, up-and-coming Broadway star Gene Kelly was offered the lead role in Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart's new musical Pal Joey , based on the eponymous novel by John O'Hara about an ambitious and manipulative small-time nightclub performer. Opening at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Christmas Day of that year, the show brought Gene his best reviews up to that date. For instance, John Martin of The New York Times wrote of him: «A tap-dancer who can characterize his routines and turn them into an integral element of an imaginative theatrical whole would seem to be pretty close, indeed, to unique .»   One of Gene's performances in Pal Joey was attended by established Hollywood star Judy Garland , who requested to meet him after the show. Gene agreed and then accompanied Judy and her entourage, which included her mother Ethel and several press agents, to dinner at the newly-opened Copacabana nightclub, at 10 East 60th Street. They sang and danced until 3 a.m., after whi

Films I Saw in July & August

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in July and August, which make up a total of 18 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Resistance (2011) | Starring Andrea Riseborough, Tom Wlaschiha and Michael Sheen Siberian Education [Educazione siberiana] (2013) | Starring Arnas Fedaravi čius The Last of Robin Hood (2013) | Starring Kevin Kline and Dakota Fanning The Water Diviner (2014) | Starring Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko and Yılmaz Erdoğan Holding the Man (2015) | Starring Ryan Corr, Craig Stott and Anthony LaPaglia The Last King [Birkebeinerne] (2016) | Starring Jakob Oftebro and Kristofer Hivju The Pass (2016) | Starring Russell Tovey and Arinzé Kene Access All Areas (2017) | Starring Ella Purnell, Edward Bluemel and Georgie Henle

The Sinatra Centennial Blogathon: Frank Sinatra & Gene Kelly

  In January 1944, MGM chief Louis B. Mayer happened to see a young crooner by the name of Frank Sinatra perform at a benefit concert for The Jewish Home for the Aged in Los Angeles. According to Nancy Sinatra, Frank's eldest daughter, Mayer was so moved by her father's soulful rendition of « Ol' Man River » that he made the decision right then and there to sign Frank to his studio. Sinatra had been on the MGM payroll once before, singing with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra in the Eleanor Powell vehicle Ship Ahoy (1942), although it is very likely that Mayer never bothered to see that film. Now that Frank was «hot,» however, Metro made arrangements to buy half of his contract from RKO, with the final deal being signed in February of that year. Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra in  Anchors Aweigh Being a contract player at the studio that boasted «more stars than there are in the heavens» gave Frank a sudden perspective regarding his own talents as a film performer. The «g

Films I Saw in May & June

In the past five years, I shared a year-end list of the films I saw throughout 2016 , 2017 , 2018 , 2019 and 2020 . For 2021, I decided to do this monthly and share a list of the films I saw during each month of the year. These are the films I saw in May and June, which make up a total of 16 titles. As always, films marked with a heart ( ❤ ) are my favourites.   Pelle the Conqueror [Pelle Erobreren] (1987) | Starring Pelle Hvenegaard The Elementary School [ Obecná škola] (1991) | Starring Václav Jakoubek Female Agents [Les Femmes de l'ombre] (2008) | Starring Sophie Marceau Stefan Zweig: Farewell to Europe [Vor der Morgenröte] (2016) | Starring Josef Hader ❤ Cold War [Zimna wojna] (2018) | Starring Tomasz Kot, Joanna Kulig and Borys Szyc Dreamland (2019) | Starring Finn Cole, Margot Robbie, Travis Fimmel and Garrett Hedlund Mr Jones (2019) | Starring James Norton, Vanessa Kirby and Peter Sarsgaard Official Secrets (2019) | Starring Keira Knightley, Matt Smith an