Friday, December 16, 2011


Charles Boyer is a struggling composer living in a boarding house; when his latest dissonant concert music is played to negative reviews in London, he has a big hissy fit leading to him smash his piano, so he heads off to the Swiss chalet of old friend Montagu Love to recover. He basks in the adoration of Love’s daughters, especially bubbly teenager Joan Fontaine (at right with Boyer). Love sympathizes with Boyer, but chastises him, telling him he’s "ashamed of melody," and encourages him to work on one of his short, lovely throwaway tunes which has caught Fontaine's attention. Boyer is also told that he will learn to write truly great music only after he learns to cry. Fontaine, who has a heart condition, clearly has a crush on Boyer, and they spend some idyllic times together in the mountains, but after Love dies, the girls are put in the care of their uncle (Charles Coburn).

Time passes; the girls are taken to England for schooling and Boyer marries Alexis Smith, Coburn’s daughter. Up to this point, the film has played out like a romantic comedy, but things take a melodramatic turn here and we get a series of emotionally charged conversations between Boyer and Fontaine (who is completely in love with him), between Boyer and Smith (who are having marital problems), between Smith and Coburn (he knows she's not happy), and between Fontaine and Smith (she knows Fontaine's in love with her husband). Boyer finally has an emotional breakthrough when he realizes he's in love with Fontaine, cries, and is able to flesh out his throwaway melody into a symphonic "tone poem" which becomes a huge success when it is played in concert. Fontaine, whose heart weakness spells are increasing, listens to the piece over the radio in ecstasy, but…, well, heart conditions being what they are in movies, the ecstasy is short-lived.

This movie had been out of circulation due to copyright problems for over 50 years and had become something of a Holy Grail for classic movie buffs, so inevitably it's a bit disappointing to finally see it and realize it's just an average romantic melodrama, on the order of other such films set in the world of classical music (INTERMEZZO, HUMORESQUE). Fontaine gives a good performance; she never seems as young as she's supposed to be, but that's a good thing because it would be a bit too creepy to have a real 14-year-old be the romantic object of the mid-40s Boyer. I'm not a big fan of Boyer but he's quite good here, with just the right doses of egocentrism and tenderness. There are some fine supporting players, but their plotlines aren't given enough attention for them to shine: in addition to Smith (pictured above with Fontaine) and Coburn, there's Brenda Marshall as the oldest daughter who, because she dates around, has the reputation of having "gone bad"; Peter Lorre as her off-and-on lover; Dame May Whitty as a high society lady; and Eduardo Ciannelli as a family servant. The tone poem "Tomorrow" was written by Erich Wolfgang Korngold and has taken on a life of its own outside the film. My favorite line, delivered by Coburn to Smith: "Stop moaning about like a woman in a novel." This film was in fact based on a novel. Better than INTERMEZZO, but nowhere as good as HUMORESQUE. [TCM]

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