Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941)

Charles Boyer, Paulette Goddard and Olivia de Havilland in Hold Back the Dawn

Charles Boyer, Paulette Goddard and Olivia de Havilland

Happy 100th birthday, Olivia de Havilland! This is my contribution to her centenary blogathon, being organised by The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Phyllis Loves Classic Movies. Please visit and read the other entries, which cover a wide range of Olivia de Havilland’s films.

With a fine cast headed by Olivia de Havilland and Charles Boyer, a great director in Mitchell Leisen and a sharp script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, it’s a mystery that bitter-sweet comedy romance Hold Back the Dawn isn’t better known. The story is sadly only too topical, centring on a group of refugees who have fled from war and are trying to cross a border. Let’s hope the celebrations for de Havilland’s centenary lead to this fine film getting more attention. At my time of writing, it’s only available on a Spanish DVD in region 2 – I bought an import copy and can confirm that the picture quality is fine. However, it will be shown on TCM in the US at 1.45am ET on July 22, 2016, and again at 9.45pm on August 29.

Hold Back the Dawn 2Olivia de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for her role as a “plain” small-town schoolteacher, Emmy Brown. (Odd how she and sister Joan Fontaine were repeatedly cast in this type of role, despite their beauty). She has a difficult task, since her character’s naive behaviour isn’t always easy to believe, but de Havilland gives Emmy such warmth, sweetness and enthusiasm that she manages to carry it off. Emmy takes a group of pupils into Mexico on a rather strange school trip, to see a bullfight. (Would this ever have happened?) She runs into a handsome stranger who is initially rude, but then declares he has fallen in love with her at first sight, and sweet-talks her into an instant marriage. It’s only too obvious that he is really in love with the US, but his starry-eyed bride refuses to see it.

The man who woos her is Georges Iscovescu (Boyer), a Romanian dancer and gigolo who has spent much of his life in France. After fleeing Paris and the Nazis, he lands up in Mexico, hoping to cross the border to the US. He is told the quota system means he will have to wait for up to 8 years, eking out a twilight existence in a seedy hotel with a group of fellow exiles. However, old flame Anita (Paulette Goddard) suggests he should follow her example by marrying an American, only to desert his bride once he gets his residence permit. So he romances Emmy, using all his well-worn charms – but, once he is married, things start to get more emotionally complicated than he expected. Georges is taken aback by Emmy’s forthright nature and determination to believe in him, and starts to wonder if he can really go ahead with his plans to break her heart.

Spanish poster for Hold Back the Dawn

Spanish poster for Hold Back the Dawn

Advertising for the film focuses on Boyer as the great lover and makes it look like a glossy tale of a love triangle. In fact, though, despite often being very funny, it is a darker and less romantic story than the posters suggest, focusing on a desperate group of people living in limbo. As well as Georges, there are several other characters waiting to get across the border, including a heavily pregnant woman whose husband is suffering from TB and a man who is suddenly hailed as a celebrity when it turns out he is a descendant of Lafayette – some unmistakeable Wilder satire here.

For Wilder and Brackett, the plight of these displaced people was at the heart of the story. It should have been encapsulated in a scene they wrote where Georges sees a cockroach crawling up the wall of his hotel room, and interrogates it as if it were a refugee, demanding to see whether it has a visa. To their anger, Boyer objected to the scene as “nonsensical”, and Leisen then cut it from the script. In an interview late in his career, Wilder revealed how he and Brackett were still writing the later scenes in the film when this decision was made. They punished Boyer by cutting back on his part and building up de Havilland’s, so that she was the one who ended up with the critical praise and the Oscar nomination.

Even without this scene, however, the desperation does come across, and at times there are noir elements to the portrayal of life in Tijuana. In particular, the character of immigration official Inspector Hammock (Walter Abel) brings a noirish atmosphere every time he wanders in.  I was also surprised to see how, in a film made under the Code, it is quite clear that Georges and Anita are sleeping together, and also that they both make a living by selling themselves. When alone together, the couple casually refer to their customers, and Anita actually says to Georges “You look at me with those cold gigolo eyes.”

Hold Back the Dawn 4Unfortunately, there are too many sentimental moments towards the end of the film, with scenes which involve powerful acting by de Havilland in particular, but are less than convincing in plot terms. The ending also isn’t easy to swallow, but in general I was really impressed by this little-known gem, and will definitely watch it again in the future.

For further reading, a TCM article has some background on the making of the film.


Hold Back the Dawn poster

18 thoughts on “Hold Back the Dawn (Mitchell Leisen, 1941)


    • Yes indeed, especially if they haven’t finished writing the film script yet! I hope you enjoy this one when you get to see it – I’m sure you will. Thanks, Jenni.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for reminding us of this film which deserves a universal DVD release. And I agree with your impressions of the film. Lots of interesting characters in it. I’m not a Boyer fan but he is convincing . His change of heart is pure Hollywood!
    A well deserved tribute to Olivia on her birthday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Vienna – I can never understand why DVDs get released in one country but not anywhere else, since once the print has been restored surely it would make sense to let others get a chance to buy it! I quite like Boyer and think he is good in this, but agree about the Hollywood schmaltz element here! It’s so great that this is one centenary where the star is still with us.


  3. I’m disappointed in Charles Boyer. It’s too bad that he couldn’t grasp the bigger picture with the cockroach scene…but oh well. Sounds like Olivia received some meaty screen time as a result!

    I keep meaning to see this film, but never make time for it. I must, must watch it soon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it’s a pity about the cockroach scene. Boyer is taking risks and getting away from his romantic image in this film, so maybe he felt it was one risk too many, but it is a shame. Hope you get the time to see this soon, Ruth!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have said this several times, but I have not seen this one and your review makes me want to find it. I will keep an eye on TCM. Thanks for the interesting review. I wish they had shot the cockroach scene. I can hear Boyer’s voice.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s being shown on TCM in the US twice in the near future, Joe, as I mentioned above – first showing is in the early hours on July 22, so time to set your DVR! Hope you enjoy it. I wish they had shot the cockroach scene too – sounds as if it would have been a highlight.


  5. Thanks so much for joining in on the blogathon Judy with such a great post. I’ve never seen this film due to not being able to find it on DVD. It’s not available anywhere. I really want to see it though. Hopefully one day it will be released. It sounds intriguing,

    Don’t forget to check out my article for the blogathon


    Liked by 1 person

    • If you have access to the US TCM it is being shown there on July 22, Crystal, so you might be able to catch it then. Thanks very much for organising the blogathon!


    • It’s the same for me in the UK, Crystal – except that it’s easier to import films from European countries, so I was able to get hold of the Spanish DVD. I hope you do get a chance to see it!


  6. I will definately be sure to catch this one on TCM! It sounds like a great movie! I hate when a film is going strong and then has an unsatisfying ending, like they just got tired of it or ran out of time.

    Thanks so much for taking part in this Blogathon and bringing attention to this film!


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