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.
Olivia 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.
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.”
Unfortunately, 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.