Monday, October 10, 2011

The Constant Nymph - 1943

“The Constant Nymph” (1943) recently premiered on TCM. It would be interesting to get TV ratings data for that night. A film so long tangled up in legal limbo, it’s a rare gem for classic film buffs, probably all of whom with access to TCM were watching or recording it or both.

“Legal limbo” has an otherworldly sound to it. It’s not really a place. It’s an imaginary existence -- or lack of one -- that suggests a challenge yet to be resolved. Those of us on the outside of this struggle, with little understanding of it, merely accept that there is such a plane of existence.

Accepting without understanding can be a kind of safety valve. At other times, it can be a gift we give to those whose feelings or actions are beyond our comprehension. “The Constant Nymph” shows us a musically creative family who need a great deal of understanding, but whose peculiar “insanity” is “of the most enchanting kind.”

This, according to Charles Boyer, friend of the family and not a little insane himself.

The art of illusion plays a big role in this film, gently directed by Edmund Goulding. The dilapidated chalet in the Swiss alps, whose foothills hover just on the back cyclorama, are straight out of “Heidi”. A storybook illusion. The mosses and ferns, and disparate branches and grasses on the furry mounds just beyond the house wave in the light breeze created by the unseen wind machine, and lift the errant strands of hair escaping from Joan Fontaine’s tight, untidy braids.

Joan Fontaine is the biggest illusion in this film. She plays a teenager here, natural and unaffected, completely innocent yet possessed of wisdom beyond her years. She runs with a round-shouldered burst of exuberance, and throws her opinions around like any know-it-all kid. She is funny, and elfin, and tragic. I think it’s one of the best performances I’ve ever seen from any film of that era. She was something like 25 years old at the time. Her skinny, awkward body is the least of the illusion; most of it comes from that hyperactive energy, the clear face with its constantly changing expressions. She is quite remarkably moving.

The way Boyer rustles his hand through her hair roughly and puts a gentle hammerlock on her, tucking her head under his arm. He doesn’t quite get that she’s in love with him, but the film avoids the sexual escapades of the book by putting her love and his misunderstanding of it on a higher plane.

Like legal limbo, I suppose.

Boyer’s main trauma comes from not living up to his potential as a composer. “If he’d only cry,” Joan Fontaine’s dissolute composer papa, played by Montagu Love, declares. M. Boyer recoils from sentiment and tenderness, or maybe just hard work, preferring a lazy joke, or a romantic diversion, which here is played by Alexis Smith.

Alexis Smith, for once in her life, has a role she can sink her teeth into. She is the wealthy, upper class society debutante who is summoned to the storybook chalet to take charge of the girls after the death of Montagu Love (who actually did die a month before this film was released). She is the maternal cousin of Joan Fontaine. Her father, played with typical comic crankiness by Charles Coburn, is the brother of Fontaine’s long-deceased mother.

Rounding out the family we have a few more sisters and half-sisters, one of which is played by Brenda Marshall, who is pursued with middle-European angst by Peter Lorre.

Joyce Reynolds is charming as Fontaine’s closest sister, who shares in her troubles and hijinks. Fontaine dumps Miss Reynolds from her bed onto the floor in our introduction to her character. In a sweet, melancholy scene, Reynolds comforts Joan Fontaine, who has fainted. Noticing a bruise and smudge of dirt on Joan’s upper arm from when she fell like a sack of wet cement in the dirt, she licks the corner of the bedspread and daubs it lovingly on Joan’s skin.

Joan took a dive when she heard that Boyer has suddenly proposed marriage to Alexis Smith. Afterward, whenever Smith and Boyer are around, Joyce Reynolds keeps a close watch on her sensitive sister. On another occasion we see her dark eyes dart from the happy couple to Joan, helpless to prevent the cold slap of reality that she’s just a kid and Boyer is a grown man with a grown man’s appetites.

But soon, it’s Alexis Smith who needs comforting. She has perceived no warning from Joyce Reynold’s alert glances. Miss Smith begins to sense, on her own, a bond between Boyer and Fontaine. She’s almost sick with jealousy. It’s a very good performance, and even at her most harsh and shrill we have to sympathize with an insecure woman who knows she’s losing her handsome husband to a skinny little poor orphan with fainting spells.

“You’re so real, so definite,” Boyer says to Alexis, by way of a compliment, but he has no real interest in reality. It’s much more fun to play in an ethereal existence. Not that he hasn’t the ability to fit in wherever he goes. In a ballroom scene, he meets Dame May Whitty, more cranky than her pal Charles Coburn, and charms her to pieces. How they click immediately is irresistible.

I was a bit thrown by “Danny Boy” being played in the background. Not something I would expect in an upper class British ballroom.

But, Boyer chafes under his bride’s social set, does not want to perform for them, and Alexis deals smoothly with his tantrums and fretfulness. It’s Joan Fontaine that gets under her skin. Still, Alexis has agreed to become the girls’ guardian, save them from poverty, and this may be her chief value to Boyer, though he has the tact not to say it. She even has looked into and learns the name of Joan’s mysterious heart condition that gives her palpitations and fainting spells; Boyer shrugs it off as a bothersome detail, like school enrollment, which is also left to her.

It is the reality of his new everyday existence that perhaps irks Boyer most, with the girls sent to boarding school and Alexis so in love with him she shows him off to all and sundry, when she is not sending him to his studio to work. He needs a little illusion, or at least some self delusion, to buffer against the responsibilities of the everyday.

I think my favorite illusion in the film is the fact that in real life, Alexis Smith was nearly four years younger than Joan Fontaine.

Her height and elegance conveys that she’s the grown up and Fontaine is the kid. Fontaine’s school uniform helps, and the delightfully floppy way she carries herself completes the picture.

The film has a leisurely feel to it, and lightness, and gentleness that compliments the ethereal nature of the story. It takes a different tone from the book -- and has to, to pass muster of the Code, but this is part of the movie’s charm. It could be such a heavy soap opera, and it’s not. Think of other films like “All This and Heaven, Too” (1940) or “Now, Voyager” (1942), which hammer us with the illicitness of the love story. This fable, like Joan Fontaine’s character, is beautifully natural and tenderly developed.

The tension builds with Alexis Smith’s devotion to honesty, which is even stronger than her devotion to Boyer. The truth may set us free, but honesty is often the most callous and brutal road to freedom. Both Smith and Fontaine suffer this, and courageously face honest self appraisals of their shared reality. The two characters change the most, almost in tandem, through the film.

At the end, we have a conversion of sorts, when Alexis Smith, enraptured this time and no longer haunted by this embarrassing romantic triangle, experiences the same thrill of Boyer’s music as Fontaine does, and at the same time. The music here is by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, which launches Fontaine into a dream sequence. It is one of the most imaginative scenes in the film where snippets of previous dialogue are strung together to create a kind of fractured memory effect -- the illusion that the words are familiar and yet completely new. An eerie déjà vu.

Smith is not part of Fontaine’s dream sequence; we do not get to see her epiphany. We only see the ironic twist that Fontaine is roused from her reverie by the fear of death in the reprise of lines she earlier recited with an innocent lack of understanding of what they meant.

I like movies that give me something to think about after they end. What if we had been allowed inside Alexis Smith’s head when she changed her mind about the love between Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer? Her astonishing turnabout, her offer to release him is done without self-pity or bitterness, but with a heart full of love, a sense of excitement in accepting a situation that exists without understanding it. What went on in that theater box for her to do a 180 on wanting to boot Fontaine out of her house?

What if the ending was different? (I’m going to avoid a spoiler here, but you several million who watched the TCM premiere know what I’m talking about.) Would there still be a romantic triangle tinged with the rumor of pedophilia? Would Boyer ever find his muse without losing it first?

What happens if he is without both his muse and his wife? Is he still going to compose, the new darling of the moneyed set, or just find some other storybook soundstage to lose himself -- that other elusive plane of existence that enchants and entangles, and inevitably leads to sorrow?

Like legal limbo.


Grand Old Movies said...

A lovely post on a charming, melancholy film. Joan Fontaine had such a remarkable sensitivity for portraying the gawky tremors of youth. Can't believe she was actually older than Alexis Smith!

Unknown said...

Sounds like a fascinating film--great review as always!

Yvette said...

An intriguing review of a movie I'm not at all familiar with. But it does sound like something I will definitely want to see.

I don't have cable anymore, so I'll have to wait until Netflix picks this up at some point.

Joan Fontaine had such an expressive movie-face. She's one of those actresses you can actually see thinking.

I enjoyed reading this, Jacqueline, as always. :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you all very much. When you have a fascinating movie to talk about, you can't go wrong.

Caftan Woman said...

I was grumpily folding towels at the laundromat when I saw the TCM trailer (the lady who runs the place always switching to TCM when I'm there). The trailer was long and fawning and I decided to give "The Constant Nymph" a miss - legend or not.

I know better now. If they give me a next time, I'll be more open-minded.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

CW, I'm taken by the picture of your laundromat manager switching to TCM for you. A fine woman.

I've learned to ignore trailers for the most part, convinced that the people who made them never actually saw the movie. And telling me something is COLLOSSAL!!! and STUPENDOUS!!! tells me nothing at all.

LucieWickfield said...

I am about to launch an extensive quest for this film. Your first-rate post has tickled my curiosity, and I feel I simply must see it. Thanks a million for another COLOSSAL(!!!), STUPENDOUS (!!!) review. :)

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Lucie. I hope you can see it soon. COMING TO A TV NEAR YOU!!!

Laura said...

Jacqueline, I so enjoyed your thoughtful review! I went back and reread my own afterwards, as I mentally relived the film, and was reminded that I had said back in February, when I first saw it, that I wanted to read your thoughts on this film. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas -- I especially love your comments on Alexis Smith, a character which rather confounded me. I very much enjoyed your analysis of her perspective. And how remarkable that she was in reality younger than Fontaine!

As for Fontaine, I'm in complete agreement. I don't think she was ever better than in this film. Her exuberantly skipping around in the opening scenes, putting a ribbon in her hair, pulling it out again -- she lived that part with her entire body, and made it completely believable.

As a postscript, I wish we could have had another scene or two between Brenda Marshall and Peter Lorre. Interesting supporting characters. Poor Jean Muir, as another sister, was shunted off to the side almost immediately.

Best wishes,

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Laura. It really is an unusual film, particularly for taking the fey aspects of the story so seriously.

Like you, I also wondered where Jean Muir went after only a few minutes of screen time. I liked Peter Lorre in this role.

I enjoyed your review of the movie, but I didn't think I'd be able to see it myself for some time. The TCM showing was a happy surprise.

I'm not surprised Alexis Smith confounded you. She confounds me, and I'm going to write a little bit more about her on Thursday.

Rick29 said...

A thoughtful review of a film that has, indeed, been hard to see. What I always remember best about THE CONSTANT NYMPH is the beautiful Korngold score. His music is not recognized on its own as much as Steiner or Herrmann, but his scores always enrich their films in subtle, nuanced ways.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you, Rick. You're right, Korngold's score is as much a part of the experience, and shared memory, of this film as any of the performances.

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