Arrow Video: Hold Back the Dawn (1941) - Reviewed

Charles Boyer was at the peak of his leading ‘ladies-man’ international megastar power, particularly in Algiers and Love Affair.  Often cast as a dashing and debonair smooth talking womanizer and/or the villainous type, Boyer with his thick French accent and handsome looks made him an instant movie star.  Which makes the opening scene to director Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn and Boyer’s role in the film itself somewhat meta in context and most certainly cast against type.  

Beginning on the backlot of the film’s distributor Paramount Pictures, Boyer plays Romanian born gigolo Georges Iscovescu who has got quite a story for hotshot film director Dwight Saxon (Mitchell Liesen cameoing).  After being stuck at the Mexican border in the Esperanza Hotel waiting indefinitely for an opportunity to become accepted into the United States, a most unusual opening has come his way: marry an American woman, become a US citizen and then drop her with divorce. 

Setting his sights on American schoolteacher Miss Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland in an Oscar nominated performance) who is on a broken down school bus touring the country, Iscovescu is quick to woo the woman’s heart by lending a helping hand with her rowdy child students and giving the group a roof over their heads while repairs on the vehicle can be completed.  It is here we see Mr. Boyer working his leading man charms on Mrs. De Havilland in full force, working his magic while carrying on ruse with his mistress Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) whom he plans to reunite with upon making it stateside.  That is, if his own interactions with Miss Brown don’t start tugging at his heartstrings first.

With a very real and ongoing immigration crisis playing out in the US, Hold Back the Dawn is a curiously still relevant romcom despite being nearly a century of years apart.  Loosely based on Ketti Frings’ novel of the same name, Hold Back the Dawn which was only recently revived and released on home video for the first time by Arrow Academy is best remembered as the film which drove its screenwriter Billy Wilder to go on to become a great film director himself. 

Legend has it Wilder had written an extended monologue where a depressed Boyer converses with a cockroach in his hotel room, a scene Boyer persuaded director Leisen to axe.  An incensed Wilder never screen wrote for someone else’s picture again thereafter.  Moreover, the feud also extended to Ketti Frings’ husband who like the subject of her novel had emigrated to the US by marrying her.  Wilder himself emigrated to escape the Nazi regime in Germany and while the three figures Boyer, Frings and Wilder all had something to bring to the table regarding their own experiences with immigration, no one could quite agree on how to do it.

Hold Back the Dawn also carries with it the urban Hollywood legend of an ongoing “feud” between actress Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine who copped the 1941 Oscar for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca.  While we’ll never really know the full story which only Mrs. De Havilland herself can tell, what is true is that she’s stunning in Hold Back the Dawn.  Exuding both her doe-eyed sweet looks donned in Gone with the Wind coupled with a sense of command and determination about herself, notably standing up to the irrepressible Boyer, de Havilland establishes herself here as a formidable talent who could well have grabbed the golden statue out from under Joan Fontaine.

Visually director Leisen’s approach is standard, comprised of medium shots and/or crane shots showing off the Mexican border set pieces, though many would say Hold Back the Dawn is better remembered for the stories it generated about its star studded players and screenwriters than for its own virtues.  That’s a shame because despite years of age, it still manages to address still relevant talking points about the state of the immigration system without feeling dated or leaning towards schmaltz.  Not necessarily a masterpiece but a damn good one which launched the careers of many great talents involved in it.

- Andrew Kotwicki