Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Frenchman's Creek (1944)

One summer when she was a teenager the Siren visited her grandmother in a small town in north Alabama. Like all grandmothers should, this one had a grand, high four-poster bed for her granddaughter to sleep in. And next to it, on a yellowed lace doily, was a glass bulb lamp with some kind of landscape painted on it. When you lit this lamp at night, and looked around at the bed's posters, you had the most shadowy, atmospheric reading spot you can imagine. The Siren was on a Daphne du Maurier kick and her book that summer was Frenchman's Creek. If I close my eyes right now I can remember the windowshades and the glow of the lamp and staying up late to read the romantic story of Dona St. Colomb and her pirate.

I only wish there had been something in Mitchell Leisen's 1944 film version that was half as exciting as devouring that book by lamplight in an old room.

It's a sumptuously beautiful movie, but as anyone who's tried to watch a Cindy Crawford performance can tell you, beauty only gets you so far. The film is way overdone, like a meal late in the movie that starts with a huge pile of shrimp and moves on to an enormous roast. In her autobiography Joan Fontaine says that it might have worked if done in black-and-white as a "story of doomed love." Instead Paramount spent a mint on making it in lavish Technicolor. The costumes are eye-popping ...



... albeit also overdone. Fontaine apparently did not get on well with the cast and while Leisen later said she offended the British actors by remarking one morning that it was hard having to carry the whole movie, the Siren also wonders if his wig didn't have the otherwise courtly Basil Rathbone a mite on edge. Fontaine also said that the premiere audience greeted certain parts with laughter and is it just me, or do you suspect we have captured just such a moment above?

"Show me a happy set, and I'll show you a dull movie," Katharine Hepburn once remarked, although that's no more universally true than the old theater superstition about smooth dress rehearsals. Here we seem to have the worst possible mix, a miserable set and a (mostly) dull movie. Romantic swashbucklers work best when everyone seems to be having fun, and doing it in a way that lets the audience in on it. That's true of all the Siren's favorites in the genre--Scaramouche, The Crimson Pirate, Sinbad the Sailor, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Black Swan, Captain Blood...you get the idea. Frenchman's Creek gives you that only intermittently.

Fontaine, who was under contract to David O. Selznick, says she spent most of the movie stewing over Selznick's having forced her to accept the loanout, and his keeping half her salary to boot. Arturo de Cordova, the famed Mexican actor who played (what else?) the French pirate of the title, was shorter than she was and his lifts made him teeter when he walked. One day she asked him why he'd taken the role, since he was already a major star in Mexico. Fontaine says this was twisted by Nigel Bruce and Rathbone into her having told him to "go back to Mexico." She dismissed the film's acting as "stilted and melodramatic."

If Leisen disliked her, it seems to have been mutual, as she airily says he was "mostly known for his musicals" (not really true then and certainly not now). She also said she knew that he would lavish more time on the sets and costumes than performances. Leisen, whose reputation is undergoing a well-deserved renaissance, certainly got that rap many times over the years. Billy Wilder sneered that Leisen was a "window dresser." But Leisen also had a reputation for being, if anything, too deferential to his stars, cutting bits from the movie if the star found it unplayable.* Years later they were to make Darling, How Could You? in relative harmony, but at this point director and actress were markedly cool to one another.

Despite all the tsuris there is pleasure to be had in Frenchman's Creek, it's just that it never comes together to give you any sense of either a love that passeth all reason, as Fontaine wanted, or high adventure, as Paramount seems to have desired. Cecil Kellaway is an excellent Cecil Kellaway, as ever, this time with an accent that is supposed to be Cornish. Maybe it is. It also makes him sound like Uriah Heep. Nigel Bruce is a creditable dimwitted milord. Fontaine had been playing a series of dewy-eyed innocents, but this role required her to be a woman simmering with sexual frustration. The Siren suspects that quality is the only one that really interested Fontaine as an actress, because those are the moments where she lights up and puts her energy and intelligence into it. And even if Leisen disliked her, he certainly didn't take it out on her close-ups. She looks gorgeous, perhaps as beautiful as she ever did.

Oh, the plot. Do you care? Well, Dona St. Colomb, a married lady of the court, flees London after her jelly-spined husband keeps trying to pimp her out to the dastardly Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone, who thank heaven does not spend the entire movie in that wig). She takes their two children to their remote estate in Cornwall. While she's resting, she discovers that a nearby creek is being used as a harbor for a French pirate known as "the terror of the Cornish coast." In fact, said pirate has been staying in milady's bedchamber while she's not there. One day she wanders too close to the vessel and is forced to come aboard. She meets de Cordova, and her reaction to him emphasizes every double entendre, as Fontaine is excellent conveying her very frankly sexual interest. After some breathless midnight meetings, she goes on board his ship as a cabin boy. De Cordova is obviously, and hilariously, inflamed by Fontaine in drag. The action part of the picture commences, and Fontaine has another marvelous moment as she, as Fernando F. Croce puts its, "gropes the ship's steering ram."

Mostly Fontaine and Cordova have little chemistry. Despite their on-set friction, however, Fontaine does have a couple of really good scenes with Rathbone. The Siren loves Basil Rathbone. Every time he shows up he gladdens her heart, even when he's in a fright wig. He has a way of taking a villainous line that might be pure Snidely Whiplash from another actor, and giving it such a dry snap that the threat becomes leavened with wit. (Alan Rickman has the same ability. It's rare.)

Frenchman's Creek is not on DVD, and the Siren saw it through the kind offices of the awesome Goatdog. It certainly deserves to be on DVD, if only for its place in Leisen's career and the marvel of its visuals. Over at Senses of Cinema David Melville says the movie is in need of reassessment:

Not even Leisen's greatest fans will deny that Frenchman's Creek, Golden Earrings and the 1934 musical Murder at the Vanities are monuments of camp. Their fervid artificiality, their feverish riot of costume and decor, tend inexorably towards that “theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.” Popular yet critically savaged, Leisen's more flamboyant films need reassessing. Directors as diverse as Kenneth Anger and Baz Luhrmann, Pedro Almodovar and Paul Bartel have redefined our notions of camp. No longer just a failure of taste, camp is fast becoming a genre all its own.


It could be that another viewing of Frenchman's Creek (which won't happen any time soon) would reveal another side of the movie to the Siren. At this point, she isn't sure she'd characterize it as camp. Camp is usually more fun than this film. Certainly it swerves in that direction--the cross-dressing, the singing pirates and the fantastic shot where they're trying on all the ladies' finery in the hold of a captured ship, the wigs and the mincing noblemen. If Frenchman's Creek achieves the status of camp, it isn't through the medium of bad taste, however. It's from an overload of good taste, Paramount's amazing production values piled into the hold until the ship finally slides beneath the waves.



*Once such incident, with Charles Boyer on the set of Hold Back the Dawn, was at the root of Wilder's dislike. That's still a terrific movie, however, one of Leisen's best.

40 comments:

nycweboy said...

Having not seen it - but yes, intrigued enough to want it on DVD - I have to wonder if Fontaine isn't the one miscast - it sounds like the role of a more bosomy, adventurous and sassy redhead (Susan Hayward? Ann Blyth?), and despite the wig, Fontaine always has blonde perfection about her. One of the joys of being an old cinephile is realizing how many films have the elements that, eventually and in the right combination, become camp. And in the hands of that sassy redhead, I bet Frenchman's Creek would have been... and whose to say that's not what Rathbone and the Brit cast were most annoyed with Fontaine over? Both she and Livvie have a Princess quality that's hard to shake.

Campaspe said...

NYCweboy, I think that's entirely fair. She didn't connect with the role, and it's obvious. Well, Dona is supposed to be a grand lady of the court and presumably that is what they were emphasizing when they cast her. And Hayward, god love her (and I do) was always somewhat common, Brooklyn never far from her speech or movements. But they easily could have gone in a different direction.

And I also wonder if the similarity to the roles that made Olivia famous also contributed to what Fontaine herself tacitly admitted was a bad attitude on set. Olivia's "princessy" quality worked quite well opposite Errol Flynn.

You might enjoy it more than I did. If I had watched the movie in a looser mindset -- a little drunk, say -- I might have been more open to it as a rare piece of camp. Which it kind of is. Fontaine's word was "flamboyant" and I suspect she meant the same thing.

Vanwall said...

I always wondered about that film - was it as bad as they say, and was it as bad as Fontaine said? I guess so. Maybe what's-her-name-Ardis-Gaines-oh-yeah-Brenda-Marshall would've been good in a role for a dark-haired diva. I love Rathbone, too - only Henry Daniell could rival him for snavelry deliveries. Great wiggies on that one seems like, as well.

Campaspe said...

I dunno, it's hard to call it entirely bad, it's like a roller coaster ride. You get a good bit and then it gets bad again. The Technicolor is beautiful, though, and so is Joan.

Gerard Jones said...

It's a rare writer who can create such an entertaining piece out of what sounds like a dull movie--and one I've never seen, at that.

I too like Leisen over all (Remember the Night...not to be confused with A Night to Remember...is a personal favorite), but it's always worth mentioning the legend that he was single-handedly responsible for turning both Sturges and Wilder into directors. Supposedly it was Sturges's frustration with Leisen's direction on Easy Living and the above-named RtN that drove him to demand the chance to direct McGinty, at great financial risk to himself. Wilder followed his example, they say, because the Leisin/Boyer/cockroach conflict.

I'm sure it wasn't really that simple, but I can see how a director would annoy writers by being too conciliatory with actors. There's a natural enmity there.

Karen said...

I was so certain I'd seen this and was thinking to myself, "Wait, isn't this in black-and-white?" when I realized I was on a different Daphne DuMaurier altogether: Jamaica Inn, which I'd rather enjoyed. I'm thinking I haven't seen Frenchman's Creek (although I too read the book--delicious DuMaurier), and now I'm terribly depressed.

Lou Lumenick said...

Another Leisen worthy of reassessment is "Lady in the Dark.'' I haven't seen it in 25 years, but I am still intrigued, perhaps disturbed by the idea of shrink Barry Sullivan analyzing Ginger Rogers' musical dreams to help her decide between Jon Hall, Warner Baxter and Ray Milland. It's not on DVD, but dig the opening credits of the cheerfully incoherent "The Big Broadcast of 1938.'' There are caricatures of not only the entire cast, but of Leisen (in a suit and open toed sandals), the producers and even the six screenwriters (in case you were wondering what Frederick Hazlitt Brennan really looked like) plus Edith Head, to boot. Most impressive. W.C. Fields wouldn't let Leisen direct his scenes, so Paramount had to call in the Great Man's old crony Edward Sutherland to do the honors. This may be why Fields (who plays twins) and Bob Hope basically have no scenes together. But hope's duet with Shirley Ross on "Thanks for the Memory'' is actually quite beautiful.

Campaspe said...

Gerard, a perennial movie argument chez Campaspe is over that cockroach scene. For anyone who doesn't know the story--Hold Back the Dawn concerns a motley group of would-be immigrants at a seedy Mexican border town. They're all desperate for visas and faced with waning hopes. Boyer plays one such supplicant and at one point, when his character was at a low ebb, Wilder wrote a scene where Boyer was in his hotel room, interrogating a cockroach. He was supposed to block the cockroach's way and demand to see his papers, how long was he planning to stay, etc. Well, Boyer flatly refused to talk to a cockroach on screen. Wilder was absolutely hopping mad and was vicious on the subject of Boyer for years after. I'm not sure but that it's hurt Boyer's reputation as an actor because the story is so widely known and Wilder always told it in a way to make Boyer look dim (which he was not).

Thing is, I adore Wilder as anyone who reads this site could tell you, but I'm not convinced the scene would have worked. We'll never know of course, but Boyer's desperation was already well established and the actor had a point--it is quite repulsive to be talking to a cockroach on camera. It might have been brilliant, or it might have been one of those Wilder misjudgements like the death chamber scene in Double Indemnity or having the corpses talk to one another in Sunset Boulevard. Anyway, Leisen sided with Boyer and became guilty by association in Wilder's eyes.

Mr. C., who hasn't seen the movie, says it's the greatest damn unfilmed scene he's ever heard of.

Campaspe said...

Karen, I didn't mean to depress you! More and more I think I needed to see this drunk. I approach old movies quite seriously but this one probably should be a pull-up-the-chairs-and-prepare-to-hoot sort of experience.

Campaspe said...

Lou, I think I saw Big Broadcast in girlhood because all I remember is Hope, I don't even remember Fields, and I like Fields. I haven't seen Lady in the Dark but will gladly when I get the opportunity. Leisen AND Ginger, I'm all for that.

FDChief said...

This sucker showed up on TCM a couple of years ago. It's not as bad as that, at least in my dim memory, just kind of lost in the other Forties-to-early-Sixties costumers. Certainly Du Maurier had nothing to complain about when you look at the awful hack jobs her contemporary Thomas Costain got nailed with. The 1947 Tyrone Power "Captain from Castile" is, for example, IMO, utterly unwatchable for the cinematic version of clubbing-the-adorable-baby-seal that Sam Shellabarger and Henry King do to THAT novel. "FC" has some pretty cringe-inducing moments but its not in that league.

And I don't think Fontaine is any worse than, say, Rhonda Fleming in "The Golden Hawk" or Maureen O'Hara acting like she's pinching herself to utter the deathless line "Jamie Boy!" in "The Black Swan" (not that TBS isn't good fun, it's just that you can almost see that she wants to kick the big egotistical lug right in the poop deck but the plot calls for her to be a properly womanly woman. ANd, as you note, she is gorgeous.

I'd have to say that it's de Cordova who really sicks up the screen. You take one look at him trying to sex up Joan (who IS doing her best to be sexed-up) and you get the mental picture of a tiny, frantic chihuahua spastically humping the starboard leg of a sleekly groomed golden retriever. NOT conducive to romance, eeeww. One really messed up casting decision.

Frank Conniff said...

If anything, maybe we should thank Leisen for inspiring Wilder and Sturges to become directors. And regardless of the writer's opinions of the finished products, "Easy Living," "Midnight," "Remember The Night," and "Hold Back The Dawn" are all wonderful movies. And even if he didn't direct the W.C. Fields scenes (which are hilarious, by the way), there is lots of other really entertaining stuff in "Big Broadcast of 1938," including the classic Bob Hope "Thanks For the Memory" scene, and an insanely funny Martha Raye running rampant all over the place. How many directors can you name that have made as many good comedy films? So, yes, we should be grateful for Sturges and Wilder's capacity for contentious resentment (a common trait in all writers -- especially screenwriters). It spurred them forward towards greatness. But we should also be grateful for the fine craftsmanship of Mitchell Leisen.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Love the description of the visit to Grandmother's house, and the girl reading by lamplight. That should have been a movie. I wonder who could have played you on screen?

Exiled in NJ said...

I stumbled on the end of this film while channel surfing? And then I couldn't imagine what it could be! I thought it was on Cinemax(!), not TCM....I tried TCM's database but could not find it.

Seems to me that the energy went out of these costume epics when color came in, that the studios became more infatuated with the sets than the story. Flynn's Adventures of Don Juan is a yawner to me compared to those wonderful Warner's prewar B&W masterpieces.

When I was eight and living in eastern Venezuela, I saw The Black Rose on an outdoor screen, while seated around the camp's swimming pool. I had some vague memory of it, then found it again 35 or so years later. What a Wolfian moment, not being able to go home again. My co-watcher wife left the room after 30 minutes, leaving me to hope it got better as it unspooled, but it didn't. And it was in color.

Karen said...

Oh, don't worry about my depression, Siren! This morning, ten minutes with a 1944 Pete Smith short on jitterbugging (Groovie Movie) cured me of any lingering hangover.

I would like to see Basil Rathbone in that King Charles Spaniel wig, though (boy, could he pull off bad hair: think the Julius Caesar look of the war-time Sherlock Holmes films). And...Fontaine in heat! Although, actually, I think she managed to convey some sexual heat in Suspicion; she clearly wasn't marrying Johnny just for his charming turn of phrase. I think both sisters could convey a little fire when they wanted to, not just princessiness--I'm thinking of de Havilland in The Strawberry Blonde.

Incidentally, nice new banner photo. Happier times, I take it.

Gerard Jones said...

Urg...Pete Smith shorts throw me into depressions...

Campaspe said...

FD, you may be on to something, although I love my Technicolor costumers very, very dearly. De Cordova seems so uncomfortable. I haven't seen the Bunuel he made, El, in which he's supposed to be superb. He is probably yet another one of those foreign stars who simply didn't translate well into the studio aesthetic. I have Moontide, Jean Gabin's English-language foray, waiting for me right now. All kinds of great foreign actors never made it in Hollywood.

Frank, very well put.

Jacqueline, whenever I go into a bookstore searching out books for my kids I am always struck by how a book read in your youth or childhood stays with you like no other, and the experience of reading it as well. I could tell you where I was when I read all kinds of books for the first time.

Exiled, The Black Rose, another Costain adaptation! And with Tyrone Power, thrust back into actioners after Nightmare Alley tanked. I saw it and remember thinking Welles was a treat in it, but then I admit to pro-Welles bias as a general rule.

Karen, both the sisters have a great deal of sex appeal but it's usually roiling beneath the surface. There is a definite sexual quality to Fontaine's obsession with Jourdan in Letter from an Unknown Woman, for example. And de Havilland gives you no doubt as to one large component of why she's falling for a heel in Hold Back the Dawn.

And I like Pete Smith shorts too. :)

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Damn. Halfway through your (typically fabulous) post, I starting hoping the film was on DVD, and I somehow had missed it. Thanks for wetting my appetite for an eventual Creek release, if one ever comes.

Campaspe said...

Vertigo, it's available here and there but there's no commercial DVD.

FDChief said...

"The Black Rose, another Costain adaptation! I saw it and remember thinking Welles was a treat in it, but then I admit to pro-Welles bias as a general rule."

He's the ONLY treat, IMO. This was another case of one of Costain's novels getting a Hollywood makeover for the worse, and the novel isn't that great to begin with!

The book, potboiler that it is, has at least some spectacle, Mongol hordes, a pleasant little romance and is in all diverting enough. The film is poorly paced, rich in inauthentic historial boo-boos and worst of all suffers from a terminal case of Cecile Aubry, the gamine that I have read elsewhere was supposed to have been "discovered" by Darryl Zanuck, as "Maryam", the putative love interest. Erm, well...let's just say she has nice little teeth and lots of them and leave it at that, shall we? Otherwise, Power, getting that slightly thickened look that made him a tad unconvincing as a young man just down from Oxford, does well enough but his swash is frankly outbuckled by his supposed sidekick Tristam played by Jack Hawkins.

Wierd Black Rose trivia? The main trio picks up a "black" (i.e. Arab) servant while on the trail played by...Robert Blake.

Oh, well. It's no worse than "Captain from Castile"...

Gerard Jones said...

Such is the power of the Siren's song that now I'm thinking that I must have been misjudging Pete Smith all these years. I'll have to sit down and watch some now, really watch them.

And I too have glimpsed the sexuality of the sisters. It usually feels like a sexuality the character is trying not to experience, but that can be the most powerful kind. Joan went through a great streak of subcutaneous passion from Rebecca to Suspicion to Jane Eyre. And I've always there was a weird febrile sexuality to Melanie in GWTW.

Of course I'm biased toward both girls as they grew up in my home turf, Saratoga CA. I remember my parents talking about them as famous local girls before I had a clue who they were. Just as with Tallulah Bankhead and the Siren, these local connections matter.

Vanwall said...

Can't say I ever considered either of the sisters as anything more than anxious puppies - sexuality never entered into the equation other than than they were pretty and well-spoken, kinda like church girls on Sunday. Didn't catch many undercurrents either, so maybe they weren't my cuppa. Nice to look at, tho, and dress hangers must've loved those two so-different soma-types - both could've worn gunny sacks and still looked elegant.

Was there ever a Technicolor swashbuckler that wasn't beaten into shape by beating the crap of some poor pulp author's unlucky work? The very object of the Studio sell is so different than the expectations of fidelity to the written product - cut and paste, with a lotta cutting, then pour a bunch of bright primary colors over the murder, er, clippings and stir well. Best served cold-bloodedly.

Oh, and it took a while to take in Gold Hat amongst the Bactrians and steppe ponies in "Black Rose" - Mexicans and Mongols? Whiskey, tango foxtrot?? - over. Half-expected him to produce some bodges this time.

Gerard Jones said...

I guess I've always attributed their anxiety to their efforts to suppress their burning sexuality. Wishful thinking, probably...

Campaspe said...

No, that is pretty much how I always read them as well, sublimated sex times ten. And I even agree about Melanie--let us remember how Scarlett uses Melanie's marriage as an example to Rhett of why not all husbands need to sleep with their wives. But of course Melanie did sleep with Ashley again, and got pregnant. And remember the ladies' multiple marriages, and how Errol Flynn nursed an unrequited crush on Olivia.

It's the quiet/sweet ones you gotta watch out for, I tell you. Joan Collins agrees with me, too.

Miguel Marías said...

Sorry, Siren, to generally disagree, for once. First, I think Wilder's oft-told derogatory tale about Leisen rather should turn against himself, since the cockroach scene, as he describes it, seems ridiculous and pretentious enough as to make me think that both Boyer (who was no fool) and Leisen showed good judgment. Wilder's complaints seem the typically paranoid complex of most writers and screenwriters when their (for them) "Holy Writ" is not duly respected (often for the best) by directors, players or rewriters. Not considering myself anything near to the "greatest fan" of Mitchell Leisen, having seen most of the pictures he ever directed, I cannot help feeling he's unfairly overlooked or, worse yet, billed as "kitschy", "schmaltzy" or "campy" without reasons isolated from the period's aesthetics, the Paramount "look" or the genres he dealt mainly with, and seemingly based on his being a "custome designer" for DeMille. His best films - for me two rather obscure ones he filmed in 1950 -, which I think should include "Frenchman's Creek", are as good as most of Wilder's or Preston Sturges' but the very best. As for "Frenchman's Creek", apart from being one of the most gorgeous Technicolor films of the '40s, it looks to me as a serious treatment of roughly the same story told by Minnelli four years later in "The Pirate", certainly a tale that Hollywood films tend to obscure or hide. I'd strongly recommend taking a good look, more than once, to many Mitchell Leisen movies, and to try to double-bill "Frenchman's Creek" with "The Pirate".
Miguel Marías

Campaspe said...

Miguel, I'm afraid you have gotten altogether the wrong impression from both the post and the comments. I disliked Frenchman's Creek, but please re-read my comment to Gerard--I agree that the cockroach scene probably wouldn't have worked. The yiccck factor is too high. I think it would have played like that famous jettisoned opening in Sunset Boulevard where the corpses are all talking to each other in the morgue. And I also think that Wilder's vindictive retelling of the tale, which he indulged in repeatedly over the years, dented Leisen and Boyer's reputation in a way that wasn't fair to either.

While ultimately it doesn't work for me, I agree with you that Frenchman's Creek is gorgeous; and The Pirate, which I love, is an interesting comparison. FC might have worked better as a musical, where the whole heightened-reality thing is a given.

If the two 1950 movies you're referring to are Captain Carey and No Mate of Her Own, I haven't seen them. But I still count myself very much a Leisen devotee on the basis of Death Takes a Holiday, Hands Across the Table, Midnight, Remember the Night, Easy Living, Kitty, Hold Back the Dawn and To Each His Own. In fact, looking at that list, one any director could be proud of, makes it seem odder than ever that his profile isn't a great deal higher than it is. He was, simply, great.

If you want to see more of my thoughts on Leisen, you could check out my piece on Remember the Night.

Karen said...

Siren, according to one of the talking head segments de Havilland did in the 2005 bio-doc The Adventures of Errol Flynn, Flynn's crush wasn't exactly unrequited, but de Havilland wasn't interested in involvement with a married man. She tells a terrific anecdote about wanting to torment him during the filming of Robin Hood, and so intentionally flubbing take after take of a scene where they kiss. She remarked, in a wonderfully dry tone that added to the quality of the story, that by the end of the series of takes he was experiencing "a problem with his tights."

I completely agree with Gerard on sensing the sisters' attempts to suppress a fairly potent sexuality. They convey a lot simmering under the surface there--another reason I love Joan's performance in Jane Eyre.

Miguel Marías said...

Oh yes, I had read you on "Remember the Night". That's precisely why I was surprised/shocked/disappointed by the dismissive tone I found on part of your and others' comments about "Frenchman's Creek", particularly about the plot, which is not perhaps what interests me, but rather the "themes" or issues intervowen in it. I certainly did not expect a pirate's adventure, for which I have enough with Tourneur's "Anne of the Indies", Borzage's "The Spanish Main" and Lang's "Moonfleet" or Mackendrick's "A High Wind in Jamaica", at leat no more than when I first saw Minnelli's "The Pirate". And maybe Arturo de Córdova, one of the most unrealistic performers ever, can throw back many people, as it does even in Buñuel's masterpiece "Él". I don't quite know whether de Córdova was a very daring actor or the craziest of hams, but I must own that my expectation increases everytime - in Mexican or Spanish movies - I see his name on the credits of something I have not yet seen, he's a guarantee of seeing something that will be anything but "ordinary". And I think he's as well-cast and well-directed s Joan Fontaine. If taken seriously, it can be a very deeply moving film. Perhaps I must make clear that I did not refer to "Captan Carey,U.S.A.", one of the 17 less interesting Leisen films I've seen, but to "no Man of Her Own" and "The Mating Season", which are for me, together with "Creek", "Arise, My Love" and "Golden Earrings" and the eight you mention, the very best of the 22 really good Leisen films I've watched so far. Which is certainly no minor accomplishment for someone who was for most of his career an employee of Paramount Pictures.
Miguel

Buttermilk Sky said...

Has no one mentioned "The Heiress"? You have to give Olivia credit just for being willing to look so plain next to the most gorgeous man ever to appear on a movie screen. All that passion turned to frozen rage gives me chills.

Thanks for the bewigged Rathbone picture. Apparently this is the look Howard Stern has been going for.

BETTYS said...

While I love Susan Hayward, this role was made for Fontaine... definitely De Cordova that was miscast. For Years Bill Kennedy (movie wannabee) tried to give the plot the name "Captain Blood" which it obviously wasn't. However, Errol Flynn would have made this role. Or Paul Henried. Or Tyrone Power. De Cordova just didn't have the oomph it needed.

Maybe because I watched in awe as the pirate stole her neclace then returned it later ( as a 4 y/o snuggled up with my dad ) I believe the movie to be better than it is. However, it is still my "feel good" movie and I was thrilled to find it on VHS a few years ago, especially since it is never ( 2x in 47 years! ) on the movie channels. I've loaned it out to several friends who love the old cinema, and needed something new and wonderful to watch.

My husband ( if it's made before the 70's he's not interested ) calls it a chic flic... I 'call it' when I need to snuggle up in bed on a cold rainy day with a cup of soup.

O.K., so this isn't the most professional critique... but it's honest!

Chris F. said...

I've not seen this film yet, so I can't really comment on it. Hopefully it will be issued on DVD sooner or later.

David C said...

Oh, somehow missed this when it was new! Terrific piece. The film somehow misses all dramatic possibilities overall, although it comes to life in odd places. Fontaine's fight with Rathbone is sensational. Then we go flat again. By the conclusion, nothing much seems to have been achieved, although Fontaine has defied the Hays Code by getting away with murder, if I recall correctly.

It's interesting to contrast Frenchman's Creek and Lady in the Dark, which have sensational, overripe visuals and music, but rather low-affect stories, with something where there's a bit of dramatic meat, like Kitty or the underrated Bride of Vengeance. With something at stake in the story, Leisen's flourishes mean so much more.

Campaspe said...

David, I need to get cracking and do the RSS thing because I simply miss too much on blogs ... I in turn am kicking myself for missing your Bride of Vengeance post. You're spot-on about FC. I can tell you, though, that the novel itself is rather low-key, a moody romance and not a swashbuckler, and Fontaine is absolutely right that the schizoid approach of Paramount was doomed from the start.

Daphne2! said...

Thanks for Siren's critique and the comments about Frenchman's Creek. Everyone has made valid points. No matter how much I love the film, there are a few parts that I would have told the director to redo. That said, what is the continuing allure of this movie? It's got something to do with Grandmother's 4 poster bed, and romance. Any mother with small children will understand the desire to get in a carriage and go to the family manor house in Cornwall. One of the most popular scenes on YouTube shows Dona [Joan Fontaine] getting ready for bed. She is in a room with a roaring fire and a four poster bed, and she jumps in it, on all the oversized pillows. Maybe the chemistry with de Cordova was weak in places. But their discussion about marriage was right on. "Some country women find their husbands rather dull," She says. "They should teach their husbands better manners," he says. I showed selections of this film to a college English class, and you could have heard a pin drop. When I was a kid, I watched this on tv, and I'll never forget how thrilling it was to see a woman running down hill in a beautiful dress, ready to join the pirates.
The scene with Rathbone at the end, however, captures all the ugliness and despair of domestic violence, and its effect on children, crying in the hall.
It's a great movie, flawed, but great.

The Siren said...

Daphne, your lovely post reminds me more of what I got from the wonderful novel, but it also makes me want to give this movie another chance. The Rathbone/Fontaine fight at the end is indeed terrific. You make me wonder how I'd have liked the film if Rathbone played the pirate, which he certainly could have done.

Daphne2! said...

Siren,
Thanks for your reply to all the posts, most lately to mine. It's so much fun to write about these movies and the actresses and actors. Your idea of Rathbone playing the pirate is great. Can I go on about a few of my other favorite scenes in Frenchman's Creek? I love when Dona is first at Navronne, throwing her cloak on the dusty furniture and quizzing the older servant, directing him to clean the house as if the mistress had never left. And the part with her playing with her children on the lawn, and then dealing with the pompous neighbor trying to scare her about the pirate, "Women go in danger of their lives, and not just their lives."
"Oh, he's that kind of a pirate!"
Fontaine as Dona refused to be made a victim, and instead laughed at him.
And, when she is holding her children by the Celtic cross, and seeing the ship for the first time. These are great scenes.
As for Olivia's and Joan's simmering sexuality, Joan did a nice job of it in the pirate captain's bed, wondering what they were going to do with the time they had alone during the lazy afternoon.
And for Olivia, the Du Maurier film My Cousin Rachel, showed Olivia could play the seductive woman under the widow's weeds.
Again, thanks so much to Siren, and your lovely posts, and all the other posts. Not a lot of people want to discuss these movies, and it's really, really nice to read what other people think.
btw, in our town, last night they showed Gunga Din in a movie theatre, and the part where Fontaine tries to stop Douglas Fairbanks Jr. from going on an expedition to save Cary Grant, and Fairbanks kisses her and leaves, still gets a good laugh. She looks so pretty and young, and played the part to perfection.

Daphne2! said...

Sorry, I forgot something. In the DuMaurier book, part of the reason for Dona to flee for Navonne is that she is ashamed of herself. Dona has been riding horses and playing highwayman at night with Rockingham, out of boredom. Dressed in Rock's breeches and with her face covered, Dona holds up an old woman, and calls out "50 guineas or your honor!" When Dona realizes the old woman is truly terrorized, Dons is ashamed and sickend of her actions. I could swear that when I saw this film on tv back in the 1960s that I saw this scene. Does anyone else remember this scene at the beginning? As it is now, the film begins with Dona arguing about Rock with her husband, and it makes more sense if the highway man charade comes first.

David said...

Just found this 2008 string of comments after having watched a VHS copy of Frenchman's Creek.
I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it, as preposterous as much of the plot machinations are: If you take it as a wild fairy tale, it's a winner. I never realized Joan Fontaine was this beautiful, and I thought she was perfectly cast. It took me a while to warm up to Arturo De Cordova, but soon I liked him, and I thought they had real chemistry together. Cecil K. was great as William. And the production: What fabulous sets and costumes! It certainly deserved its Oscar for art direction.
All in all, I loved it in the same way I loved Daphne duMaurier's novels many years ago. Wildly improbable but well done.

Hershel Parker said...

Well, I saw it in 1944 and still have not seen anyone as beautiful as Joan Fontaine was in Frenchman's Creek.

The Siren said...

It's true; it's one of the few Technicolor movies she made and she looks ravishing. I honestly think the problems are in the script and de Cordova's performance; Fontaine is frequently wonderful.