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.