Monday, December 16, 2013

In Memoriam: Joan Fontaine, 1917-2013


Being a woman, I have found the road rougher than had I been born a man. Different defenses, different codes of ethics, different approaches to problems and personalities are a woman's lot. I have preferred to shun what is known as feminine wiles, the subterfuge of subtlety, reliance on tears and coquetry to shape my way. I am forthright, often blunt. I have learned to be a realist despite my romantic, emotional nature. I have no illusions that age, the rigors of my profession, disappointments, and unfulfilled dreams have not left their mark.

I am proud that I have carved my path on earth almost entirely by my own efforts, proud that I have compromised in my career only when I had no other recourse, when financial or contractual commitments dictated. Proud that I have never been involved in a physical liaison unless I was deeply attracted or in love. Proud that, whatever my worldly goods may be, they have been achieved by my own labors.
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses

I have written many times about Joan Fontaine, but at the moment I’m sad about the movies I never wrote about while she was still with us. Such as The Constant Nymph, in which Fontaine plays a teenage girl, Tessa, who is deeply in love with the adult composer played by Charles Boyer. Fontaine’s performance walks a delicate line. Tessa’s feelings have all the force of an adult woman’s, perhaps even more because first love is always such a cataclysmic thing. At the same time, Tessa is only 14 when the action begins, and Fontaine (25 at the time) plays her innocence in a way that makes it natural that Boyer wouldn’t realize what is going on until quite late in the game. Without Fontaine’s acting, the entire movie loses its romantic glow.

And there’s Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, where Fontaine is a lonely nurse, living by herself in London just after the war's end. And what should climb her through her window one night but godlike masculinity in the form of Burt Lancaster. Fontaine reacts (naturally) with fear, but as she warily eyes this fugitive, there's also a dazed recognition that life has abruptly dropped pure, animal sex appeal right into her bedroom. The film is, despite the pulpy title, a noir love story more than anything. Fontaine has a later scene where she’s set to meet Lancaster, and she looks in the mirror, debating with herself over whether her hat is too dowdy. Played without a word, this little scene tells you all you need to know about her character’s desires, and her inner conflict about whether or not to indulge them.

“If Joan Fontaine does not presently attain real stardom, this is because she looks, behaves and dresses like that extraordinarily unfashionable thing, a lady. And by that I mean the properly nurtured daughter of gentlefolk,” wrote James Agate, in a review of Suspicion. This exceedingly British observation has truth: Indeed, Fontaine was nearly always ladylike, even when she was, say, poisoning her bothersome husband in Ivy. But that didn’t mean she was sexless — far from it. Not in life, and certainly not on screen. The desire that a proper lady feels for an improper man is just as strong as the lust of a temptress.

And it takes perhaps more courage for a lady to speak up for herself, to reach out for what she wants. Think of Fontaine’s character in Rebecca, stepping forward to call Maxim de Winter back from the cliff. Think of her standing up to Mrs. Van Hopper, and later even to Mrs. Danvers: “I am Mrs. de Winter now.” Joan Fontaine made you cheer for such small triumphs.

She had courage and intelligence in her own life. I would like people to remember, when paying tribute to Letter From an Unknown Woman, that we have that great movie because Joan Fontaine put its elements together. She chose the Stefan Zweig story because, she said, she wanted something that would appeal to women. It was produced by her joint venture, Rampart Productions, which she ran with her husband at the time, William Dozier, and released through Universal. She was instrumental in getting Max Ophuls to direct.

The Internet is speckled with people who find it ridiculous to grieve at the death of a 96-year-old movie star. That’s a good run, they say. For goodness sakes, did you expect her to live forever? And besides, did you know her?

No, I didn’t know her. But when I watched Rebecca, Suspicion, Ivy, The Constant Nymph, Kiss the Blood Off My Hands, Jane Eyre, A Damsel in Distress, Born to Be Bad, Something to Live For, Gunga Din, The Women, September Affair, Island in the Sun, Frenchman’s Creek, Beyond a Reasonable Doubt, Ivanhoe, Darling How Could You?, Until They Sail, and Letter From an Unknown Woman, I felt a little flame of happiness that Joan Fontaine was still alive somewhere. I feel colder without it.

Here are a few of the things I have written over the years about Joan Fontaine.

A birthday post from 2007 that includes the one personal story I have to tell about her.

Joan's autobiography, No Bed of Roses, and some early films, including Blond Cheat.


Rebecca and Suspicion, and a bit about her small role in The Women

Born to Be Bad

Something to Live For

A personal favorite: the little-known, wonderful Ivy

Frenchman's Creek

This one has a brief, but delightful, anecdote about why dating Adlai Stevenson didn't work out.

There's a bit about her marriage to Brian Aherne in an essay about his autobiography, A Proper Job.

Letter From an Unknown Woman

(The banner, courtesy of Zach Campbell, is the hat scene from Kiss the Blood Off My Hands.)

48 comments:

Kevyn Knox said...

One of my favourites, indeed. I was going to write something up about Miss Fontaine over at The Most Beautiful Fraud in the World, but I don't think I can follow this, so I may just leave well enough alone, and simply say farewell.

Jennchez said...

I agree with you, the world was a little warmer with her in it. We have a vacation home not to far from where she lived and my husband and I were always on the lookout for her, but sadly never even caught a glimpse.

Vanwall said...

I knew if anyone would have a heartfelt appreciation of Joan Fontaine, it would be you, O Siren, and thanks, especially for the memories - your links to SSS Fontaines of yore, which are some of the best things about her, anywhere.

Aubyn Eli said...

When I heard the news about Joan Fontaine, this was the first site I went to. I always wanted her and her sister to go on well into the 100s. The world now feels smaller without her. Thank you for all the great Fontaine memories.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

I like this: "... I felt a little flame of happiness that Joan Fontaine was still alive somewhere. I feel colder without it."

It says a lot and speaks for all of us.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

You rose beautifully to an occasion neither you nor I nor any of Joan Fontaine's admirer's somehow believed would ever come. I discovered this site--how many years ago?--looking for something properly appreciative of Fontaine's talent and artistry and struck gold (I'm pretty certain I read at least 2 or 3 years' postings on that occasion). And yes, she was very sexy; Hitchcock knew it, so did Truffaut. I hope you will write in detail someday about The Constant Nymph, to my mind her performance here ranks with Rebecca and the imperishable Letter From an Unknown Woman.

X. Trapnel said...

Make that "struck gold, diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, and rubies." I seem to recall that miss Fontaine was keen on jewelry

Trish said...

So what if she was 96? She demands respect. She's one less light to shine on the era of movies we all love. Of course it means something that she's gone.

What a terrible weekend this has been. TCM put out their In Memoriam far too early. I'm off to watch "Born to Be Bad".

CarolMR said...

Love this blog and love reading the comments. This is my first post. I just read that Joan Fontaine was the only actor or actress to win an Oscar for a film directed by Hitchcock (SUSPICION).

mas82730 said...

Grim day for cinephiles, and special condolences to the Siren on the passing of her beloved Joan Fontaine.

gmoke said...

Joan Fontaine showing her legs from behind a rock as she changes into boy's clothes in "Decameron Nights" certainly warmed my winter nights.

By the way, the nasty Mrs Van Hopper in "Rebecca" was played by Florence Bates who has quite a story behind her:
http://suesueapplegate.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/florence-bates-its-a-grand-feeling/

I wonder if Florence and Joan became friends on set as they were both such formidable and accomplished women.

The Siren said...

Thanks to all my dear Sirenistas (and welcome, CarolMR). I am down, I admit it. But I have movies that I barely remember to re-watch (The Emperor Waltz) and others I've never seen (Serenade, From This Day Forward, This Above All).

And XT, she certainly did like jewelry!

X. Trapnel said...

Siren,

You've never seen From This Day Forward!? Prepare for a--revelation? Maybe (I adore this film and JF in it), but certainly a treat, a great urban romance with real Bronx feeling.

MC said...

I felt a little flame of happiness that Joan Fontaine was still alive somewhere. I feel colder without it.

Thank you. I don't think there's anything odd about feeling the loss of someone talented and wonderful, who meant something to you, regardless of how old he or she was or if you knew them personally or not. Rest assured, you're in the company of many who "get it." It's been a sad week.

Thanks for a lovely remembrance of Joan Fontaine. I'm sorry to know she's no longer with us, but so glad she left us many great performances to enjoy.

The Siren said...

XT, I learned fairly recently (like in the last five years or so) that I am truly not a completist. I have to have the feeling that there are things still out there to see and read. So I'm kind of glad that you say it's so good, and I've never seen it. My journey with Joan isn't over!

MC, I knew that here of all places, everybody would understand.

Trish said...

I have seen Serenade in the past year or so, and found it to be very dull stuff indeed. It's surprising because I normally love Anthony Mann films. That's why I want to give it a second chance. Maybe it was just an off night for me... ;(

Rozsaphile said...

Perhaps not inappropriate to quote from the Korngold cantata "Tomorow" that closes The Constant Nymph.

When I am dead,
Another love will cheer thee.
The sun will rise as bright
Tomorrow morn.

Lemora said...

Oh dear, another one! Some of her old TV performances are available on YouTube ("One Step Beyond.") I know I am in the minority in wanting her to push Max DeWinter off that cliff. (I know, it would deprive us of a great movie, not to mention George Sanders climbing in the window.) Now, she never will!

Jeff Gee said...

There are a whole bunch of 1 hour live Screen Guild Theater radio adaptations with Joan, on the Internet Archive-- https://archive.org/details/ScreenGuildTheater -- all downloadable for *free.* The sound is surprisingly good, at least on the two I checked. She's in 069 Waterloo Bridge, co-starring Brian Aherne; 125 Suspicion, with Basil Rathbone filling in for Cary Grant; 146 Rebecca, with Aherne and Agnes Moorehead; 191 A Farewell to Arms, with Gary Cooper; 237 Next Time We Love, with *Bob Cummings*; 473 Ninotchka, co-starring William Powell.

Avoid the zip file, which seems to have a lot of problems (in addition to being huge), and download the shows individually.

yojimboen said...

R.I.P.

Duncan said...

Siren, your love of Joan and of "Letter" in particular, brought me back to her after having encountered her only a few times in the past ("Rebecca", "Suspicion", etc.). She truly was unique, both as an actor of the era and as a personality - - - articulate, passionate, and obviously extremely fun, in a slightly demure way. Her later televised interviews, as you probably know, are fabulous, and bring out all the elements that her deeply intelligent performances relied upon. Like others here, yours was the first site I went to after I heard the news. Thank you for all you've written about her, and will write about her as you discover and re-discover her work. I for one am getting ready to settle into "Ivy", which, hello, it's called "Ivy", I can't wait.

Len said...

I must say I have experienced great sadness at the passing of Joan Fontaine to my mind an actress of great quality and restraint. I have spent so many hours of pure joy watching her. The repeated viewing of Letter to an Unknown Women and the great subtlety of her
performance allowing you to dwell on a variety of interpretations of the her characters motivation. Pure magic!

X. Trapnel said...

Jeff Gee

Did you say B*b C*mm*ngs?

Jeff Gee said...

XT,

Kind of. The asterisks slipped, tho.

The Siren said...

Like G**rge Br*nt and W*nd*ll C*r*y, Mr. C. has become someone I look upon with a perverse, but genuine affection. And now I am sad that I will never get to ask Joan what he was like.

The Siren said...

By the way, I wish I could "like" all these comments; they are cheering me up no end. And everybody click on Yojimboen's link, you'll be glad you did.

X. Trapnel said...

The image in Y's post comes from Joel McNeely's superb recording of Waxman's complete Rebecca.

http://www.musicweb-international.com/film/2005/fall05/rebecca_x2.html

The artist is Matthew Joseph Peak who did all the covers/illustrations for Varese Sarabande's sadly defunct Film Classics series.

Roma said...


Even if she bowed out at 105, flying around a stage playing Peter Pan (as she said she wanted to), I'd still be devastated. And like so many others, this was the very first place I went after the first shock of hearing about her death. Please please, Siren, can you get Criterion to release a full set of Fontaine's movies? And if not Criterion, then could someone, somewhere hear this plea...

Paroma

Lemora said...

Wow! Young Joan as Peter Pan! (I saw Mary Martin in 1954 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, as an enchanted six year old.) I would have loved to hear Joan say, "Come on Wendy! I'll teach you to jump on the wind's back and away we'll go!" In flight, Joan would've been poetry in motion. I'm always envisioning actors in roles they never got to play. This is one that is so apt, and it never occurred to me until I read it here. Another thing to love about this blog. I've known all too well in the past ten years about feeling colder as one flame after another has been extinguished.

yojimboen said...

The best I can do. From Frenchman's Creek

At least she's in tights...

X. Trapnel said...

Clearly The Paper of Record has a better notion of Frenchman's Creek than you, Y.

http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2013/12/16/obituaries/fontaine-refer.html

Jeff Gee said...

The "Ninotchka" radio show with Joan in the Garbo part and William Powell in the Melvin Douglas is now here, with options to listen or download. It's a full hour, including station breaks. There's a nice moment where Powell starts to read Joan's line, too. A great audience.

Ms. Dashwood said...

It's a pleasure and comfort to read the post and comments. Today, I realized that she and her sis have been in my life like two aunties. As a kid of the 60's suburbs, my dull Saturdays were considerably brightend by movies with these actresses, especially in the films made from Daphne du Maurier books: Olivia in My Cousin Rachel, and Joan in Rebecca and switching gears in Frenchman's Creek as a confident, but unhappy woman who runs away with her children to a Cornish mansion and has a romance with a pirate.
When I wrote to ask Joan for an autograph a few years ago, she kindly obliged, and I cherish that especially today.
In her autobiography, she said that when she almost died as a child, she heard voices saying We are ready to take you anytime, but first there's something we'd like for you to do..."
Joan lived and certainly warmed many people's hearts (broke a few too, as we all do). And like so many of you, I was so glad to so for so many years that Joan and her sister were both still with us. Again, really hard to assess how much influence her performances had on people, but she's been with many of us all our lives.

Lemora said...

Gmoke, thank you! I just read SueSue Applegate's blog post about Florence Bates' background! She links to a fabulous scene between the formidable Bates and Ingrid Bergman in "Saratoga Trunk": I think this was probably closest to how Bates was in real life. And Yojimboen, I love Joan "Thunder Thighs" Fontaine in pirate drag! Almost more than that dreamy pastel portrait. I learn so many wonderful things here!

The Siren said...

XT, I made a pointed tweet about that ludicrous Times caption and they STILL haven't corrected it! Like Peter Lawford in Cluny Brown, I may have to write a sternly worded letter...

Y., those over-the-knee boots are quite fashionable at the moment. I can't say this is Joan's best look, though.

Ms Dashwood, it's true, both ladies have given me so much pleasure, and both of them did Ms Du Maurier proud.

The Siren said...

Jeff, I will have to listen to Ninotchka. Powell never starred opposite Fontaine to my knowledge. So many of these radio shows serve to right obvious wrongs.

yojimboen said...

A few favourites from the vault:

# One

# Two

# Three

# Four

# Five

# Six

# Seven

Goodnight, sweet princess,
and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

Michael McCrann said...

Joan Fontaine was my favorite actress. I do a weekly blog on FrontiersLa.com and I recently did a two part story called Sister Act about Joan and Olivia. This week they ran my new introduction talking about why Joan met so much to me. And I got to meet her when I was a teenager in Ivoryton CT where she played in Susan and God. She was so wonderful to me as I timidly knocked on her dressing room door. It was opened by a young girl who I now realize must have been Martita. Joan was gracious and sweet and signed my picture and then later when she came out she stopped so I could take a picture of her. It was one of the greatest movie memories of my life. I will miss her forever.

JUAN. said...

I live in Lima, Peru, and some years ago I saw "Letters from an unknown woman" in a cinema-club. After the screening I began a frantic search of information about the film in the web and I found the Siren's lovely piece for Nomad Widescreen. I got three new obsessions that day: Max Ophuls, Joan Fontaine and Self-Styled Siren. It just felt natural coming to mourn Joan here...

The Siren said...

Michael, I've never read about Fontaine being rude to a fan; she was generous and gracious in that way. Some great actors aren't, and that doesn't make their work less great, but it is nice when artists appreciate the people who appreciate them.

Juan, thank you so much, that is lovely to hear. I adore hearing that Fontaine's work is beloved in Peru, too.

Jeff Gee said...

Some one-stop holiday links, up till the New Year: The already noted Screen Guild Theater production of Ninotchka starring Joan Fontaine and William Powell. The 1943 Lux Radio Theater performance of The Maltese Falcon with Edward G. Robinson as Sam Spade, Laird Cregar as Gutman, and Gail Patrick as Brigid O'Shaughnessy, hosted by Cecil B. DeMille. This one really is like something from an alternate universe. Excellent Lux soap commercials throughout, too. These are both hour-long shows. The mp3s are from the Internet Archive, where many more Screen Guild Theater and Lux Radio Theater episodes can be found, and by "many" I mean hundreds.

Lastly, that old Christmas favorite The George Sanders Touch, George's only LP. The zip file includes all the songs, scans of the covers, and some vintage George and Zsa Zsa advertisements. It went out of print more or less instantly and has never been on CD. (oiginally found on the "Big Ten Inch" blog).

mrob said...

I’ve never posted to this site, but the Siren was gracious in responding to an email that I had sent a few years ago regarding her review of “Frenchman’s Creek”. Deeply saddened by the loss of Joan Fontaine, but it’s comforting to read all of the great comments and know that I’m far from alone in my appreciation of how wonderfully talented and gifted she was. Never knew much about her until I saw Rebecca, but from that moment on she became my favorite actress. Aside from her appearance, I suppose it was the sensitive and inane quality of her acting that I was attracted to. In her best work her characters were real. But I must admit I could never get enough of her classic beauty. In Rebecca Frank Crowley is referring to the 1st Mrs. deWinter with this comment, but in my eyes Joan was “the most beautiful creature I ever saw”.

Birgit said...

I understand what you mean when people don't get when you feel sad when an older film star dies. People never understand me when I feel bad. I was hoping the entertainment shows would talk about her and Peter O'Toole. No and insultingly they talked about jessica's Simpson losing baby weigh(sorry for mentioning her name on your elegant blog). She had a career and won the only acting Oscar(a crime really) for a Hitchcock film. Thank you for recognizing
Ms. Joan Fontaine

VP81955 said...

Jeff, I will have to listen to Ninotchka. Powell never starred opposite Fontaine to my knowledge.

And Powell was to have been cast as the male lead in "Ninotchka," but his late-thirties illness forced him to drop out. Nothing against Melvyn Douglas, but Powell opposite Garbo would have been tantalizing.

The Siren said...

V., do you have a source for EXACTLY what was wrong with William Powell at that time? It's surprisingly mysterious. I hear cancer, even leukemia but it never seems to be definitive.

VP81955 said...

I think it was some sort of colo-rectal cancer. The recovery took quite some time, and many of his friends and cohorts (such as his ex-wife Carole Lombard) helped guide him back to health.

Powell worked with Lombard in a May 1938 "Lux Radio Theater" adaptation of "My Man Godfrey," and photos taken during rehearsals show Powell sitting at a desk, with a microphone inverted to allow him to speak in that position. (He also is shown standing with Carole on the stage during the broadcast, but I don't know whether he actually performed in that manner.)

Incidentally, reports circulated in late 1938 that the two would co-star on screen in another property directed by Ernst Lubitsch and produced by Myron Selznick. That would've been interesting, as Bill never did a talking picture with Lubitsch.

Unknown said...

Dear Siren,
Thank you so much for your wonderful blog with your thoughts about Joan Fontaine. It's comforting to know how she meant so much to so many people! I've been a fan of hers since I first saw a glimpse of her in "Suspicion" while flipping through channels on TV in the 1980s.I was taken aback by her sensitivity,intelligence and dignified grace as I continued to watch the film. I began to search(and back then,there wasn't an Internet as we know now) on more of her films. I loved her in Kiss The Blood Off My Hands,Rebecca, and caught her early works of Gunga Din,The Women,Damsel In Distress.I bought her book and kept a look out for her work(scouring through the TV guide..lol..and it took weeks,sometimes months to catch her work..didn't have cable,just basic channels) Then somehow I found her Mailing Address and wrote my 1st Letter when I was in high school. I think it was her NY address too! Wow,I was so delighted by receiving a reply,with her handwritten note card! Then college and Life came along,and I wrote her intermittently a few times during that time,and I always received a reply. Wow. Being busy with school,work,then married life,I couldn't scour for info like I did when I was younger,but Joan Fontaine was never far from my heart. When my daughter was 4,I sent her a pic of my daughter which she loved! I was always so impressed with her graciousness and kindness in replying.And reading the comments of many people,as I now search on the Internet(Boy,much easier than trying to search at the library back in the day ;), I see how amazingly kind she truly was to take the time to reply to all her fans. That takes great heart and patience! What I love about the Net is that I can catch some films I haven't yet seen. She's done so many,it really is a joy to catch them! Besides her beautiful sensitivity,I loved the courage and intelligence that radiated from her in many of her roles...so touching, and I even haven't seen Letter From An Unknown Women yet,which I know is Heartbreaking! I've seen clips and my heart already breaks because Joan could do so much with just a quiet look. I also dearly loved her sense of humor and enjoyment of life that sparkles from her! It is a great comfort seeing your blog Siren because as someone commented,it's wonderful to see an appreciate of Joan's talent,artistry and her wonderful compassion. I was deeply saddened when I heard the news about her passing, and began searching the Net. I've been reading your articles on Joan,but I couldn't bring myself to write something until now because I wanted to share a bit how Joan meant something to me too,and I couldn't find the words. I was actually watching her clips on Youtube when I heard the news ,so it was heartbreaking ,because I was just thinking about her! But it brings wonderful comfort knowing just how Loved and Appreciated she was! I enjoy read your wonderful,loving commentaries! It feels good to read about people who understand that the world did become a little colder without Joan in it. I felt it too because for some reason,every time/year I would check on Joan,she was still around,so when I heard the news,just as I was watching her on Youtube, I was deeply saddened. I'm happy though that she brought so much joy to us...and still does...

The Siren said...

Dear Unknown, thank you so much for that passionate comment. Joan Fontaine really was a brilliant actress; and yes, it's great to have Youtube to catch up with some of her rarities.