Tuesday, July 16, 2019
The Siren is inordinately pleased to announce that the home-video gods have heard our pleas: Hold Back the Dawn, Mitchell Leisen’s best film, from one of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s best scripts, is out today, July 16, on glorious region-free Blu Ray from Arrow. The first pressing will contain a booklet with the Siren’s essay about the film, so if you want one, you need to put some hustle in it à la Georges and Anita.
The Siren’s longtime patient readers will no doubt recall the Siren’s intense dislike of any praise for an old movie that starts, ends, or continues in any way with “It’s so modern!” or, worse, “It could have been made last week!” Righty-o, last week, because the present-day woods are chock-full of Wilders and Leisens etc.
Hold Back the Dawn remains relevant to Our National Moment. Spookily relevant, as the Siren describes the plot:
“A refugee from an ‘undesirable’ country, one with a U.S. immigration quota that won’t get around to him for nearly a decade, finds himself stuck in a Mexican border town with hundreds of other desperate refugees, all looking for a way in.”
The Siren wonders what Brackett and Wilder would say once they’d read this week’s newspapers. (They’d probably get their hats and coats and head straight back for the afterlife.)
With the kind permission of Arrow, the Siren is posting an excerpt from her much-longer booklet essay.
The movie opens with [Romanian-born Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer)] striding into a movie studio and desperately offering a story pitch to a director named Dwight Saxon, played by Leisen himself, for the bargain price of $500. (In a nice inside-reference, Leisen is shown on the Paramount set directing Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy in I Wanted Wings.) ‘My papers give my occupation as a dancer, which is correct, in a general way,’ he says as the flashback begins. To a savvy American (or any would-be immigrant) in 1941 this was an alert. The quotas were small, and made even smaller by a clause in the restrictive Immigration Act of 1924: Officials could refuse admittance to anyone likely to be a ‘public charge.’ Iscovescu is, as plainly as could be under the Production Code, a gigolo, and a potential public charge if ever there was one.
Even as played by Charles Boyer, he of the tender eyes and chocolate-ganache voice, Iscovescu is one cold article. The unnamed border town he’s stuck in has become so full of would-be immigrants that no hotel rooms are available — until a refugee hangs himself in one at the Esperanza, and Iscovescu pounces without a second thought. Leisen’s camera emphasizes the cramped boredom of the town, having Boyer cross and re-cross certain parts of the set. The border checkpoint is marked by a fence (‘it might as well be a hundred feet high,’ fumes Georges), palm trees and a massive ‘UNITED STATES’ over the gate; the interior is seen only in glimpses. At first, glum, sardonic Georges comes to life only when in the company of fellow gold-digger Anita.
Paulette Goddard, born on Long Island and American down to her lacquered toenails, gives not the slightest impression of being any kind of foreigner. But Anita is such a delightful presence in the movie it scarcely matters, scheming to take her rich sucker to the cleaners while she keeps a weather eye on Boyer. In contrast to de Havilland, whose dialogue as Emmy is achingly sincere, Brackett and Wilder give Anita nothing but firecrackers: ‘Your door was unlocked. I just dropped in to borrow a cup of sugar.’ Goddard’s best work outside of her Chaplin films often involved a scene where she gets to tell another character the facts of life, as in The Women. Here it’s when Anita tells Emmy the truth about Georges: ‘I know what you’re thinking — this woman’s a tramp, and she’s in love with him. Well, I am a tramp, and I am in love with him.’ Anita’s essentially an amoral person, but what sells the scene is the sympathy that flickers across her face when she sees how deeply Emmy is hurt.
Exquisitely pretty De Havilland, who got the role on loanout from a highly reluctant Jack Warner, was perhaps an odd choice for a schoolteacher who’s reached her mid-twenties and remained a virgin. But the script suggests Emmy is sheltered more than anything, a good Catholic girl (she and Boyer have a lovely scene in a Mexican church) who has dreamt of romance and is uncommonly vulnerable to anyone offering it.
And like everyone else in Hold Back the Dawn, Emmy isn’t a saint, as Brackett and Wilder show by giving her the film’s most searing line. U.S. sentiment about immigration in 1941 was decidedly, even virulently “con”; polls showed most Americans wanted the refugees kept out. Brackett and Wilder allude to that as Emmy rhapsodizes to Georges about the promise of America: ‘You see, it’s like, um — like a lake. Clear and fresh and it’ll never get stagnant while new streams are flowing in.’ ‘Well,’ says Georges, ‘your people are building pretty high dams to stop those streams.’ ‘Just to keep out the scum, Georges,’ replies Emmy.
And yes – aside to Karen Green, Yojimbo and others – you bet the Siren discusses The Affair of the Cockroach.
If you don’t know what she means by that, by all means, buy the disc and find out.