Hold Back The Dawn (1941)

MITCHELL LEISEN

Bil’s rating (out of 5): BB.5.   

USA, 1941Screenplay by , , based on the story Memo To A Movie Producer by Cinematography by Produced by Music by Production Design by , Costume Design by Film Editing by Academy Awards 1941New York Film Critics Awards 1941. 

Charles Boyer plays a Romanian national (with a French accent) who is hanging out in a Mexican border town waiting for the documents that will let him enter the United States. After finding out from the border officials that he will be waiting years before he can become a resident, he takes it out on a schoolteacher (Olivia de Havilland) as she is driving by with a car full of students she has brought on a day trip, which then causes her to get into an accident. When his girlfriend (Paulette Goddard) suggests that he marry an American to speed up his immigration, he sabotages de Havilland’s car repairs so that she is forced to stay the night and give him the opportunity to seduce her with his continental charms. The plot works and she falls head over heels, marrying him the next day before going home to wait out the weeks until he can join her in California, but as they spend more time together and he realizes what a good, sincere person she is, his guilt begins to work against his coldly calculated, Wings of the Dove-esque scheme (who wouldn’t admire a woman who can say a name like Iscovescu that many times without screwing it up). In execution it’s a horribly dated film, but it does deal with a subject that is still making today’s headlines, its cynicism over the pursuit of American citizenship courtesy of the sophistication of co-scenarist Billy Wilder (who had not yet turned to directing); in his manipulation of this innocent woman, Boyer is forced to wonder if what he is going after is really worth the effort or if he is sees America as the solution for something he cannot escape. Boyer’s insinuated past as a gigolo, likely informed by Wilder’s own time as a paid dancer in his leaner years in Berlin, is not used against him either, there’s an emphasis on sympathizing with his plight that is separate from how we view the way he treats someone as sincere and amiable as de Havilland’s character (witness the treatment of that other famous Romanian played by Bela Lugosi for a comparison about how Hollywood usually stokes fears of dark foreigners on white soil). De Havilland gives a gorgeous, understated performance, near the beginning of her run of roles that proved her to be far more than just Errol Flynn’s arm candy, but she naturally radiates the kind of wisdom she had in Gone With The Wind and it makes watching her play someone this gullible quite tiresome. The film pays off in the end, when her sensitivity kicks in and the actress really gives the film its powerful, emotional punch, but Boyer’s shameless behavior and her falling so easily for it results in a movie that spends far too much of its time being predictably trite.

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