Directed by Mitchell Leisen
Written by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Richard Maibaum, and Manuel Reachi (based on the novel by Ketti Frings)
At the 14th Academy Awards in 1942, Hold Back the Dawn tied the record set twelve years prior by The Love Parade, earning six nominations and no wins; and this might be more memorable, I suppose, if The Little Foxes hadn't blown The Love Parade's doors clear off, with nine nominations and no wins. The dubious distinction has, anyway, not seemed to help Hold Back the Dawn, for despite its pedigree and very cool title it's sunk into about as much semi-obscurity as a Best Picture nominee gets (I hardly ever see it mentioned, and it's available for streaming nowhere). Perhaps that's because it was directed by a filmmaker that I hope one might be forgiven for never having heard of, because I at least had not. Yet God knows somebody must've thought this "Mitchell Leisen" fellow was special, considering the irritating signature screen credit he gets at the beginning of his film, which familiarly calls him "Mitch," like we're his pal, and isn't quite legible otherwise, so you have to go actively look it up to see who the hell directed this. That's annoying. It's also my second-least favorite thing about Leisen's movie, which bodes pretty well so long as the first-most annoying thing isn't too bad. It turns out the first-annoying thing is pretty bad, and I've said before that 1941's crop of ten Best Pictures was an odd thing, bifurcated between movies that were just fantastic and movies that were just terrible (of the eight I've seen, only Blossoms In the Dust elicits a "well, that's fine"). So best to get it out there, and say that Dawn absolutely remains in that first block of '41's Best Pictures: just fantastic.
Though maybe that's more thanks to one of its co-writers. You've definitely heard of him—the two sets, "people who read about films from 1941" and "people who don't know who Billy Wilder is," surely have zero overlap—and that makes this Best Picture nominee's present semi-unavailability all the more baffling. Now, you've probably heard of Dawn's co-writer Charles Brackett, too, though that's at least somewhat an extension of Wilder's reputation*, and there were two other co-writers alongside them (and Richard Maibaum certainly established a legacy of his own), so don't let me be too big a dick to these long-since-dead men, but, even so, it's easier to focus on Wilder, one of the elite few whose films retain real currency even amongst casual viewers, in that you might stumble across a perfectly normal 25 year old watching a Wilder movie for fun. This is good and right, yet sometimes I wonder if it's for the wrong reasons, for Wilder is celebrated foremost for his modernism and the acidity of movies like Sunset Boulevard and Ace In the Hole and The Apartment. Myself, I'm not sure I don't value him more for the romantic streak, bordering on a fondness for modern fairy tales, that permeates his filmography just as thoroughly, from Ninotchka to Sabrina—and right back to The Apartment, in fact. That romantic streak is certainly on full display in Dawn, even if it is occasionally offset against some casual cruelties played for mirthless laughs, for example when our man Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), an out-of-work gigolo far from home, gets a lucky break in the form of another man hanging himself because he despairs that he'll ever leave his cramped hotel room in this sweltering two-bit town on the U.S.-Mexican border. The "luck" is that now it's available for rent to another weary refugee, and Georges will spend a good long while sulking in that room himself.
That's getting ahead of things, however, for Dawn actually begins with a world-class terrible framing narrative. This is my first-least favorite thing about it, and we initially encounter Georges, many months after-the-fact, as he sneaks onto the Paramount lot. Indeed, the movie really begins with a title card explaining that this is how Paramount acquired this amazing story (adapted from the simultaneously-written novel by Ketti Frings...). So Georges accosts an old friend from Europe, now a film director (Leisen himself), to beg him for $500. In exchange, he can have the rights to make the film we're watching now. This is astoundingly self-regarding stuff, and while I realize that, on some basic level, every movie asserts that it's telling a story worth watching, very few insist on it so shamelessly. When they do, it's almost invariably a bad idea, and that goes double if the threadbare excuse to put it into the film is a desperate bid to acquire money to settle a "debt" that was never about money, and is surely infinitely more than five hundred bucks could satisfy, even in 1941 dollars. Meanwhile, not one blessed thing about the movie would change if this entire device were dropped, except this 116 minute film would be five minutes shorter, which would not be a crime. Even the things it "justifies," like Boyer's voiceover narration, or its director's cameo, or the sense of loss and tragedy that casts a pensive pall over the proceedings, all could've been accomplished trivially otherwise, without ever involving this level of off-putting self-importance.
Everything else is better, and while Dawn is also something of a slow burn that doesn't cohere for a good long while (I didn't clock it, but it might be around an hour in, to be perfectly frank), it jumps instantaneously to "at least intriguing" as soon as we arrive in Georges's recent past, where he has just emigrated from France for Reasons Left Pointedly Unstated in this 1941 film co-written by a man whose entire family was in the process of being annihilated. Georges has elected to enter the U.S. by way of Mexico, and upon arrival at our shared border is informed that he'll be waiting for a while before his quota number is called. He settles uncomfortably and despondently into a years-long stasis along with all the other immigrants, until one day he runs into an old friend, his "dancing" partner, Anita, now Anita O'Shaunessy (Paulette Goddard), who came over earlier and got her visa with no problem at all. Anita—quite surprised that Georges doesn't already know this—tells him that what he really ought to do is find him a nice American wife, which should be no problem for a man of his profession. Then, four weeks later, the paperwork gets rubber-stamped at the consulate. That's what she did, and then, in just another few weeks, got a divorce—retaining a perfectly valid visa to stay in the United States as long as she likes. Georges, impressed, cleans himself up and begins lunging at every American woman he sees, but in his rustiness doesn't succeed until he finds the woman he'd insulted earlier, a schoolteacher chaperoning an unruly gaggle of children named Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland).
Deviously orchestrating events so that she and her charges wind up having to stay overnight in his hotel lobby while her car gets fixed, Emmy awakens to find herself being stared at hungrily by a sinister-looking foreigner who has, while she slept, surreptitiously placed his "mother's" wedding ring on her finger. Emmy is initially—and one dares say, fairly reasonably—bothered by this, but once she's had a few minutes to think it over, she realizes that a moment of spontaneous irrationality is exactly what her life's been needing, and the sun's barely risen before they've been married. It seems that all that's left is to wait four weeks, and in the meantime Anita can keep Georges company while they scheme to reunite their dance act/personal service business in the big American city. Unfortunately, there are two problems. The first is that America's noticed the rash of failed marriages emerging out of Mexico, and the border service's local friendly immigration inspector, Hammock (Walter Abel), who seems to like his immigrant charges—our hero excepted—has been tasked to be on the lookout for these sham marriages; and lately he's spied an amorous clinch between Anita and her ex-partner. The other problem is that Emmy's already back from America, eager to start her honeymoon, which means Georges has a pressing need to get out of town before Hammock notices that he's plainly scamming his new "wife."
If this is the hour mark, anyway, this is where Dawn finally picks up a full head of steam, abandoning its hang-out mode and banking everything it has on the dramatic contradictions of this "marriage" as, inevitably, having to spend actual time with his mark begins to make Georges question what kind of irredeemable monster it would take to exploit her so ruthlessly. The reason it picks up is, fundamentally, probably just that a narrative's finally begun; but it might be just as much because its other star finally gets to be in consecutive scenes in her own movie. De Havilland has played fair with this whirlwind romance, previously doing just about as much as was humanly possible to provide the emotional foundation for it. She even does well enough laying that foundation that it's not totally incredible, if you're willing to accept that it's a fait accompli and the rest of the movie needs it to happen, though Dawns's most obvious structural problem (besides the framing narrative) is that it is rushed to such a degree that the rush was presumably supposed to be part of the effect.
That might be true, but it's not quite sufficiently stressed by Leisen or his screenwriters or anybody besides de Havilland, and fifty or sixty minutes into a film is an awfully long time for it to still be shrugging sheepishly and chiding us in its sophisticated foreign accent, "ah, but you must allow us our premise." Even just a slight bit more (perhaps, I don't know, repurposing the dead screentime spent touring the fucking Paramount lot, or on the semi-dreadful comic relief with firecracker-toting children and put-upon car mechanics, or both), would've sold the Before Sunrise phase of this somber screwball caper as a relationship already worth investing in. Hell, even crammed into almost nothing, the way de Havilland chases after Boyer in a pretty great little tracking shot that Leisen's set up, while he smiles smugly—yet with the tiniest hint of surprise at his new fiancée's ardency—almost gets us where we need to be.
The presumption one has to make is that Wilder was more interested in Georges than we were likely to be—which is not to say "uninterested," and though Boyer's a lot blunter and less appealing with Goddard, that's also "the point"—because Georges was practically autobiographical for the screenwriter. (European, check, fleeing the continent for America, check, paid dance partner/sex worker?, check, stuck on the Mexican border, check, winds up on a movie set, check.) Wilder bends the whole project around this experience, though it's not unproductive: Dawn is essentially straight-up political, with a lot of time given over to the textures of its immigrant supporting cast. Most of this is pretty fun, albeit a bit wacky and schematic on the one hand (one turns out to be a descendent of the Marquis de Lafayette, and hence already a U.S. citizen) and message-movie melodramatic on the other (just wait till the pregnancy subplot comes to fruition). It's perfectly fine and likeable texture, anyway, as well as a nice break from Georges's squalid melancholy (not to mention it helps build Hammock's patriotically-rulebound functionary as a sympathetic, and empathetic, antagonist).
Certainly the point is well-taken, though it's also nice to see that eighty years ago they could make a deeply pleasurable romantic-not-quite-comedy that still verges on open borders propaganda without ever feeling weird about it, whereas "fairy tale romance with a sexy, duplicitous Afghan refugee" strikes the brain as such a cultural and industrial impossibility that it would drive you slightly mad trying to imagine what such a thing could possibly look like, even though every one of these folks is presumably fleeing either Nazi occupation or the Holocaust itself. Well, without all this subplot and subtext, we wouldn't get that champion dialogue exchange between Georges and Emmy, where she speaks of a crystal clear lake that'll never go stagnant as long as there are fresh streams flowing into it, and Georges opines, bitterly, that America seems to be putting up a lot of dams on those streams. "Only to keep the scum out," Emmy brightly replies. Cut to a close-up of the aforementioned scum.
But once it commits wholeheartedly to that romance, and Georges and Emmy are alone together for their "honeymoon," the film shines. It's where de Havilland actually gets to work with a character, as opposed to a vague idea about a woman who realized suddenly that she was capable of getting horny, and she's terrific. (My impression is that Dawn is best-remembered for pitting de Havilland against her sister Joan Fontaine in the competition for the Academy's Best Actress; I concede that there is every possibility that I think Fontaine's win was unfair purely because Suspicion is a bad movie and Dawn is a good movie, but if I wanted to justify it, I would say that being the simpering, scared woman in a spousal abuse thriller is easier than crafting a love affair out of completely unreasonable emotions and making that believable. The better question is whether de Havilland or Bette Davis should have won, honestly.) Anyway, I suppose the argument is that de Havilland is falling back on her robust good-girl persona just as much as Fontaine did her Rebecca-honed fragility, but it's a skillful deployment of that persona, with the kind of highly specific sweetness sufficient to make you believe that a hardened conman like Georges could, despite himself, fall in love. Principally, she does this by putting the dorkiest possible spins on lines that are plenty dorky on the page already (it's honestly impossible for me to think of anybody else who could make Emmy's dumbassed musings about windshield wipers charming, but de Havilland does). And she always remembers that Emmy is horny, so she's also dorkily horny.
For his part, Boyer is more one-note, mostly an expression of simultaneous confusion and disdain with his head so frequently cocked backward to look down his nose at things that you wonder if his neck gave him trouble. This is, however, the correct note, particularly as that confusion and disdain begin to be turned inward rather than toward his shabby environs. Goddard, meanwhile, reads as about ten times as blatantly, irreproachably American as de Havilland, and goes, I guess, for a Barbara Stanwyck, landing somewhere in that general vicinity. This at least always does Anita adequate justice, especially as her envy manifests and she gets a pretty great (even halfway-convincing) monologue about why Georges belongs with her. Truthfully, both of them exist principally to be reacted against by de Havilland and to be confounded and illuminated by Emmy's honest and self-sacrificing love (maybe even more poignantly, her remarkable ability to find satisfaction even in something that she knows wasn't real because for a little while she could believe it was), which is another reason why the screenplay probably ought to have been portioned slightly differently. But once it seizes on the romance underneath all the cynicism, and becomes fully a desperate melodrama, it barely sets a foot wrong. (Okay: it has a downright laughable "bad woman driver" scene that I'm certain existed in the first draft as a suicide attempt, insofar as the script has foreshadowed precisely that; and it must, of course, eventually return to its lousy framing narrative.)
Leisen is guided by Wilder and company's screenplay, doing his job mainly by illustrating it with confident craft. There's nothing extravagant about Dawn's filmmaking, but it is confident—done up in handsome silvery cinematography from Leo Tover, including that aforementioned tracking shot, which in turn depends on some very fine (and Oscar-nominated) art direction courtesty Hans Dreier and Robert Usher, conjuring this border hamlet as something halfway between heat-soaked dreamy abstraction and detailed enough to function as a real place, and that metaphorical liminality works in its favor as much as its more literal borderland qualities. But probably Leisen's own biggest contribution is an ability to put in little moments of holy intimacy, that we're invited to experience through Emmy's emotions even if the film "belongs" to Georges, which really gets at how, after however many years of deadening himself to any sensation, he's begun to come alive to feelings that he could have only ever experienced through her. That's great romance, and Hold Back the Dawn is a great movie, and I feel like I could be underrating it until I remember that framing sequence, and that first hour in general.
*And perhaps you've heard of 1939's Midnight, also written by Wilder and Brackett, also directed by Leisen, and also unavailable, though it was on the Criterion Channel no later than three months ago, albeit not on there today when it would've been useful. Perhaps I should consider the ten dollars I throw at them every month a charitable donation.