Joan Fontaine, one of the few surviving movie stars of the 1930s, is Turner Classic Movies' "Summer Under the Stars" star today, Tuesday, August 6, 2013. I'm posting this a little late in the game: TCM has already shown six Joan Fontaine movies, including the first-rate medieval adventure Ivanhoe and the curious marital drama The Bigamist, directed by and co-starring Ida Lupino, and written by Collier Young -- husband of both Fontaine and Lupino (at different times). Anyhow, TCM has quite a few more Joan Fontaine movies in store. (Photo: Joan Fontaine publicity shot ca. 1950.) (TCM schedule: Joan Fontaine movies.)
As far as I'm concerned, Joan Fontaine was one of the best actresses of the studio era. She didn't star in nearly as many movies as sister Olivia de Havilland, perhaps because while de Havilland was an up-and-coming star at Warner Bros. in the second half of the 1930s, Fontaine was stuck as a minor leading lady at the less hectic RKO. And in the early '40s, while de Havilland remained busy working at and fighting with Warners, Fontaine was under contract to independent producer David O. Selznick, who generally kept his performers (Ingrid Bergman, Jennifer Jones, and Gregory Peck, among them) attached to prestigious productions, whether his own or at the major Hollywood studios.
'Gunga Din': Pro-colonialism classic
One of Joan Fontaine's RKO movies is on right now: George Stevens' big-budget adventure comedy-drama Gunga Din (1939), officially based on Rudyard Kipling's poem, but actually a reboot of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's The Front Page, with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the Pat O'Brien / Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) / Jack Lemmon / Kathleen Turner (Switching Channels) role; the Cary Grant and Victor McLaglen combo in the Adolphe Menjou / Cary Grant (in His Girl Friday) / Walter Matthau / Burt Reynolds role; and Joan Fontaine in the Mary Brian / Ralph Bellamy / Susan Sarandon / Christopher Reeve role.
Gunga Din is usually considered one of the best, most rousing Hollywood classics, on a par with Michael Curtiz and William Keighley's The Adventures of Robin Hood and William A. Wellman's Beau Geste. Personally, I've never been a fan of the film (or of Beau Geste, for that matter). Grant, McLaglen, and Fairbanks Jr.'s antics are too Saturday matinee for my taste, Fontaine is totally wasted as The Girl, and the portrayal of British colonialists as saviors of dark-skinned natives comes across as more than a little obnoxious. I guess I should add that Gunga Din -- Sam Jaffe, covered in brown make-up -- doesn't seem to have an equivalent character in The Front Page. He's the loyal dog, ever faithful to his human masters.
Joan Fontaine and Alfred Hitchcock double bill: 'Suspicion' and 'Rebecca'
Gunga Din will be followed by two Alfred Hitchcock movies starring Joan Fontaine: Suspicion (1941) and Rebecca (1940). The former earned Fontaine a Best Actress Academy Award, which many see as compensation for the fact that she didn't win the previous year for the latter movie. But compensation or no, sister Olivia de Havilland was none too happy, as she was herself a Best Actress nominee for Mitchell Leisen's Paramount release Hold Back the Dawn. Now, Suspicion is generally considered a minor Hitchcock effort, marred by a silly (and much too abrupt) happy ending. Joan Fontaine, however, is just fine in a role similar to the one in Rebecca. Now, whether Fontaine actually deserved the Best Actress Oscar in a year that had The Little Foxes' Bette Davis among her competitors is something else. (See also: "Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine feud.")
Somewhat dismissed by those into the auteur theory, in my view Rebecca is actually one of Hitchcock's most accomplished and most atmospheric efforts. Producer David O. Selznick provided his British import with the best Hollywood could offer, and the result is near-brilliant film, from the performances (Joan Fontaine, Laurence Olivier, Judith Anderson, Florence Bates) to George Barnes' brooding cinematography, Lyle R. Wheeler's art direction, and Franz Waxman's music. The screenplay / adaptation is by Robert E. Sherwood, Joan Harrison, Philip MacDonald, and Michael Hogan.
Of course, whether or not Rebecca was the Best Picture of 1940 is debatable; having said that, its Oscar was fully deserving -- Selznick's second in a row, following his Gone with the Wind triumph the year before. Among those vying for the role of the timid "I" de Winter were Vivien Leigh, Olivier's wife at the time ("hopping right from Scarlett into the part of the girl," wrote Selznick, "with very little preparation and she was terrible"); Margaret Sullavan; Loretta Young; Anne Baxter; and Fontaine's sister Olivia de Havilland. It was at that time that Joan Fontaine became a Selznick contract player. (Regarding Joan Fontaine's Rebecca test, Alma Reville Hitchcock and Joan Harrison felt she "was too coy and simpering to a degree that it was intolerable ... and that her voice was extremely irritating." Both Reville Hitchcock and Harrison felt that Anne Baxter would have been the better choice.)
Of interest: Rebecca is based on Daphne du Maurier's novel, which itself has been accused of having been plagiarized from Brazilian author Carolina Nabuco's A Sucessora ("The Successor"). A highly popular 1978 Brazilian miniseries starred national TV icon Susana Vieira in Joan Fontaine's Rebecca role.
David O. Selznick, Alma Hitchcock, and Joan Harrison quotes regarding Vivien Leigh and Joan Fontaine: Ronald Haver's David O. Selznick's Hollywood.
["Joan Fontaine Today" continues on the next page. See link below.]