Joan Fontaine, who turned 94 last Oct. 22, shines on Turner Classic Movies’ tonight. TCM will be showing five Fontaine movies: Jane Eyre (1944), The Constant Nymph (1943), Born to Be Bad (1950), Suspicion (1941), and Ivanhoe (1952).
I’ve yet to check out The Constant Nymph, which had been unavailable for decades until TCM presented it a few months ago. In the film, 26-year-old Fontaine plays a 14-year-old infatuated with a composer (Charles Boyer) married to her older cousin (Alexis Smith). Edmund Goulding directed. Enough members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences must have found Fontaine quite believable as a lovestruck teen, for The Constant Nymph earned her her third (and final) Best Actress nomination.
Jane Eyre has been made and remade about a zillion times in the last century or so. Fontaine’s version, directed by Robert Stevenson (later of Mary Poppins fame) and co-starring Orson Welles as Rochester, used to be the most famous one. (At least for the time being, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s well-received 2011 version starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender has become “the most famous” Jane Eyre movie.) Unfortunately, despite veteran George Barnes’ moody cinematography, Stevenson’s version isn’t nearly as involving as Charlotte Brontë’s novel.
Fontaine is okay in the title role, but her heart doesn’t seem to be totally in the part. Worse yet, Welles’ Rochester comes across as more creepy than brooding. It’s too bad that Michael Fassbender wasn’t around in the mid-’40s; he’d have been a much more adequate Rochester/Fontaine match. Aldous Huxley, by the way, was one of the film’s credited screenwriters.
Highly recommended is Richard Thorpe’s Ivanhoe, perhaps the best (along with Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) of the medieval adventure tales made in Hollywood. Most of the cast is in top form, particularly Fontaine – not at all like her past sweet English roses – Finlay Currie, and the film’s star, Robert Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor looks pretty in costume, but the film truly belongs to those around her.
Suspicion is considered a minor Alfred Hitchcock effort, partly because of its tacked-on, unconvincing happy ending. Fontaine is fine as her second mousy Hitchcock heroine afraid of her husband (in this case, Cary Grant), going on to win the Best Actress Oscar of 1941 for her efforts – which many felt was a belated recognition for her “I” de Winter in Rebecca the previous year. (Laurence Olivier was the “menacing” husband in that one.) I should add that among 1941’s Academy Award losers was Fontaine’s not-at-all-happy older sister, Olivia de Havilland, in the running for Mitchell Leisen’s melodrama Hold Back the Dawn. [See Olivia de Havilland discusses Joan Fontaine.]
Born to Be Bad has sweet and lovely Fontaine wreaking havoc on the lives of those around her. It’s a fine performance, and it’s too bad Fontaine wasn’t given more roles like that in her career. In fact, I find it fascinating to watch an actress known for her shy, tender, passionate characters (Rebecca, Suspicion, Jane Eyre, From This Day Forward, Letter from an Unknown Woman) – I can imagine people in the ’40s going, “OMG, Joan Fontaine is so sweet!” – be just as believable as a nasty, calculating, evil bitch. Fontaine gets solid support from Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, and the underrated and underused Joan Leslie. Nicholas Ray directed.
Schedule (ET)/synopses from the TCM website:
8:00 PM JANE EYRE (1944) A governess at a remote estate falls in love with her brooding employer. Dir.: Robert Stevenson Cast: Orson Welles, Joan Fontaine, Margaret O’Brien, Elizabeth Taylor. 96 min.
10:00 PM THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943) A composer finds inspiration in his wife’s romantic cousin. Dir.: Edmund Goulding Cast: Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith. 112 min.
12:00 AM BORN TO BE BAD (1950) An ambitious girl steals a rich husband but keeps her lover on the side. Dir.: Nicholas Ray Cast: Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie. 90 min.
2:00 AM SUSPICION (1941) A wealthy wallflower suspects her penniless playboy husband of murder. Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock Cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke. 100 min.
4:00 AM IVANHOE (1952) Sir Walter Scott’s classic tale of the noble knight torn between his fair lady and a beautiful Jew. Dir.: Richard Thorpe Cast: Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine. Finlay Currie. 107 min.