Joan Fontaine today: One of the best actresses of the studio era has her ‘Summer Under the Stars’ day
Joan Fontaine, one of the few surviving movie stars of the 1930s, is Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” star on Aug. 6. 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. (See TCM’s Joan Fontaine movies further below.)
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.
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.
Also tonight on Turner Classic Movies, Joan Fontaine can be seen in today’s lone TCM premiere, the flag-waving 20th Century Fox release The Above All (1942), with Fontaine as an aristocratic (but socially conscious) English Rose named Prudence Cathaway (Fontaine was born to British parents in Japan) and Fox’s top male star, Tyrone Power, as her AWOL romantic interest. This Above All was directed by Anatole Litvak, who would guide Olivia de Havilland in the major box office hit The Snake Pit (1948), which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nod.
In Max Ophüls’ darkly romantic Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), Fontaine delivers not only what is probably the greatest performance of her career, but also one of the greatest movie performances ever. Letter from an Unknown Woman is also one of those rare Hollywood movies that believably capture uncontrolled human passion. Hitchcock’s Vertigo may be generally considered the greatest movie about obsessive desire; but in my humble opinion, it doesn’t hold a candle to Letter from an Unknown Woman. Note: This independently made, Universal-distributed masterwork, on a par with Ophüls’ magisterial Madame De, failed to be nominated for a single Academy Award.
‘The Constant Nymph,’ ‘Until They Sail,’ and Joan Fontaine’s Paramount and Universal movies
For decades, Warner Bros.’ The Constant Nymph (1943) was nearly impossible to find due to rights issues. As a fourteen-year-old in love with her older cousin’s composer husband (Charles Boyer), Fontaine (instead of Warners contract player Joan Leslie) won her third and final Best Actress Oscar nomination. Edmund Goulding directed.
And finally, in Robert Wise’s Until They Sail (1957) Fontaine is one of four sisters – Jean Simmons, Piper Laurie, and Sandra Dee are the other three – entangled with various military men during World War II. Paul Newman is one of the guys in question.
And here’s hoping that in the near future TCM will make available Joan Fontaine’s movies belonging to the Universal and Paramount libraries, e.g., Ivy; Kiss the Blood Off My Hands; The Emperor Waltz; Darling, How Could You!; Something to Live For; September Affair; Flight to Tangier; and You Gotta Stay Happy. Not to mention the independently made 1938 comedy A Million to One and the British-made The Devil’s Own. And why not, the 1978 Hollywood-set TV movie The Users.
A Carmel, Calif., resident, Joan Fontaine turns 96 on October 22, 2013.
Joan Fontaine movies: TCM schedule on August 6
3:00 AM MUSIC FOR MADAME (1937). Dir.: John Blystone. Cast: Nino Martini, Joan Fontaine, Alan Mowbray, Billy Gilbert, Alan Hale, Grant Mitchell, Erik Rhodes, Lee Patrick, Frank Conroy, Bradley Page, Romo Vincent, Jack Carson, Ward Bond, Mary Carr, Jack Mulhall, Pat O’Malley, Barbara Pepper, Milburn Stone. Black and white. 81 min.
4:30 AM A DAMSEL IN DISTRESS (1937). Dir.: George Stevens. Cast: Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine, George Burns, Gracie Allen, Reginald Gardiner, Constance Collier, Ray Noble, Montagu Love, Harry Watson, Jan Duggan, Charles Bennett, May Beatty, Monte Blue, Jack Carson, Sam Harris. Black and white. 101 min.
6:15 AM BORN TO BE BAD (1950). Dir.: Nicholas Ray. Cast: Joan Fontaine, Robert Ryan, Zachary Scott, Joan Leslie, Mel Ferrer, Virginia Farmer, Harold Vermilyea, Kathleen Howard, Dick Ryan, Bess Flowers, Irving Bacon, Joy Hallward, Gordon Oliver. Black and white. 90 min.
8:00 AM THE BIGAMIST (1953). Dir.: Ida Lupino. Cast: Joan Fontaine, Ida Lupino, Edmund O’Brien, Edmund Gwenn, Kenneth Tobey, Jane Darwell, Peggy Maley, Matt Dennis, Lillian Fontaine, John Maxwell, Ralph Brooks, Collier Young. Black and white. 79 min.
9:30 AM BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956). Dir.: Fritz Lang. Cast: Dana Andrews, Joan Fontaine, Sidney Blackmer, Arthur Franz, Philip Bourneuf, Edward Binns, Shepperd Strudwick, Robin Raymond, Barbara Nichols, Dan Seymour, Rusty Lane, Joyce Taylor, Carleton Young, Joe Kirk, Charles Evans, Franklyn Farnum, John George, Sam Harris. Black and white. 80 min.
11:00 AM IVANHOE (1952). Dir.: Richard Thorpe. Cast: Robert Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Finlay Currie, Emlyn Williams, Robert Douglas, Felix Aylmer, Francis De Wolff, Norman Wooland, Basil Sydney, Harold Warrender, Patrick Holt, Sebastian Cabot, Michael Brennan, Megs Jenkins, Guy Rolfe. Color. 107 min.
1:00 PM GUNGA DIN (1939). Dir.: George Stevens. Cast: Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine, Sam Jaffe, Eduardo Ciannelli, Montagu Love, Robert Coote, Abner Biberman, Lumsden Hare, Charles Bennett, Cecil Kellaway, Sam Harris, and possibly Richard Farnsworth. Black and white. 117 min.
3:00 PM SUSPICION (1941). Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine, Cedric Hardwicke, Nigel Bruce, Dame May Whitty, Isabel Jeans, Heather Angel, Auriol Lee, Reginald Sheffield, Leo G. Carroll, Billy Bevan, Faith Brook, Leonard Carey, Clive Cook, Lumsden Hare, Edward Fielding, Gavin Gordon, Aubrey Mather. Black and white. 100 min.
5:00 PM REBECCA (1940). Dir.: Alfred Hitchcock. Cast: Laurence Olivier, Joan Fontaine, George Sanders, Judith Anderson, Nigel Bruce, Florence Bates, Reginald Denny, C. Aubrey Smith, Gladys Cooper, Melville Cooper, Leo G. Carroll, Lumsden Hare, Leonard Carey, Edward Fielding, Philip Winter, Forrester Harvey, Billy Bevan, Gino Corrado. Black and white. 130 min.
7:30 PM LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN (1948). Dir.: Max Ophüls. Cast: Joan Fontaine, Louis Jourdan, Mady Christians, Marcel Journet, Carol Yorke, Howard Freeman, Art Smith, John Good, Leo B. Pessin, Erskine Sanford, Betty Blythe. Black and white. 87 min.
9:15 PM THIS ABOVE ALL (1942). Dir.: Anatole Litvak. Cast: Tyrone Power, Joan Fontaine, Thomas Mitchell, Henry Stephenson, Nigel Bruce, Gladys Cooper, Philip Merivale, Sara Allgood, Alexander Knox, Queenie Leonard, Melville Cooper, Jill Esmond, Holmes Herbert, Denis Green, Arthur Shields, Thomas Louden, Miles Mander, Dennis Hoey, John Abbott, Billy Bevan, Leonard Carey, May Beatty, Clyde Cook, Mary Forbes, Forrester Harvey, Lumsden Hare, Aubrey Mather, Doris Lloyd, Wyndham Standing, Heather Thatcher, Rhys Williams. Black and white. 111 min.
11:15 PM THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943). Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith, Brenda Marshall, Charles Coburn, Dame May Whitty, Peter Lorre, Joyce Reynolds, Jean Muir, Montagu Love, Eduardo Ciannelli, Janine Crispin, Doris Lloyd, Joan Blair, André Charlot, Marcel Dalio, Crauford Kent, Sam Harris, Wilbur Mack. Black and white. 112 min.
1:15 AM UNTIL THEY SAIL (1957). Dir.: Robert Wise. Cast: Jean Simmons, Joan Fontaine, Paul Newman, Piper Laurie, Sandra Dee, Charles Drake, Alan Napier, Wally Cassell, Ralph Votrian, John Wilder, Tige Andrews, Adam Kennedy, Mickey Shaughnessy, Patrick Macnee, Franklyn Farnum, Stuart Holmes, Dean Jones, . Black and white. 95 mins. Letterbox Format.
Cary Grant, Joan Fontaine in Suspicion publicity shot via Doctor Macro.