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July 16, 2019

Hold Back the Dawn


Mitchell Leisen - 1941
Arrow Films BD Region A

The past - did novelist Anna Seghers see Hold Back the Dawn sometime prior to writing Transit? Was she familiar with Ketti Frings' screen treatment? Both Seghers' novel and Leisen's film are about refugees, told in the first person. The narrator is of questionable background, telling his story to a vaguely known acquaintance. Both narrators are waiting for the documents that will allow them to travel, and both use fraudulent means, involving a woman, to accomplish their goal. Both men stay at a crowded, run-down hotel with other refugees. The routine is overwhelmingly tedious. In both the novel and the film, a refugee frustrated by bureaucracy hangs himself. Hold Back the Dawn takes place in a small border town in Mexico, directly across from the United States. Hitler was considered Europe's problem, and the U.S. government maintained a strict limit on immigration. Transit takes place in Marseilles in 1942, at a time when refugees were hobbled by time-limited travel visas, and the hope of going to Mexico or Brazil, should a ship be available. Both Dawn co-writer Billy Wilder and Anna Seghers, as well as Frings' husband, spent time in Mexico before getting approval to live in the United States. Anna Segher's 1939 novel, The Seventh Cross was made into a movie by MGM that came out in the same year that Transit was published in English. The director of that film was Fred Zinnemann. Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann were among the aspiring filmmakers who made the German People on Sunday in 1930.

The present - I don't think anyone can watch Hold Back the Dawn without thinking about current events. Even Olivia de Havilland's character isn't immune from xenophobia. Yesterday's "scum" become today's invaders. Unfortunately, no one at Homeland Security seems have that right combination of strictness and understanding as Walter Abel. It's also unavoidable to look wistfully at a film that takes place in a world where marriages of convenience aren't investigated too closely, immigrants wait patiently for legal approval, and the two times rules are circumvented are both gently comic moments.

First and foremost, Hold Back the Dawn is a Hollywood movie. It was produced at Paramount, a studio founded by Adolph Zukor. As an orphaned eighteen year old Hungarian Jew, Zukor probably showed little obvious promise of becoming a self-made millionaire even before getting into the motion picture business. Charles Boyer plays a Romanian gigolo, officially a dancer, told that due to quota restrictions, he can expect to be allowed to leave the Mexican border town for the U.S. in at least five years. His "dance partner", played by Paulette Goddard meets up by chance at the border town's Climax Bar. Boyer learns he can expedite things by getting married to a U.S. citizen, and once he receives citizenship papers he can file for divorce. Boyer encounters schoolteacher Olivia De Havilland shepherding a group of school boys for a brief visit across the border. Temporarily stranded due to a car accident, Boyer acts as a rescuer for De Havilland and her charges, sweet talking her into marriage.

The film both plays up to, and against Hollywood conventions and the on-screen personas of Boyer and De Havilland. In her booklet notes, Farran Smith Nehme describes Boyer as having a "chocolate-ganache voice". Boyer's performance as he woos De Havilland borders on self-parody, but perhaps that's partially the result of seeing too many Pepe Le Pew cartoons. It is after the two are married that Boyer fights his own impulses and screen image to make sure the marriage is unconsummated. De Havilland, Warner Brothers' resident "good girl", is first seen bouncing in anticipation in a hotel room with a wedding cake, and sheds her clothes to take a dip at a deserted beach. Boyer is the worldly conman from Romania by way of Paris, while De Havilland is proudly from small town Azusa, California. This is a film that requires surrendering to an on-screen romance of this mismatched couple.

I like, but do not love, Hold Back the Dawn. My own estimation of Mitchell Leisen is still that his best work was done between 1937 and 1941, with screenplays by Preston Sturges and the team of Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. My own favorites are Arise, My Love, written by Brackett and Wilder, and Remember the Night, written by Sturges (and why is this film not shown on Christmas?). The two moments I will savor in Hold Back the Dawn include the previously mentioned scene of De Havilland anticipating giving up her virginity to Charles Boyer, and Walter Abel's U.S. customs agent discovering the birth of an anchor baby in his office. Farran Smith Nehme's booklet notes discuss the making of the film and the rift between Wilder and Leisen over changes in the screenplay. IMDb lists Richard Maibaum as having made uncredited contributions to the screenplay, yet neither Nehme, nor Adrian Martin in his commentary track made note of this, making that credit questionable, although Maibaum did write several credited screenplays for Leisen. Martin's commentary track, aided by an additional interview with BFI programmer Geoff Andrew, argue for Leisen's auteur status, remarking on the recurring themes in his films as well as his visual choices. Martin also refers to the Senses of Cinema survey of Mitchell Leisen by David Melville, also worth reading. This month is seeing a Leisen revival with new blu-ray discs of Easy Living and Death Takes a Holiday on the way.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 16, 2019 06:46 AM