Thursday, April 23, 2015

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)

Director: Mitchell Leisen

Sometimes it is refreshing to watch a film from pre-WWII that is not surrounded by the unrealistic lifestyle that Hollywood produced pictures tend to put up on the big screen repeatedly. Hold Back the Dawn is a picture that takes place just beyond the American border in Mexico and reminds American citizens that there are still teams of people clamoring to make their way into this country, and with them come the political difficulties they face while aspiring to cross border and live out their American Dream. The feature would nominated for six Academy Awards, but appears to be glanced over in cinema’s overall account due to much more significant events that would dominate late 1941.

Hold Back the Dawn is a romantic drama about an aspiring immigrant stuck at the US/Mexico border who marries an American woman to simply gain entry into the country, but to comes to love and care for here. Georges (Charles Boyer), a Romanian born gigolo, arrives to the Mexican-American boarder and must endure an extensive waiting period before he can legally immigrant into the country. It is a near torturous existence while he lodges at a local hotel within sight of the border he desperately wants to cross, but he learns of a loophole from an old flame, a fellow “companion,” Anita (Paulette Goddard) who had gained US residency by marrying an American, and shortly thereafter divorcing him. George zeroes in on a young, pretty American school teacher, Emmy (Olivia de Havilland), on a day trip in Mexico, convincing her that they are in love, and marrying within a day of meeting each other.

Awaiting the four week period before George can claim US residency he must avoid the local immigration inspector, Hammock (Walter Abel). Georges spends more time with the naïve Emmy, where his pity for her unsuspecting innocence sparks within him a sense of affection for her. Jealous for Georges’ love, Anita reveals Georges’ scheme of using Emmy to his new wife, and despite Emmy not turning Georges into the Hammock, she does leave him, returning to America where she suffers a serious car accident. Troubled by the news of Emmy, Georges illegally enters the country in order to come to her aid, which he knows will jeopardize his visa status. The authorities track down Georges and deport him back to Mexico, however with compassion Hammock does not report Georges and weeks later Georges is given his clearance to cross into America where he see a waiting Emmy on the other side.

Hold Back the Dawn is a rather interesting picture to watch from the year 1941, because it contains aspects of American cinematic storytelling that were very uncommon for its time period. Firstly the greater whole of the story is told in one giant flashback. Charles Boyer’s character sneaks onto grounds of Paramount studios and tells his story to a movie director, who happens to be played by the film’s actual director Mitchell Leisen. This allows Boyer as Georges to be a narrator in order to aid in exposition of details that are not necessarily on the screen.

Also the character of Georges is somewhat the antihero for most of the film. We, as an audience, want Georges to get into America, but he takes the measure of marrying a naïve American girl, played so innocently by Olivia de Havilland, to gain what he desires so desperately. Now we are left with the dilemma of rooting for Georges, but bothered that he is taking advantage of this sweet woman who surely will have her heartbroken as soon as Georges is an American citizen. But what makes this story work so well is Georges’ compassion as it begins to grow an affection towards Emmy making this relationship that appears on screen blossom into something emotionally tangible for the audience.

Mitchell Leisen directing in this film feels surprisingly contemporary with his cinematic choices. He ingeniously works the cameras in ways that are not the simple point-and-shot style that many bland films may produce. Being the story is told from Georges’ point of view the camera travels with Georges, sometimes literally following directly behind him down hallways. Even the editing works in a way that reveals what Georges is thinking or seeing, so the picture is not always simply laid straight out for the audience, but guides the audience’s train of thought.

However, Leisen did take his own liberties with the script, editing out scenes or focusing on certain aspects over others, much to the dismay of screenwriters Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder. For Wilder, he became so fed up with directors changing his scripts that he began directing his own works almost exclusively following this film.

Star Charles Boyer, I feel, shines a bit more here than in his previous works. His performance comes off as more human than his usual smug French demeanor had played in the past. In films such as Algiers he was always the suave individual that usually got everything he wanted so easily, because of his cool confidence and everyone tended to just like him. Here is he much more human as he is within eyesight of his dream, but is powerless to achieve it. He still oozes his confidence, even as Georges becomes broke living out of his hotel room. However, he is still just a simple Romanian in Mexico wanting to cross the border that does so well at keeping him from achieving what he wants.

Olivia de Havilland once again performs the innocent beauty that is naïve to the situation around her. Her performance, much like that of Gone with the Wind, puts her right in the middle of the plot, You fall in love with her Emmy in a sense that you want to wrap her up in a blanket and take care of her for the rest of her life, because she is just so innocent. She is actually the victim of the story, the pawn in Georges’ scheme, but the audience does not want her to every be heartbroken, because she so openly loves this man that she does not know only plans to leave her as soon as he attains what he wants. Her performance is simple and emotional, garnering her an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

The opposite of de Havilland and her character is Paulette Goddard’s performance as Anita. The very beautiful and bright eyed 31 year-old actress plays the jealous schemer that gives Georges his idea, but sabotages his marriage when Anita discovers she is unable to win over Georges’ affection due to his has growing fondness for Emmy. Goddard plays villain so well. Her looks and energy make her such an appealing woman, but her jealousy overtakes her so much so that she becomes a ruthless individual that thinks “if I can’t have him, then no one can.” Surprisingly, in the end despite Anita remains a gold digging woman who attains her latest sugar daddy, which somehow seems enduring about her character as it is Anita’s form of survival.

Hold Back the Dawn would be a rather good success for Paramount both at the box office and with critics. At the Academy Awards the feature was nominated six awards including Best Picture. However in just over two months’ time after the film’s release was the events of Pearl Harbor that hurdled American entry into World War II and somehow, for that period, the movies just were not as important as they once seemed.

If there is any takeaway from Hold Back the Dawn it would be that is was one of the final films penned by Billy Wilder before he jumped into the director’s chair and grew into one of the finest filmmakers of the 20th century. I would recommend the feature as it is innocent yet suggestive, as well as funny yet political. It captures what it would have been like for an immigrant to enter the United States before World War II, at least from the Hollywood perspective.

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