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The casting of Joan Fontaine in The Constant Nymph (1943) -- her favorite of all her films -- ended up being one of those only-in-Hollywood stories. Or in this case, Beverly Hills. Fontaine and her husband Brian Aherne were lunching one day at Romanoff's in Beverly Hills. They had just flown back to L.A. from their grape ranch in Indio, and Fontaine was wearing a gabardine "flying suit" with her hair in pigtails. Director Edmund Goulding walked in and came to say hello; Aherne invited him to join their table. (The two men were old friends.) Goulding told Aherne he was struggling to find an actress for the lead role of Tessa in the new film version of The Constant Nymph that he was prepping. Joan Leslie was not quite right, he said, and Jack Warner was asking for the impossible: "Warner wants a star, but she has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and fourteen!"
"How about me?" asked Fontaine.
"Who are you?" asked Goulding, staring at the freckled, non-made-up face framed by pigtails.
Suddenly Goulding beamed with recognition and said, "You're perfect!" The next day, Fontaine officially had the role.
Despite the fact that Goulding hadn't immediately recognized the star of Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), Fontaine came to adore the man, later writing that "playing the part of Tessa in The Constant Nymph was the happiest motion-picture assignment of my career." Goulding's experience as a stage director made him very attentive to his actors. She recalled how the set was a model of efficiency and productivity, with mornings -- starting at the luxuriously late hour of 8 am -- devoted to discussion and rehearsals of the day's scenes. Goulding, with his writer, would adjust dialogue and characterization with all the actors, work out the blocking, and then after lunch, filming would be quick and easy. "Home by 4:30 or 5!" Fontaine remembered.
In the film, Charles Boyer plays a composer who marries a socialite (Alexis Smith), though he really loves (but doesn't yet realize it) the very young Swiss-farm-dwelling Tessa (Fontaine), who inspires him. Tessa is an adolescent, a child-woman who basically transforms into a woman during the story. To make a 25-year-old successfully come across as an adolescent is a testament to the skill of both performer and director, and Fontaine pulls it off by her sheer energy. Pleasant logistical schedule aside, one can easily imagine Fontaine having the time of her life playing Tessa, being able to perform with a delightful and wild physicality one rarely associates with the actress.
Not everyone on set adored Goulding and his methods, however. Goulding liked to play out an actor's scene himself to show what he wanted, and Charles Boyer, for one, did not like that. But Fontaine didn't mind Goulding's acting-out, later saying, "You can get more from watching Eddie play a scene than you can from an hour discussing it." She also said: "Eddie knew the problems of actors and he solved them -- the need for reassurance, to feel a part of the whole. To be cosseted, to be aware of the subtleties of the role, to be gently, kindly guided. He did this for me in The Constant Nymph."
Boyer also wasn't fond of the film overall, only accepting the part (originally meant for Errol Flynn) on the provision that he get top billing and $150,000. "What he did not like," wrote his biographer Larry Swindell, "was his role as Lewis, who was credited in others' dialogue with qualities of depth and sensitivity that were not facets of the role as written, and were difficult for him to express." Boyer thought his composer character was too thinly drawn and was manipulated by the women characters much more than having a life of his own. He also felt that Alexis Smith's character was so humorless and unlikable that his character's love for her was unbelievable, consequently making Tessa's love for him also dubious.
The Constant Nymph already had a long and celebrated history as a property. It began life as a 1924 novel written by Margaret Kennedy that was immediately adapted for the stage by Kennedy and Basil Dean. On London's West End it starred Edna Best, Noel Coward and later John Gielgud; a Broadway production followed. Two film versions were produced in England: a 1928 silent, and a 1934 talkie starring Brian Aherne (Fontaine's future husband). Both were directed by Basil Dean.
Script development for this new 1943 version took some time because Goulding couldn't stop revising the script, leading to some friction with Warner Brothers production chief Hal Wallis. Jack Warner had Errol Flynn and Joan Leslie in mind for the leads, but Goulding preferred an English actor for the male role, specifically Robert Donat or Leslie Howard. Both were unavailable. Eventually the role was rewritten so that the character's nationality didn't matter, and Charles Boyer was cast.
The release of The Constant Nymph was delayed for a year partly because it made no reference to WWII -- and the films that did were more important to release as soon as possible. When it finally did come out, it did not do well at the box office. But critics praised it, with The New York Times calling Fontaine's performance "a superb achievement... Goulding deserves mention for telling a long story (almost two hours) with a pace that rarely wearies... Conceived with a deep sympathy and understanding, the Hollywood effort is a fine tribute to the virtues that have made the book endure."
Fontaine had learned of her Oscar® nomination for Suspicion during the making of The Constant Nymph. She won and a year later, she'd be nominated for The Constant Nymph itself, her third nomination in four years. But she lost that time around to Jennifer Jones, for The Song of Bernadette (1943).
The Constant Nymph disappeared from public view for many years due to rights issues, but a beautiful new print debuted at the second annual TCM Classic Film Festival in 2011.
Producer: Henry Blanke
Director: Edmund Goulding
Screenplay: Kathryn Scola (writer); Margaret Kennedy (play and novel); Basil Dean (play)
Cinematography: Tony Gaudio
Art Direction: Carl Jules Weyl
Music: Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Film Editing: David Weisbart
Cast: Charles Boyer (Lewis Dodd), Joan Fontaine (Tessa Sanger), Alexis Smith (Florence Creighton), Brenda Marshall (Toni Sanger), Charles Coburn (Charles Creighton), Dame May Whitty (Lady Longborough), Peter Lorre (Fritz Bercovy), Joyce Reynolds (Paula Sanger), Jean Muir (Kate Sanger), Montagu Love (Albert Sanger).
by Jeremy Arnold
Joan Fontaine, No Bed of Roses
Matthew Kennedy, Edmund Goulding's Dark Victory
William R. Meyer, Warner Brothers Directors
Larry Swindell, Charles Boyer