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Frenchman's Creek

Frenchman's Creek(1944)

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teaser Frenchman's Creek (1944)

At first glance, Frenchman's Creek seems like an old-fashioned romantic adventure with glossy production values and melodramatic performances. Shot in the bright hues of Technicolor, the film makes ample use of glamorous costumes and large-scale sets to recreate 17th century England. However, the film represents the combination of two artistic visions, which suggests there is more than meets the eye. Daphne du Maurier wrote the original novel on which the film is based, and director Mitchell Leisen interpreted it for the big screen.

Set in 1668, Frenchman's Creek follows the adventures of Dona St. Columb, an English aristocrat who grows weary of her husband's folly and the unwanted advances of Lord Rockingham. An elaborately coiffed Joan Fontaine stars as spirited Lady Dona. She retreats from the decadence of life in London to Navron, her country home in Cornwall. She discovers that her crafty caretaker, played by Cecil Kellaway, is covering for a local pirate, who has been staying at Navron in Dona's absence.

The countryside is abuzz with the exploits of the pirate, known only as the Frenchman. Lord Godolphin, played by Nigel Bruce, excitedly tells Dona that "women sleep in fear of their lives--and not only their lives." Instead of feeling panic at the implications of his warning, Dona smiles. While strolling through the forest along the cove, she is kidnapped by one of the Frenchman's crew and taken to his ship. Dona enters his cabin, curious to find the handsome pirate preoccupied with sketching. Played by Mexican star Arturo de Cordova, the Frenchman is devilishly handsome and refined in taste and manner. Dona and the Frenchman discover they are kindred spirits. Both desire freedom: Dona wants to escape the confines of her aristocratic life; the Frenchman seeks the autonomy of the open sea. Smitten with the promise of romance and freedom, Dona dons trousers and a cap to join the pirate on his adventures as his "cabin boy." Upon her return to Navron, she discovers her husband has arrived, accompanied by the wicked Lord Rockingham. Dona fears her masquerade and secret adventures will be exposed.

Frenchman's Creek was one of those productions where the behind-the-scenes turmoil overshadowed the final film. Budgeted at $3,600,000, it was Paramount's most expensive film to date, but the budget was clearly seen on the screen in the lavishness of the sets and costumes. It was shot on location in Mendocino, Albion, and Ft. Bragg, California, with a cast and crew of 250. A small tent city with its own water and sewer system was set up to feed and shelter cast and crew during the long days of shooting. Little River doubled as Frenchman's Creek, and a road had to be cut around a cliff in order to get to the location. The 17th-century village of Fowey was only one of the 46 sets that had to be constructed, while propmaster Dick Brandow and his nine-man team secured over 2000 historical props. Over 1000 of them were constructed by Paramount's prop shop, including a clavichord and a horse-drawn coach made of hand-tooled leather. Some of the rooms of the large sets were dressed with pieces purchased from William Randolph Hearst, known for his enormous collection of materials from historic homes. Hearst had been selling pieces from his collection since the late 1930s in order to pay off creditors.

The Frenchman's ship, La Mouette, was recycled from one of the ships used in Cecil B. DeMille's Reap the Wild Wind. After building a new hull, the 110-foot ship was towed 35 miles to San Pedro Harbor then hauled 600 miles by barge to the location. After location shooting was complete, part of the ship was dismantled for dialogue scenes shot on the Paramount sound stages. (According to Internet sources, the rest of the ship was either set on fire by vandals or donated to the Coast Guard for target practice. Another story maintains that years later a local historian found the remains of the Hollywood ship and thought he had uncovered an authentic 17th century vessel.)

Wally Westmore of the legendary makeup dynasty crafted 150 wigs for the film. Their lavishness was surpassed only by the costumes designed by Raoul Pene du Bois. Madame Karinska is credited with the construction of the costumes, but, according to production designer Ernst Fegte, director Mitchell Leisen had a lot to do with their look and creation. Leisen, a costumer and set designer in the silent era, knew how clothing was put together in the 17th century, and he assembled some of the costumes himself, changing the designs in the process. Fontaine's 18 costumes were the most elaborate, with some dresses measuring 600 inches around the bottom and weighing 30 pounds.

. Leisen's experience as a costume and set designer influenced his work as a director. Detractors criticized his love of dcor and visuals, claiming they took precedence over character and performance, but that is an unfair criticism. As with the work of all directors who are visually driven, there is a strategy and meaning to the visual design of Leisen's films. The color and style of Fontaine's costumes change from frilly, oversized gowns in sweet pastels to sleek dresses in deep reds and golds. The evolution in color and style parallels her passionate awakening with the Frenchman. Dona's doltish husband, Harry St. Columb (played by Ralph Forbes), is overdressed in loud tunics with pantaloon-like trousers, bringing to mind the look of a dandy or fool. The costume matches the character's frivolous, foppish persona. In contrast, the Frenchman's masculinity and Dona's attraction to him is signaled through his costume. The Frenchman is shirtless under a short-waisted coat, his hairy chest apparent and appealing to Dona as she gazes at him.

. Unfortunately, Fontaine and de Cordova did not get along well, and they exhibit little chemistry onscreen. As a matter of fact, Fontaine alienated all the male actors in the cast, though perhaps it was because their collective male pride took a blow when she declared that the success of the film rested entirely on her shoulders. Fontaine also did not care for Leisen, dismissing him as a director "mostly known for his musicals," which is not true. Her disregard for the director seems ungracious considering he brought out a playful side to the actress, giving her character a sensuality that is uncharacteristic.

Scholars and biographers have generally ignored Leisen, except for a 1973 biography by David Chierichetti. Inevitably, those who do examine his films bring up his bisexuality. It is always problematic and potentially misleading to look for clues to a director's personal life in his films, but Leisen did seem to understand the conventions for depicting gender roles, and he became adept at reversing them (Take a Letter, Darling; No Time for Love). Dona's desire to escape the confines of her role as an aristocrat's wife, combined with the freedom she experiences in her disguise as a male, can be interpreted as a commentary on the limitations of gender expectations. Likewise Dona's disguise as a cabin boy and her simultaneous passion of a highly masculinized pirate offers a provocative subtext.

In this regard, Leisen's interpretation of the narrative is in sync with du Maurier's. The daughter of actor and matinee idol Gerald du Maurier, Daphne had expressed her desire to be a boy as a child. In adulthood, she experienced her own gender confusion. She eventually married despite attractions to both men and women, declaring regretfully that she had "put the boy in a box." When du Maurier was a child, the family bought a holiday home in the country village of Fowey in Cornwall, a time that Daphne considered the highlight of her childhood. She ran the forests of Cornwall and played along the cove. Dona St. Columb's adventures as a cabin boy aboard a pirate ship in the novel Frenchman's Creek seem to be wish fulfillment for that shy girl who wanted to be a boy.

--Susan Doll

Producer: David Lewis
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Screenplay: Talbot Jennings based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier
Cinematography: George Barnes
Editor: Alma Macrorie
Art Direction: Ernst Fegte
Set Direction: Sam Comer
Costumes: Raoul Pene du Bois, executed by Mme. Karinski
Makeup: Wally Westmore
Music: Victor Young
Special Effects: Gordon Jennings with process shots by Farciot Edouart
Sound: Donald McKay and Don Johnson
Cast: Dona St. Columb (Joan Fontaine), The Frenchman (Arturo de Cordova), Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone), Lord Godolphin (Nigel Bruce), William (Cecil Kellaway), Harry St. Columb (Ralph Forbes), Edmond (Harald Ramond), Pierre Blanc (Billy Daniels), Lady Godolphin (Moyna MacGill), Henrietta (Patricia Barker), James (David James), Prue (Mary Field), Luc (Paul Oman), Thomas Eustick (Arthur Gould Porter), Robert Penrose (Evan Thomas), John Nankervis (Leslie Denison), Philip Rashleigh (Denis Green)

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