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For its time the plot of Hold Back the Dawn (1941) was somewhat unusual but one that resonated with audiences in a world witnessing a Europe ravaged by war and totalitarian regimes. A gigolo and sometime dancer from Romania is stuck in Mexico, prevented from entering the U.S. by immigration authorities. He follows the example of his dance partner, who herself once duped an American into marriage in order to gain citizenship, and he woos a naive, prim American schoolteacher on holiday. Blossoming under his romantic spell, she falls in love and the two soon marry. But before his immigration papers are approved, she finds out his ruse from the dance partner and, hysterically returning home, has a serious car accident. The Romanian, realizing he loves her after all, is forced to sneak across the border to be at her side. He tries to sell his story to a movie director to get the money for her recovery.
Nearly everything about this production worked out to the great advantage of Olivia de Havilland, who received great reviews and an Academy Award® nomination for her performance as the teacher. Although she had been nominated for her supporting role in Gone with the Wind (1939), De Havilland was still fighting with her studio, Warner Brothers, for better roles. She was a popular star at the time but was growing tired of being little more than window dressing in Errol Flynn action pictures. Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, then Paramount's leading screenwriting team, had De Havilland in mind when they wrote this script, but they knew Jack Warner never loaned his stars out unless he wanted another studio's performer in return, and even then a Warners contractee came with a hefty price tag. Luckily, Jack Warner wanted Paramount's Fred MacMurray for a Flynn movie, so he read Paramount executives a list of names he'd be willing to trade for the actor. They played it very cool, offering no reaction when Warner mentioned De Havilland's name. Some days later, they called back to say that since they needed somebody for a new movie about to go before the cameras, De Havilland would just have to do. Warner released her with no additional cost and Brackett, Wilder and director Mitchell Leisen got the star they wanted all along.
De Havilland was thrilled to be working with Leisen, a former designer and set decorator who treated her with the attention and respect she did not often get from her usual directors at Warners. She was also excited to be working with French import Charles Boyer - a little too excited at first. Boyer was already an important star of several years by this time and growing a little weary of the "Great Lover" roles he was usually offered because of his Gallic charm. He longed for something more complex to show his considerable acting chops and jumped at the chance to play the Romanian who sexually awakens a small-town girl and is in turn transformed and redeemed by her love. De Havilland was so taken with her leading man that in early scenes where she is supposed to be affecting disinterest in his advances, she clearly showed the opposite in her eyes. Without explanation, Leisen ordered retakes on the scenes several days later. Nervous that the director didn't like her performance and regretted casting her, she replayed the scenes much more contained and wary. It was exactly what Leisen wanted. She didn't find out the reason for the retake until many years later when she was being interviewed by a writer who had also interviewed Leisen.
Finally, De Havilland's part was beefed up by the writers out of revenge against Boyer. Brackett and Wilder had written a scene in which the Romanian torments a cockroach trying to climb a mirror, constantly brushing the bug down while "questioning" the insect as an immigration officer would someone trying to cross the border. The writers were especially proud of the way the scene showed the Romanian's hopelessness and his cynical comment on the way authorities reacted to his plight. Boyer, however, felt the scene was idiotic and degrading and refused to do it. It was cut from the picture. Brackett and Wilder, still writing as the film was being shot, changed subsequent scenes, throwing the balance to De Havilland's character to the detriment of Boyer. The actor had hoped the film would give audiences and producers a new respect for his talent and range; instead, his leading lady ended up with the best notices and an Oscar® nomination. She lost to her younger sister Joan Fontaine in Suspicion (1941), fueling the feud between the siblings, although she did earn the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actress award.
Wilder and Brackett's screenplay was also nominated (along with nominations for Best Picture, Art Direction, Cinematography and Music) but by then the damage had been done. Fed up with having their work changed by directors and production executives, they determined to make their own films from that point on. Their next project was The Major and the Minor (1942), directed by Wilder and employing the talents of Hold Back the Dawn's cinematographer Leo Tover and editor Doane Harrison. Before dissolving their partnership in the early 1950s, the pair co-wrote 6 films directed by Wilder, including Sunset Boulevard (1950) and the multiple Oscar®-winner The Lost Weekend (1945).
Brackett and Wilder weren't the only ones infuriated by the changes to the story; in fact, they were the cause of someone else's fury. Writer Ketti Frings based the story of Hold Back the Dawn on her own marriage. A magazine writer, Ketti met former European lightweight boxing champ Kurt Frings while on vacation in Europe. They married, but he was still not able to enter the U.S., so they set up home in Tijuana, where she commuted to work in Los Angeles every day, getting to know many other would-be immigrants waiting just across the border for permission to take up American residency. She wrote a treatment for a screenplay and sold it to producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr. and eventually turned it into a novel. But she was livid when the screenwriters transformed the husband into a shady gigolo and the wife into a naive small-town schoolteacher. Ketti Frings shortly after went into screenwriting herself and her husband became an agent. Among his future clients was Olivia De Havilland.
Leisen himself played the film director the Romanian approaches for a possible screenplay sale. When we first see him he is directing a scene from a movie starring Paramount players Veronica Lake and Brian Donlevy. The scene was shot while the two were working under Leisen's direction in the film he made just prior to this one, I Wanted Wings (1941).
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Producers: Arthur Hornblow, Jr.
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, based on the book by Ketti Frings
Cinematography: Leo Tover
Editing: Doane Harrison
Art Direction: Hans Dreier, Robert Usher
Original Music: Victor Young, John Leipold
Cast: Charles Boyer (Georges Iscovescu), Olivia de Havilland (Emmy Brown), Paulette Goddard (Anita Dixon), Walter Abel (Inspector Hammock), Rosemary DeCamp (Berta Kurz).
by Rob Nixon