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Merle Oberon played a woman whose romantic memories dominated her life for 40 years in Lydia (1941), with Alan Marshal as the man whose memory has kept her single and Joseph Cotten as the suitor she probably should have favored. Although heavily criticized on its initial release because of the story's jumbled time line (it's told in a series of flashbacks) and Oberon's unconvincing attempt to play an elderly character, it has been rediscovered more recently by fans of its French director, Julien Duvivier, and is now considered one of the screen's most romantic offerings.
In many ways the film was itself a labor of love, produced by British film giant Alexander Korda as a vehicle for his wife and personal discovery, Merle Oberon. Korda had shepherded her career from the early 1930s, when he gave her a small but showy role as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). That film's success had set her on the road to stardom, culminating with a move to Hollywood and a contract with independent producer Sam Goldwyn. But after Wuthering Heights (1939), co-starring Laurence Olivier, failed at the box office, Goldwyn and Korda had trouble finding a suitable follow-up role and ended her contract by mutual agreement. Nor did it help that she was kept off the screen for a year by an allergic reaction (to a sulphanilamide drug) that threatened to destroy her acclaimed beauty. A move to Warner Bros., where Jack Warner hoped to use her as a threat to reigning star Bette Davis, proved unsuccessful, leaving her in search of a comeback vehicle. Korda came to the rescue with Lydia.
The film was in many ways a remake of Un Carnet de Bal, a 1937 French film about a woman in her twilight years who looks up the men with whom she had danced at her first ball. Korda even hired the picture's original director, Duvivier, for the unofficial remake (Duvivier and Ladislaus Bus-Fekete, the co-writer of Carnet de Bal, were credited with the original story, but the story itself was not mentioned in the credits). The producer even went so far as to publicize the film as Duvivier's first film in America, despite the fact that the director had been brought to MGM in 1938 to direct The Great Waltz, a biography of Johann Strauss.
Ben Hecht, one of Hollywood's most reliable screenwriters, and Samuel Hoffenstein, who had worked with Duvivier on The Great Waltz, adapted Lydia, re-setting the story in Boston and turning the four dancing partners into four suitors, each of whom had proposed to Oberon's character. Since Lydia had a two-week liaison with Marshal before he left her at the altar, the Production Code Administration expressed some concern that she pay for her sins. Forty years of celibacy and devotion to charitable causes didn't provide sufficient "compensating moral value" (their term for the wages of sin), so PCA chief Joseph Breen suggested that at her reunion with Marshal, Oberon should discover that he no longer remembers her. Korda and the writers immediately realized that this gave their film a stronger ending.
Oberon hoped that her decades-spanning role would win her the critical approval that had often escaped her in the past. Even in a solidly received vehicle like Wuthering Heights, critics had given most of their praise to co-stars Olivier and Geraldine Fitzgerald, complaining that Oberon had failed to capture her character's wild side. Lydia's wild side was amply on display in the early scenes of her teenage years, but the actress' greatest challenge lay with her portrayal of the character as an elderly woman. For those scenes, she rose at 5:30 a.m. and endured three hours of make-up. The writers peppered her lines with antiquated slang, and she adapted herself physically. Many of her mannerisms as the aged Lydia are reminiscent of Edna May Oliver, the character actress cast as the grandmother who had raised Lydia. Unfortunately, those were the first scenes the critics attacked, comparing her unfavorably to Greer Garson in Blossoms in the Dust and Martha Scott in Cheers for Miss Bishop, both of which had been released earlier in 1941. It certainly didn't help that her makeup looked more like a plaster mask than human skin.
Korda produced the film on a lavish scale, with a $1 million budget, mammoth sets by his brother Vincent and lush black-and-white cinematography by Lee Garmes, who had won an Oscar® for photographing Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932). Another of Korda's discoveries, Miklos Rozsa, composed the score, winning his second Oscar® nomination (the first had been for Korda's The Thief of Bagdad, 1940).
Lydia marked the end of the road for two distinguished character actors: Oliver, who specialized in crusty older women like Lydia's grandmother, the Nurse in Romeo and Juliet (1936) and Aunt Becky in David Copperfield (1935); and John Halliday, who most recently had played Katharine Hepburn's father in The Philadelphia Story (1940). Both died shortly after the film's completion. Lydia also marked a promising start for Cotten, in only his second film role after a spectacular debut in Citizen Kane (1941).
Though Korda had not credited Un Carnet de Bal as the source for Lydia's plot, critics were all too quick to notice the resemblance. Writing in the New York Times, Bosley Crowther dismissed the film as "another dish of shredded memories, heavily soaked in sugar and thick cream" and declared it distinctly inferior to the French original. The film failed at the box office, offsetting some of the profits from Korda's hit of the same year, That Hamilton Woman, and continuing Oberon's downward spiral at the box office.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: Julien Duvivier
Screenplay: Ben Hecht, Samuel Hoffenstein
Based on a story by Julien Duvivier, Ladislaus Bus-Fekete
Cinematography: Lee Garmes
Art Direction: Jack Okey
Score: Miklos Rozsa
Cast: Merle Oberon (Lydia MacMillan), Edna May Oliver (Granny), Alan Marshal (Richard Mason), Joseph Cotten (Michael Fitzpatrick), Hans Jaray (Frank Andre), George Reeves (Rob Willard), John Halliday (Fitzpatrick the Butler), Sara Allgood (Johnny's Mother).
by Frank Miller