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Briefly under contract to RKO early in her career, Joan Fontaine played supporting parts in major films and leads in "B" pictures at the time -- although she was Fred Astaire's leading lady in A Damsel in Distress (1937), his first RKO outing after he and Ginger Rogers had parted ways.
The first of Fontaine's B's, and her first starring role, was The Man Who Found Himself (1937), in which, at age 20, she plays a flying field nurse - a role later to be reflected in Fontaine's real life when she worked as a nurse's aide during World War II. In the film she is in love with a young doctor (John Beal) who is trying to hide his identity because of a scandal in which he is involved. Seems the doctor, in pursuing his off-duty passion as an aviator, crashed a plane in which his passenger, a married woman, was killed. Maintaining his anonymity becomes more difficult after Nurse Fontaine determines to lead him toward redemption. Matters come to a head aboard a "flying hospital" where the doctor is the only person aboard who can perform a life-saving operation. For added urgency, the plane is about to crash!
Some critics felt a flaw in Fontaine's performance was that she seemed to be vocally imitating Katharine Hepburn, with whom she had just worked in Quality Street (1937). Still, she received some kind notices including Kate Cameron's comment in The New York Daily News that "Miss Fontaine is as blonde as Miss [Olivia] de Havilland is dark, but she has the same charm and poise which makes her sister one of the most promising younger actresses in Hollywood."
According to biographer Charles Higham, Fontaine had a great time during her early years at RKO, which had the reputation of being the most relaxed studio in Hollywood: "She enjoyed the bustling, gossipy atmosphere...Full of fun and laughter, Joan was entirely at home with the RKO family."
Higham also notes, however, that Olivia de Havilland was less than pleased with her sister's newfound success in films. "It has ruined the close-knittedness of our family life," de Havilland told a columnist at the time. "It's bad enough, first to have me as an actress, with hours upset and schedules changed; now it seems as if when I have a moment to rest she is at the studio, and the sweet closeness of our relationship has slipped away." The sisters, who would soon stop speaking to each other, went on to share one of Hollywood's most famous family feuds.
Producer: Cliff Reid, Samuel J. Briskin (uncredited Executive Producer)
Director: Lew Landers
Screenplay: G.V. Atwater, J. Robert Bren, Edmund L. Hartmann, Thomas Lennon, from story Wings of Mercy by Alice F. Curtis
Cinematography: J. Roy Hunt
Art Direction: Van Nest Polglase
Editing: Jack Hively
Cast: John Beal (Dr. James Stanton Jr.), Joan Fontaine (Doris King), Phillip Huston (Dick Miller), Jane Walsh (Barbara Reed), George Irving (Dr. James Stanton Sr.), Dwight Frye (Hysterical patient).
by Roger Fristoe