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For Wings of the Morning (1937), the first British film shot in three-strip Technicolor, 20th Century-Fox pulled out all the stops with a generation-spanning story, filming locations in Kerry, Ireland, Buckinghamshire and Surrey, and an American leading man and an exotic new leading lady. Ads for the film announced the arrival of "Annabella -- Remember her unusual name...you'll never forget her lovely face." Though she would eventually be better known as Mrs. Tyrone Power, for one moment in 1937, she was the star of an epic production combining forbidden romance, family intrigue and horse racing.
The film showcased Annabella in two roles, with scenes presenting her in romantic, tragic and comic lights. In the prologue, she plays Marie, a gypsy who wins the heart of a British lord, only to be rejected by his family when he dies shortly after their marriage. Almost 50 years later, Marie (now played by Irene Vanbrugh) returns to her former estate and sends for her granddaughter, with Annabella taking over the gamine role. To escape the Spanish Civil War she disguises herself as a boy, keeping up the charade when she meets Canadian horse-trader Kerry Gilfallen (Henry Fonda). They fall in love as he trains Wings of the Morning, her great grandmother's horse, for the Epsom Downs Derby, but the arrival of her fianc, an impoverished Spanish nobleman, threatens their happiness.
Wings of the Morning was Annabella's first English-language film, though it wasn't her first time working for Fox. She had played Loretta Young's role opposite Charles Boyer in the French language version of Caravan (1934), shot simultaneously with that film. It was her European success that brought Fox calling again, but initially she refused to return to Hollywood. They finally offered to star her in English-made films, starting with her role as Marie/Maria. Despite the film's success, her later Fox films did not propel her to American stardom, even when she finally agreed to re-locate to Hollywood.
This was also the first production for New World Pictures, the new British subsidiary of 20th Century-Fox, which sent producer Robert T. Kane to head up production in England. They rented Alexander Korda's Denham Studios, which were built on an English country estate with lavish grounds and a river running through it. The studio also imported Fonda, who had starred in their first Technicolor film, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), cinematographer Ray Rennahan, who had shot the first three-strip Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (1935) and director Glenn Tryon. The latter was a curious choice for Wings of the Morning. Better known as an actor, he had only directed three minor films previously. After shooting the Irish locations and the Derby scenes, he quarreled with producer Robert T. Kane, who fired him. In his place, one of Fox's top editors, Harold D. Schuster, got his first shot at directing.
Fonda was cast in the film as box-office insurance in case Annabella did not take off with U.S. audiences. He only accepted the role because it gave him the chance to visit England and Ireland, but it provided an added bonus in his personal life. Early on, he had to dodge his co-star's amorous advances and later, her jealous husband, actor Jean Murat, to whom she had written proclaiming her new love. Once that was settled, Fonda developed a more congenial on-set romance of his own when a group of American tourists visited to observe British filmmaking. One of them was the high-society widow Frances Seymour Brokaw. Before long, Fonda was motoring up to London at every break in filming to spend time with her. When the film was finished, he joined her in Berlin for the Olympics. Within months they were married. She would be the mother of future actors Peter and Jane Fonda.
The lush English countryside and spectacular racing scenes were designed to showcase the still-new Technicolor process, but the film also offered some rewards that, though less visually spectacular, are still important to film buffs. For one thing, it provided a rare opportunity to see legendary Irish tenor John McCormack, who played himself and sang four songs, including his great hit "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms." He received special billing reading "Introducing the famous Irish tenor," but he had actually starred in an earlier film, Fox's Song o' My Heart (1930). Also cast as himself was the famous jockey Steve Donoghue.
Wings of the Morning won solid reviews, with most of the praise going to its stars and the photography; it was hailed as the most beautiful Technicolor work of the day. Although the story now seems quaint and dated, the cinematography still looks spectacular. Unlike most early Technicolor films shot in Hollywood, it has subtler colors, a characteristic of later British color films like the Oscar®-winning Black Narcissus (1947), whose cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, had worked as an assistant on Wings of the Morning.
Producer: Robert Kane
Director: Harold D. Schuster
Screenplay: Thomas J. Geraghty, John Meehan, Gilbert Wakefield
Based on two short stories by Donn Byrne in Destiny Bay
Cinematography: Ray Rennahan
Art Direction: Ralph W. Brinton
Score: Arthur Benjamin
Principal Cast: Annabella (Young Marie/Maria, Duchess of Leyva), Henry Fonda (Kerry Gilfallen), Leslie Banks (Lord Clontarf), Stewart Rome (Sir Valentine), Irene Vanbrugh (Old Marie), Helen Haye (Aunt Jenepher), Teddy Underdown (Don Diego), John McCormack (Himself), Evelyn Ankers (Party Guest).
by Frank Miller