Cast & Crew
Edna May Oliver
After attending the dedication of the children's home she has endowed, elderly philanthropist Lydia Macmillan receives a visit from Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick, a former suitor whom she has not seen in nearly forty years. Lydia and Michael reminisce about the past, recalling the three other loves of Lydia's youth: college football star Bob Willard, musician Frank Audry, and Richard Mason, a seafaring adventurer. Agreeing to put their differences behind them, Lydia accepts Michael's invitation to tea, and when she arrives at his apartment a few days later, she is shocked, then delighted, to find Bob and Frank waiting for her with Michael. As they catch up on one another's lives, the conversation turns to Lydia's rejection of their marriage proposals. When asked why she refused to marry, Lydia cryptically responds that she truly loved only one man, Richard Mason. In answer to the men's queries, Lydia agrees to delve into her past to help the disappointed suitors understand her motivations and desires, beginning with the day in 1897 when she first met Michael: Lydia was reared in Boston by her wealthy grandmother, a crusty, but kind, dowager suffering from a severe case of hypochondria. While preparing for her first charity ball, the vivacious and stubborn young Lydia argues with her grandmother over her revealing ball gown, but the conflict is interrupted when the butler, James Fitzpatrick, proudly ushers in his handsome son Michael, who has just graduated from medical school. Michael's warmth and professionalism charm Granny, who immediately hires him on as the family physician, while Lydia talks him into buying a ticket to the ball. At the dance, the smitten Michael is disappointed to discover that Lydia's heart belongs to Yale football hero Bob Willard. Later, Lydia brings Bob home to meet Granny, but Granny disapproves of his drunken and foolish behavior and orders Lydia to stop seeing him. Lydia makes plans to elope with Bob to the nearby hamlet of Quincy and goes to Michael for help with carrying out the scheme, but Michael instead arranges for the justice of the peace to be called away that evening. Their plans disrupted, Bob and Lydia return to Boston to eat the wedding dinner Bob has ordered for them at a local hotel. After Bob drinks too much champagne and makes a pass at her, Lydia, sobbing, flees the hotel and refuses to see Bob again. In the present, Bob, now a nightclub owner, declares to the others with great shame that he has been repenting his actions for the last forty years, but Lydia reminds him that they were both equally foolish. Next, Lydia remembers the day when, shortly after the declaration of the Spanish American War, she accompanied Michael, who had enlisted, to the docks to bid him farewell. As the ship pulled out, Richard Mason, who had offered Lydia assistance on the night she left Bob, waved to her, but Lydia did not yet know the handsome stranger's name. When Michael asks if Richard was the man who changed Lydia's life, Lydia replies that it was not Richard, but Johnny, a blind boy she met that day, who determined the course of her future: After seeing the poverty and degradation in which Johnny lives, Lydia establishes a school for blind children. Hearing of her success with the children, the famous concert pianist Frank Audry, who unknown to the public is almost completely blind, arrives at the school to offer his services as a music teacher. Frank falls in love with Lydia, and Michael returns safely from the war, but Lydia nonetheless announces her intention to remain single so that she can devote herself to her work. However, Lydia changes her mind after she finally meets Richard and dances with him at a ball. At this point, Lydia breaks off her story, but at the men's urging she agrees to continue, expressing her desire to confess her "sin": Telling Granny that she must travel to New York on business, Lydia leaves Boston with Richard and heads for Macmillansport, the desolate and windswept ancestral home of the Macmillan family. After two passion-filled weeks together, Richard departs, leaving behind a note stating that he must settle another woman's "claim" on him and promising to return to marry Lydia. As Lydia is about to give up hope, she receives a ring from Richard and a note asking her to meet him in a Boston church on New Year's Eve for a midnight wedding. Lydia waits alone for hours in her wedding gown, but Richard never arrives. As the months pass, Lydia remains haunted by the memory of Richard, but keeps the love affair a secret. Frank, realizing that Lydia will never be his wife, leaves the school to pursue a career as a composer. Although Michael senses that Lydia loves another, he proposes marriage, and Lydia, craving stability, accepts. However, their happiness proves fleeting when Granny, in the act of toasting the couple, suffers a seizure and dies. Devastated, Lydia goes to Macmillansport in an attempt to free herself of her desperate love for Richard. Unsuccessful, she breaks off her engagement to Michael and spends the next forty years working with the blind. As Lydia ends her story, Michael's butler announces the arrival of Capt. Richard Mason. Lydia is overcome with emotion, but it soon becomes apparent that Richard neither recognizes nor remembers her. Lydia declares to Michael that the crumbling of her illusions about her love affair with Richard represent the "perfect punishment," and she sadly remarks that none of the four men ever really knew her. When Michael asks who the real Lydia was, Lydia responds that there never existed any one true Lydia. Rather, like all women, she was a mass of contradictions, representing different things to different people.
Edna May Oliver
Commander Jack Bolton
William H. Wilmarth
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
The working title of this film was Illusions. Lee Garmes's onscreen credit reads: "Associate Producer and Director of Photography." According to a Hollywood Reporter news item dated April 16, 1941, Lydia had a budget of over $1,000,000. Hollywood Reporter news items published during production add Gertrude Hoffman, Paul Everton, Robert Greig and Tyler Brooke to the cast, but their appearance in the final film has not been confirmed. Correspondence dated July 9, 1941 and contained in the file on the film in the MPPA/PCA Collection at the AMPAS Library indicates that PCA officials refused to approve the original script because Lydia did not suffer enough for her actions. According to a Variety article dated July 30, 1941, the ending of Lydia was changed in order to comply with the Hays Office demand of "moral compensation" for Lydia's wrongdoing. Producer Alexander Korda was quoted as claiming that the new ending suggested by PCA officials, in which Richard fails to recognize Lydia, was an improvement over the original.
Although a Hollywood Reporter news item dated April 10, 1941 reported that Lydia marked French director Julien Duvivier's American directorial debut, he had previously directed M-G-M's The Great Waltz in 1938 (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1931-40; F3.1727), and returned to the United States again after the German invasion of France. Reviewers noted similarities between Lydia and Duvivier's 1937 film Un carnet de bal (released in the U.S. as Dance of Life), both of which feature an older woman looking back on the suitors of her youth. Bosley Crowther of New York Times, in a review dated September 19, 1941, compared the film unfavorably to its predecessor, stating that it only "faintly parallel[ed]" the earlier film. Miklos Rozsa received an Academy Award nomination in the Music (Music Score of a Dramatic Picture) category.