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Wednesday, September 24, 2014

When Pirates Couldn't Take A Censor's Stronghold

Chicago In Context: These Were The Big Shows Playing
Through Yule '44 and Into a New Year

Frenchman's Creek In Your 1944 Christmas Stocking --- Part Two

It's Christmas 1944, and you're going to the show. Each of companies is out with shiniest baubles. Warners had To Have and Have Not plus Hollywood Canteen in fresh release, while Metro premiered National Velvet at Radio City and kept Meet Me In St. Louis in best venues from a Thanksgiving open. Small markets wouldn't see these until calendar turn to 1945. Entertainment in those days took slower to canvas the country. Paramount wrapped Frenchman's Creek at Broadway's Rivoli after thirteen socko weeks, and just before Christmas, the very time venues in other cities would bring it in as their Yule attraction. Motion Picture Daily (10/13/44) announced "the largest simultaneous booking for a Paramount film in months," with 300 prints for Christmas/New Year dates. Awareness of Frenchman's Creek was fever pitching by this time, its New York reception trumpeted in trades and elsewhere. Movies, like stage plays, benefited from length of Broadway runs, that being barometer of success for both. Frenchman's Creek had come a long way from a property that couldn't be filmed, at least with any fidelity to the Daphne DeMaurier novel from which it derived. Censors had earlier kyboshed efforts by Selznick and MGM to adapt FC, and like Forever Amber to come, the code/Code seemed unbreakable. Paramount would have to denude the book's central theme, which was adultery between heroine "Dona" and her pirate swain. Simply put, the affair could not take place, despite yearnings spoke by the onscreen would-be lovers.

A Pirate Ship Built Twice: At Top Full-Scale,
and Below a Para-Built Miniature
This was the sort of maddening hypocrisy that sunk many a bid for adult content. Rule One and Only: Play by PCA rules or your picture won't be shown, at least not in theatres subscribed to the Code, which all better houses abided by lest a watchdog Legion Of Decency and/or local acolytes be aroused. Radar was up re Frenchman's Creek from announcement it would be filmed. Many knew the DeMaurier blueprint (Dona not only sleeps with her seagoing lover, but bears children by him). To remove all of this would gut DeMaurier's narrative, Paramount figuring to compensate with costumes and Technicolor, letting customer's imagination fill in the rest. Knowing all of studio tricks, the PCA insisted on dialogue that would make plain that nothing illicit had happened between the principals. There would be longing looks, much dialogue professing passion, and even a kiss or two, all leading to Joan Fontaine's inevitable choice to stay home and mind kiddies/husband, her grand adventure a mere mischief that puts her nowhere near the pirate's bed. That last isn't quite accurate --- she does clock time between Arturo DeCordova's sheets, but chastely --- him only entering the morning after to deliver breakfast. Hep viewers knew this was limit of license in a 40's show; they'd get fun from reading between lines (or dissolves), but knew all a while that movies would never lay sex on the line.

Arturo DeCordova speaks the cleansing line to Joan Fontaine: "Of course, if you choose to stay in England, there is nothing that has happened between us that would make you marriage a pretense." Would this have reassured viewers who suspected something more had gone on? Director Mitchell Leisen thought to the end that he had slipped one over on censors. He incorrectly recalled Joan Fontaine's "morning-after" scene to biographer David Chierichetti: "It's quite obvious that she's naked in the bed when she throws her shawl around her shoulders before he (DeCordova) comes in." Wishful thinking on Leisen's part this was, as frame captures at left show Fontaine well-clothed when she awakens and then talks to DeCordova, who knocks before entering. Anecdotal history on Frenchman's Creek is rich: There is Chierichetti's book, which is one of the best career studies of a Classic Era director I've read (full of interviews with those who worked with Leisen); also we have associate producer David Lewis' viewpoint as expressed in The Creative Producer: A Memoir Of The Studio System, also a must. Joan Fontaine had sour memories of Frenchman's Creek, which she claims to have been forced upon her by Selznick on threat of suspension. The latter was also gun held by Paramount to Leisen's head, Frenchman's Creek by the director's estimate "as dull as dishwater and ... a lousy picture."

Movie Magic! Everything Above Players is Matte-Painted

A First Floor Is Built, The Rest a Hanging Miniature
They all agree the production was an ordeal ... 104 days and much of that on shore location where toilets weren't handy. Fontaine alienated co-workers by observing that success of the finished product was burden upon her shoulders alone, which sat not well with Brit co-players who saw her as stuck up to begin with. Leisen was a stylist whose emphasis was on the look of his film, sets and costuming a specialty. Billy Wilder would knock him for that, so much so that many now think of Leisen only in terms of insult his Paramount nemesis laid down (Wilder felt his script for 1941's Hold Back The Dawn was ruined by Leisen's timid handling). Maybe Leisen wasn't the ideal director for a show about pirates, as these are a limpid lot, and his non-flair with action begs for intervention from a Michael Curtiz or Raoul Walsh. Where Leisen prevails is recreation of the period, Frenchman's Creek a sumptuous pageant and likely the most gorgeous Technicolor ever to grace a 40's screen, this apparent even in debased circumstance of Universal's DVD. He'd work closely with matte/miniature departments at Paramount to enhance what was already lavish, sleight-of-hand in Frenchman's Creek a fine demonstration of what behind-scenes paint and model artists could do. In this sense, Leisen was following in tradition his mentor, C.B. DeMille, had estalished at Paramount.

The process of star creation, and how it sometimes failed, can be seen up close in Frenchman's Creek, its launch of Arturo DeCordova being a craft that sank within the year Paramount spent trying to sell him as a "future Valentino." It seemed a sensible enough idea. The war had made outreach to Latin neighbors both practical and profitable. DeCordova had been a major star in Mexico and would be again after his US tide went out. There was precedent too for stars aborn in pirate garb ... consider Errol Flynn. Nothing was specifically wrong with DeCordova. He just couldn't reach off the screen and grab his audience the way Flynn, or indeed Valentino, had. Whatever investment Para was willing to make in him, they couldn't force DeCordova upon a public that didn't want him. This was hard truth Hollywood learned with every personality coming in with fanfare, then going out to obscurity. Frenchman's Creek was a great success that should have made "A Great New Romantic Star" of Arturo DeCordova, but he'd be what patronage would forget first, a rock in shoes of Paramount staffers who imagined they could make an attraction of anybody.

Further down cast listing was Harald Ramond, another who might have made the grade but for ugly scandal that rendered him persona non grata just as Frenchman's Creek was widening out for 1944's holiday season. Ramond had emigrated to the US after a "series of adventures" in Europe, one of which was imprisonment in a German concentration camp (so said studio bio). He had signed with independent producer Charles R. Rogers, who'd loan him to Paramount for big break that was Frenchman's Creek. Ramond had in meantime become involved with Lupe "Spitfire" Valez, who was impregnated by him. She chose to end her life ("sleeping powders," said press) rather than face disgrace of unwed motherhood. Word got out that Ramond had refused to marry Lupe when she came to him in trouble, this despite his insistence to the contrary ("The last time I talked to Lupe I told her that I would marry her any way she wanted"). Wherever truth lay, this was no base for a young man in 1944 to build a Hollywood career upon, so Harald Ramond moved back to Euro pastures, where he'd have twenty years more work in features and television (as Harald Maresch).

And so we're left with what Universal gives us of Frenchman's Creek. Maybe there's a 35mm nitrate print surviving somewhere, but I've doubt of ever seeing it, short of seven hour's flight to a UCLA or some such screening. I know my own affection for this show is perverse. Ladies in forty-pound costumes, men bewigged with poodle dogs travelling in wake. Joan Fontaine's fop of a husband says "Fiddle-Dee-Dee" repeatedly. The pirates don dresses and captured corsets and kiss each other. To quote Paul Cavanagh's deathless putdown from The Mississippi Gambler, "they handle a sword as though it were a parasol." But then there is Basil Rathbone, a lion among lambs. And what fun to see he and Nigel Bruce sharing scenes in this folderol, and right in midst of Holmes-ing it at Universal (breaks on Frenchman's location found the two recording SH radio broadcasts). Wrath-bone shuns the wig when it's time to get dangerous, like when he does rape attempt on Joan. That's the wildest scene in Frenchman's Creek and worth an hour and half's wait. As with The Mark Of Zorro, once Basil's dispatched, the show is essentially over. Everything after that (another thirty minutes of Frenchman) is badly anti-climactic. Still, Frenchman's Creek is loads of fun and priceless mirror to what flipped audiences in late '44 and right thru '45, a monster hit of its day that I'm glad to see available to us now.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still not sure if you've succeeded in making me curious enough to actively track this one down, but this was an excellent write-up.

9:14 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Thank you for the mention of Harald Ramond. The only thing I knew about him was the concurrent Lupe Velez affair, so I appreciate your placing him in context.

9:22 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Arturo DeCordova was a terrific actor, although in the majority of his movies he always plays the part of guy attempting a revenge against those who had damaged him. Although he was a big star in Mexico, his greatest film was the Argentine production called DIOS SE LO PAGUE (1948) that was even released in the United States and was even distinguished by AMPAS. It is a melodramatic fantasy (it can be seen in YouTube)whose main premise is actually extremely funny.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

In today's banner, poor Rathbone looks like a cocker spaniel.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Great two-part article. But I'm confused, and it's probably poor reading skills on my part, but IS this available on Disc or on pay-tv? You mentioned that a cable channel or a dvd?



1:57 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

"Frenchman's Creek" is available via Universal's On-Demand Vault Series on DVD-R, and can be acquired through Amazon.

2:46 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

Thanks! It's been ordered!

4:38 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Selznick was fast with numbers, but supposedly this was the most expensive movie ever made (certainly the most expensive of the war years) up to that time. Did it look it, do you think?

8:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It's a lavish and beautiful production --- all of money looks to be right up there on the screen.

9:21 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

Oops, I don't know why I mixed Selznick in there, other than the passing reference.

I know both Wilder and Preston Sturges disliked Leisen, but as far as I'm concerned what he did with their scripts for Midnight and Easy Living respectively is as good as anything they ever did with their own words. And Easy Living has a sequence close enough to one in Palm Beach Story (when the respective female stars tour apartments, wordlessly) that it's clear Sturges learned from him, even if he didn't like him.

10:59 PM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

Wow, thank you John, a terrific pair of posts on a film I knew next to nothing about...

12:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some fascinating insights into "Frenchman's Creek" (Part One):

"Frenchman's Creek" is by no means a bad movie. The settings and costumes are sumptuous, the Technicolor photography gorgeous, and there is a keen visual sense which sometimes suggests what the screenplay ought to have provided. Joan Fontaine looks as beautiful as she ever would in a film, but the wigs worn by many of the men in the picture rival her own. There is an ambivalent sexuality which may appeal to some, but it is at the expense of real passion or drama, while such moments of brilliance as there may be are like sparks which find no tinder. Thus I would regard it as a pleasant diversion for an afternoon, but little more.

Joan Fontaine had not wanted to make it, for reasons that are understandable. She was coming off a remarkable run of films over three years, with "Rebecca" and "Suspicion" for Alfred Hitchcock, then "The Constant Nymph," "This Above All," and "Jane Eyre." Besides Hitchcock, she had worked with directors Edmund Goulding, Anatole Litvak, and Robert Stevenson. Her leading men had been Laurence Olivier, Cary Grant, Charles Boyer, Tyrone Power, and Orson Welles. She had won the Academy Award for Best Actress and been nominated on two other occasions.

This production must have seemed quite a come down, for all its expense and prestige. The screenplay was, as you say, a "bodice ripper," stilted and arch. The director, Mitchell Leisen, was technically accomplished, but better known for musicals and comedies. And then there was her leading man, in the person of the diminutive Mexican star, Arturo de Cordova. His performance would prove to be not without interest, but far from what was required, if the story was to be taken seriously. There is never a sense of genuine attraction between him and his leading lady, let alone love, nor is there that expression of the sort of honor which is passion's champion. Errol Flynn, of course, set the standard for that sort of chivalry, though Tyrone Power offered a worthy alternative in "The Black Pirate," somewhat rougher but nonetheless a hero seeking the hand of his lady. De Cordoba can follow neither example nor make his own way. Instead, there is a frenetic, artificial quality to his performance, all teeth and nostrils and waving hair. He is a comic opera pirate, suitable perhaps for a subordinate role while we wait, in vain, for the authentic star to appear.

The screenplay by Talbot Jennings, who had also worked on "Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Northwest Passage," was reasonably faithful to the Daphne du Maurier novel in incident, but not in theme. Du Maurier's overt sexuality, of course, could have no direct counterpart in the film, but other aspects might have received greater emphasis. Fontaine thought that it would be much better if it treated the lady and her pirate as ill-fated lovers. She even thought that filming it in black-and-white rather than Technicolor would be more suitable for such a mood piece. No doubt she had "Jane Eyre" in mind, which had succeeded wonderfully in that regard despite the distractions of a contentious Orson Welles. For Paramount, however, Technicolor was an essential safeguard for such a huge investment, but if it was more interested in a rollicking adventure-story, rather like "The Black Swan," which was also filmed in that process, what resulted was one curiously devoid of action, though not of sexuality, at least of a sort. There is, for example, a curious scene in which pirates cavort about their ship in drag, adorning themselves in corsets and other dainties of the ladies, while de Cordova seems to prefer Fontaine in male guise. Possibly the problem was that there was more swish than swash in the tale as it was filmed.

6:12 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two from Dan Mercer:

Fontaine's misgivings could not be allayed, but she was under contract to David O. Selznick, whose income during this period was largely derived from loaning his stars out for the productions of other studios. With his massive personal expenses and huge gambling debts, he could no longer be as choosy in what he allowed them to do. Paramount would pay him twice her salary, with the difference going into his frequently empty pocket. He pressured her to take the role, threatening suspension if she did not but promising her more money and to intervene to have the faults in the script and production corrected.

To his credit, Selznick did try, loosing an imposing barrage of memos in his own inimitable style, until at last the studio, as you noted, told him either to desist or to leave and to take his girl with him. There is a question what the Selznick of five years before would have done, but the present version was strung-out and living on appearances. He gave way and Joan Fontaine was left on her own. She already resented him for having cost her the role of the young Charlie in "Shadow of a Doubt"--the early treatments referred to "the Joan Fontaine character," but Hitchcock, who was also under contract to Selznick, remembered the "Rebecca" production and simply wouldn't suffer that kind of interference again, ultimately choosing Theresa Wright for the role--and his abandoning her now to a film which was sure to be critically disappointing, if not a failure, was more than she could bear. When her contract expired, she would go her own way.

Despite he unhappiness with the production, however, there are occasions when Fontaine gives a fully realized performance, as though understanding the sexual frustration of woman who has been married out of social necessity but not for love or romance. Her scenes with Basil Rathbone are erotically charged in a way none of those with de Cordova are, so much so that a very different picture might have resulted, had he been the lead. The frenzied hysteria of the ending, with Rathbone stalking a desperate Fontaine, determined to have his way with her, as her children wail in terror, is genuinely exciting. It does not save the picture, not quite, but it at least makes the long wait worthwhile.

6:13 AM  
Blogger tomservo56954 said...

I hope you have heard that the story of the death of Lupe Velez is in fact, an urban myth--she did NOT drown in the toilet.

Paul Duca

4:03 PM  

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