“History doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes” is a well-known aphorism often attributed to Mark Twain…even though there’s scant evidence to show that Twain actually said it. But it’s such a witty little maxim that it seems like the sort of remark the humorist would make, and I couldn’t help but think of it the other evening when I sat down to watch Hold Back the Dawn (1941), a classic movie that will be released to Blu-ray disc next week (Tuesday, July 16) courtesy of “the Criterion of cult,” Arrow Academy. (Profuse thanks to Clint Weiler of MVD Entertainment for snagging this screener for me.)
The plot of Hold Back the Dawn may seem familiar to anyone who keeps abreast of current events in the news. In flashback, gigolo Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) tells a motion picture producer his story: Iscovescu flees to Mexico from Europe when World War II breaks out, but has had to cool his heels in a ratbag hotel (named the “Esperanza,” Spanish for “hope”) because of the U.S. quota system, which dictates that he has to wait anywhere from five to eight years before he can enter the country. In his downtime, Georges crosses paths with old flame and dancing partner Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard)—who informs him of a “workaround” in the immigration system: if he marries an American citizen like she did (Anita is now divorced), he can be past the U.S.-Mexico border gate faster than you can say “Immigration & Customs Enforcement.” (Okay, it’s more like a month. Leave us not be so picky.)
Taking advantage of the Independence Day festivities that attract American tourists, Georges meets up with a naïve schoolteacher from Azuza, California, Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). Iscovescu uses a little of his gigolo magnetism on Emmy, and before the school bus she’s driving (she took her class to see the sights) is repaired the next morning, “Ms. Brown” has changed her name to “Mrs. Iscovescu.” Georges’ scheme is to imitate what Anita did: divorce Emmy as soon as he’s safely in the U.S., and then the two of them (Georges and Anita) will get the old terpsichorean act up-and-running again. What Iscovescu doesn’t plan on is being hit by one of Dan Cupid’s arrows and falling in love with Emmy, leading to a series of near-tragic events before the film sidesteps all for a happy ending by the end of its two-hour running time.
At a time when there’s heated opinion on all sides regarding the issue of immigration, Hold Back the Dawn remains admirably timely. In 2016, the American people voted in as their president a man with a white-hot animosity towards people seeking asylum in this country—so I couldn’t help but ponder as to whether he’d have a problem with a white guy like Georges Iscovescu trying to pull a few strings to “get ahead of the line.” (Isovescu also reminds me of the First Lady, who deployed a similar method to get a foothold in The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.) I guess because of the beguilingly charming romance between Georges and Emmy we’re not supposed to get too worked up about the loopholes that were exploited; there’s even a (fairly) tame scene in Dawn where Rosemary DeCamp (as an Austrian woman great with child) manages to make it across the border so she can give birth to an American citizen (shades of Alambrista!).
I can’t really identify as a Charles Boyer fan, but this film and History is Made at Night (1937) are two entries on his c.v. that I can watch again and again. In the case of History, it’s his lovely co-star (Jean Arthur) that keeps pulling me back in and it’s pretty much the same deal with Dawn except there are two wonderful actresses competing for Boyer’s attention: De Havilland and Goddard. I really like Paulette in this movie, as an unrepentant schemer who does what she needs to do and damn the consequences (she does have a twinge of guilt about spilling the beans about Boyer’s past to Livvy, though it’s mostly because she still has feelings for him). But De Havilland holds her own in this one, and in fact was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar—the same year sister Joan Fontaine was nominated for Suspicion (1941). (Fontaine took home the trophy, one of the many reasons why she and Livvy got along so well over the years.) Hold Back the Dawn garnered six Academy Award nominations in total, including Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay (Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder).
Hold Back the Dawn was the last film that Billy Wilder would write without directing…and it had to do with a cockroach. You see, Brackett and Wilder had written a scene in which Boyer’s dejected character has a conversation with La Cucaracha in his hotel room at the Esperanza…and Boyer found it so ridiculous that he convinced director Mitchell Leisen to eighty-six it. (I’ll be honest: I’m going to have to side with Boyer on this one.) The two scribes would get their revenge when they diminished Boyer’s role in the latter third of the movie and concentrated more on de Havilland’s character (Wilder: “If that son of a bitch won’t talk to a cockroach, he won’t talk to anybody”) but the star’s tantrum is purportedly the reason why Wilder demanded to start directing his own screenplays afterward. (Billy reworked the idea for a scene in The Spirit of St. Louis , in which Jimmy Stewart has a chinwag with a fly.)
Mitchell Leisen never gets his due as a film director but I think his work on Hold Back the Dawn is in many ways superior to Billy Wilder’s handling of his later screenplays. Leisen has a talent for ironing out in Dawn whatever Wilder cynicism Brackett may have missed, and the movie is all the better for it. Mitch also plays the part of “Dwight Saxon,” the film producer who’s persuaded to listen to Iscovescu’s story, and even joined the Screen Actors Guild to ensure it was kosher. The movie that “Saxon” is looping at the beginning of Dawn is I Wanted Wings (1941), which the real-life Leisen helmed previously…and those actors doing the looping are recognizable as Veronica Lake and Richard Webb (with Brian Donlevy on the sidelines, suggesting lunch).
Arrow Academy has chosen a dan-dan-dandy to receive the Blu-ray treatment; Hold Back the Dawn has been transferred from its original film elements to look quite sparkly, and the bodacious extras include an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an audio interview with de Havilland (who turned 103 at the first of this month) from 1971 (recorded at the National Film Theatre), and a collector’s booklet penned by friend of the blog Farran Smith Nehme (The Self-Styled Siren!) Be sure to check out the November 10, 1941 broadcast of The Lux Radio Theatre that’s also included, in which Boyer and Goddard reprise their movie roles (with Susan Hayward filling in for Olivia).