Friday, October 20, 2017

Joan Fontaine in Frenchman's Creek (1944)

 (This post is part of the Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and The Wonderful World of Cinema)

Joan Fontaine may be best known for the many dramas she made throughout her career, from The Constant Nymph (1943) to Tender is the Night (1962). That is not to say she did not make films in other genres. She appeared in comedies (1945's The Affairs of Susan). She appeared in thrillers (most notably Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca and Suspicion). She even appeared in a horror movie (Hammer Films' The Witches). Joan Fontaine also made her share of adventure movies, some of them quite famous (Gunga Din and Ivanhoe).  Among the adventure films in which Joan Fontaine appeared was one based upon a book by the author of Rebecca, the film that had made her a star. Frenchman's Creek (1944) was a very faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name by Daphne du Maurier.

Frenchman's Creek centred on Dona St. Columb (played by Joan Fontaine) and is set in Cornwall during King Charles II's reign. Unhappy with her life with her husband, Harry St. Columb (played by Ralph Forbes), in London, Dona returns to their home in Cornwall. There it turns out that the estate is being used as the headquarters of a notorious pirate  Jean Benoit Aubrey (played by Arturo de Córdova), known as the Frenchman. Bored with her life, it is not long before Dona falls in love with Aubrey, to the point that she dresses as a male and joins his crew. The plot might remind some of Gainsborough Pictures' 1945 film The Wicked Lady, but aside from being period pieces the two could not be more different. The Wicked Lady was a sexually charged bodice ripper that caused controversy on both sides of the Atlantic. Frenchman's Creek is much closer in spirit to such American swashbucklers as Captain Blood (1935) and The Black Swan (1942), albeit one with a female lead. Indeed, the villain, Lord Rockingham, is even played by Basil Rathbone.

Not only was Frenchman's Creek very much an American swashbuckler, but it was also a very lavish one. With a budget of $3,600,000, it was the most expensive film that Paramount had made up to that point. Over 46 sets were built, including the Cornish village of Fowey. Well over 2000 props were used on the film. Over 1000 of those props were made in Paramount's shops.  Raoul Pene du Bois, who had worked on Flo Ziegfeld's shows on Broadway, designed the costumes for the film. As might be expected of so lavish a film, Frenchman's Creek was shot in vivid Technicolor.

At the time that Frenchman's Creek was made, Joan Fontaine was under contract to David O. Selznick. Selznick loaned her out to Paramount for the film, a situation she did not particularly care for, especially given he would keep half her salary for the movie. Worse yet, she did not get along well with her leading man, Arturo de Córdova. Mr. Córdova was a major star in Mexico, and Frenchman's Creek was only his second Hollywood film (after 1943's Hostages). Being a little shorter than Miss Fontaine, he had to wear lifts in his shoes to make him appear taller than her. Not only did she not get along with Arturo de Córdova, but Joan Fontaine did not get along very well with director Mitchell Leisen either. She even dismissed him as being "mostly known for his musicals".

Regardless, Frenchman's Creek had an impressive supporting cast. Indeed, it is the only film outside of the "Sherlock Holmes" series in which Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce appear together. Cecil Kellaway played the St Columb estate's caretaker, William.

Frenchman's Creek was released on September 20 1944. For the most part its reviews were positive, although with a few caveats. Bosley Crowther in The New York Times gave the film a good notice over all, although noting, "to be sure, it is somewhat slow in starting." Harrison's Reports referred to it as "A good costume entertainment" and also noted it had some "slow spots". Variety also gave it a positive review, although it noted that "The performances are sometimes unconsciously tongue-in-cheek" and "The scripting [from the novel by Daphne du Maurier] at times borders on the ludicrous..." Over all, critics thought Frenchman's Creek a lavish, fun film that could not be taken too seriously.

While Frenchman's Creek received good reviews over all, it did not do particularly well at the box office. The film was the ninth highest grossing film for the year and it made a respectable $3,500,000.  The problem is that with a budget of $3.6 million, Paramount really did not make a profit from the movie. Quite simply, if it had cost  a good deal less, it could rightfully be considered a hit.

Seen today I rather have to suspect most viewers would agree with the critics in 1944. Frenchmen's Creek is a very lavish film. The costumes are exquisite and colourful. Its art direction is incredible. It should come as no surprise that it won an Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Colour. George Barnes's cinematography is incredible. Quite simply, Frenchman's Creek is a beautiful film to behold.

At the same time, however, it is not a film that can be taken seriously. Frenchman's Creek does have its moments of camp. That having been said, it is a very fun movie to watch and it does feature some fine performances. Joan Fontaine, having up to that time played more passive heroines, gives one of her livelier performances as the more assertive Dona St. Columb. As might be expected, Basil Rathbone makes for a great villain as the charming, but devilish Lord Rockingham. The rest of the supporting cast, from Nigel Bruce to Ralph Forbes, give admirable performances. Perhaps the only weak link in the cast is Arturo de Córdova. He gives a somewhat lacklustre performance as Jean Benoit Aubrey, to point that one wonders what Dona sees in him beyond a means to escape her rather ordinary life. Indeed, there would seem to be very little in the way of chemistry between Joan Fontaine and him.

Today Frenchman's Creek does not necessarily rank among Joan Fontaine's best known films, but it is worth watching for being able to see her in a very different role from many of those she played in the wake of Rebecca. It was finally released on DVD in 2014 and it occasionally appears on Turner Classic Movies. While it might not be a classic on the level of Rebecca or The Constant Nymph, Frenchman's Creek is a bit of escapist fun that those who enjoy period romances might particularly like.


Virginie Pronovost said...

Excellent review Terence and very informative as always! :) This is a Joan Fontaine's film I haven't seen and it never really attracted me (despite being based on a novel by my favourite author), but your review certainly changed my mind and now I'm more and more curious to see it. It indeed sounds like a fun film that doesn't need to be taken too seriously.

Thanks so much for your participation to the blogathon!

Caftan Woman said...

I keep meaning to catch up with this movie and you have pushed me toward it. I actually like movies you "can't take seriously". Lavish Technicolor is just the ticket to take me away from the workaday world. Pirates are an especial kick as I used to dress as one for Hallowe'en.