Hold Back the Dawn May 26, 2008Posted by clydefro in : Classic Films, 1940s, Billy Wilder , trackback
There are two reasons I’ve been anxious to see Hold Back the Dawn. One is Billy Wilder and the other is a nonexistent cockroach. I’ve brought this up before, but it’s a good enough story that you really can’t tell it too many times. When Wilder was still under contract as a writer for Paramount, he took to writing an adaptation of the not-yet-published book that became Hold Back the Dawn with his usual partner Charles Brackett. The director Mitchell Leisen, who had previously helmed Midnight, also written by Wilder and Brackett, was assigned the picture and Charles Boyer had the starring role. His character is a Romanian dancer/gigolo (no doubt an “occupation” close to Wilder’s heart) named Georges who’s stuck in a Mexican purgatory while he waits for his immigration papers to be approved, estimated to be a few years because of the U.S. quota system in place at the time.
Early on in the film, after a cutesy opening where Boyer, in character, visits the Paramount lot (hello Veronica Lake) in search of a director he’d met in Europe (played by Leisen) to tell his story to in exchange for $500, Georges finds himself unshaven and holed up inside his Mexican hotel room. In Wilder and Brackett’s original script, a cockroach was to walk towards a broken mirror and Boyer’s character, frustrated by not being able to obtain his immigration papers, would interrogate the cockroach about the insect’s visa. As Wilder told it, Boyer nixed the idea as being idiotic and Leisen backed his actor. The writers weren’t even allowed on set to protest and Wilder decided that was the last time he’d write a script he couldn’t direct himself. Thus, out of a missing cockroach scene, Billy Wilder’s career as director was hatched. He’d deliberately pick a commercial project, The Major and the Minor, for his first directing job the following year.
So, after finally seeing Hold Back the Dawn, it’s pretty obvious where the cockroach would have appeared and it’s also pretty obvious that it wouldn’t have changed the existing picture much at all. Surely Wilder was looking to branch out into directing anyway and this little episode could have been a push, real or imagined, into that area. I say it wouldn’t have affected the film because Wilder’s gallows humor is already all over that first portion of the movie and hardly present for the remainder. It’s a very atypical Wilder script, briefly witty in the early goings but mostly a conventional romantic drama told quite well. The story is good, the acting is superb, and the direction by Leisen is unimaginative and adequate. Had the cockroach scene been filmed and put in the movie, the only difference would have been an odd little interlude unessential to the plot or characterizations. Yet, Wilder was notorious for demanding his scripts be adhered to by the actors without changing a word or even an emphasis. One wonders if he’d have been so strict later on had Leisen filmed what was written. (Probably so!)
Some of the most obviously Wilderian touches are, as I alluded to above, in the first act. Not only was Wilder likely able to step into Georges’ dancing and gigolo shoes, as he’d been in the same position while living in Berlin, but the Mexican layover before entering the United States was one Wilder had likewise experienced firsthand. After leaving Germany upon Hitler’s rise to power, he first went to Paris and then tried to come into the U.S. via Mexico. He apparently came across an immigration officer who was a film enthusiast and, after learning of Wilder’s desire to write movies, allowed him in the country with the instruction to “make good ones.” Boyer’s Georges isn’t so lucky. He’s stuck in the Hotel Esperanza when his former dancing partner Anita (Paulette Goddard) happens to show up. She tells him that marrying an American will get him into the country in just four weeks.
Here’s where Wilder’s classic opportunist model comes in, as Georges thinks back to the Californian schoolteacher he encountered earlier. Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland) had a car full of students on a field trip for the Fourth of July when she rear-ended another vehicle. The car must be fixed and Georges just happens to pass by the mechanic shop. She’s anxious to head back home, but Georges, after a brief and failed attempt on another woman, needs just a couple of hours to win her over. It’s loneliness finds loneliness when the two meet. Emmy can’t resist his charms. Georges then conspires with Anita to wait out the four weeks so that he can get a quick divorce and the two dance partners can bring their show to New York. The monkey wrench is Emmy showing up unexpectedly and Georges quickly taking her on an impromptu honeymoon. His feelings begin to change and he realizes he can’t just coldly discard Emmy.
This second act, where the Boyer character hardly resembles the scoundrel from earlier, plays exactly like a classic Hollywood movie. That is to say that it’s entertaining, but safe and predictable. The third act shakes things up a little by letting Paulette Goddard shine first and de Havilland follow in an Oscar-worthy scene that mauls over the other actors in its force of nature-type glory. The sequence isn’t overdone or played with histrionics, a nice reigning in from Leisen, but it’s powerful all the same. It sounds patently obvious, but de Havilland really was some kind of actress. Watching the movie with the knowledge that Wilder and Brackett were apparently still writing the final portion of the film when they learned Boyer had refused to soliloquy with their cockroach, it’s easy to recognize how they turned the actor from star to third banana.
I’m not going to say the film suffers from this transition in focus because it’s still a good picture, but the first act certainly feels like a Wilder movie whereas the rest just doesn’t. Georges changes, leading to the happy ending audiences expect even now from Hold Back the Dawn, and he’s far less interesting as a result. Again, his reform is one we can actively root for in the context of classic movie happy resolutions, but it somewhat betrays the original character and strips the film of any more of those Wilder touches I love so much. You put the cockroach scene in and we might have altered second and third acts, but, by itself, I don’t think it would have tipped the scales much either way in the version that exists now. My hindsight goggles are content to keep it out of the picture so we can enjoy Double Indemnity, Sunset Blvd., Ace in the Hole, The Apartment, etc. Seems like a fair trade-off.
(Hold Back the Dawn is not on DVD anywhere in the world to my knowledge and is controlled by Universal.)