Tag Archives: Joan Fontaine

Seduced and abandoned twice

Viennese Jewish writer Stefan Zweig (18881-1942) was the most-translated and best-selling author who wrote in German between the world wars (outselling the works by Noble Prize-winners Thomas Mann and Herman Hesse). His 1922 novella Brief einer Unbekannten (Letter from an Unknown Woman) is his best-known work of fiction, not least in that it was brought to the screen in English (by German-born Jewish director Max Ophüls in 1948) and again in Chinese (directed by Xu Jinglei in 2004; and again in Mongolian, a version I have not seen and a 1975 Russian opera I have neither seen nor heard).


Returning to Vienna from a holiday, a rich 41-year-old writer in Vienna finds a packet that includes a long letter from a woman. She tells him that if he receives her letter, she is dead. She tells him that as a young teenager she lived with her widowed and poor mother across the hall from the writer’s apartment an silently stalked him. Her mother remarried and took her off to Innsbruck, but she returned on her own when she was 18.

Putting herself in his path, he picks her up without recognizing he has ever seen her before. I don’t think one can say he seduces someone so eager to be intimate with him. Of course, she is pregnant and he does not give her any thought when he leaves on another trip.

She loses her job and becomes a courtesan (kept by rich men rather than available like a prostitute is). At a nightclub she sees the writer again, is picked up by him again, spends another night with him. Again, he does not recognize ever having seen her before. And assuming she is a prostitute, he tries to give the woman in love with him money for their night of amour.

The son she had by him dies in the great Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, and before she also expires she writes the letter to be sent if she dies.


I think that Howard Koch’s screenplay improved on Zweig, despite having to tiptoe around the Hollywood Production Code. Turning the writer into a concert pianist of renown (played by the suave Louis Jourdan, and given Zweig’s first name, Stefan) also gives Lisa (Joan Fontaine in her best performance) something to listen to from the hallway, and good reason to leave Vienna frequently to give concerts elsewhere (Milan in the case of leaving after unknowingly impregnating her).

Koch had to give her a job (dress model rather than courtesan) and a husband, but since she dies, I guess it was permissible for her to be knocked up. The melodrama of a duel added to the ending seems unnecessary to me (Stefan is going off to it at the end, results unknown to the viewer).

The perfect casting of the leads and the famed Ophüls fluid camerawork make this, for me, an instance of a movie better than the book on which it is based (other examples include “Gone with the Wing” and Dosteovesky’s “The Double”).


©2014, Stephen O. Murray

Happy 100th Birthday, Olivia de Havilland


On 1 July 1916  in Tokyo, Olivia de Havilland was born (to British parents). She, her mother, and her younger sister (later Joan Fontaine) moved to Saratoga on the San Francisco peninsula three years later and the girls went to school there following their parents’ divorce. She went on to the all-women Mills College in Oakland, where she was noticed in a play by the legendary German imperssario Max Reinhardt, who took her to Hollywood to appear in the Warner Brothers’ 1935 version of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (most notable for James Cagney playing Bottom).

Also in 1935, she was paired for the first of nine times with Errol Flynn, in “Captain Blood.” She was lent to David Selznick/MGM to play Melanie, the woman who gets the man, Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) that Scarlett O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) wanted (for reasons that escape me, and is a friend of the man Scarlett should have (and throws away), Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in “Gone with the WInd” (1939).

She was very touching in “Hold Back the Dawn” (1941), being used by Charles Boyer playing a Romanian in need of an American bride, and was nominated again (she’d been nominated as best supporting actress in GTWT, losing to Hattie McDaniel in GTWT, as Vivien Leigh was acclaimed best actress). It must have been a bitter pill to swallow her hated sister, Joan, winning the Oscar (for Hitchcock’s “Suspicion”) and de Haviland had to wait until 1946 to win her first Oscar, as the mother who gave up her son in “To Each His Own.” After not winning another in “The Snake Pit,” as most everyone had expected, she did win a second (topping her sister’s total) for William Wyler’s adaptation of Washington Square, “The Heiress” (1949). That was probably her best performance, especially not answering the door when Montgomery Clift came calling, along with suffering the nastiness of Ralph Richardson as her father.

After that, her appearances onscreen were few and far between. Bette Davis cajoled her to play the duplicitous cousin in Robert Aldrich’s “Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964), the first movie in which I saw her and such other Hollywood Golden Age stars as Davis, Mary Astor, and Agnes Moorhead. I don’t know if it is a “guilty pleasure,” but I still have a soft spot for it. (A DVD special feature includes memories from Bruce Dern, who played the slain lover of Charlotte.) I was also impressed early in my old film-watching career by her 1955 performance as a Scandinavian nurse with Robert Mitchum, Broderick Crawford, Lee Marvin, Charles Bickford, and Frank Sinatra (all as doctors!) in the hospital melodrama “Not as a Stranger” (the first film directed by Stanley Kramer) and with a young Richard Burton in the title role of the 1952 “My Cousin Rachel.”

Not having read her memoir, I suspect she had the most fun playing twin sisters (how could she not draw on her own sister for the part of the bad ‘un?) in “The Dark Mirror” (1946), directed by noir master Robert Siodmak (and in some ways adumbrating her role in “Charlotte”).


De Haviland’s last big-screen appearance was in the 1979 “Fifth Musketeer,” followed by the small-screen appearance in the 1988 tv movie “The Woman He Loved” (not in the title role, which was played by Jane Alexander). She had won a Golden Globe (and been nominated for an Emmy) as the Dowager Empress Maria in the 1986 miniseries “Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna” (in which Amy Irving played the title role).

De Haviland has lived in Paris since 1953. She was married to a Frenchman, Pierre Galante, from 1955 to 1979. She is reputedly convivial and considerate, unlike her sister (contrast the accounts of each in Don Bachardy’s Stars in My Eyes).

I revere her legacy and wish her the best, having become the second two-time Oscar-winning actress to reach the centenary mark (Luis Rainer was the first).


©2016, Stephen O. Murray