Acording to TCM host Robert Osborne, they’ve been trying to get the rights to show this film on TCM since the network started some eighteen years ago. It’s taken them this long to sort out the legal intricacies binding up the rights, but now they finally have, allowing this screening and eventual airings on TCM as well. At the time Warner made the movie, they had only secured the rights to the original novel (which was also made into a play, which I think played into the issues as well, it sounded pretty complicated) for five years, which didn’t seem like a problem at a time when most films were released and forgotten. They neglected to renew the rights when they expired in 1948, there was a whole deal where the film was accidentally and illegally included in a bunch sold to TV (but not really aired), so it’s hardly been seen except in a few bootleg copies since its original release in 1943. Gotta admit, I kinda felt special being among the first 500 people to see it in a theatre since then.
Joan Fontaine got an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of Tessa Sanger, a rather fascinating role that fit her breathless naïveté quite well. Tessa and her sisters are daughters of an aging musician living in Switzerland, delighted by the periodic visits of Lewis Dodd, a modernist composer played by Charles Boyer who has been friends with the family since the girls were little. Tessa’s love for Lewis clearly goes beyond mere childhood affection for a kind friend, though Lewis is totally oblivious to it. When Sanger pere dies, the girls’ relatives in England take them in, introducing Lewis to their cousin Florence (Alexis Smith), with whom he’s immediately infatuated. The rest of the film explores this love triangle, and not always in the ways you’d expect.
The film combines the pastoral, in the first half set on the Sanger’s rural farm in Switzerland, where Tessa fits perfectly as a creature somewhere between raucous wild thing and otherworldly nymph, and the sophisticated, in the upperclass British society of Florence and her family. Yet even there, a place where you’d think Tessa would stand out like a sore thumb, she seems the most natural and self-possessed person in the place, content to be herself, even while she remains painfully in love with Lewis. Fontaine is a little obvious in some ways, but it fits with her character (who is completely guileless) and reinforces the point that Lewis is a bit dense when it comes to Tessa, who he can’t seem to remember is grown up now.
The film flirts with melodramatic excess at times, especially in relation to the fairly obvious plot point of Tessa’s weak heart, but the character of Tessa herself (and her sister Paula to a lesser degree) is such an unusual breath of fresh air in the stifling upper crust world of the second half that it’s hard not to be charmed. Her opening scene plays a little shrill and overenthusiastic, but again, it’s a part and parcel of Tessa’s character, which will win you over soon. If not, give up. You won’t like the film. Meanwhile, the film does avoid the temptation to paint Florence as a villainess, which makes the love triangle work particularly well. Though she comes between Lewis and Tessa, she remains (mostly) sympathetic, thanks to a nuanced performance from Alexis Smith.
In addition to the lead cast, Charles Coburn provides his signature bluster to the role of Tessa’s uncle, which is already among my favorites of his solid career. His insistence on pronouncing servant Roberto’s name as Robert-O is a running gag that only gets better when Tessa picks it up, as well. Plus Peter Lorre is on tap for the awkward, innocently smarmy brother-in-law who gets his nose all up in everything. The unusual combination of the almost fantastic rural and sophisticated society settings makes the film even more memorable; that plus the quality comedy coming from the supporting cast makes up for the slight overwrought quality of some plot elements. One can only imagine that if the film had been available, it would have enjoyed a reputation and popularity at least equal to that of Bette Davis weepy Dark Victory, also directed by Edmund Goulding.