Inspecting the cracks of American film history with Hold Back the Dawn

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Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland, in one of the most handsome marriages-of-convenience on record
  • Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland, in one of the most handsome marriages-of-convenience on record
Tomorrow night at 7:30 PM Northwest Chicago Film Society will present Hold Back the Dawn, a 1941 drama cowritten by Billy Wilder just a few years before he started directing movies of his own. It's the sort of neglected studio-era movie in which the local programming organization has come to specialize, and it serves—like other recent NCFS selections Gunman's Walk and The Walls of Jericho—as a reminder of how our received knowledge of American film history is so streamlined. Though largely forgotten today, director Mitchell Leisen was a prolific and respected Hollywood player from the 1930s to the 1950s, and he worked with plenty of top-shelf talent. Besides filming two other Wilder-Charles Brackett screenplays (Midnight and Arise, My Love), he shot two by Preston Sturges (Easy Living and Remember the Night) and frequently directed such notable stars as Fred MacMurray, Claudette Colbert, and Olivia de Havilland. Perhaps this screening will inspire local moviegoers to look into his body of work.

Count me among the intrigued. Critic and filmmaker Mark Rappaport (From the Journals of Jean Seberg) has made a compelling case for Leisen as a major director, comparing him to George Cukor in his sensitive handling of actors and to Vincente Minnelli in his exquisite production design. (Writing about Leisen on the occasion of a 2008 retrospective, Rappaport noted that he began his Hollywood career as a set dresser for no less than Cecil B. DeMille.) For Rappaport, Leisen's films are most distinguished by their nuanced interpersonal relationships, which tend to have a marked sexual element. "The interactions between his stars," he writes, "have an easy and very palpable sexual chemistry which radiates from the screen, suggesting that the physical attraction the characters have for each other is more than merely a given in the script."

As Andrew Sarris would say, Leisen is clearly a subject for further research. Hold Back the Dawn should make for a helpful introduction, as Leisen's particular style may stand out more prominently against the familiar backdrop of Wilder and Brackett's writing. Rappaport argues that this "unlikely tale of redemption, of gigolos and gold diggers conniving their way across the American border from Mexico, would have been unpalatably depressing under Wilder's direction" but that Leisen softens the blow considerably with his warm feeling for the leads.

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