Blogathons, Classic Film Discoveries, Films based on Daphne du Maurier's works, Period Dramas, Uncategorized

Too much Romance: Frenchman’s Creek (1940)

I so wanted to adore Frenchman’s Creek, especially after the languid, idyll that is du Maurier’s novel. But despite Joan Fontaine looking like a queen and giving an utterly wonderful performance, I am sad to report that I did not adore it.

This is a story of a woman’s desire versus her duty. A not unfamiliar plot aspect. Dona (played by Joan Fontaine), a beautiful and intelligent English woman of the Restoration, has a husband, Harry, who is too stupid and pompous to realise that his best friend, Lord Rockingham (played by Basil Rathbone), a rake and a cad, has designs on Dona. But Dona ain’t no dope, and goes to Cornwall after Rockingham goes too far at a party.

She goes back to Harry’s ancestral home in Cornwall, where she slowly begins to realise that something is afoot with the appearance of a new servant, William, played by Cecil Kellaway, as well as evidence of occupation in the manor that hasn’t been used in several years. Eventually Dona meets the French pirate, Jean Benoit Aubrey (played by Arturo de Córdova), who has been docking his ship in the river near the estate. She and Jean fall passionately in love, and Dona’s spirit is reawakened with love and adventure. But being in love with a pirate isn’t exactly the safest occupation, and things soon become very difficult, and potentially fatal, for the lovers.

Before I start on the negatives, let me give you the positive aspects of this film. Firstly, it is beautifully made. I can not emphasise that enough. No dollars were spared, especially not when it came to Joan’s gorgeous costumes, which run the gambit from a beautifully intricate black party gown, to a nightgown that looks like it could be a day dress, and a gorgeous pink gown that shimmers on screen.

Joan is so wonderfully witty that you just cannot take your eyes off of her when she’s given full reign. Her impression of Nell Gwyn is absolutely superb. And she delivers the dialogue as if she hadn’t learned a script at all, but was telling you exactly what she was thinking at that moment, as Dona. She also looks painfully beautiful in this movie. The cut of the Reformation dresses utterly suit her curved shoulders and lovely smooth skin. Her hair should look utterly ridiculous in ringlets upon ringlets, but all they do is highlight her lovely shaped face and wonderfully autocratic features. She is the heart and soul of this film, and perfectly cast. I think du Maurier would have been very happy to have Fontaine be in another adaptation of her work, and give an equally memorable performance.

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Basil Rathbone is in top form as the devilish Lord Rockingham, with his larger than life wig and his pervy actions towards Dona. Like Joan, Basil speaks the dialogue as if he “spake” it that way everyday. As soon as he comes into the frame you think “oh dear, here we go.” Despite Dona’s distaste for him, Joan and Basil have fantastic chemistry, and their scenes together are utterly gripping. Especially the final scenes that they share, which I will come to in a bit!

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Cecil Kellaway, despite a rather strange French brogue, is lovely as the servant William. I always loved Cecil’s face, and I love it no less in this movie. He has that same impish little smile as always, and despite his rather small part, he always adds something to a scene. And it’s most interesting to see with hair, although I think I prefer him without. I am always happy to see him in a film, as he was a countryman of mine, and does us very proud indeed!

As I said, the production values of the film are top notch. From the lavish technicolor which makes Joan’s hair look a golden red, to the sets, which are large and definitely believable as a manor. The scenes shot on the ship and in the water are particularly well done, and although the film was shot in Mendocino, California, and at the Paramount Studios in Hollywood, a believable, and very lovely, Cornwall is created.

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But I think that the Harrison’s report got it very right when they said:

“A good costume entertainment” with “a fair quota of thrills … It does, however, have many slow spots, and some judicious cutting would help matters considerably.”[8]

This film’s greatest failings are its pacing, script and the fatal lack of chemistry between its two leads, as well as an utter lack of charisma from Arturo de Córdova, who is very handsome, but easily forgettable, and definitely not French.

Three quarters of the film are spent with people talking about the French pirates. This is a very talky picture, there is not a huge amount of action for much of it. That includes the scenes between Dona and Jean. There is very little passion displayed between them, they spend much time talking at each other, with very little emotion or real connection. We are to believe that this is kismet, that this love has never come before and will come again in their lives, but the problem is that there’s very little to support that. The problem is that much of the film is so slow that you could make a three course meal and not miss much. Things burst into life at the end, with Dona killing Rockingham in a fabulous scene where he tries to rape her and she stabs him in the back. He then crawls up the stairs after her while she sobs desperately and cannot walk herself. She finally throws a suit of armour on him and he dies.

That part had my adrenaline pumping, as did the sword fight between Jean and Harry. But the preceding hour and a half has been so mind numbing that not even this finale can save things. It also shows how criminally under used Rathbone is in this movie. He is fantastic in every scene, but we have to be subjected to Córdova instead.

The script boils a story that is not only an historical romance, but one which explores the strictures of a social position for a woman, especially one of “noble” birth, how she cannot even dream of another life without it being thwarted, how women must remain an idyllic idea, instead of a thing with hopes, passions and needs, down to the very basics. What Paramount gives us is a Mills & Boons, and at least you can call Mills & Boons entertaining, this you cannot. All deeper themes, themes that du Maurier was so exceptional at exploring from the point of view of a woman, are lost. Joan tries her best to revive the script with her usual wonderful performance, but it does her absolutely no favours. She deserved much better. And as I said before, she has very little to work with in her costar, who has no screen presence.

Every time they share a scene, Córdova cannot connect or compete with Joan, her talent outshines him and he seems to be reading off of a card the entire time. During there few love scenes, there is no spark, with Córdova looking as if he doesn’t know what to do with the sultry Joan. He is also not believable as a passionate pirate, an adventurer of the great open seas. I want to ask one question: why the hell were Tyrone Power or Errol Flynn not cast as Jean? They would have been utterly perfect, and they would have had fabulous chemistry with Joan. I want to see either of them grinning and crying out wittily how he’d hate to kill Harry, while he really wouldn’t at all. A big opportunity was lost there. And no one had better say, oh but Tyrone and Errol wouldn’t be believable as a French pirate. Córdova was Mexican, and therefore he does not sound French, so that argument does not stand. Obviously they thought they’d go the exotic route with the casting. Cue eye roll and yawn at exoticism.

This film should have worked. It should have been dazzling. There were so many things going for it. But it just doesn’t come together. It’s just style over substance. It’s in technicolor, but it doesn’t need to be. Black and white would have enhanced the mood, made it more patently gothic and dreamlike, as the novel is. I’m not sure who the blame can be put on: the studio? the scriptwriters? the director? I suppose all of them. The only innocent parties here are the actors and Daphne du Maurier, and of course the audience, who were probably going in expecting a combination between Rebecca and Captain Blood and were given tosh.

This is my second and last contribution for my blogathon The Calls of Cornwall: The Daphne du Maurier Blogathon. Please go here to read my first post and here to read everyone’s wonderful tributes to our lady of the hour.

 

5 thoughts on “Too much Romance: Frenchman’s Creek (1940)”

  1. I agree with you on so many things. I expected action and thrill in this film, but was rather disappointed. Also, the main couple have no chemistry – and you’re right: Flynn would have been perfect in the pirate’s role!
    Thanks for hosting this fun event! Kisses!

    Liked by 1 person

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