Arrow Heads Vol. 61: Celebrating a Legend with HOLD BACK THE DAWN

Happy Birthday month, Olivia!

Earlier this month, screen legend Olivia de Havilland celebrated her 103rd birthday. Possibly the sole living reminder of a Hollywood that once was, de Havilland can count legions of awards, honors and fans as the result of a breathtakingly incredible career. As the quintessential Maid Marian, half of one of the greatest screen pairings of all time (with Erroll Flynn being the other half) and the last surviving cast member of Gone with the Wind, the actress has left more than an imprint on the world of cinema. While her onscreen persona was one of culture and sophistication, her off-screen one was one of great strides. She won landmark court case against a major Hollywood studio when she refused to be treated as a commodity, paving the way for actors to have more control over their careers and allowing her to display a combined strength and grace the world had seldom seen before. It’s a strength that has continued to flow even after her retirement from films in the late 1980s. She exchanged emails with Jared Leto, offering him advice during the actor/musician’s struggle to break free from his band’s record label and in 2017, de Havilland took super-producer Ryan Murphy to court for his unflattering and sensationalized portrayal of her in his TV series, Feud: Bette and Joan.

Recent photographs published just before de Havilland’s birthday gives a portrait of a woman happy with her life and her legacy. Perhaps in conjunction with her birthday month, Arrow has decided to give the Blu-Ray treatment to one of de Havilland’s most powerful films; 1941’s utterly romantic Hold Back the Dawn. Having never watched the film myself, I thought I was in for a nice weepy melodrama from the era which helped give de Havilland her name. Yet it wasn’t long before Hold Back the Dawn evolved into something greater before becoming the absolute perfect film to revisit today.

In the Billy Wilder-scripted Hold Back the Dawn, European gigolo Georges (Charles Boyer) finds himself taking up residency in a Mexican hotel as he tries to find a way to cross the border into California and onto a new life in America. By chance, he encounters former dance partner Anita (Paulette Goddard), who tells Georges about how she was able to become an American citizen by marrying one herself. Inspired, Georges seizes the opportunity and romances visiting school teacher Emmy (de Havilland), charming her into marriage. While it looks like Georges’ plan of crossing over to America looks to be coming true, Anita’s lingering desire for him and his own growing affection for Emmy both prove to be unexpected turns.

Even though the plot description of Hold Back the Dawn is upfront about one of the film’s primary subject matters, the strength of the immigration commentary managed throughout the proceedings can’t be dismissed. The backdrop of the struggles faced by those wishing to come over to the land of the free for their own piece of the American dream keeps what could have otherwise been a run-of-the-mill love story grounded in an unshakable reality. A sizable portion of the film takes place in the Hotel Esperanza (which aptly translated means “hope”) where guests from various parts of Europe wait for various forms and visas to be approved before crossing the nearby border into California. A professor who has been waiting for months, an elderly father and his two adult daughters, a young married couple expecting their first child who pray that their documentation comes through in time so that their baby can be born in America, are all explored in one way or another as Hold Back the Dawn looks at the kinds of diverse individuals hoping to start over in a country founded on new beginnings. Georges and Anita remain the movie’s most well-illustrated examples of the desperation felt by those yearning for a better life than the one they knew before; one filled with the kind of prosperity and security that can only be found within the image of the American possibility. It isn’t just a desperate mentality which drives both characters to attain a new life, but also a survivalist nature; an instinct for self-preservation which allows them to go to any length necessary in order to make their dreams come true. Hold Back the Dawn could well be called an “issue movie” for sure. Yet it exists as one that prefers to look at the human side of it.

But Wilder’s screenplay ensures that Hold Back the Dawn also soars as a tale of romance amongst two people who find themselves surprised by their attraction to one another, which grows in spite of some very real obstacles. Maybe it’s because the immigration angle provides plenty of drama and suspense that the love story aspect gets to play out in a graceful and gentle fashion. There’s a great subtleness throughout the evolution of the relationship between Georges and Emmy which never once feels over the top. As a result, the characters’ respective journeys feel all the more authentic and involving rather than conventional products of typical studio writing. Watching how Emmy’s sole presence, as well as the goodness she radiates, begin to imperceptibly take over Georges until he finds himself in love, is the kind of romantic storytelling that’s virtually impossible not to embrace. Meanwhile, seeing Emmy get swept up in love and watching as she becomes a more liberated woman after deciding to let someone else into her life, inspiring her to let her spirit run free, is breathtaking to behold. Because of the softness of the movie’s romance, both characters’ hopes and dreams, the kinds which transcend culture and link people, are allowed to shine through beautifully. The growth shown between the two characters and the way they help each other transform by becoming individuals they never thought of themselves as is one of Hold Back the Dawn’s greatest assets; the kind which draws people to cinema in the first place.

With a collection of Oscar nominations (including one for its leading lady) to its name, Hold Back the Dawn remains a powerful experience thanks to its weaving of romance and social consciousness, giving equal weight and thoughtfulness to both. For de Havilland, the movie was a turning point in establishing her as one of the preeminent actresses of her generation, allowing her to convey a magnetism full of sophistication and soulfulness that’s never been topped since. Whether it was the dark grace she brought to My Cousin Rachel, the level of madness she achieved for The Snake Pit (which DID earn her an Oscar; her second) or the credibility she injected into the southern gothic thriller Hush, Hush…Sweet Charlotte, de Havilland’s quiet command was always apparent whenever she graced the screen. It was a level of acting magic which can be found in any film bearing her name, all of which continue to mystify audiences and admirers all these years later.

Hold Back the Dawn is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Arrow Video.

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