The Great Debate Blogathon: THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943)

The practice of “hate-watching” is not one I really understand. I don’t judge or begrudge anyone who does it, but my standard reaction to coming across a movie, TV show, or song on the radio that I don’t like is to change the channel. My knowledge of filmmaking is nothing like encyclopedic, but I know enough about it to understand that a movie of any quality is a synthesis of many different individuals’ ideas and expertise into a collective whole, and that getting any movie made is nothing short of a small miracle. My respect for anyone who has actually made a movie generally keeps me from saying a lot of negative things about the result or the people involved.

However, all of my equanimity goes out the window when the movie concerned is The Constant Nymph. For those who haven’t seen it:

Fourteen-year-old Tessa (Joan Fontaine) is hopelessly in love with handsome composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer), a family friend. Lewis adores Tessa, but has never shown any romantic feelings toward her. When Tessa’s father dies, Lewis contacts her late mother’s wealthy family so they’ll take care of Tessa and her sisters. Lewis becomes taken with Tessa’s haughty cousin Florence (Alexis Smith) and the two soon marry and head off for Florence’s estate in England. Meanwhile, Florence sends Tessa and her sister Paula (Joyce Reynolds) off to finishing school. The girls run away from school and Tessa moves in with Florence and Lewis. Florence soon becomes consumed with jealousy over the bond between her husband and Tessa. (via IMDB)

This is the film I named as my pet peeve in a recent TCM Party podcast, and after a re-watch, I can tell you, that opinion stands. I know the majority is against me here, including lead actress Joan Fontaine herself; per several sources, this was her favorite of her films. But I just don’t like it.

The odd part about it is, The Constant Nymph has all the ingredients to be a favorite of mine too. I adore both Fontaine and Alexis Smith, and the supporting cast includes three of the best character actors ever, Charles Coburn, Peter Lorre, and Dame May Whitty, though she isn’t given a whole lot to do.

Behind the camera were some of the pre-eminent pros of the studio era. Cinematographer Tony Gaudio shot so many of my most-liked pictures that he could easily hijack this post — including, but not limited to, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Dawn Patrol, and The Letter (1940). Orry-Kelly designed the gowns. Erich Wolfgang Korngold wrote the score. And the director, Edmund Goulding, also helmed Grand Hotel (1932), Dark Victory, and Dawn Patrol, with uncredited stints on Queen Kelly and Hell’s Angels. (Yes, I have a thing for Dawn Patrol. So sue me. Have you seen Errol Flynn in it?)

So what happened? Why do I feel that the befuddled doctor’s statement “It is my opinion that you are much more than slightly mad” applies to anyone who would sit through Constant Nymph a second time?

CN-Paula-TessaTo begin with, teenaged Tessa is, to me, a very rare misfire for Fontaine. She is beautiful in a fresh, unspoiled way, lively and mischievous. She just doesn’t seem like a teenager. I know times are different now and maybe that’s why. But I find her character grating and excessively artificial, and she’s in almost every scene. Her sister Paula’s assertion, “The way you moon over [Dodd], it’s enough to turn one’s stomach” is unfortunately true for this viewer.

(As played by Joyce Reynolds, this Paula acquits herself fairly well compared with other characters that share my name. It’s a known fact that vast majority of them are awful. I confess it’s nice hearing Fontaine bawl out my name, though I much prefer Ronald Colman in Random Harvest.)

In addition, though as I said, times have changed, Tessa’s extreme youth makes the romance a little cringe-y to me. I’m not sure how old Dodd is supposed to be, which could be a oversight on my part, but Tessa is only 14 at the beginning of the film, and only months later becomes a real rival to her cousin.

Ironically enough, I somewhat agree with Charles Boyer’s assessment of Constant Nymph. To paraphrase his biographer, his objections to the script were that the positive qualities other characters attributed to Lewis Dodd simply were not present in the role as written, and that Florence was such an unsympathetic character that it made the whole love triangle questionable. Yes. And maybe.

I will admit that Boyer has never been a favorite of mine. Though Gaslight was released in 1944, the year after CN, I saw that film several times before I’d ever heard of CN, and perhaps I’ve never been able to forgive him. His character is ostensibly presented as a composer, Lewis Dodd. By that I mean, a grandiose, parasitic freeloader with adulterous tendencies. The whole film hinges on Dodd getting his creative mojo back…but he’s so narcissistic and pretentious that I can’t bring myself to care.

Tessa herself is also problematic. It’s all about her, so much so that once she knows she’s come between them, her reaction is to confess her love and her concern for her effect on the marriage comes off as false. And Dodd, as an ostensible adult, is even worse, saying he has no idea why he married Florence.

CN-Dodd-TessaIn short, Dodd and Tessa deserve each other. I have some sympathy for Florence, who is supposed to be a cold-hearted shrew, which is greatly to Alexis Smith’s credit…I just can’t figure out why she cares about a louse like Dodd. Another sympathetic character is Peter Lorre’s Fritz Bercovy, a basically decent, sane guy, who marries into this mess, courtesy of a union with another of Tessa’s sisters, Toni (Brenda Marshall).

Interestingly, both Flynn and Leslie Howard were considered for Dodd role, and though I love them both, I can’t imagine that either could have saved this for me. I might like it a little more, but I still wouldn’t seek it out.

Given the love evident on Twitter every time TCM schedules The Constant Nymph, I can only conclude that my opinion of it places me in the tiniest of minorities, although at the time, it was popular flop and a critical success. But if we all agreed on everything, the world would be a very boring place indeed. So enjoy it in all its glory…I’ll be catching up on my DVR queue.

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This post is part of the The Great Debate Blogathon hosted by Citizen Screenings and The Cinematic Packrat. Be sure and check out the other posts here.

22 thoughts on “The Great Debate Blogathon: THE CONSTANT NYMPH (1943)

  1. Have added this to my watch-list, if only to work out what side of the fence I sit. I too love Fontaine, but unconvincing teenagers are one of my pet peeves, so the odds aren’t good. As a Citizen Kane critic I’m used to being in the minority, I’m sure I can cope with the TCM lovers 😉

    1. Thanks for stopping by! I’d be interested to hear what you think. And no worries…no verbal brawls will break out or anything like that 😉

  2. Great write-up, Paula. I think I saw this movie when I was in my teens and it’s rained quite a bit since then. I remember little, which means it didn’t make much of an impression. After reading this I want to take a look at it again to see what I think now. I may stand right beside you. THANKS for contributing this post. NICELY DONE

    Aurora

    1. Thanks Aurora, and thanks very much for running this thought-provoking yet fun blogathon. Let me know what you think. It’s pretty funny that this post may actually create more fans of CONSTANT NYMPH. Lol!

  3. Is it bad that I howled with laughter at the mention of Fontaine playing a 14 year-old in 1943? I have nothing against her as an actress, but that’s a little ridiculous.

    I did enjoy your write-up. Thanks for taking the plunge into a movie you dislike. It takes courage to talk negatively about a movie a majority likes. Thanks for taking part in the blogathon.

    1. Well okay. I’m pretty sure that’s allowed. Lol. It is a bit incredible. Even for a consummate talent like Fontaine, playing a teenager is difficult, I think. Thanks for your kind words…and thanks for running the blogathon!

  4. Well done, Paula!! And I couldn’t agree more. Fontaine’s simpering always gets on my nerves, and in this film, she pretty much out-simpers even herself. And in this role, she seemed incredibly manipulative to me, both as an actress and as a character!

    And Boyer was always an astute judge of material, so no surprise that his assessment is right on. The only point on which you and I disagree is that I adore Boyer in pretty much everything. It’s no surprise that you had trouble warming up to him after Gaslight, though — especially since the object of his torture was… Paula!! 🙂

    1. Thanks, and thanks for stopping by, Janet, I was wondering if anyone was going to catch the Gaslight connection 😉 I guess we will have to agree to disagree on Fontaine and Boyer. Lol. To me this is just a mismatch, and maybe bad direction, for Fontaine.

  5. I probably would never care to see this film but now that I’ve read your post, I can’t wait to see it. I’m serious! You’ve sold me on it.

    I admire your decision to argue against a film that so many like. It’s a tough thing to do, but you’ve done it very well.

    1. Thank you for saying so…I did wonder how people were going to react. It’s really kind of awesome to me that this post seems to be driving people to see the film I argued against, and that they might discover a film they actually like. I hope you’ll let me know what you think of it.

  6. I enjoyed reading your anti- screed on a movie I adore, which just goes to show that divergent opinions, even passionate ones, are not mostly a problem—it’s the way people present them. You make your case graciously, without condescending to those of us who see it differently, and I was interested in your criticisms. None of them bother me, but I see your (and Boyer’s) point re Lewis Dodd being extravagantly praised for attributes the script just doesn’t give him. Well done…

    1. I really appreciate your kind words, Lesley. I tried to be as respectful as possible. I always feel like, making any movie is a tough thing to do, and most likely beyond my abilities…so who am I to judge. Thank you 🙂

  7. Finally! I watched this on TCM recently as part of their Boyer tribute (I happen to like him very much) and, as always when watching a movie for the first time, I went to IMDb to check out the boards and read others’ perceptions. The posts were almost unanimously positive, it not raving, and they just left me wondering if there was perhaps another Constant Nymph movie out there that THEY had seen because I certainly thought this one okay at best. It’s a terrific cast, but it’s also miscast because there is no way in the world that I can believe Joan Fontaine as a 14 year old, no matter how giggly and girlish the mannerisms. (And yes, it’s just a tad creepy to have a man that is at least supposed to 30 falling in love with her.) it’s a difficult stretch for an adult actress to portray a girl, with Leslie Caron as Gigi coming to mind as one who pulled it off fairly well. How this is a favorite of anyone is beyond me.

    1. 🙂 Movies (and actors) are so subjective that I do often wonder, “Did these people see the same film as I did?” I agree that Caron did well in GIGI, also Ginger Rogers in THE MAJOR AND THE MINOR comes to mind as more believable. Thanks for the assenting voice.

  8. Can’t believe I STILL haven’t seen this film, even after reading your review last year. I just read it again, and I still want to see this film – am reserving it at the library this weekend. I’m not a huge Joan Fontaine fan, but I still find her watchable. Boyer, however, is always a treat.

    1. And I forgot you commented on it! In our defense it was three years ago, and time flies when you’re having fun. Like I said…I don’t think you’re missing much 😉 but let me know your thoughts!

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