Teenage Rhapsody – Rediscovering ‘The Constant Nymph’ (US 1943 – 112 mins)

Posted in Rediscover by - November 10, 2014
Teenage Rhapsody – Rediscovering ‘The Constant Nymph’ (US 1943 – 112 mins)

Considering the talent involved, the terrific romancer ‘The Constant Nymph’ should have had more of a lasting legacy. Although it has many devoted fans, it remains surprisingly unknown. It’s a wonderful drama laced with humour, tears, and a superb performance by Joan Fontaine.

After his latest symphony fails to impress, famed composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) decides to visit his dear friend Albert Sanger (Montagu Love) in Switzerland. Sanger’s four daughters idolize Lewis, especially fourteen year old Tessa (a pig-tailed Joan Fontaine) who has always had a crush on him. After their father dies, the younger of the children; Tessa (Fontaine) and Paula (Joyce Reynolds) are sent to England where they are in constant touch with Lewis and his new bride Florence (Alexis Smith), who is also Tessa’s cousin. Unhappy at their new school, Paula and Tessa (who has a heart defect) run away, and hide out at Lewis’s house. Stifled with newly-married life, feelings soon grow between Lewis and Tessa, whose heart condition is about to take a sudden turn for the worse.

This third screen version seems uneven at first, but once the setting moves to England, it picks up a neat pace and gets better as it goes along. Kathryn Scola does a fine job of adapting Margaret Kennedy’s second novel, and the picture leads to a genuinely moving climax. The scene early on where an excited Fontaine suddenly stops dead in her tracks due to her heart defect, has a shock factor to it, as at this point we are unaware of her delicate condition, and now we have a sense of what’s to come.

In her own personal favourite role (mine too!), the great Joan Fontaine (then 26) is simply marvellous and utterly convincing as Tessa, the spirited teenager on the cusp of womanhood. Her patter and child-like movements are fairly spot-on. Fontaine garnered her third Oscar nomination here, having won a couple of years earlier for ‘Suspicion’ (’41). Famed French lead Charles Boyer is charming throughout, and it’s easy to see why Fontaine thought him her favourite leading man. Boyer would be more memorable the following year when he starred opposite Ingrid Bergman in George Cukor’s excellent thriller ‘Gaslight’ (’44). The fine supporting cast includes a sophisticated Alexis Smith, a kindly Peter Lorre, plus small comical roles from Charles Coburn and Dame May Whitty.

Director Edmund Goulding was a master of melodrama, having earlier made the Bette Davis classic ‘Dark Victory’ (’39), and later excelled with ‘The Razor’s Edge’ (’46) starring Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power. Goulding later turned in more light-hearted fare with the wonderful comedy-drama ‘Mr 880’ (’50), and the marriage mix-up comedy ‘We’re Not Married’ (’52). Czech born composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold provides a lovely score and later scored a trio of 1946 classics; ‘Devotion’, ‘Of Human Bondage’ and ‘Deception’.

‘The Constant Nymph’ may be a tragic love story, but it has wit and charm to spare. A lovely picture that sucks you into its melodramatic story, it’s a movie that I return to every few years, if only to keep watching the luminous Joan Fontaine at her best.

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