Frenchman's Creek (DVD Review)19 Jan, 2015 By: Mike Clark
Available via Universal Vault Series
Stars Joan Fontaine, Arturo de Cordova, Basil Rathbone, Cecil Kellaway.
One of the half-dozen greatest prints I’ve ever seen in my life was UCLA Film & Television Archive’s nitrate original of this 17th-cenury Daphne du Maurier Cornish coast swashbuckler — dramatically clumsy but a visual stunner that took the art/set decoration Oscar as what was said to be Paramount’s most expensive production up to that time. Joan Fontaine, at her screen peak of beauty and certainly glamour, plays the dissatisfied redheaded wife of a (judging from appearances) debauched fop — quickly absconding solo to an oceanside mansion with two small kids in tow, only to become brazenly spellbound by a French pirate conducting business with his crew in the very vicinity.
Universal’s “Vault” series hasn’t done anything to restore visuals that deserve to get Criterion treatment more than the movie itself would, and I think I recognize the same print scratches and dropouts from the old VHS version (this on-demand DVD looked notably better on a 40-inch screen than on my 57). Mitchell Leisen directs oft-clumsily with not unpredictable gay subtext, but there are evenly spaced good scenes that include all the ones with an expansively bewigged Basil Rathbone (Nigel Bruce is here, too, which means we get the screen’s definitive Sherlock Holmes and Watson as villainous fish out of water). The so-called title Frenchman is played by Mexican star Arturo de Cordova back when Paramount briefly and futilely tired to build him up to similar glory in the United States (he later returned home and starred in one of my favorite comedies ever: Luis Bunuel’s twisted — even for him — El). He and Fontaine don’t have much chemistry, but I rather like her performance simply taken by itself here.
The Production Code folks went nuts because, though it is stated in the script that the two leads never have a carnal relationship, everything else here strongly suggests the opposite. In any event, Fontaine whisks off to all-nighters and more on the pirate ship while a male servant presumably (but who knows?) babysits Joan-bred toddlers we almost expect to be physically matured by the time she sneaks back home. (Someone, please, call Child Services.) One can easily understand some viewers giving this borderline camp fest a tough artistic time, but it’s just too sumptuous to resist, even via a print that doesn’t do it justice.