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Constant Nymph, The (DVD Review)

16 Jan, 2012 By: Mike Clark

Available via WBshop.com’s Warner Archive
$19.95 DVD
Not rated.
Stars Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine, Alexis Smith, Charles Coburn.

The long-awaited unearthing of this absolute Warner Bros. treasure apparently shows how potent vintage marquee power remains even today when it comes to marketability. Some will recall that last summer, following decades of unavailability due to a rights quagmire, Warner Entertainment was finally able to release a regular DVD of MGM’s 1933 Night Flight — a pioneer aviation drama that boasted the next to unbelievable cast of John and Lionel Barrymore, Clark Gable, Helen Hayes, Myrna Loy and Robert Montgomery. If the result, alas, turned out to be something of a stiff, now comes Nymph, which was mired in a similar mess over source material that (as with Night Flight) had kept it even off television for my entire lifetime.

If the marquee appeal is less automatically seductive here (thus, this release’s relegation to more specialized “on-demand” status), Nymph is much the better movie — and, in fact, one of my favorite Warner Bros. productions of the entire 1940s. Oscar-nominated Joan Fontaine is 25 playing a love-struck 14 over Charles Boyer, and the arithmetic shows. Otherwise, this is probably the 94-year-old actress’s all-time performance (note her dead-on adolescent body language), and you can see why Fontaine has rated it as her own favorite from a career that may have peaked early yet nonetheless boasted a 1-2 Hitchcock salvo from this same period (Rebecca and Suspicion) and Max Ophuls’ luminous Letter from an Unknown Woman.

This said, Boyer is just about Fontaine’s equal in what is arguably his career performance as a symphonic composer who wallows in “dissonance” (a pervasive noun during this period, when members of Led Zeppelin were barely born) instead of making music from the heart. It’s a void the budding youngster senses immediately despite her relatively wee years — and one to which Boyer’s high-strung princess/wife (Alexis Smith, nabbing a showy role early in her screen career) is almost willfully oblivious. I’ve read comments for so many decades lamenting what an underrated actor Boyer was that it’s difficult to believe that this brief for the defense has to come up from time to time. But actually, he was.

Co-adapted from both a Margaret Kennedy novel and Basil Dean stage version (which explains the rights maze), Nymph and its back-lot exteriors sometimes exudes “filmed play,” yet Edmund Goulding’s direction is fluid, and the narrative picks up steam as it goes. Due to the movie’s seven-decade unavailability, critics have generally rated Bette Davis’s Dark Victory and the flop-turned-masterpiece Nightmare Alley as Goulding’s best movies, but Nymph is pretty much in a class with the first, if not the second (he also directed the best picture Oscar winner Grand Hotel). The other selling point here is Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s famous score, which can easily be mentioned in the same breath as the composer’s movie-music hallmarks for The Adventures of Robin Hood and Kings Row. The movie’s climax, in fact, is built around a concert, and it’s almost as stirring to watch as it is to hear.

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