United in Spirit...and Song

'The Constant Nymph'

by Michael Barrett

27 January 2012

Joan Fontaine nymphs it up while Goulding glides
cover art

The Constant Nymph

Director: Edmung Goulding
Cast: Charles Boyer, Joan Fontaine

USDVD release date: 13 Dec 2011

Thanks to Warner Archive’s made-on-demand service, this gorgeously styled “tragedy” is now finally available after decades of legal limbo.

Based on Margaret Kennedy’s novel, the story has barefoot country lass Joan Fontaine (unrecognizably sprightly as a very convincing teen) running around an Alp while quietly mooning for dull composer Charles Boyer, who’s married well to brittle cookie Alexis Smith. Peter Lorre hangs around but fails to strangle anyone, although there are some fine candidates. It’s one of those highbrow pictures about “the artist” that’s also populist enough to show aged character actor Charles Coburn fuming and clumping around in philistine disapproval while sopranos warble.
Fontaine nymphs constantly all right, especially when she finally catalyzes the thick-headed Boyer into casting aside his cold dissonance in favor of full-blooded melody, so at least they can be united spiritually and musically. The message is that you’ve gotta have heart, and you can’t have that until you can cry, and you can’t have that until you REALLY LOVE, and that somebody’s got to litter the path with her suffering for a true artist to grow and write that knockout symphony, and it’s got to be the innocent girl who’s too pure and good for this world. In other words, it’s a firm blow for the Romantic over Modernism, as scored either way by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. High tosh handled with unblushing conviction.

But what you really notice (or should) is Edmund Goulding’s classic period of staging and camera. Without making too big a fetish of it, he likes to choreograph unbroken shots. The eye of Tony Gaudio’s camera sweeps across the set in longish takes (and some marvelous cranes) that follow behind people and spend a lot of time looking at their backs. Seriously, there’s almost always someone standing with back to the camera. His masterpiece of this is The Razor’s Edge, though the setbound Claudia is also a great example; it’s practically Goulding’s equivalent of Hitchcock’s Rope.

Speaking of Hitchcock, the amazingly director-centered trailer actually has Goulding gush to us about how excited he is over this project, as if he’s a well-known name to the audience. Well, his films were well-known and still deserve to be. It’s good to have this one around at last. Now if we can only get a look at the 1928 British version with Ivor Novello….

The Constant Nymph


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