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If remembered at all, 1947's Forever Amber is usually discussed not for itself but for the stories around its production. Considered yet another personal folly by Fox production head Darryl F. Zanuck, it's an expensive epic made around the same time as his under-performing Tyrone Power saga Captain From Castile. In this case the star in question is Zanuck's favorite Linda Darnell, an actress whose name has garnered a lot of unearned critical contempt over the years. Some of the anti-Darnell sentiment might have had something to do with earlier movies like Star Dust, a Linda Darnell vehicle that tells the amazing story of the rise of that great movie star, Linda Darnell.
Now that the talent of actress Peggy Cummins is better appreciated, Forever Amber has come in for renewed attacks. Cummins was imported from England to play Amber St. Clare and filmed for a month before production was shut down for rewrites. When the smoke cleared, Otto Preminger had taken over from previous director John M. Stahl, and Zanuck's favorite Darmell had the leading role. Ms. Cummins' Hollywood career was dealt a nearly fatal blow.
Finally, gossip wags and lofty critics alike showed Forever Amber no mercy. Kathleen Winsor's original book may have been the original supermarket bodice-ripper to capitalize on the readership of Gone with the Wind. In a thousand pages Winsor details scores of sexual situations; the story is packed with illicit relations, abortions and children out of wedlock. It was banned in a number of states and considered trash by the increasingly intolerant media press of the day. This only added to the book's popularity, making it a hot item for film adaptation.
As one can imagine, filming a book already condemned by the Catholic Church wasn't easy and the story was surely closely watched. A lot of sex appears to take place in the movie, but on screen there aren't even that many kissing scenes. Shot in glorious Technicolor with a marvelous re-creation of Restoration-era London, Forever Amber can now be appreciated as an intelligent, well-directed period picture. Its marvelous David Raksin music score, one of the most beautiful to come out of Hollywood, is well regarded among soundtrack aficionados.
Once one gets beyond all the gossip baggage, this is quite an entertaining movie. In the 1640s a baby is left on the doorstep of some Puritan farmers. Seventeen years later, the baby is the gorgeous Amber St. Clare (Linda Darnell). Vain and ambitious, Amber runs away from her adoptive father Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll) and follows soldier Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde) to London, pretending to be his cousin. Bruce and his fellow officer Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Greene) have helped restore King Charles II (George Sanders) to the throne, and after difficulties succeed in getting the King to honor petitions restoring their estates. Newly outfitted as a Privateer, Bruce leaves without telling Amber. She vows to be true to him and rise in station to make him a worthy marriage mate, but after being swindled of her money lands in Newgate Prison -- pregnant. To have her baby outside the prison walls, Amber throws her lot in with highwayman Black Jack Mallard (John Russell). That association leads to a less risky relationship with Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Rex helps Amber obtain a job as an actress, and also secures the release from prison of Amber's pickpocket friend Nan Britton (Jessica Tandy), who will serve as her maid and confidante.
Amber's path is a risky one. Bruce visits and is overjoyed to learn he has a son. But Amber somehow thinks that he will overlook her relations with other men. Bruce is angered with Amber's dishonesty forces him to fight a duel of honor over her. Later, during the Great Plague, Amber runs away from her husband the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn) on her wedding night to take care of the stricken Bruce. Even when Amber becomes the main consort of King Charles, she is still convinced that she can make Bruce love her again.
Clearly, one way for film fans to embrace Forever Amber when they're not crazy about gigantic costume soap operas, is through its music. When I was a teenager the movie showed quite a bit on local television, cut down for a two-hour time slot. I wasn't interested -- all I noticed was that the impressive title music was interrupted by a lame voiceover, which read something like this ... "Being the sad story of a foolish woman who learned only too late that the wages of sin... is death." 1 I later saw the movie at UCLA in original I.B. Technicolor and the quote wasn't there. Happily, it's not on this disc release either.
For a movie dismissed as trash by many of its makers, Forever Amber is a pretty impressive achievement. No other picture has captured the sweep of Restoration era England as well, from the fussy diplomatic games at court to the grimy prisons and back alleys. The story is cleaned up in that nothing really salacious happens on screen. Yet it is obvious that Amber sleeps with every man who 'protects' her, from the lowly Black Jack Mallard to the well-heeled patrons backstage to the King himself. She brazenly has a child out of wedlock and doesn't apologize for it. It's also fairly obvious that Amber for a time works as a prostitute for Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere), a bitter woman who runs a den of thieves and invests in Black Jack's criminal enterprises. With all this sinful activity one would think that Forever Amber would be perfect for a massive modern miniseries. An unrated cable show could flaunt all the nudity missing here, while opening the story up for Bruce's adventures in Virginia and Amber's "dates" with the admirers who flock to the King's Theater.
So we find ourselves forced to read between the lines. Amber essentially believes that if she uses her beauty to rise in station, she will eventually earn the respectability required to win Bruce back. It's a no-win game. If Amber went back to living on a farm she wouldn't win him either -- he doesn't want an adventuress for a wife, even if he loves her. Amber's coquetry is based on fooling men, and Bruce can't be expected to believe that he's different. Amber's goose is cooked from the moment she fails to tell Bruce that she's allowed Captain Morgan to believe that they are engaged.
Linda Darnell gives it everything she's got. Her Amber St. Clare certainly is the caliber of beauty that could indeed turn a thousand heads. Preminger supports the picture in every way but cruelly shows no faith in his leading actress... all that Darnell needed was to be coached through one breakthrough emotional scene, a "Scarlett O'Hara" moment. We know that Darnell is no Vivien Leigh but neither are a lot of actresses that have come through with powerful, memorable scenes. Preminger doesn't give Darnell the chance.
Cornel Wilde inexpressive? Within the limits of the part, Wilde is terrific, especially his eyes. At several junctures it looks as if Bruce Carlton is about to discover a real love for Amber, but things just don't work out. In the 'morning after' scene where Bruce's plague fever breaks, his smile communicates a winning sense of relief and recovery. And one of the movie's best-designed and directed scenes is also Wilde's, the pre-dawn duel in the fog. It looks like a painting, and Preminger's camera angles are excellent. We suddenly remember that Wilde was an Olympic fencer. The duel is a good one -- no show-off theatrics, just the tragedy of two decent men locked in a deadly ritual.
Fox's special effects department led by Fred Sersen gives us impressive and convincing mattes of London cityscapes, sometimes covering 3/4 of the frame with nearly undetectable paintings. The lighting and design are excellent, especially in the scenes of the Great Fire. As the conflagration eats its way across London, Amber observes the flames thinking mostly about her personal situationÉ until she realizes that her husband the Earl of Radcliffe intends to lock her in her rooms and let her burn to death. 2 Combined as they are with David Raksin's powerful music score, these dramatic scenes are difficult to forget.
Actor-spotters will of course note the great Jessica Tandy's relatively minor role. George Sanders is perfect as the womanizing Sovereign who walks around in silk pants, followed at all times by a pack of pedigreed puppies. Richard Greene we all knew from TV's Robin Hood show. Imagine Glenn Langan's Captain Morgan without hair and you might recognize the star of the later The Amazing Colossal Man. John Russell is excellent as the highwayman Black Jack, which makes us wonder why he's so dull in later Republic Pictures of the 1950s. Margaret Wycherly is likewise impressive as a hired nurse who instead steals Amber's jewelry and then tries to strangle the ailing Bruce. And the most surprising performance of all is Richard Haydn. He'd later become tiresome as annoying professors with fussy voices, used mostly for bad comic relief. Hayden's unhappy nobleman in this picture makes the mistake of thinking that he can cure Amber of her social vices and schemes. We understand why he wants to kill her, after she runs off to see Bruce on their wedding night.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of Forever Amber is a serviceable but not overwhelming presentation of this deserving '40s epic. Clearly not a new transfer, it appears to have been made from the same imperfect Eastmancolor composite negative we've seen for ages. Sharpness is good and only a few shots show a slight color misalignment; color values aren't bad but nobody would describe them as restored. I had hoped an outfit like Twilight Time would have gotten access to this title for a domestic Blu-ray.
Amazon.fr is selling a Blu-ray of this title but despite an attractive cover I'm not sure it is even licensed from Fox. And consumer reviews haven't been positive about the way it looks, if I'm reading this French sentence correctly: "Je suis d´çu par la qualité du blu Ray l'image est lamentable." Rushing off to buy a foreign disc sight unreviewed can be as risky as buying one here. I'd be happy to learn different, in this case.
The audio is as good as I remember, and is adequate for the age of the transfer. That great Raksin music is practically wall-to-wall in the movie, and it almost makes for an unbroken 140-minute concert. Perhaps a Twilight Time Blu is still a possibility, if a better transfer does exist -- this would be the greatest Isolated Score Track since The Egyptian.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Forever Amber rates:
1. Stills exist of a Linda Darnell bath scene apparently cut from the movie. Was the voiceover vandalism part of the bargain Darryl Zanuck had to make with the Catholic censor-czars at the Production Code Office? Or was it only tacked onto prints for later TV distribution?
This reminds me of another absurd bow to the power of Church censors in the form of a similar disclaimer slugged onto the Overture for Selznick's Duel in the Sun. In this case the offensive voiceover seems to have been mandated to assure audiences that a corrupt preacher played by Walter Huston was a radical exception to the historical reality (of corrupt preachers) in the Wild West.
2. In his book Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King Foster Hirsch tells us that in one of the fire scenes cinematographer Leon Shamroy saw a section of a burning ceiling about to collapse. He pulled his camera and Ms. Darnell out of harm's way with only a few moments to spare. Linda Darnell was nervous around fire, an observation which becomes frightening when one remembers that she later died from burns in a fire.
Hi Glenn -- Much enjoyed your review of Forever Amber and, of course, especially your highlighting the great Raksin score. However I wondered if you were aware that Zanuck (and music chief Alfred Newman) tried their damndest to persuade Erich Wolfgang Korngold to score this epic and offered him an unprecedented $20,000 to do it?
He almost agreed, but with all the delays in production (with the removal of Ms. Cummings etc), Korngold instead signed a contract to supervise and conduct a lavish stage production of his own 1929 adaptation of the famous Johann Strauss operetta 'Die Fledermaus' in San Francisco, thereby providing David Raksin with one of the greatest opportunities of his career!
I have seen Korngold's telegram finally turning Amber down -- and have always wondered what he might have done with it. Even so, I would not want to be without Raksin's score! Best wishes from England -- Brendan Carroll
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T'was Ever Thus.