Stories of personal redemption were thick on the ground during Hollywood’s Golden Age, and often they were sticky and heavy-handed and moralistic. Paramount’s 1941 drama Hold Back the Dawn is one of the best. It stars Charles Boyer as Georges Iscovescu, a Romanian con man and professional heartbreaker down on his luck, who lands in a Mexico border town and settles in at the Hotel Esperanza. There he finds someone who seems the ideal ticket to safe and legal immigration: a lonely and vulnerable spinster schoolteacher named Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland). He proposes to her, and over the course of seven days, he seems stunned by how easy it is to trick Emmy with an elaborately spun vision of their beautiful romantic future together. Stunned, and, eventually, disgusted. This is the point at which the screenplay, credited to Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, Richard Malbaum, and Manuel Reachi, kicks into high gear, probing Georges’ growing sense of self-loathing with great nuance and intelligence. Boyer was one of the best actors in 1930s and ’40s Hollywood, and here he gives us an almost emotionally naked portrait of Georges, as he himself begins to believe in the possibilities of the romantic fantasy he has presented to Emmy. Mitchell Leisen directs the film without a false step, particularly in the long sequence in which Georges and Emmy have a kind of makeshift honeymoon (as they step into the back of the school bus in which Emmy is transporting her student charges, she says to Georges matter-of-factly, “Well—I guess there’s the threshold.” But when she also says, with great sincerity, “I love my husband very much,” Georges finds her belief in the possibility of her own happy ending impossible to shake off. He decides it would be immoral to leave any permanent mark on her by consummating their marriage, and fakes a shoulder injury on their wedding night.
At the same time, he must deal with his jealous and disappointed co-conspirator and former exhibition dance partner, Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), who is passionately in love with him and trying to make her own way into the U.S. by equally unscrupulous means. Boyer gives us wonderful glimpses of Georges’ growing contempt for Anita. And De Havilland gives one of her finest performances—she doesn’t telegraph her earnestness as she sometimes did. Emmy is a character with some foreshadowings of the Academy Award-winning role of Catherine Sloper De Havilland would play in William Wyler’s The Heiress eight years later: Emmy shares with Catherine a certain determination and self-confidence, even though their stories play out quite differently. After Anita cruelly reveals Georges’ scheme to her, Emmy confront him with a lovely speech: ‘You see, I come from a small town… We don’t have any of those fine hotels. We eat at the drugstore, but we leave a tip just the same.… Only perhaps when I met you, I shouldn’t have been so vain.”
Paulette Goddard, costumed in white, looks terrific throughout the film, and gives the film her customary dash of sly sex appeal and comic zest. (I always like her best in a zippy supporting role such as this one; bigger and more demanding parts generally exposed her shortcomings as an actress.)
Hold Back the Dawn is a movie that comes up only tangentially in conversations about films of the 1940s. Perhaps now that Donald Trump’s obsession with building a Mexican border wall has come up so often, more people will be interested in seeking out this film. Better yet, perhaps someone will just build a wall around Donald Trump.