As I mentioned, I had never seen this film before. However, my husband David did years ago at his local public library. He spoke so lovingly of this movie, I longed to view it myself. Last night, our anticpation was mixed with a little fear. He worried that perhaps his memory of the film was stronger than the film itself. Sometimes, the movies we adored when we were younger, do not stand the test of time or are not as beautiful as our memories of them. I was concerned that after the build up David had given the film, that The Constant Nymph could not live up to my expectations. I am very happy to report that neither David nor I was disappointed while viewing this Warner Brothers gem last night!
The Constant Nymph opens in Brussels with composer Lewis Dodd (Charles Boyer) reading a review of his latest symphony. He discovers that the London audience and critics hated it. Lewis wonders if he has any talent and also if his work is perhaps a bit too dark. Lewis decides he will visit his good friend and fellow composer Albert Sanger at his home in Switzerland. Albert has four daughters by three different wives. His current wife is unhappy with the poverty in which she, her husband, and stepdaughters live. The announcement of Lewis' arrival excites the all girls but especially Tessa (Joan Fontaine). It is obvious Tessa adores Lewis based upon the way she gushes over him. Fontaine did an excellent job depicting an adolescent's exhuberance over a first love. At the same time, Fontaine poignantly portrays Tessa's vulnerability. Tessa has a genuine effervescence but it is tempered with weak spells. Unfortunately, young Tessa has a frail heart.
Lewis comes to the country house and finds Sanger in poor health. It is obvious that Sanger believes in Lewis' talent. He advises Dodd to be more soulful and less intellectual in his work -- there is an underlying joy in Lewis that can come out in music. Sanger is also concerned about the fate of his two youngest daughters, Tessa and Paula (Joyce Reynolds). Sanger tells Lewis that their mother came from a wealthy family in England. He believes that their uncle, Charles Creighton, would take care of them. Sanger makes Lewis promise to contact Creighton in the event something happens to him.
Albert Sanger does die during Lewis Dodd's visit. Dodd fulfills his promise to Sanger by contacting Creighton (Charles Coburn). The older daughters have made arrangements for their futures. Kate (Jean Muir) will study music in Milan. Toni (Brenda Marshall) will marry Fritz Bercovy (Peter Lorre). Fritz is a successful theater owner and friend of the family. He has adored Toni for some time and convinces her to marry him. Creighton is more than willing to take care of Tess and Paula. He in fact has brought his daughter, Florence (Alexis Smith), with him to Switzerland to meet the girls. It is decided that Tessa and Paula will attend school in England. Meanwhile, Lewis has fallen in love with Florence. It is obvious that all of their lives will be much different -- but will their lives be better?
Lewis does find Tessa and Paula. It is decided that Paula will go to live with Toni and Fritz. Tessa will stay with Lewis and Florence. It is during this period that Tessa helps Lewis see that his music needs to convey more feeling. Lewis has always be technically proficient, but his compositions have lacked emotion. It is Tessa who becomes Lewis' inspiration to write a more soulful symphony. It also becomes clear to Florence that Tessa is her rival. Will Tessa be sent away? Will Lewis realize how much he loves Tessa? Those are questions I will not answer --- WATCH THE FILM FOR YOURSELF!
This film succeeds for several reasons. First, the musical score by Erich Wolfgang Korngold perfectly sets the atmosphere for this poignant story. Second, there is the excellent direction of Edmund Goulding. Goulding had the ability to take potentially overly melodramatic plots and elevate them. He proved this previously with Dark Victory, so Jack Warner made the right decision in entrusting Goulding with The Constant Nymph. Third, the quality of acting by the entire cast. Such an usual story requires skillful actors who make us believe the story is plausible. Joan Fontaine is truly amazing as the teenage Tessa. Fontaine manages to depict the all the energy and guilelessness of her character. Charles Boyer makes Lewis Dodd a man who finally discovers he is capable and worthy of love. The fact that a teenage girl is the one who helps Lewis discover this could be creepy in a lesser actor's hands. However, Boyer conveys that Tessa is his inspiration and soulmate, rather than an object of lust or sexual conquest. Finally, Alexis Smith does an outstanding job as Florence. Florence is a complex character. She genuines loves Lewis but does not always know how to help him. Florence is jealous of Tessa but the audience can understand that. After all, she took the orphan into her home and now Tessa is unintentionally putting additional stress on her marriage. There was a honesty and maturity to Alexis Smith's acting and it shows in this performance.
Hopefully, you set your DVR and will enjoy this film. If not, I have a feeling The Constant Nymph will become a new favorite on TCM.