The third film version of London-born Margaret Kennedy’s novel The Constant Nymph, by way of a stage adaptation by Kennedy and Basil Dean, gave Joan Fontaine perhaps her most celebrated role. She herself has called it her favorite. Ebullient, happy, precocious, and passionately in love with struggling composer Lewis Dodd, 14-year-old orphan Tessa Sanger is doomed to a short life by a weak heart. Dodd is married to Tessa’s cousin Florence, whose jealous hatred of the child, who is now living with the Dodds, is matched by Lewis’s own confusion. Propriety has kept Lewis Dodd’s love for Tessa a secret even from himself; but he comes to realize her love for him, and this leads to his sudden awareness of his feelings for her. Lewis decides to leave Florence, and Tessa decides to leave, too—alone. However, she expires before being able to, drawing from Lewis (as the discreet camera pans away) the kiss she had once dreamt of receiving.
British-born Edmund Goulding, the film’s director, was gay, and the “forbidden love” at the heart of The Constant Nymph, by force of metaphor, draws from him a sense of urgency. How else to explain that the film is not the least bit “indicative,” as Hollywood romances tend to be, but, rather, full-bodied, completely realized, overwhelming? It is absolutely convincing that Tessa’s heart should burst as a result of her passionate love for Lewis. I might add that this is one of the few Hollywood films of any era in which the death of a character hits the heart of the viewer to such an extent that one keenly feels the weight of the loss, the human cancellation. One is generally protected from such a response by the knowledge that rushes in reminding the viewer that an actor is playing a part and that no one really has died. Fontaine and Goulding succeed in suspending this rationalization, if only for a few heartbeats, and this can only be the result of what they have developed in terms of Tessa’s reality throughout the film, not just in the shattering scene when Tessa collapses to the floor and rolls back and forth into the arms of death. Within the conventions of romantic characterization, Goulding’s Fontaine is brilliantly, achingly alive and alert; Fontaine’s performance is full of truth.
But Fontaine’s stunning contribution has obscured how wonderful the other actors are as well. (Only Fontaine was Oscar-nominated.) Charles Boyer’s Lewis Dodd, anticipating Humbert Humbert, is a man in painful denial, then in painful acknowledgement, of the contents of his full heart. Boyer’s acting, seemingly effortlessly complex, helps ground Fontaine’s rapturous, shimmering emotions. Although her role is nowhere near as complex as the other two roles, Alexis Smith is excellent at conveying Florence’s pitiable sense of exclusion from the “inner world” that her husband and her cousin share. (Tessa’s understanding of Lewis’s music suggests her intimate understanding of his heart and soul.) As Florence’s level-headed father, Charles Coburn is surprisingly nuanced. The year was his, for Coburn’s work here joins his other sterling 1943 performances, in Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait and George Stevens’s The More of the Merrier. Any one of the three might have accounted for the supporting actor Oscar that the topical Stevens comedy in fact brought to Coburn.
The Constant Nymph is as heartbreaking a film as Goulding’s earlier Dark Victory (1939), about a vibrant young woman who is dying of a brain tumor, and Fontaine’s glorious performance is the artistic match of Bette Davis’s there as Judith Traherne—Davis’s favorite role, as it happens. Despite three films that were best picture Oscar nominees, including Grand Hotel (1932), which won the trophy, Goulding was never nominated for direction. After forty films, Goulding committed suicide. His last film was the sorry teen musical Mardi Gras (1958); Hollywood had more or less passed him by.
Goulding brought feeling, sparkle and dignity to The Constant Nymph.
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