Meet the lusty Amber St. Clare, a 17th century social climber determined to sleep her way to respectability. Gorgeous Linda Darnell gets her biggest role in a lavishly appointed period epic; Otto Preminger hated the assignment but his direction and Darryl Zanuck’s production are excellent. And it has one of the all-time great Hollywood movie scores, by David Raksin.
1947 / Color / 1:37 flat Academy / 138 min. / Street Date December 19, 2017 / Available from the Twilight Time Movies Store / 29.95
Starring: Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde, Richard Greene, George Sanders, Glenn Langan, Richard Haydn, Jessica Tandy, Anne Revere, John Russell, Jane Ball, Robert Coote, Leo G. Carroll, Natalie Draper, Margaret Wycherly, Norma Varden.
Cinematography: Leon Shamroy
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler
Visual Effects: Fred Sersen
Original Music: David Raksin
Written by Philip Dunne, Ring Lardner Jr. from the novel by Kathleen Winsor
Produced by William Perlberg
Directed by Otto Preminger
Three years ago, looking at a pretty tepid DVD from 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives, I wrote that I hoped the studio would restore Forever Amber so that a sharp outfit like Twilight Time could pick it up and give it the deluxe treatment for Blu-ray. Well, half of my wish has been granted.
Another lavish postwar production by Fox’s head mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, Forever Amber is an expensive epic made around the same time as his impressive Tyrone Power saga Captain From Castile. In this case the star in question is Zanuck’s favorite Linda Darnell, an actress whose name has attracted a lot of unfair critical indifference over the years. Some of the anti-Darnell sentiment might have had something to do with earlier movies like Star Dust, a vehicle that tells the amazing story of the rise of that great movie star, ‘Linda Darnell.’ If that wasn’t enough, director Otto Preminger all but wrote off Forever Amber as a waste of time. Seeing the end result, that just doesn’t make sense. It’s a highly entertaining, admirably directed epic.
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 Darnell had been given the leading role. Fair or foul, Ms. Cummins’ Hollywood career was dealt a nearly fatal blow.
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 liaisons, abortions and children born out of wedlock. Considered trash by the intolerant media press of the day, it was banned in a number of states. This only added to the book’s popularity, making it a hot item for film adaptation.
Adapting a book already condemned by the Catholic Church wasn’t easy, and the Code authority closely monitored the film’s production. A lot of sex appears to take place, but nothing untoward happens on screen. There aren’t even many kissing scenes.
Once one gets beyond all the gossip baggage this is quite a picture. 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). She 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 become a worthy marriage mate for him. After being swindled of her money she 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.
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 highly regarded among soundtrack aficionados.
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 public relationships with other men. Amber’s dishonesty eventually forces Bruce to fight a duel of honor over her. Later, during the Great Plague, Amber interrupts her wedding night with her husband the Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Haydn) to run away to take care of the stricken Bruce. Even when Amber becomes the consort of King Charles, she remains convinced that she can make Bruce love her again.
Film fans not crazy about gigantic costume soap operas will find that the best way to embrace Forever Amber 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 theme was partly covered 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.”
Around the same time, David O. Selznick’s Duel in the Sun carried an even longer tacked-on voiceover disclaimer, clearly mandated by the Production Code Office. Stills exist of a Linda Darnell bath scene apparently cut from the movie. Was dropping the scene and vandalizing the movie with a voiceover part of a bargain Darryl Zanuck struck with the Catholic censor-czars? I later saw the movie at UCLA in original Technicolor, and the quote wasn’t there. Happily, it’s not on this disc release either — Raksin’s superb music plays clean.
For a movie dismissed by its director 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 must sleep with some of her ‘protectors,’ from the spirited 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 a perfect opportunity for a sprawling modern miniseries. An unrated cable show could flaunt all the overt sex activity missing here, while opening up the story for Bruce’s adventures in Virginia and Amber’s ‘dates’ with the admirers that flock to the King’s Theater. But where are they going to find as stunning an Amber as Linda Darnell?
Reading between the lines, Amber’s story becomes an epic of self-deception. She believes that if she uses her beauty to rise in station, she will eventually earn the respectability required to win Bruce back. But that plan is doomed from the start, because Bruce is looking for someone he can completely trust — he doesn’t want an adventuress for a wife, even if he loves her. Amber’s coquetry is based on deceiving men, and Bruce can’t be expected to believe that she really loves him. Her goose is cooked from the moment she fails to tell Bruce that she’s allowed Captain Morgan to believe that they are engaged.
Cornel Wilde carries a bad rap, that he’s an inexpressive actor. But within the limits of the part Wilde is terrific here, 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. Another of the movie’s best-designed and directed scenes is also Wilde’s, the pre-dawn duel in the fog. Preminger’s camera angles are excellent; it has often been compared to a classical painting. We suddenly remember that Wilde was an Olympic fencer. The duel in the mist is a good one — no show-off theatrics, just the tragedy of two decent men locked in a deadly ritual.
Linda Darnell gives the role everything she’s got. Her Amber St. Clare would indeed turn a thousand heads — few actresses could wear Amber’s elaborate dresses and hairstyles without being overwhelmed. Preminger supports the picture in every other way, but cruelly shows no faith in his leading actress, who has no standout emotional scenes. To achieve a career breakthrough, all that Darnell needed was to be coached through one big Scarlett O’Hara moment. Darnell may be no Vivien Leigh but neither are a lot of actresses that have come through with memorably moving scenes. Preminger doesn’t give Darnell the chance.
Fox’s special effects department led by Fred Sersen gives us impressive and convincing London cityscapes, sometimes covering 3/4 of the frame with nearly undetectable matte paintings. The lighting and design are excellent, especially in the scenes of the Great Fire. As the conflagration eats its way across the city, Amber is too caught up in her personal situation to realize that her husband the Earl of Radcliffe intends to lock her in her rooms and let her burn to death. Combined as they are with David Raksin’s powerful music score, these dramatic scenes are difficult to forget.
In his fine book Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King Foster Hirsch tells us that during 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.
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. We all knew Richard Greene 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 spirited and dashing 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 fiendish hired nurse. Instead of tending to the ailing Bruce, she tries to strangle him, and steal Amber’s jewelry in the bargain.
The most surprising performance is from Richard Haydn. He’d later be used mostly for bad comic relief, and became tiresome as annoying professors with fussy voices. 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 Twilight Time Blu-ray of Forever Amber was highly awaited after the label’s good-looking recent release of Captain from Castile. The transfer is clean and sharp, but it isn’t much of a visual improvement on the old Fox DVD. Nobody’s to blame, for to do better Fox would have to spend an inordinate sum, money that the title could never earn back. For all we know, the needed elements to improve the picture may no longer exist.
The problem is common to many original 3-Strip productions, which have no original color negative, but instead three B&W matrices from which copies were printed in a non-photographic dye-transfer process. Original prints often looked sensational. For reissues and future archiving, studios ordered up Eastmancolor negatives to be made, compositing the three strips with filters in an (optical?) printer. If the materials were in good shape and the work was done carefully, the quality could be excellent. But with some studios the job to produce composite negatives for many lesser titles became a mass order, awarded to the lowest bidder. Either the composite negative for Forever Amber wasn’t very good, or it faded and had to be copied. One good note about this transfer is that I see little or no color fringing, where the matrices don’t fit properly and objects display thin colored outlines, usually red. It’s a common problem in Eastmancolor composites.
In the last twenty years or so the technology to recombine Technicolor matrices digitally has taken off, but it costs a fortune. So far, only top-performing classics like Gone With The Wind, Singin’ in the Rain etc. rate that kind of cash outlay.
Forever Amber doesn’t. The best master that Fox can provide has somewhat flat colors, and dull blacks in night scenes. I haven’t seen it in real IB Tech for over forty years, but I remember the show as a gloriously photographed marvel, and that’s not what we get here.
The hope, of course, is that the economics of digital film restoration will become less expensive, encouraging studios and film rights’ holders to refurbish old Technicolor productions, and other titles in need of a massive digital overhaul.
The music of Forever Amber is still a major draw. Twilight Time gives the show a full Isolated Music track, which when chosen transforms the movie into a two hour- plus David Raksin concert. Raksin is particularly good in his transitions between scenes and musical themes. For those that know and enjoy the picture, seeing it ‘music only’ is a special treat.
The other extra is a TV bio of Linda Darnell, that’s quite involving. Darnell comes off as a worthy actress fully deserving of her career despite being a ‘favorite’ of Darryl Zanuck. Any actress taking on the studio system back then had to be a tough cookie on one level or another. The male bosses considered them interchangeable, to be promoted and then disposed at will. For most a decent movie role was way out of reach. I think it was Louise Brooks who said, ‘Hollywood was invented by men as a way of possessing women.’
Julie Kirgo’s liner notes get specific with the reception of Kathleen Winsor’s dirty book (she was only 24) and its hundreds of pages of sex & sin; she also explains the changes Fox had to make after release to get the Catholics to back off on their Condemned rating.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Movie: Very Good
Video: Good- minus, Fair+ plus
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: Isolated Music Track, Linda Darnell TV biography show Hollywood’s Fallen Angel, Julie Kirgo liner notes.
Deaf and Hearing Impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)
Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed: December 29, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson