Bathe Your Eyes in Forever Amber (1947)

FOREVER AMBER, from left: George Sanders, Linda Darnell, Alan Napier, 1947, TM & Copyright © 20th

To view Forever Amber click here.

Now here’s a film with three of my favorite things from 1940s movies: Linda Darnell, Otto Preminger and blazing Technicolor. Seen today it’s hard to believe Forever Amber (1947) was a major scandal in the Hollywood press when the opulent 20th Century Fox period piece ran into trouble with the Catholic Legion of Decency, as they took exception to Kathleen Winsor’s novel and a cinematic adaptation of the story dealing with a woman whose social climbing and bed-hopping may hinder a romance with her true love. (The original book, which was flat-out banned by the Catholic Church, is almost a thousand pages long, so as you can imagine, they had to do a lot of compression and cutting to get it down to a 138-minute movie!) Nothing in this narrative would be out of place in a contemporary Harlequin romance novel (don’t worry, the quality’s several notches above), but at the time this was considered fairly hot stuff.

Otto Preminger is something of a poster boy for crusades against censorship at the height of the Production Code, when the Catholic Church also exerted a strong influence and could demolish a film’s box office with a “Condemned” rating (something this film grappled with and thankfully avoided after numerous cartwheels). Perhaps more than any other American filmmaker, Preminger (who wasn’t the nicest guy in the world but certainly knew how to stand his ground) railed against the increasingly outdated handcuffs placed on filmmakers who couldn’t depict unpunished sexuality outside of marriage, unpunished criminal behavior (especially murder), unpunished immorality… well, it seems like they were pretty big on punishment in general. In fact, one of Fox’s biggest concessions to the censors was adding an emotional wallop against its heroine at the end to teach her the error of her ways, lest any impressionable female viewers out there decide to consider sleeping with more than one man. Bear in mind we were well on the way to the 1950s by the time this film came out, and it all clicks into place.

This film is being showcased right now as part of a highly recommended “Early Otto” theme on FilmStruck, which showcases some of his exceptional work at Fox. As is common knowledge, his leap to the directorial big leagues was almost by pure chance when he wound up taking over Laura (1944) after shooting had already started under Rouben Mamoulian, which resulted in the frequent teaming of its magnetic stars, Gene Tierney and Cornel Wilde. Not surprisingly, Tierney was approached to star in this film as well but declined; you can easily see how it was tailor made for the raven-haired star, so they went with the studio’s other up-and-coming dark-haired marquee name, Linda Darnell (whose relationship with studio head Darryl F. Zanuck was more of a startling soap opera than anything you’ll see here). You can have a lot of fun imagining other actresses in the leading role, too; weirdly, fresh-faced Peggy Cummins was originally cast but let go (apparently she wasn’t convincing enough as a “fallen woman” in 17th-century England), but there were lots of other Hollywood ingenues around at the time who could have fit the bill. Be sure to check out the hosted intro here by author Foster Hirsch, who has some fascinating info about the director’s own opinion of the film and why it didn’t launch Darnell to a new level of stardom despite its healthy box office reception. That said, it didn’t hurt her career, either; right after this she would go on to give what I think are her two best performances in Fox’s Unfaithfully Yours (1948) and A Letter to Three Wives (1949).

Forever Amber (1947)Directed by Otto PremingerShown: Linda Darnell

You can tell right off the bat that Fox was aching for a big hit in the vein of Gone with the Wind (1939), complete with some extravagant fire sequences and its leading lady frequently posed against burnished sunsets and glittering decor. However, this isn’t your traditional Technicolor epic. It has a dark, burnished look more suited to chiaroscuro paintings, a far cry from the eye-popping primary colors Hollywood normally indulged in at the time. It’s a fascinating extension of Preminger’s chic take of film noir that had begun with Laura and continued with the sublime Fallen Angel (1945), also with Darnell, and later Fox noirs like Whirlpool (1949) and Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950). Most fascinatingly, try pairing this one up with another one he made the same year, the Joan Crawford vehicle Daisy Kenyon (1947), which merges his noir approach with the “woman’s picture” formula in another, equally fascinating way.

Nobody ever lists this film among Preminger’s top accomplishments, and though it made the studio a ton of money, its critical reception meant that it’s been difficult to see for some time. It never even earned an official DVD release, just a DVD-R on-demand version you have to order online. That’s too bad, as it’s full of pleasures if you’re up for a sumptuous historical yarn with some of Fox’s heavy hitters at the peak of their powers. That includes vet cinematographer Leon Shamroy, who had recently shot one of the most eye-popping Technicolor films ever with Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and would pioneer the look of CinemaScope Technicolor with Fox’s The Robe (1953). However, the MVP credit here has to go to composer David Raksin, who scored almost all of Preminger’s noirs from Laura onward. He’s clearly having a blast with a massive orchestra pulling out all the stops here, creating a full-bodied musical tapestry that’s regarded by many film score buffs as one of his best (and a highlight of Fox’s studio output from that decade). Due to the vagaries of studio politics at the time, you’ll also notice that the score’s conducted by another huge name from the Fox stable, none other than the legendary Alfred Newman (an in-house favorite who composed the familiar Fox fanfare).

So just remember, this is not your typical Otto Preminger film, but it’s a fascinating and valuable transitional work as he revved up for a career-defining string of game-changing productions for the next two decades. It’s big, it’s bold, it’s wildly unrealistic, and it’s tons of fun.

Oh yes, and keep an eye out for that incredibly young Jessica Tandy!

Nathaniel Thompson

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2 Responses Bathe Your Eyes in Forever Amber (1947)
Posted By robbushblog : September 7, 2017 10:46 am

I’ve wanted to see this movie for literally decades and have never had the opportunity. 1940s Linda Darnell is prime viewing, and in Technicolor, her beauty has to be even more apparent, right?

Posted By swac44 : September 12, 2017 9:34 am

Since I live in FilmStruck-less Canada, I’ll have to pony up for a MOD DVD-R if I want to see this, but I also know that the second I purchase it, Twilight Time will probably announce a new restored version on blu-ray release with an isolated Raksin score. It pretty much never fails, so if a TT blu-ray is announced before the end of the year, you can thank my bad luck. :-)

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