The blogathons just keep on coming! As of late, I’ve found myself wanting to devote as much time and energy as I can into putting out a continuous stream of quality articles for this blog, and my desire to participate in The Joseph Cotten Blogathon hosted by the always lovely Crystal of In The Good Old Days Of Classic Hollywood and Maddy of Maddy Loves Her Classic Films is no exception. Their blogathons, in particular, are always so fun to write for, and I can hardly think of an actor more worthy of recognition than Joseph Cotten. Joseph has always been a bit of a mystery to me; I realize now that I’ve actually seen quite a few of his films, like of course Citizen Kane (1941), Journey Into Fear (1942), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Gaslight (1944), The Third Man (1949), Niagara (1953), and my personal favorite Love Letters (1945), yet I’ve never felt like I’ve really known him or that I’ve been extremely familiar with his work. Something about his personality thus far has escaped me, something missing from these films that’s made me convince myself that if I just watch one more I’ll truly become a diehard fan and solve the enigma that is Joseph Cotten. This mindset made me want to review yet another picture of his that I hadn’t seen before, and as soon as I saw that Lydia (1941) was on Filmstruck, I knew instantly that it would be my choice.
I’ve known about Lydia (1941) for quite some time. As part of the esteemed Criterion Collection, it often appeared on my Hulu and was always on my radar as I’m a sucker for romantic pictures, and this one had a plot that threatened to top all the rest. The titular character is Lydia McMillan (Merle Oberon), who begins in the film as an old woman who has spent her life performing charitable acts of service and never marrying. After seeing her photograph in the newspaper after she opens an orphanage, Michael Fitzpatrick (Joseph Cotten), a former friend who was previously in love with Lydia, invites her over to catch up on the past forty years of their lives. When she arrives she finds that it’s just the opposite, however, as Michael has invited the three other admirers that Lydia had over the course of her life: Bob Willard (George Reeves), a star football player who now owns a nightclub, Frank Andre (Hans Yaray), a blind pianist, and a fourth mystery man who has yet to arrive. Each of these men asks Lydia why she never married them, and the remainder of the picture is told in flashback as she gives the men her answer. Did she ever love any of them? Was she ever really herself around them? Has she truly devoted her life to charity rather than marriage, or did she throw three opportunities of love away while waiting for this fourth man to come back into her life?
To me, the vast majority of this film is incredible. Lydia’s character is fleshed out with a gradual and positive character arc, and it’s really entertaining to watch the story of her life unfold. I agree with and support nearly every decision that she makes, but things begin to go downhill when Richard Mason (Alan Marshal) leaves her life. The love that they shared was beautiful and worth waiting a certain amount of time for, but the preceding events led me to believe that Lydia was far too intelligent to spend her whole life pining for a man who didn’t care enough to return to her. Of course, it was great that she found meaning in her life through humanitarian efforts, but I didn’t believe that there was any good reason to continue turning down Michael after he’d adored her, been by her side through every aspect of her life, and cared about her charitable work as much as she did. I’m all for female independence and the right for a woman to turn down any number of men if she wants to, but I feel like having a leading lady in a film that’s heavily advertised as a romance with four eligible suitors yet no couple in the end is a bit of a waste. Beyond that, it irked me to no end that Richard shows up in the final few minutes of the movie and shrugs Lydia off while stating that he doesn’t remember her, leaving her to finally realize (after we watch her life play out for the better part of two hours) that perhaps she was wasting her time all along wishing for him to return and maybe she should have done a few things differently. What kind of an ending is that?
I also found it strange that she made such a decision so easily. After waiting for him for about forty years, it wouldn’t be wise to have a conversation with this man? My first thought after seeing his reaction to her was (and perhaps this is because I’ve watched far too many outlandish Hollywood movies) that he had amnesia, but he could have any number of reasons for not instantly recognizing her after forty years. I can’t imagine writing someone off like that after waiting for them for so long, but at the end of the day, I do believe that this ending teaches a valuable lesson about not wasting the time that you spend on Earth. I just would have preferred it if she’d learned that lesson and ended up with Joseph Cotten. Is that too much to ask? But I digress, as aside from this ending I really believe that this is a spectacular film. Each actor brings something unique and important to their roles, and this is one of the most intricate and fascinating views of a character’s life that I’ve seen on film. Merle Oberon is at her best, lovingly directed and photographed by real-life husband Alexander Korda in a way that could only be done as an artist would to his muse. While Love Letters (1945) still reigns supreme in my eyes, I would honestly say that Lydia (1941), Joseph Cotten’s second picture and first after the aforementioned Citizen Kane (1941), is a strong second for me now, which is saying a lot when you take a look at the legendary pictures I’ve seen him in so far. Despite Merle Oberon portraying the title role, I feel that Joseph is the heartbeat of this film, and as a romantic lead, the other three suitors don’t hold a candle to him. Once again I find it hard to understand why Lydia’s and Michael’s hearts didn’t find one another throughout the years, but I suppose that not all Hollywood pictures have to have a happy ending. Does this movie completely solve my Joseph Cotten enigma? Perhaps not, but I feel like each movie of his that I watch peels back a layer of his persona for me and gives him a slightly bigger spot in my heart.