Blogathons

The Calls of Cornwall: The Daphne du Maurier Blogathon — Frenchman’s Creek (1944)

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In the three years that I’ve been participating in blogathons, I’ve seen scores of original ideas come my way. Usually the blogathons that I’ve noticed and participated in honor a particular classic movie star, film genre, or anniversary, and I’ve even seen a few that are centered around the holidays that occur throughout the year. However, I knew that I stumbled upon something special when I spotted The Calls of Cornwall: The Daphne du Maurier Blogathon, the first solo blogathon hosted by Gabriela of Pale Writer. Never before had I seen a classic movie blogathon dedicated to an author, but this particular salute makes perfect sense to me. While I haven’t had the pleasure of reading any of du Maurier’s novels front-to-back, I certainly appreciate the impact that her work has had on Hollywood, resulting in iconic films like Rebecca (1940), The Birds (1963), and My Cousin Rachel (1952). I would consider Rebecca (1940) in particular to be in my top five favorite movies of all time, but since I’ve written about my deep adoration for that picture in the past, I knew that I would have to discover and review a new-to-me du Maurier adaptation. I was torn between Frenchman’s Creek (1944) and My Cousin Rachel (1952), essentially making the choice between sisters Joan Fontaine and Olivia de Havilland. Ultimately I went with Joan and gave her second du Maurier characterization a try with this film that tells the story of the wealthy and beautiful Dona St. Columb (Fontaine).

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Original theatrical poster for Frenchman’s Creek (1944).

Dona is seemingly stuck in a loveless marriage with her aristocratic husband Harry (Ralph Forbes), who has made Dona the talk of London due to his insistence on bringing his diabolical friend Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone) along wherever they go. Lord Rockingham continues to make passes at Dona in spite of her resistance, and she’s grown increasingly tired of accusations that she’s part of a menage à trois, so she makes the daring decision to leave her husband and take her two children to their seaside estate in the country, which to her knowledge has been vacant for years. Once she arrives, she makes the aquaintance of William (Cecil Kellaway), the cheeky servant who has kept Dona’s home boarded during her absence. Quickly he restores the home to its former glory and Dona and her children seem to be happier without the presence of Harry, but soon she finds out the truth that the  infamous French pirate Jean-Benoit Aubéry (Arturo de Córdova) used her home as a base with the help of servant William, using it to plan attacks all along the Cornish coast. Instead of punishing William for his involvement in this plot, she uses this piece of information to get closer to the buccaneer and finds out that Jean-Benoit is kinder, handsomer, and more intelligent than she had originally believed. He reveals in turn that he used to sleep in Dona’s bedroom and fell in love with her portrait, and soon the pair begin a complicated relationship. The closer Dona gets to the pirate, the more she feels the temptation of the brisk sea air and the excitement of a life fighting alongside him, but ultimately she must decide which is more important: her own happiness and sense of adventure or her responsibility to her children and husband.

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Joan Fontaine and Arturo de Córdova in a publicity photo for Frenchman’s Creek (1944).

Daphne du Maurier began writing the original novel for Frenchman’s Creek in 1941 as a way to escape her domestic life during the second World War. Her husband was vital to the war effort, and during his long absences from home she relocated her three children to Langley End in Hertfordshire, not unlike Dona does in the book. The horrors of war along with the illnesses that befell her children were a lot for du Maurier to cope with, so she spent her spare time penning what she claimed to be her only romantic novel. Paramount spared no expense in adapting her work to the screen; with a budget of $3.6 million, it was the most expensive production in Paramount history at the time of its release. The studio took a chance by casting unknown Mexican actor Arturo de Córdova as the dashing French pirate, so they attempted to better their box office odds by casting Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce in their only non-Sherlock Holmes feature and sought to borrow Joan Fontaine from David O. Selznick in order to cast her as the leading lady. However, Fontaine wanted nothing to do with Frenchman’s Creek (1944) and decided to turn down the role, facing suspension for her decision. According to Joan, “Immediately Selznick barraged me with sheaves of telegrams. Hourly telephone calls from lawyers and agents would harrass me. Columnists were coerced into printing that I was difficult, ungrateful, temperemental, uncooperative, swelled-headed. The pressure became intolerable.” Eventually she gave in and accepted the role after this intimidation on top of promises from Selznick to sweeten her contract, but those promises were never fulfilled and the film ultimately flopped.

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Joan Fontaine being helped into her lavish costume on the set of Frenchman’s Creek (1944).

I think this movie does wonders for Joan Fontaine’s glamourous appearance. She looks absolutely stunning, donning opulent Technicolor costumes and wigs, but there isn’t much going on below the surface. There are plenty of slow parts and lulls in Frenchman’s Creek (1944), which I think is acceptable in a straight romance, but when I’m promised an exciting and romantic pirate adventure, that’s what I would like to see onscreen. Even the scenes that are supposed to be the most thrilling contain lengthy periods in which the characters silently pace about the room, and this appears to be an advertisement for the art direction in this movie, which admittedly won an Academy Award, more than anything else. To make matters worse, Universal, which now owns the rights to Frenchman’s Creek (1944), has failed to release a suitable print of the film on DVD or elsewhere. Hence, the visuals, which are the most magnificent part of this feature, aren’t even able to be fully appreciated by the public. I want to be kind to Frenchman’s Creek (1944) because I’m a huge fan of Joan Fontaine and of Daphne du Maurier, so I’m remaining positive with the honest opinion that this movie can be saved. That can only happen if it receives the proper edit and restoration that it deserves, preserving the astounding Technicolor glory of this work, displaying it for everyone to see, and cutting out the dull moments in order to make this a truly exciting and enjoyable film.

6 thoughts on “The Calls of Cornwall: The Daphne du Maurier Blogathon — Frenchman’s Creek (1944)

  1. I liked this film more than you did, but I have to agree that it’s not one of the best adaptations of Du Maurier’s work. I loved this book, and the film didn’t quite capture it, but it got closer than I thought it would (especially in terms of its feminism), and you’re so right that she’s stunning in it! (The hero is such an unusual pirate that it didn’t quite take as a swashbuckling film.) Thank you for the history of the author during this period, which explains a lot about the book’s kind of dreamy, musing quality.

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  2. I’d never heard of this film and after reading your review, I’m beginning to see why. When one of the best things about what’s supposed to be a thrilling pirate adventure is the art direction, you know you’re in trouble. Still, Joan Fontaine in Technicolor finery is well worth seeing. I’ll keep an eye out for the film.

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  3. Thanks for sharing your research re: the story behind the scenes. I don’t think I’ve heard of this film, although I have seen the novel at the library. It’s too bad that, despite the lavish budget, it didn’t live up to its promise.

    With this blogathon, I’m itching to know more about Daphne du Maurier’s life. Have you read a bio of her, by any chance?

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  4. What a fabulous review as usual, Sam! I absolutely agree with you that this movie lacks the depth that was required. I also see your very valid point about it needing a restoration. I love how you connected the story to du Maurier’s personal experiences and pointed out how even her one romantic novel isn’t really what one would expect. Thanks so much for participating in my Blogathon!

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  5. Wow – I did not know that Daphne du Maurier wrote a novel adventure.

    And honestly – in a similar film you expect more to see Maureen O’Haru :-D.

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  6. I watched this film alongside a #TCMParty tweet-along, and I remember the chat being more interesting than the film. Nevertheless, it has a nice overall look and art direction. I’m only mad now about how Selznick bullied Joan.
    Great review! Kisses!

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