Twentieth Century Fox reportedly paid $200,000 for the rights to a somewhat scandalous but ferociously popular historical novel, and were in turn ready to foot a $5-million budget to bring it to the Technicolor screen. With so much at stake, the fact that, as Hollywood Beauty: Linda Darnell and the American Dream biographer Ronald L. Davis reported, “After five-and-a-half weeks of filming under John Stahl’s direction, the production was shut down. ‘The footage so far shot,’ [studio chief Darryl F.] Zanuck declared, ‘fails to measure up to the high standard of quality originally planned. We will have to review this footage and determine afterwards what changes will be made when production is resumed.’” The result of this reappraisal of Forever Amber (1947), adapted from Kathleen Winsor’s period-piquant and sexually-teasing 1944 bestseller about the turbulent romantic life of a 17th-century English peasant girl who remakes herself into a woman of the world during the reign of King Charles II, would be that the director of Leave Her to Heaven (1945) was gone and the director of Laura (1944), the capable Otto Preminger (1905-1986), born 112 years ago today, would (reluctantly on his part) take charge. Also, the lady originally cast – and found wanting in that substandard footage – as the fiery, opportunistic courtesan-to-be Amber St. Clare, Welsh-born Peggy Cummins, was succeeded by the more experienced Darnell. Davis writes: “Schedule conflicts for Linda rued out her playing Catana in Captain from Castile [1947, a Twilight Time disc], the role she had counted on for two years. ‘To get the best part of my life, Amber in Forever Amber,’ said Linda, ‘I had to give up Catana. I guess you never quite get everything you want.’ Jean Peters…would make her screen debut in Captain from Castile, while Peggy Cummins was shifted to a less demanding role in The Late George Apley (1947). Meanwhile Linda realized that her future rested on the success of a film already in trouble.”
Nevertheless, through a grueling five-month shooting schedule that proved intense and seemed to take forever for both demanding director and beleaguered actors (the company also included Cornel Wilde as Amber’s abiding amour, Richard Greene, George Sanders as the king, Glenn Langan, Richard Haydn, Jessica Tandy, Anne Revere, Robert Coote, Leo G. Carroll, Margaret Wycherley and Alma Kruger), the film took on shape, substance and an artful beauty that remains its greatest selling point 70 years later. There were mishaps and downright dangers along the way: the fog-generating chemical spray used for an early-morning duel sequence triggered slippery falls and unanticipated illnesses among players and crew and execution of the scene recreating the 1666 Great Fire of London triggered a perilous close call. In Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King, historian Foster Hirsch writes: “After meticulous preparation – no traffic was allowed within a mile of the Fox lot – the sequence was shot at 3 AM, with a battalion of fire trucks at the ready if something were to go wrong. Something did. The star was burned. ‘Linda Darnell just escaped death, because during the Great Fire a roof caved in,’ recalled the film’s cinematographer Leon Shamroy. ‘I pulled the camera back and just got her off the set in time. She was terrified of fire, almost as though she had a premonition.’ (Darnell was to die in a fire in 1965.)”
Of the film as a whole, Hirsch assesses: “Even more than Laura, the unfairly maligned Forever Amber confirms Preminger as a maestro of mise-en-scène. Working closely with Leon Shamroy (Preminger called him ‘a brilliant cameraman and a marvelous friend’), he assembled a procession of images that have the rhetorical power of master paintings. The Puritan dwelling where Amber was raised, shot with looming shadows and figures in silhouette lit ominously from below, is quickly established as a place of stultifying repression, the joyless rooms seeming almost to incite Amber’s amorous career. After examining herself in a mirror – Amber is always a self-conscious ‘performer’ – she enters a packed, smoke-filled tavern where she waits on tables, mixing with a crowd of rollicking peasants in a mise-en-scène that oozes a primal vitality. Amber’s early career as a London cutpurse takes place in settings – dark, narrow lanes, dank rooms with threateningly low ceilings – roiling with underworld menace. Three scenes set in the theater where Amber is to become a successful actress are suffused with Preminger’s love of the stage. A duel between Bruce Carlton and a jealous captain, shot in elegant horizontal compositions, takes place in a pearly, Corot-like early morning light. The decrepit house where Amber saves Bruce from the plague radiates an aura of disease and decay. Preminger and Shamroy shoot the scenes of the Great Fire in a chiaroscuro that has the virtuosity of a Georges de la Tour painting. And, in the elaborate processions and dances at the worldly court of Charles II, they use a vibrant palette.”
Fox would have a good year at the 1947 Academy Awards®, earning three trophies each for Gentleman’s Agreement (the Best Picture winner) and Miracle on 34th Street, plus a statue for Alfred Newman’s adaptation scoring of the musical Mother Wore Tights. But the richly designed, lushly costumed and stunningly photographed Forever Amber only captured a single nomination, though it came for the film’s one other gemlike accomplishment, its dramatic score. Hirsch writes: “The only member of the production who enjoyed working on the film was the composer David Raksin, who hadn’t read the novel but felt the screenplay was ‘terrifically good for such a piece of trash. Phil Dunne and Ring [Lardner Jr.] were first-rate writers. As soon as I read their work I knew I wanted the score to have a symphonic sweep. I worked on it steadily for about six weeks. The picture has a helluva lot of music, and needs it. It has more themes than you would believe. I already knew a lot about the music of the period, but you can’t be too accurate to the period: it won’t work. Your aim is to simulate the music of the time. Otto didn’t touch a note of my score, because he recognized he had something extraordinary. Very few scores are like that. Zanuck sent down a note to Alfred Newman, who was to conduct, saying the score was magnificent in every respect.” And in most if not all respects, so is Forever Amber, arriving on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray December 19 with an Isolated Track of that formidable Raksin music plus a moving profile of its beautiful leading lady, Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel. Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday December 6.