Classic Film Talk: ‘Forever Amber’ (1947)

Today we reminisce about

Forever Amber (1947)

Directed by Otto Preminger

Starring: Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde, Richard Greene, George Sanders

Synopsis

In mid-17th century England, a beautiful young woman named Amber St. Clare (Darnell) lives in a small village where she is bored with life. The adopted daughter of modest farmers, Amber dreams of leaving not only to find excitement but to also escape an arranged marriage. The opportunity to go to London arises when a cavalry led by Lords Bruce Carlton (Wilde) and Harry Almsbury (Greene) rides into town on its way to the city. Amber falls in love at first sight with Bruce and though she does not leave with him directly, she finds her way to London and they start a relationship. Their happiness does not last as Bruce is sent on a mission by King Charles II (Sanders), not to return for several years. He bequeaths Amber a dowry of £200 but her naivety leaves her naked to danger and she soon finds herself swindled of her money and unable to pay her debts. As a result, she is sentenced to prison and is forced to entertain highly intoxicated men at a local drinking establishment. One evening, she meets Black Jack Mallet and makes a pact with him that she will work for him unconditionally as long as he helps her escape. Only after the deal is made does she reveal to him that she is pregnant with Bruce’s child.

Lord Harry, Lord Bruce & Amber

Amber’s new role is being an accomplice to Black Jack and his associates in robbing unsuspecting would-be suitors. After Black Jack is killed during a botched attempt, Amber is forced to flee on-foot, eventually taking refuge in the home of Captain Rex Morgan, who takes pity on her. He agrees to hide her and to help her find work as an actress which will allow her immunity from prosecution for her involvement in crimes. They become a couple with Rex asking Amber to marry him, a suggestion that she seems to agree with but never verbally affirms. In the meantime, Bruce returns to town after several years and is challenged to a duel when Rex finds him and Amber together. Bruce defeats Rex, killing him, and once again announces to Amber that he is leaving, this time to Virginia. Amber, who is now a very rich woman having inherited Rex’s estate, is courted by the Earl of Radcliffe and they eventually marry though this union does not stop her from also becoming the King’s mistress.

In living such a lifestyle, what fate awaits Amber? Do she and Bruce eventually reconcile, particularly since they have a child together? Forever is a long time…

 

Background

The film Forever Amber is based on a 1944 novel of the same name, written by American author Kathleen Winsor. Darryl Zanuck, the Head of Production at 20th Century Fox, quickly bought the rights to the novel for $200,000 (nearly $3 million today) a short time after publication. Despite the racy nature of the novel and its very mixed critical reception, Zanuck was sure that a film adaptation would be as popular – and economically profitable – as Gone with the Wind had been for David O. Selznick and MGM. As a result, a great deal of money was splashed out by Fox to pay for elaborate sets and costumes, the likes of which had never before been seen at the studio. It is no wonder that Forever Amber ended up being the most expensive film ever made by Fox at the time and “in the end the picture cost $6 million”*, approximately $84 million adjusted for inflation in today’s world.

Filming had initially begun sometime in 1945 when then-female lead Peggy Cummins was only nineteen-years-old. Cummins had little previous acting experience yet was chosen by Zanuck after conducting a worldwide casting call to find the perfect Amber. He was drawn to her blonde beauty and truly believed that her physical attributes would help make the role more appealing to audiences. Unfortunately for Zanuck and his ego, Cummins turn as Amber was disastrous and the actress was let go after only two months of production. It seems that Miss Cummins’ utilisation of just two facial expressions that she considered acting proved insufficient to the executives at Fox. Never one to publicly admit defeat, Zanuck had Cummins quietly dismissed and replaced with Fox contract star Linda Darnell.

All portions of the film previously shot with Cummins were destroyed and Fox undertook a $1 million loss ($14 million today) for the casting dilemma. Darnell was a seasoned actress who had signed with Fox at the incredibly young age of 15, appearing in her first film in 1939. Forever Amber would be her 22nd film for the studio and although she had appeared in many successful pictures, she was never considered an A-list celebrity. Her acting was also not unanimously praised by some, including Zanuck who, oddly enough, had complete confidence in Darnell for the role. Shooting recommenced and it took around six additional months for the film to be completed. Interestingly enough, the lead actress was not the only major change made over the course of filming as there was also a director swap. John M. Stahl was originally slated to direct and had started working but was fired at the same time as Cummins. Brought in to be his replacement was famed filmmaker Otto Preminger, known mostly for his work in the Noir genre.

Forever Amber went on to gross $8 million ($88 million today) which was a very small profit for Fox and was a smash hit in its opening weekend. Crowds were apparently not wholly turned off by the 2 ¼ hour runtime and found Darnell, in particular, to have done a praiseworthy job as Amber.

* Source: Hollywood Beauty by Ronald L. Davis, pg. 103

 

Comparisons & the Code Effect

Kathleen Winsor’s novel was commonly compared to Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone with the Wind due to its controversial nature and the fact that it was turned into an epic film. These days, Forever Amber can also be easily compared to the Fifty Shades trilogy written by E.L. James, owing to the fact that sexual domination is a shared theme in the two stories. Fifty Shades’ Christian Grey indulges in BDSM while Amber uses sex as a way to get what she want out of men before moving onto someone richer and more powerful.  Amber and Gone with the Wind’s Scarlett O’Hara are very much alike because they are both exceptionally selfish women who only truly care about one man despite receiving the righteous love of so many others. In fact, when Captain Morgan lies dying on the ground, Amber ignores him completely to tend to the slightly wounded Bruce. Scarlett acts similarly when her husband Frank is killed. As his body lies in the street, Scarlett wants to follow Rhett to make sure that he is ok rather than perform her wifely duties to a man for whom she harbours no sentiment.

Out of the three novels, Forever Amber is the most explicit and morally damning though the screen treatment would suggest otherwise. The Hays Code put very specific, sometimes extreme, limits on expression to such an extent that many plot points were given either an obscure reference or were flatly ignored. In reality, there is nothing scandalous about Amber’s behaviour in the film because there is almost no indication that she is sexually active with a number of different men. Had she not given birth to a baby, one could have easily been unaware that Amber and Bruce had slept with one another in the first place. The most we see on-screen are kisses, some of which are decidedly chaste in nature. The novella was much more detailed and covered a wider span of Amber’s life. In it, she had dozens of lovers, several pregnancies (even abortions), and ended up becoming a high-class prostitute who falls from grace. Fox’s film manages to edit Amber’s life to an unrecognisable extent.

King Charles II eyes the beautiful Amber while her beau The Earl of Radcliffe looks on.

The most visible and upsetting example of the Code’s influence occurs at the end of the film. After having been absent for nearly a decade, Bruce comes back to London from Virginia with his wife. Having only seen his and Amber’s child on one prior occasion, he demands that he and his wife be able to adopt little Bruce and take him back to America. Amber refuses at first until she relents, letting the child decide for himself, resulting in the boy choosing to go with his father. (This situation is a fabrication of the film’s writers and did not happen in the book.) So the film ends with Amber being abandoned by her son who is virtually taken from her by an absent father who never even considered making his son a legitimate heir (even citizen) before then. It is sadly obvious that Amber was punished for what was judged as an impure and deviant lifestyle while her ex-lover walked away with his reputation unscathed. Bruce was hardly perfect and, like many men of the time, was considered to have had many sexual liaisons even when married. As a woman, it shocks me to see the blatant sexism incorporated into the script. Even Scarlett O’Hara was allowed to show some amount of pleasure from her previous night’s lovemaking with Rhett. Golden Hollywood locked up Amber St. Clare and threw away the key.

 

My thoughts

Forever Amber has many shortcomings that are mostly associated with the sterile and stale script but if you push this aside, you are left with a film that has redeeming qualities. The acting is very good throughout with the exception of Cornel Wilde’s hesitant performance. Wilde wanted desperately to get off the film, hating the material, and his disdain shows through the screen. Linda Darnell gives one of her strongest performances and has never looked so exquisite. It is thanks to her that the film has continuity and why you want to stay with it until the very end. Her lighter tresses suit her well. George Sanders was notes for his commanding presence, filling the shoes of a King admirably and flawlessly. In addition, the set and costumes are beautifully detailed, giving a genuine feel of the period.

This film is not indicative of Preminger’s talents and his involvement is easily forgettable, mostly because he was simply filling an empty slot for Zanuck rather than having been chosen for his personal touch of filmmaking. Had the Code not been in place, the result would have been vastly different than what we are left with today. That being said, I am not sure that I would want to see this film adapted to modern standards because I fear that it would be overtly vulgar. Perhaps it is simply better to accept Forever Amber in its two existing formats, knowing the limitations of the screen version.

 

Trivia

  • Kathleen Winsor divorced her first husband after the success of her novel and married bandleader Artie Shaw, becoming his sixth wife. The union only lasted two years, from 1946-1948. (Shaw had quite a record with Hollywood leading ladies as well as a reputation for being controlling and abusive.)
  • Relative newcomer Jessica Tandy played one of Amber’s domestic servants.

A very youthful Jessica Tandy who was, in actuality, in her late 30’s.