Desire Me (1946): MGM Romantic Melodrama, Starring Greer Garson, No Director Credit

Before it went into production, the estimable executive producer Arthur Hornblow, Jr., announced that Desire Me was Metro’s most important and most prestigious feature of the year.

George Cukor got to work with Louis B.’s favorite actress at the time, Oscar winner Greer Garson (“Mrs. Miniver”). Louis B. told Cukor that Garson desperately needed a hit after “Adventure,” her disastrous flop with Clark Gable. This put an additional pressure on Cukor, who, from the start, didn’t like the project or the actress, whom he found to be stiff, stately, and humorless (assuming the worst qualities of a British thespian).

Our Grade: C (* out of *****)

Cukor began to work with Casey Robinson’s muddled script, first titled Sacred and Profane, then changed into Karl and Anna. Three women, Zoe Akins, Marguerite Roberts, and Sonya Levien, then tried to revamp the screenplay, changing its name to the even more vapid “Desire Me.”

A dreary melodrama, it’s the story of a Normandy villager’s wife (Garson) who, after hearing that her husband (Robert Mitchum) has died in a concentration camp, marries his best friend (Richard Hart).

The complications begin to pile up, when the bearer of news turns out to be psychotic and the presumably dead husband comes home.

Detailed Plot: Narrative Structure

While trying to escape a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp, Paul Aubert is shot, but his friend Jean Renaud manages to get away safely. Jean leaves him for dead and travels to the village of Paul’s beloved wife, Marise.

Marise is shocked to discover that Jean knows practically everything about her, based on Paul’s having confided in him.  Jean, in fact, has fallen in love with her from these stories, but when he makes romantic advances, Marise asks him to leave.

Paul, it turns out, is not dead. He writes a letter to Marise, explaining that he is about to be released from the hospital and return to her, but Jean intercepts the letter and keeps it from Marise.

Gradually, a relationship between them grows, though Marise remains uncertain whether she is being untrue to her husband, who suddenly returns to the village.

Marise is ecstatic to have him back, but confesses her relationship with Jean. Paul confronts his friend over the betrayal and Jean pulls a gun on him. They struggle, and in the end, Jean fall from a cliff to his death.

The film earned $1,451,000 in the U.S., and $1,125,000 elsewhere, which are decent numbers by standards of the era.  However, since the budget had ballooned to over 4.1 million by the time it was released, MGM declared a loss of $2.4.

The Brittany sequences were filmed in California’s picturesque Monterey. Along that eighteen miles of the rock-studded coast, a crew of 150 people worked for 16 weeks. A whole French village was erected, including a city hall, a tobacco shop and wine inn. Treating it as an epic film, permission was obtained for school children to appear in the crowd scenes–a school was set up on location for classes between takes–and servicemen from a nearby military base were used as French soldiers.

Despite the initial expectations and promising press releases, “Desire Me” was a troubled production from the start.  First, Richard Hart, a new recruit from the New York theater, replaced Robert Montgomery, who walked out soon after shooting began. Cukor told Louis B. that Hart had no talent, but the actor was imposed on him by producer Hornblow.

Worst yet, Hornblow, who didn’t get along with Cukor, put pressure on the director to cast Robert Mitchum, then an emerging star, as Garson’s husband. Impatient at the numerous rewrites and constant reshooting of scenes, the cool Mitchum began to clown it up, incurring Cukor’s wrath.  Cukor thought that Mitchum was a lazy actor, because he treated the film with irreverence. For his part, Mitchum complained that he was forced to act like a Shakespearean actor, while “delivering crap.”

On April 20, 1946, a bad accident occurred when Garson was swept out to sea by a huge wave. Taken to the hospital, she suffered cuts on her arms and stomach, torn on the razor-like rocks. Interestingly, the cameras kept rolling throughout the rescue episode, recording the entire incident.

After a few weeks, Cukor could not conceal his contempt for the material and demanded to be replaced.  Desire Me was finally taken away from him, when Hornblow looked at the rushes. The film was then reshot by two MGM directors, Mervyn LeRoy and Jack Conway.  Cukor directed about half of the film, but no credit was given to any director. Neither Cukor nor the other directors wanted any screen credit. Desire Me may be the only Hollywood feature to be released without a directorial credit. To Cukor’s embarrassment, his name appeared on some of the film’s prints in England, where he had many friends and colleagues, despite the fact that he had disowned it.

“Whenever a picture doesn’t turn out,” Cukor once said, “the studio assumes that it is the director’s fault. I was put off, because the front office blamed everything on me.”

After his dismissal, Cukor showed up at the MGM headquarters, but some people did not speak to him. “Now I know who will come to my funeral,” he said to himself.

In December 1946, a preview of “Desire Me” proved to be a disaster. “Much to my disappointment,” Mitchum later recalled, “the audience didn’t seem to like it.” After the first reel, when many viewers left, Mitchum put his collar up and sneaked out himself.

As they indicated on the survey’s cards, the preview audience found the film to be poorly motivated and full of cutbacks. As a result, some sequences were  reshot and the film was finally released in September 1947, a year and half after the production had begun.

Cukor had experienced several failures in his five-decade Hollywood career, though none as embarrassing as “Desire Me.”  But he was a real survivor. As often happens in Hollywood, in 1948, Cukor was asked to replace Mervyn LeRoy on Selznick’s remake of “Little Women,” which he refused. When LeRoy showed signs of depression, Cukor told him: “I was put off GWTW, maybe the biggest movie ever made, and I’m still here to tell the tale; so don’t despair.”

His motto continued to be: “You must have faith in yourself and keep going, you can’t let one failure hold you back.”

Cukor kept going on and his next film, the psychological thriller “A Double Life,” turned out to be a major critical and commercial success, winning, among several accolades, the Best Actor Oscar for Ronald Colman.

Greer Garson as Marise
Robert Mitchum as Paul
Richard Hart as Jean
Cecil Humphreys as Dr. Leclair
George Zucco as Father Donnard