Hold Back the Dawn (1941): Mitchell Leisen’s Oscar Nominee, Starring Boyer as Gigolo and De Havilland in Oscar Nominated Performance

Paramount launched the brilliant work of writer-director Billy Wilder and benefited from the prestige (and Oscars) that he brought to the studio. Three of Wilder’s Paramount movies received nominations: “Hold Back the Dawn” in 1941, which he did not direct, but whose screenplay he wrote in collaboration with Charles Brackett; “Double Indemnity” in 1944, which he directed, and “The Lost Weekend,” which won the 1945 Best Picture and other Oscars.

This film was directed by Mitchell Leisen, better known for his screwball comedies, who here plays himself in the Hollywood soundstage sequence of “I Wanted Wings,” starring Brian Donlevy and Veronica Lake.

Based on Ketti Frings’s novel of same name, “Hold Back the Dawn” centers on a Romanian gigolo, Georges Iscovescu (well played by Charles Boyer), who marries an American spinsterish teacher named Emmy Brown (Olivia De Havilland) in order to gain entry into the U.S.

In the film’s first part, we get a sense of desperate lives in a small, shabby Mexican border town.  The story is set at the Esperanza, a rundown hotel, where refugees from Europe and drifters take residence.   Among the denizens are Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard), a sexy femme who initiates the scam for Georges, Van Den Luecken (Victor Francen), a Dutch professor who acts as surrogate father, and Bertha Kurtz (Rosemary DeCamp), a pregnant refugee who wants her child to be born in America.

Down on his luck, Georges is trying to sell an idea for a screenplay for $500, and through flashbacks, we learn of his past, escapades and all, as a popular dancer and ladies’ escort.  As the story progresses, the girl’s honesty and charm wins his true love.


Oscar Nominations: 6

Picture, produced by Arthur Hornblow, Jr.

Screenplay: Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder

Actress: Olivia De Havilland

Cinematography (b/w): Leo Tover

Interior Decoration (b/w): Hans Dreier and Robert Usher, art direction; Sam Comer, set decoration

Scoring (Dramatic): Victor Young


Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context

In 1941, a pair of sisters was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar: Joan Fontaine for “Suspicion” and Olivia De Havilland for this movie.  Rumors of the feuding sisters, who were of similar age and both ambitious, circulated in the movie colony.  De Havilland’s beginning were much more auspicious than her sister’s, having made a number of popular films opposite Errol Flynn.  Fontaine’s win was only a “temporary setback,” as Olivia later made it up with two Oscars, for “To Each His Own” in 1946 and for “The Heiress” in 1949.

John Ford’s “How Green Was My Valley,” swept most of the important Oscars.  Was selected while the U.S. had already been involved in the War.  The film’s warmly sympathetic depiction of family unity must have hit deep chords in the country’s collective consciousness, which may explain, at least in part, why its two major competitors, Orson Welles’s masterpiece, “Citizen Kane” and William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” each with nine nominations, were the losers.  Both films, and particularly “Little Foxes,” represented darker, somber visions of the American family.  Once again, the “right” contents and “proper” ideological approach made the difference, though it’s noteworthy that “How Green” was as visually distinguishable as it was thematically acceptable.

The most nominated film in 1941 was Howard Hawks’ patriotic saga, “Sergeant York,” which received 11 nominations and won two: Gary Cooper as Best Actor and Film Editing for William Holmes.