From 20th Century Fox
Directed by Henry King
Jill St. John
I probably can't make the point strong enough about how badly I hated leaving this film off my 50 Favorite Films list. It was torture because I have been so fond of it from the moment I first saw it, over and over again, in my movie usher days in Santa Monica. Day after day I would see just pieces of it until the day I stayed after work to have a go from start to finish.
I had long been enamored of the author of the novel, F. Scott Fitzgerald... not always for his writing as his personal life and lifestyle. His wife, Zelda, lived in and out of mental institutions for years and when she was out, particularly in the 1920s, they were two of those American expatriates who lived the gay (remember... 1920s) and carefree life in some exciting European cities. For the most part this crowd was populated with writers.
Two members in good standing were Gerald and Sara Murphy (good friends of Cole and Linda Porter and portrayed nicely in the 2004 film, De-Lovely). Fitzgerald let it be known that his lead characters, Nicole and Dick Diver, were based on the Murphys. Perhaps. Some. But I think they're based more on Scott and Zelda.
At the center of the story, which opens on the French Riviera in the 1920s, is mental illness and it is something that Fitzgerald certainly knew his way around because of Zelda. Similar to A Star Is Born, in one sense, Tender is the Night is about a reversal in stature between a man and a woman... in the beginning he is top dog as he tries to boost her and by the end he is on a downward spiral as she eclipses him.
Here it is not about an acting couple but about a psychiatrist and the patient he has come to love. Through flashbacks we learn they meet in a wealthy sanitarium outside Zurich. Nicole has her own quarters. She is the victim of incest as a child and remains, years later, uncertain, not steady on her feet, unable to trust and fully love.
Dr. Diver has helped her immensely and feels it's time for her to leave, strike out on her own and live the happy life he knows she can. Unfortunately there's a hiccup here and that is the fact they've fallen in love with one another. Others are skeptical that she is well and question the ethics of Dr. Diver. Nonetheless, they marry and due to her extreme wealth, buy an estate in the hills above the French Riviera.
There are others in their lives. Nicole has a dashing friend, Tommy, who secretly loves her. Dick has a young, visiting American actress, Rosemary, who wants some private moments with him. There is a hanger-on composer, Abe, who is always around when the champagne cork pops and there's Baby, Nicole's sister, who controls the family fortune.
Nicole seems to be always pushing Rosemary into Dick's arms but comes unglued when Dick opens them. We begin to see the cracks in Nicole's brain are widening. Dick, in the meantime, has not been working and is perhaps enjoying being the husband of a wealthy woman a little too much. It eats at him and he drinks more and more. He and Nicole argue and are beset with more problems than they have anticipated. She tries to move forward while Dick crumbles. We all suspect it's not going to work out.
There are those who have delighted over the years saying this is a crummy film and nothing could be further from the truth. It may not be a perfect film but it is a more-than- acceptable one. Some things are out-of-whack but that doesn't invalidate the entire movie. And what works, at least what works for me, does so damned well.
One thing is that it had to be whittled down some from Fitzgerald's novel. Some circumstances were changed, some characters eliminated. I never read the novel so I got it fresh here and it made sense to me. We know this happens all the time from printed page to silver screen but doesn't it then become about the film being coherent, still interesting, fairly well done? For me it was all that. Some of those naysayers tattled that there was too much background and traipsing around Europe and not enough substance, for example, what is going on in that marriage? Some say Nicole's change was too sudden, too lacking in motivation. To that, I say... perhaps... a bit... but quit your whining. How much mental health do you want to watch while spilling your popcorn. How entertaining would that be?
My own problem with Tender is the Night is the casting. Well, just two of those mentioned above. They, and little else, is why I eventually eliminated it from my favorites list. Jason Robards, super actor that he was, was just wrong for Dick Diver. Robards never was warm and fuzzy, wuzzy? He has the demeanor of a bouncer... not once did he convince me as a shrink. Nicole and others say he is a great doctor. Nicole says he's the most attractive guy she's ever met. Baby says he's charming with good manners. Not. I found him unattractive, stodgy and ill-mannered. Perhaps the Fox execs chose him because Robards was known to be an alcoholic and that was something he had in common with Dick Diver.
But so did William Holden, who was interested in the part. Never mind that he was right at the top of my favorite actors... he would have been wonderful. He had the right mix of humor, pathos, seriousness, attractiveness. One could have believed that Nicole would have fallen for him. But Jennifer Jones probably wouldn't have since if she recalled her unpleasant experience of working with Holden a few years earlier on Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. I suspect folks would have flocked to Tender is the Night to see Han Suyin and Mark Elliott back together again as Nicole and Dick Diver.
Another of my favorite actors, Gregory Peck, would have been memorable as the failed psychiatrist as well. And in real life, he and his two-time costar Jones were great pals. Perhaps his playing Fitzgerald himself a couple of years earlier in the unsuccessful Beloved Infidel was a deal-breaker.
Jill St. John had an important role as the alluring young actress who tries to woo Dick away from Nicole. She was simply ghastly. I guess she thought that little girl voice and playing Rosemary as a simpleton was sexy. It's said that Jane Fonda had an interest in playing the part. Too bad that didn't work out.
|Danova, Jones, Robards|
Tom Ewell was quite effective as the drunken friend. He had one of the film's funniest lines. As a Diver party guest is leaving after a slight altercation, he says to his wife... I guess I am my own worst enemy, to which a nearby Ewell blurts out not while I'm alive. Italian Cesare Danova, who was poorly used stateside, turned in his best work in an American film. As the handsome, patient friend, a wealthy big game hunter, who waits for Nicole, he is the one who is charming, with good manners.
Joan Fontaine was a good choice to play Nicole's sister, Baby, although they looked nothing alike. She always did play remote and haughty well. She and Jones were longtime friends because both were part of a small group under contract to Jones' husband, producer David O. Selznick.
The main reason for seeing Tender is the Night is its star, Jennifer Jones. She was luminous as the fragile, damaged Nicole. The character was someone the actress understood only too well. To a degree, I'm a bit surprised she accepted a role so close to the wounded, frightened person she was. Along with her role in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, this is her best work. It's also the only film she made in a nearly 10-year period.
Venerable director Henry King had guided Jones in Splendored Thing and her Oscar-winning performance in Song of Bernadette. He was a dependable contract director, given the responsibility for many of Fox's biggest hits. He would be a steadying influence for Jones. This was his final film.
The look of the movie is certainly part of the pleasure. Veteran cinematographer Leon Shamroy gorgeously captured France, Italy and Switzerland and some stunning sets and presented Jones beautifully. They also had worked together on Splendored Thing. Pierre Balmain is the brains behind the stunning 1920s clothes worn by Jones and Fontaine.
The film hit high notes for me in several areas. I am drawn to stories about expatriates, most anything illuminating life in the 1920s, the rich, particularly when they suffer and a glimpse into mental illness. I think of all the great acting when involved in the latter.
This was not only a visual treat but an aural one. I absolutely adored the music by Bernard Herrmann and the title song by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster. It is a haunting score played throughout the film and played beautifully on the piano at one point by Errol Garner. It didn't hurt the film that Johnny Mathis had a successful recording of it.
Tender is the Night was F. Scott Fitzgerald's last completed novel. It was not pleasing to many when it was first published but later gained the acclaim it deserved. I would like to think folks have come around on the film as well.
Here's a preview: