Hold Back the Dawn Blu-ray Review

Affecting comedy-drama with three ace Golden Age stars. 4 Stars

Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn amalgamates the dry, sometimes biting cynicism of Billy Wilder (no coincidence: he co-wrote the film with Charles Brackett) with the director’s own more judicious graciousness toward humanity.

Hold Back the Dawn (1941)
Released: 26 Sep 1941
Rated: NOT RATED
Runtime: 116 min
Director: Mitchell Leisen
Genre: Drama, Romance
Cast: Charles Boyer, Olivia de Havilland, Paulette Goddard, Victor Francen
Writer(s): Ketti Frings (story "Memo to a Movie Producer"), Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder
Plot: Stopped in Mexico by U.S. Immigration, Georges Iscovescu hopes to get into the country by marrying a citizen.
IMDB rating: 7.5
MetaScore: N/A

Disc Information
Studio: Universal
Distributed By: Arrow Academy
Video Resolution: 1080P/AVC
Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Audio: English PCM 1.0 (Mono)
Subtitles: English SDH
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1 Hr. 56 Min.
Package Includes:
Case Type: clear keep case
Disc Type: BD25 (single layer)
Region: A
Release Date: 07/16/2019
MSRP: $39.95

The Production: 4/5

Mitchell Leisen’s Hold Back the Dawn amalgamates the dry, sometimes biting cynicism of Billy Wilder (no coincidence: he co-wrote the film with Charles Brackett) with the director’s own more judicious graciousness toward humanity, and what it results in is a spirited comedy-drama focusing on a man who learns about life and love through the eyes of someone with absolute goodness, something which the film’s protagonist has in very short supply. A fine cast and excellent production personnel assure that Hold Back the Dawn is a classy, adult entertainment.

Impressionable, inexperienced teacher Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland) is swept off her feet when she meets Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer) in a Mexican border town. Unaware that Georges is an opportunist looking for an American woman who will unwittingly help him get a green card by marrying him, Emmy and Georges tie the knot after only a couple of days. While carrying out this charade and waiting four weeks for his papers which will allow him to enter the United States, Georges begins actually to fall for Emmy, angering his former girlfriend/con-woman Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard). As his scheme is jeopardized by an inquisitive U.S. immigration agent Inspector Hammock (Walter Abel), Georges’ marriage to Emmy must appear to be a real love match in order to convince the agent to allow him passage to America, and Anita’s persistent demands that Georges affirm his partnership with her threaten to scuttle his scheme from working at all.

Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of Ketti Frings’ story pours on the disparaging side of human nature especially in the character of Anita who has absolutely no conscience about duping whomever necessary to get what she wants. Written in flashback style as Georges relates his tale to a Hollywood director (played by the film’s director Mitchell Leisen himself) hoping to earn some money for a screen story, the film becomes mostly Georges’ narrative as he learns through a series of eye-opening experiences what it means to love and care for someone other than himself. Leisen leavens the acidity through not only the shining character whom Olivia de Havilland plays but also through the use of some interesting secondary characters, too, especially an expectant mother Berta Kurz (Rosemary DeCamp) who’s willing to move heaven and earth to have her baby born in America. Yes, there is a standard Hollywood meet-cute for Georges and Emmy (some tiresomely mischievous students of hers set off firecrackers at Georges’ feet), but the film’s best sequence remains the honeymoon where the couple visit the beach and Emmy goes splashing about in the surf registering complete joy on her face and then take part in an exquisitely directed and shot reaffirmation of their vows in a beautiful church all the while Georges makes every possible attempt to keep the marriage unconsummated. If the ending resorts to rather standard Hollywood sentimentality, Leisen doesn’t milk it to the extreme, and the movie’s final shot will remind one of Norma Shearer’s final rush to her beloved in The Women or Deanna Durbin’s similar move in His Butler’s Sister.

Olivia de Havilland received an Oscar nomination for her fine, solid performance as Emmy wearing her love and trust on her sleeve until it’s wickedly snatched away (she was famously pitted against her sister Joan Fontaine’s performance in Suspicion for the Best Actress prize that year, and when Joan won, it resulted in a sisterly rift that was really never repaired). It’s really Charles Boyer’s picture, however, as his character goes through the most character permutations during the course of the film, and he’s excellent in achieving them. Paulette Goddard plays another spitfire eager to have her way and quick with the putdowns and wisecracks that take no prisoners. Walter Abel makes a fine antagonist as the immigration official determined to keep illegal immigrants on the Mexican side of the barrier, and Rosemary DeCamp breaks all hearts as the sweetly patient but determined immigrant woman with dreams of a better life for her child. In addition to Leisen’s cameo, you’ll note Veronica Lake, Richard Webb, and Brian Donlevy in brief bits as Georges enters a soundstage where the movie I Wanted Wings is being shot.

Video: 4.5/5

3D Rating: NA

The film’s original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 is accurately reproduced in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. It’s a velvety transfer with excellent sharpness and appropriate film grain that give an accurate display of movie imagery circa 1941. There is a single, fleeting scratch that pops up in the center left of the screen, but otherwise the image is quite beautiful with outstanding black levels and crisp, pure whites. The movie has been divided into 12 chapters.

Audio: 5/5

The PCM 1.0 sound mix is certainly of its era, but Arrow Academy engineers have done an outstanding job cleaning up any audio anomalies and offering the listener a solid, artifact-free experience. Dialogue, Victor Young’s Oscar-nominated music score, and the sound effects have all been splendidly blended into a single, quite vivid soundtrack.

Special Features: 4/5

Audio Commentary: film scholar Adrian Martin offers an adequate but sometimes lacking-in-detail commentary on the movie where he explains plot events and character motivations we can see for ourselves but doesn’t give much insight into the making of the movie.

Love Knows No Borders (22:15, HD): a newly filmed video appreciation by film critic Geoff Andrew that emphasizes the contributions of underrated director Mitchell Leisen to the film’s success while also discussing the film’s structures, and the effectiveness of the three above-the-title stars.

The Guardian Lecture: Olivia de Havilland (1:26:55): a 1971 audio-only question-and-answer session held at the National Film Theatre in London where the actress covers many of the high points of her career.

Animated Image Gallery: nineteen film stills, press book pages, and posters from around-the-world are presented.

Lux Radio Theatre: an hour-long adaptation of the film featuring Charles Boyer, Paulette Goddard, and Susan Hayward.

Reversible Cover Art

Enclosed Booklet: the nineteen pages offer some gorgeous stills from the film, information on the video and audio transfer, and new writing on the film by writer and critic Farran Smith Nehme.

Overall: 4/5

Hold Back the Dawn becomes even more relevant in today’s climate where so much discussion is given to immigration to the United States. Mitchell Leisen’s smooth and solid comedy-drama traverses the situation quite intelligently while offering a portrait of a man who takes stock of his life and looks for something better, out of his life and out of himself. Recommended!

Published by

Matt Hough

editor,member

14 Comments

  1. Andrew Budgell

    Can't wait to get my hands on this one! Matt, your wonderful review coincided to Dame Olivia de Havilland's 103rd birthday yesterday!

    Oh! I wish I had been aware of it then or I would have mentioned it in the review. She is one remarkable lady.

  2. For those of you who are not yet aware, B&N.com has HOLD BACK THE DAWN as well as many other Arrow BDs @ 50% off. HOLD BACK THE DAWN ships on July 7th, according to B&N's website.

  3. I can’t wait to get this; I have only seen it once… in a not so great… how shall we say? “Under the table” presentation, because it was never released on DVD.

    I am very happy to add it to my Nominees collection!

  4. What can be said about this eagerly awaited BD release of "Hold Back the Dawn"? Plenty.
    And what can be said about the genius of Billy Wilder? Plenty more.
    Oscar-wise, or career-wise, Mr. Wilder had one Hell of an eye;
    be it for concepts, for script collaborators, for actors and yes, even for cinematographers.
    Some of the best Black and White shooting can be found within the Wilder canon.
    Now, get this. Among the 21 personal Oscar nominations for Billy Wilder, himself;
    which covered some 14 films in all; 9 of those titles received nominations for the DP.
    In fact, despite those rare occasions when Billy Wilder was overlooked by AMPAS, one can discover that there were 2 additional films of his that did, indeed, receive a nomination for his cinematographers.

    Joseph LaShelle
    "The Apartment"
    "Irma La Douce" (color)
    "The Fortune Cookie"

    Charles B. Lang
    "A Foreign Affair"
    "Sabrina"
    "Some Like It Hot"

    John Seitz
    "Double Indemnity"
    "The Lost Weekend"
    "Sunset Blvd."

    Daniel L. Fapp
    "One, Two, Three"

    But the first of these nominated DP's was Leo Tover;
    which, of course, was for "Hold Back the Dawn"

    The sublime arc and range of Billy Wilder's oeuvre is matched only by the work of those cinematographer's to whom he selected.
    4 masterful cinematographers who's work was visibly invisible; seamless, stunning and completely symbiotic to the stories at hand.

    Now, all we've got remaining from the BD list of Billy Wilder's personal 21 nominations is "Ball of Fire" (1941).

    Needless to say, Arrow's "Hold Back the Dawn" will be scooped up by me as quickly as was their release of "The Apartment".

  5. I always wondered why this film was never released on VHS or DVD and rarely seen on TV, especially since most films with a lot of Oscar nominations (this one had 6), including Best Picture (but not director), found their way onto home media. I'd only ever seen it once on someone's copy they had from somewhere, on a VHS tape. And at the time was glad to have done so.

    Matt Hough's rather perfect review of the film touches all the right notes, including my least favorite part of the film, "Impressionable, inexperienced teacher Emmy Brown's (Olivia De Havilland) tiresomely mischievous students"…one wonders why parents would let their young children go on a long trip across a border to Mexico with any teacher.

  6. MartinP.

    I always wondered why this film was never released on VHS or DVD and rarely seen on TV, especially since most films with a lot of Oscar nominations (this one had 6), including Best Picture (but not director), found their way onto home media. I'd only ever seen it once on someone's copy they had from somewhere, on a VHS tape. And at the time was glad to have done so.

    Matt Hough's rather perfect review of the film touches all the right notes, including my least favorite part of the film, "Impressionable, inexperienced teacher Emmy Brown's (Olivia De Havilland) tiresomely mischievous students"…one wonders why parents would let their young children go on a long trip across a border to Mexico with any teacher.

    Perhaps the film elements needed a lot of work?

    Perhaps this is the same reason SKIPPY hasn’t been released, either.

  7. Dear Arrow,

    You have given us Billy Wilder's "The Apartment", "The Major and the Minor" and "Hold Back the Dawn" with fantastic transfers on BD.
    Many of the Billy Wilder fans here at Home Theater Forum are also eagerly awaiting a BD release of BALL OF FIRE (1941).
    Although I am certain that you know of this film, it couldn't hurt a bit to remind Arrow of its place in the Billy Wilder canon.

    BALL OF FIRE received 4 Oscar nominations for:
    Best Actress – Barbara Stanwyck
    Best Music – Alfred Newman
    Best Sound – Thomas T. Moulton
    Best Writing – Billy Wilder and Thomas Monroe

    Of Billy Wilder's 21 Oscar nomination for Writing, Directing and Producing, BALL OF FIRE now remains to be the only film not yet released on BD. Yes, I wonder if it will be Arrow who will be the group to complete this list; as your competitors of Criterion, Warner Archives and Kino Lorber all have a Billy Wilder stake at hand; as they, too, have collectively released many of his important titles on BD.

    One thing is for certain; whomever releases BALL OF FIRE (1941) is going to be the recipient of whatever sales this title incurs.
    I, for one, can't wait to see who claims its BD distribution rights.

    Think Billy, think BD, think Ball of Fire.:thumbs-up-smiley:

  8. battlebeast

    Perhaps the film elements needed a lot of work?

    Perhaps this is the same reason SKIPPY hasn’t been released, either.

    Oh, man I hope not, SKIPPY is such a wonderful film.

    AMPAS had a screening of it that I attended in 2003 or maybe 2004, in their "Great to Be Nominated" series that decade. (The series was the film each year that had the most Oscar nominations that didn't win Best Film.) No complaints of the print at that screening. Jackie Cooper, himself, was at the screening for an interview and Q&A. This film should be out there. I had hope that it would a couple years ago when people talked about Norman Taurog being the youngest Best Director winner for Skippy and that Damien Chazelle could be the youngest if he won for La La Land, which he did.

    (Around that same time AMPAS had a screening with a live orchestra of the 1928 Harold Lloyd silent film Speedy, and for awhile I would mix up which film was which.)

  9. MartinP.

    Oh, man I hope not, SKIPPY is such a wonderful film.

    AMPAS had a screening of it that I attended in 2003 or maybe 2004, in their "Great to Be Nominated" series that decade. (The series was the film each year that had the most Oscar nominations that didn't win Best Film.) No complaints of the print at that screening. Jackie Cooper, himself, was at the screening for an interview and Q&A. This film should be out there. I had hope that it would a couple years ago when people talked about Norman Taurog being the youngest Best Director winner for Skippy and that Damien Chazelle could be the youngest if he won for La La Land, which he did.

    (Around that same time AMPAS had a screening with a live orchestra of the 1928 Harold Lloyd silent film Speedy, and for awhile I would mix up which film was which.)

    Imagine if that Q&A with Cooper was filmed and included as a bonus feature? 😀 But that'll always be the dream…

  10. battlebeast

    Imagine if that Q&A with Cooper was filmed and included as a bonus feature? 😀 But that'll always be the dream…

    Warren, AMPAS always records all of these Q&A's and/or interviews that they have in conjunction with screenings. Back then, they didn't have an Oscars youtube channel, but the recent Q&A's they do are all posted online (youtube) afterwards…or sections of them. Otherwise they are available at their library, though I don't know if they are just for researchers or the general public. I know of at least one instance when one of the Q&A's was included as an extra with a film and that was an anniversary release of the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven.

  11. MartinP.

    Warren, AMPAS always records all of these Q&A's and/or interviews that they have in conjunction with screenings. Back then, they didn't have an Oscars youtube channel, but the recent Q&A's they do are all posted online (youtube) afterwards…or sections of them. Otherwise they are available at their library, though I don't know if they are just for researchers or the general public. I know of at least one instance when one of the Q&A's was included as an extra with a film and that was an anniversary release of the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven.

    Well that is great news!

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