“The Almighty did not give people eyes to read that rubbish!” – so spaketh Australia’s right honorable Minister for Customs, Senator Keane upon the 1944 publication of Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber; an incendiary novel set during the 1644 revolt in English parliament and spanning many tumultuous years under the reign of Charles II. Winsor could afford to bask in the fervor her book had inspired. Over 100,000 copies sold within the first week; the eventual tally of 3 million, by the time Keane and the Catholic Church had had their say, doing little to stop its runaway success. In fact, it probably helped. Nothing appeals quite so much to the general public as sin – particularly viewed from the strictures of button-down conservatism run amuck.
Indeed, not even widespread condemnation of the novel as pornography in fourteen U.S. states could prevent it from becoming a best seller. Winsor’s fifth draft caught the eye of publishers. Though they elected to distill her prose to one-third their original size the novel still sported a formidable girth of 972 pages. Contained within were references – or, at least inferences – attesting to seventy acts of intercourse, thirty-nine illegitimate pregnancies, seven abortions and ten rather blatant descriptions of women undressing in front of men…shocking! In her own defense, Winsor was to reply some years later, “I wrote only two sexy passages and my publishers took both of them out. They put in ellipses instead. In those days, you know, you could solve everything with an ellipsis.”
By today’s laissez faire standards, allegations of smut are laughable. Forever Amber is nothing if well-written and expertly concocted pulp. Implied or not, Forever Amber comes from a particular ilk in historical romantic fiction perhaps having reached its zenith with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With The Wind. In the wake of Mitchell’s zeitgeist and, of course, Selznick’s immortalized and celebrated movie version, other studios began to scramble for like-minded fare; tales of headstrong female protagonists defying the social conventions of their time – and occasionally, also the wisdom of their male ‘superiors’ – to bring about scandal and reformation; though ultimately wreck and ruin upon their own heads. Such was the tortured suffering of the fictionalized female martyr; ringing truer still to the American woman circa 1942 and beyond. As the menfolk went off to fight in another war, the home front became a bastion for the pursuit of meaningful work outside of the home. Hence, the independent woman rising above squalid circumstances by her wit and stubbornness alone proved an elixir of the times.
Alas, Forever Amber presented Darryl F. Zanuck with a considerable quandary. For the novel’s Amber St. Clair was something of a truly unrepentant harpy; deliciously vial in spots and maliciously inclined to stir men’s hearts to her own advantage, whatever the sacrifices made along the way. In some ways, Amber and Scarlett O’Hara are kissing cousins; although it is unlikely either could have been friends: too much similarity and competition. Translating the book to the screen also presented deeper concerns. How to tell the tale of an enterprising creature who effectively wenches her way into Charles II’s court, gives birth out of wedlock, murders a nurse and is responsible for the death of at least two men – one, her lover, the other her husband. Surely, Hollywood censors would object…and did! To be sure, Winsor’s novel counterbalances such overt debaucheries with selfless acts of human sacrifice; Amber’s devotion to Bruce Carlton; the heroic officer who cannot recognize her qualities beyond a brief night’s interlude, resulting in a child; her never waning devotion to him (nursing Bruce back from the plague) despite her frequent dalliances with courtiers and the King.
Zanuck was forced by the Production Code to omit virtually all of the novel’s more salacious moments. As a result, Otto Preminger’s Forever Amber (1947) became something of a sissified wan ghost flower of its source material, the emasculation utterly complete by the casting of fresh-faced Linda Darnell as the fiery and uncompromising vixen; herein more prone to sulking and skulking about the antechambers and bedrooms of some well-heeled suitors. Screenwriters Philip Dunne and Ring Lardner Jr. did their utmost to ‘suggest’ the tawdry appeal of the novel; their efforts submarined by Zanuck’s inability to spend as lavishly as he would have preferred. Hitherto, the novel’s reputation as a provocative page-turner had also begun to cool. Although Zanuck’s publicity department gave the movie a big build-up, Forever Amber was something of a modest success to meager disappointment for the studio.
Removed from all of its timely hype, Forever Amber – the movie – is a fairly enjoyable romp, never entirely prone to bouts of tedium, though occasionally veering dangerously close to becoming a wordy critique on classicist social mores, vices and virtues. Moodily lit and photographed by cinematographer, Leon Shamroy, exquisitely scored by David Raksin, and, given over to the visual aplomb of production designer, Lyle Wheeler and costumer, René Hubert, Forever Amber emerged as something of a lush and lovely, eye-popping spectacle; Fox’s trademarked use of Technicolor at its most gaudy and glistening, yields to a ravishing milieu that tragically and singularly fails to enthrall.
Perhaps audiences of the day expected better – or at least – more of the novel’s combustible and scintillating ardor. The movie equally suffers from the miscasting of Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde; two undeniably handsome people who fail to generate the elusive spark of on-screen chemistry to make their passionate love affair click. It doesn’t help the screenplay keeps its lovers apart for the bulk of the film’s138 minute run time. While Darnell is in virtually every scene, Wilde floats in and out of the story – each time with a little more abject contempt and self-righteous piety for our sexually adventurous heroine.
Our tale begins on a lonely country road during the revolt of English Parliament. Oliver Cromwell’s armies have set ablaze the court of King Charles I; the royal carriage escaping with a baby swaddled in a blanket; the name ‘Amber’ embroidered on it. Moments before Cromwell’s forces assassinate the coachman and protectors of this noble babe, one of the guards manage to leave the bundle on the front stoop of a Puritan farmer, Matt Goodgroome (Leo G. Carroll) and his wife (Edith Evanson). The couple secretly rears the girl as their own. Amber (Linda Darnell) grows up willful and resentful for being forced to remain on this bucolic hamlet and seemingly reticent about marrying any of the men her father may chose as her husband. Instead, learning of a coach carrying noblemen Lord Bruce Carlton (Cornell Wilde) and his best friend, Lord Harry Almsbury (Richard Green), Amber hurries to the local inn, pretending to have come to assist the innkeepers in their duties for the night.
After the others have gone to bed, Amber implores Bruce to take her to London. He is unimpressed by her begging – even by her beauty, which is considerable; perhaps already understanding with a clear eye and uncompromising heart, just how wickedly determined the girl is to have her way. She cares not for him; only for what she can get from him in her blind-sided pursuit of a better life. Harry is smitten with Amber. But she is oblivious to his sincere affections. Realizing Amber prefers Bruce, for the girl is rather transparent in her desires, Harry magnanimously encourages his best friend to reconsider. Bruce, however, is equally as stubborn as Amber, perhaps more so. Amber defies Bruce’s rejection, tailing the pair to London where she deceptively worms her way into Bruce’s heart, convincing him of her ‘genuine affections’. The two quickly become lovers and Bruce begins to care for Amber. Tragedy will eventually unravel their lives, ironically as Amber grows increasingly sincere in her love for Bruce, while he jealously spurs her affections.
In the meantime, the randy king with a roving eye, Charles II (George Sanders) believes Bruce is still harboring affections toward his present mistress, Barbara Palmer, Countess Castelmaine (Natalie Draper), with whom Bruce once carried on a fairly torrid liaison. To clear the playing field, Charles orders Bruce into a privateering mission in the South Seas. Harry encourages Bruce to tell Amber the truth, but Bruce elects to sneak off into the night instead, leaving Harry with the unpleasant task of informing Amber their brief affair is at an end. Still unconvinced of the depth of Amber’s affections, Bruce has nevertheless not been unkind, affording Amber 200 pounds to satisfy all existing debts; also, to leave a comfortable sum to support her while she searches for suitable work. Amber gives birth to their child – a secret she has kept locked tight inside her heart. Afterward, she makes provisions to have the child reared in the country while she pursues other prospects.
Regrettably, without Bruce as her protector, and still very much naïve to the ways of the world, Amber is swindled out of these savings by her dressmaker, Mrs. Abbott (Norma Varden) and a crooked investor, Landale (Alan Napier). In the resulting trial to settle Amber’s outstanding debts, Abbott and Landale suggest Amber is the con artist. With no one to speak for her, the judge sentence Amber to prison. There, Amber is made the object of affection for the male prisoners, catching the eye of highwayman, ‘Black’ Jack Mallard (John Russell). Like the others, Jack wants more from Amber than she is ultimately willing to give. However, she strikes a bargain – one of mutual benefit. Jack is scheduled to hang. Instead, he manages a daring escape, taking Amber with him to the house of aider/abettor Mother Red Cap (Anne Revere) who is none too friendly, but decides Amber has certain qualities to be exploited. Jack and Red Cap use Amber to lure rich men from the tavern into a nearby alley where Jack and his cohorts brutally attack and rob them of their purses.
Tragically, one such ambush goes hopelessly awry; the police cornering and killing Jack. Amber narrowly escapes, taking refuge in the home of Captain Rex Morgan (Glenn Langan). Discovered by Rex, Amber’s first inclination is to lie about fleeing an unwanted roué’s advances. However, when the king’s guard comes to his front door, explaining the real reason for their search, Morgan lies to save Amber from prosecution. Next, he endeavors to spare Amber from the hangman’s noose by encouraging the director of the nearby theater to take the girl on as an understudy. Under provisions from the crown, all actors share the king’s protection – hence, Amber cannot be prosecuted for her crime. Diligently, Amber procures enough savings to ‘buy back’ her son from Red Cap and send him to the country for good.
Rex is hardly the benevolent sort, however. In fact, when he discovers Amber has been seeing Bruce while he has been in Wales, he accuses Bruce of dishonor. Unable to convince Rex no such infraction was intended, Bruce is forced into a duel. Several times, Bruce attempts to alter the rules of the game so a mere flesh will satisfy Rex’s sense of chivalry. Alas, Rex arrogantly proclaims the duel will only end when one of them is dead. Amber arrives on the field of battle, consoled by Harry in the murky early morning fog while the conflict unfolds. Resigned to satisfy the gentleman’s honor, Bruce begrudgingly kills Rex with his sword. Believing she is now free to pursue the only relationship ever truly desired, Amber’s dreams of a life together with Bruce are thwarted when he becomes plagued by guilt for taking a man’s life and blames Amber for both their plights. Whether Amber realizes it immediately or not, the love they once shared has died along with Rex on the field of honor. Bruce will never take her back.
Bruce leaves England again. This time in his absence, Amber is wooed by the widowed Earl of Radcliffe (Richard Hayden) who is far too old for her. At first, refusing his advances, Amber eventually agrees to be wed to this elder statesman. Such a union will afford her not only the luxuries of the earl’s wealth, but also a title above Bruce’s own. Alas, Amber’s fragile reasoning and flawed logic for the marriage is interrupted when, on her wedding day no less, she learns from Harry that Bruce has returned and is, at this very moment, attempting to unload his ship’s cargo at the docks in London. The city is under the siege of the plague; Amber disobeying Harry’s sound advice and setting aside her safety to race to the docks. There, she discovers Bruce already stricken with the first signs of the plague. Rushing him to the nearby boarded up home once shared with Rex, Amber attempts to nurse Bruce back to health. Before long, however, she discovers herself ill equipped, employing a nurse of spurious credentials, Mrs. Spong (Margaret Wycherly), to look after her beloved as he continues to slip in and out of delirium. Discovering Amber’s wedding ring on the kitchen table while Amber is asleep at Bruce’s bedside, Mrs. Spong plots to steal both it and a priceless cameo from the end table next to Bruce’s bed. Thankfully, her plot to strangle the weakened Bruce after he stirs in the middle of her foiled robbery is thwarted by Amber who awakens and strangling Mrs. Spong instead, passing off her lifeless body to one of the quarantine guards as just another victim of the plague.
Bruce recovers. And although Amber is overjoyed, the Earl of Radcliffe – who has found them out – orders Bruce to never return to England. Bruce elects to go to Virginia and Amber is increasingly kept under lock and key by the earl, who has become boorish and domineering; even preventing Amber from an audience with Charles II after she makes quite an impression at one of his court balls at Whitehall. Later, fire rips through the city. Despite its approaching threat, the earl refuses to release Amber from her locked bedroom in Radcliffe Hall. She is eventually saved from certain death as the flames lick up the sides of the walls by the earl’s devoted servant, Galeazzo (Jimmy Ames) who, realizing him mad with jealousy, murders his master, before tossing him into the inferno.
Free of her husband – though not his money – Amber now pursues Charles II and is swiftly ensconced as the King’s mistress at Whitehall. Reveling in her newfound position, Amber has everything she could possibly want – except love. And Charles, apart from being tempted by her sinful beauty, is no fool. Hence, when their garden interlude is interrupted by the sudden reappearance of Bruce with another woman, Corinne (Jane Ball), Charles’ senses the need to draw the couple nearer his own bosom to better understand how deeply Amber’s heart stirs. Bruce introduces Corinne as his wife. The two were married in Virginia. Determined to wreck the marriage, Amber invites Corinne as a guest of the King to Whitehall for the evening, feigning a headache and thus leaving Corinne alone to be seduced by Charles in his parlor. Amber is certain Charles will waste no time. Hence, she preempts the moment by concocting a letter exposing Corrine’s infidelity to Bruce.
Instead, Corinne impresses Charles with her devotion to Bruce and her honesty. Moreover, he can completely admire and appreciate a woman’s loyalty above all else; particularly since he now unequivocally understands Amber harbors no such sincerities toward him. Calling Amber on her bluff, Charles quietly explains he has not minded playing the fop in her sadistic plan. He only regrets Amber will never truly love him. As there are plenty of other willing maidens to choose from, Charles orders Amber from the palace – a particularly costly exile. Amber’s only consolation is that Bruce Jr. will be coming with her. Perhaps together in the country they can begin anew – mother and son.
Bruce arrives at the palace as the ladies in waiting are nearly finished packing Amber’s possessions. He tells Amber he and Corinne desire to adopt the child. But Amber is vehemently opposed to giving up the one treasure she has left to sell; especially since Bruce intends to rear the boy in Virginia. Alas, the decision is not up to Amber. For, having told Bruce their son may choose for himself which parent he would prefer, Amber is bitterly disillusioned when the child (knowing nothing of their panged relationship) elects to go to America with his father, whom he has only superficially known at best. Angrily, Amber banishes Bruce and their son from her quarters, rushing to the window with bittersweet tears to quietly observe as her last hope for any happiness is dashed; Bruce and his son departing from the kingdom in his carriage.
On paper, Forever Amber is a fairly ambitious and compelling tale of a woman’s self-destruction, made wholly and unnecessarily complete by her own ill-fated life’s decisions. On film, however, the plight of Amber St. Clair becomes little more than rank melodrama, gussied up by A-list production values. The Dunne/Lardner screenplay does an impressive job of distilling the novel’s timeline into a manageable would-be epic. At 138 minutes, Forever Amber falls short of the ‘road show’ spectacle Zanuck had originally envisioned, in part, because the movie’s rough cut was eviscerated in the editing process at the behest of the Production Code: whole scenes excised and/or re-shot to receive its approval. Zanuck’s clashes with the code are legendary. In hindsight, his reoccurring battles on Forever Amber, having to veer so far away from the novel in order to make any movie based upon it, were a primary reason Zanuck would later cite for leaving Fox at its zenith to make pictures independently abroad. If Forever Amber lacks narrative impetus or character motivation, it is arguably the fault of Zanuck’s inability to win his battles with censorship rather than Zanuck’s fervent desire and meticulous pre-planning to transform the novel into a screen spectacle on par with Gone With The Wind.
Sadly, Forever Amber is no Gone With The Wind, despite its all-star cast and the immeasurable gifts bestowed upon its production by those toiling being the scenes. What’s there is always expertly crafted, if leadenly realized by Linda Darnell and Cornel Wilde. Curiously, Darnell seems reticent to portray the sultry Amber in all her ruthless objectives. Darnell was hardly a stranger to playing the vixen as she had already amply proven with Chihuahua in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) and would illustrate again, as Lora May Hollingsway two years after Amber for Joe Mankewicz in A Letter to Three Wives (1949). As Amber Darnell is stiff and uninspired: pitiably nervous at times too and simpering to a fault. Amber ought to have been a fiery wench who could either gingerly cut her teeth on any man’s heart or trample it into the ground. Darnell’s viper is little more than a wounded lamb in wolf’s clothing; lost, confused and totally out of her depth.
Cornel Wilde’s career has always fascinated me. Here is a man who rarely rises above his material, and frequently pandered to the crowd by unabashedly displaying the obviousness of his own physical prowess as compensation. Even in his own time, hunks were considered a dime a dozen; rarely given the opportunity to progress beyond B-grade matinee idol. By comparison, Wilde’s career is downright enviable, playing everything from a flamboyant trapeze artist (The Greatest Show on Earth 1952) to Frédéric Chopin (A Song to Remember 1945). Along the way, he appeared opposite an enviable roster of A-list leading ladies and worked for some of Hollywood’s biggest directors. To what fairy godmother does the actor owe his career? Hmmm. In Forever Amber, Wilde seems moderately hampered by his effete wig; given shoulder pads that would make Dynasty’s Joan Collins envious. He’s competent - though just barely and mostly forgettable and flat. Forever Amber would have immensely benefited from the presence of a Clark Gable or William Holden. But Wilde was under contract to Zanuck, so we get his particular brand of mediocrity instead.
Mediocre is a good way of describing Fox Home Video’s efforts on their MOD DVD program in totem. I have avoided reviewing their burn-on-demand product thus far because, frankly, some of the discs I’ve seen coming down that pipeline have turned my stomach; Cinemascope movies presented in non-anamorphic or pan and scan transfers, elements culled from old VHS or 16mm archives slapped out to disc without so much as a generic clean-up; non-progressive and badly faded video (rather than film) based elements, et al. Yuck and who needs it?!? So, it was with some trepidation I undertook to screen Forever Amber; oddly, the first transfer I am prepared to write about without making myself physically ill.
As we all know by now, Fox junked its original Technicolor separation masters for virtually all their product pre-1970, leaving badly contrasted and garishly undernourished Eastman transfers as the only resource from which to do further remasterings of classic titles. It is important to remember also that, though this is a travesty akin to painting a black moustache across the Mona Lisa, we’ve also borne witness to what the studio can do when time and money are correctly spent to resurrect and properly update tired old transfers in 1080p; Niagara (1953) being a prime (though not the only) example.
Alas, Forever Amber is not a Blu-ray. Nor is it a legitimately authored DVD, but rather a burn-on-demand disc that, at times, I’d consider nothing better than a Frisbee. Remarkably, most of the image is free of age-related artifacts. Not so remarkable is the clumpy, chalky color. In no way does Forever Amber even minutely hint to replicating vintage Technicolor. On occasion, the color genuinely pops with surprising sparkle. I was amazed by the scenes at court, where color suddenly became exceptionally vibrant. Alas, a fair amount of Forever Amber takes place at night and these sequences suffer from lower than average contrast. There are moments where only disembodied heads are discernable, floating in a sea of blackness. There are also some misalignment problems with the Technicolor, resulting in very annoying halos. Certain scenes are very softly focused. Badly done.
As expected, fine detail is wanting, though not uniformly. Finally, the Fox logo appearing at the beginning of Forever Amber is not indigenous to the period – but rather from a vintage owing to the late 70’s and significantly grainier than the rest of the image that follows. Regarding film grain – it’s virtually non-existent. True, Technicolor was a sort of ‘grain concealing’ process. But this just looks scrubbed – either digitally or, presumably, from being derived from an older video master made when VHS was king and things like film grain were a non-issue. Finally, there’s modest gate weave factored in and some sprocket damage that causes certain scenes to wobble.
Forever Amber’s original mono audio has been faithfully reproduced with minimal hiss and virtually no pop – impressive on the whole. Alas, Fox hasn’t given us ANY extras. I could forgive this – almost – if Fox had taken the time to encode the disc properly so its time stamp wouldn’t periodically appear. Alas, no chapter stops either, though one can advance at ten minute intervals throughout this disc. Bottom line: I’m going to do some heavy praying the people in charge of Fox’s MOD program get their act together - and soon - instead of continuing to release substandard product like this to home video and just hope the rest of us haven’t figured it out just yet. To Fox executives responsible for this travesty: you’re winning no points simply by making such drivel available in lieu of quality. Not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)