• Forever Amber



    Released by: Twilight Time
    Release date: December 19, 2017
    Directed by: Otto Preminger
    Cast: Linda Darnell, Cornel Wilde, Richard Greene, George Sanders, Glenn Langan, Richard Haydn, Jessica Tandy, Anne Revere
    Year: 1947
    Purchase From Screen Archives

    The Movie:

    In 1939, MGM released Gone With the Wind, an epic adaptation of Margaret Mitchell’s massive bestselling novel, to big box office and major critical acclaim. Stripping away inflation, the film remains the biggest moneymaker in Hollywood history, a feat that isn’t likely to be overcome by competition anytime soon. That didn’t stop other filmmakers and studios from trying, including MGM’s competitor, Fox. For years, Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck had been looking for a property that could be crafted into his studio’s big-budget answer to Gone With the Wind. He found it in another bestselling romantic novel, this time by Kathleen Winsor. The historical bodice ripper was set in 17th-century England and dealt with Amber St. Clare, an orphan who sleeps her way to the top of the social ladder, only to fail at gaining the happiness she believes she deserves. The book was highly controversial in its day, facing charges of pornography and being banned in cities all over the country. This, of course, only fueled Americans’ desire to read it, propelling it upward on the New York Times’ Bestsellers List and ensuring a film adaptation, despite an explicit mandate from the PCA that it never be filmed.

    When Fox’s film adaptation finally went before cameras a couple of years later, Peggy Cummins was cast as Amber while John M. Stahl took the reins as director. Unfortunately, Cummins was too young and inexperienced, and Stahl’s glacial pace and other issues necessitated a major change. Otto Preminger stepped in as director, while Cummins was replaced by the woman plotting for the role all along, Linda Darnell, whose increasing popularity with filmgoers ensured greater investment from viewers. The change paid off. The film opened to huge box office receipts, though critics were less than kind, particularly to Darnell, whom they saw as flat and unemotional, too much so for the part she was playing. Even worse, condemnation from the Catholic Legion of Decency resulted in Fox monkeying around with the film’s editing, an issue that’s obvious in the final product.

    The action unfolds during the English Civil War, where a newborn child of royalty is abandoned on a farmer’s doorstep. The parents are murdered by Roundheads while the farmer and his wife raise the child, a girl, as their own. Eventually, Cromwell dies and England’s previous hierarchy is restored, with Charles II (George Sanders) taking his place as king. Unfortunately, Amber (Linda Darnell), who, it goes without saying, has her biological parents’ genes, feels constrained by the puritan morals of her backwoods folks; strikingly beautiful, seductively charming, and connivingly intelligent, she conspires to escape her upcoming nuptials—which have been planned by her parents—for the riches of city life. When a group of men arrive in town, she falls for their leader, Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde), but he refuses to take her back to London, despite sharing an intimate kiss with her. When they leave, she follows them. Bruce resigns himself to her company and showers her with gifts; but later, Bruce leaves in the middle of the night without a word of explanation, and the next day Amber vows to become his wife no matter what. A series of mishaps befalls Amber, and she is duly placed in prison, where she learns that she’s going to have Bruce’s baby. A fellow prisoner who falls in love with her helps her break out, and the two begin a communion that involves robbing rich men in dark alleyways. From there, Amber’s life only becomes decidedly more complicated.

    While the film certainly proved successful in the short term, it hasn’t really stood the test of time; and while Gone With the Wind rightfully remains famous to this day, Forever Amber is mostly forgotten but for a few adoring fans. It’s easy to see why: Whereas the former film fills every scene with incident and emotion (whether one agrees with its sympathetic view of the South or not), the latter is dull and plodding, failing to muster any kind of emotional resonance at all. Linda Darnell was usually a very adept actress, understanding the nuances in her various roles whether they be Madonna (literally) or whore (literally), but she fails to connect her audience to Amber. Instead, she scowls through most of the picture, her furrowed brow the only real indication of her one feeling. When love or sorrow threatens to break through, she quickly squelches it.

    None of this is to say that the entire affair, no matter how stodgy it is, is completely worthless. The costumes and set designs certainly offer an appealing window into another world, one draped in the kind of Gothic atmosphere soon to envelop many a Euro horror. And most of the performances, particularly from George Sanders but including Richard Greene and Cornel Wilde, are good. There’s also an excellent score from award-winning composer David Raksin. And finally, for lovers of bestselling literature of times past, it’s an interesting window into how studios were forced to deal with controversial subject matter on the big screen.

    Video/Audio/Extras:

    Twilight Time has released Forever Amber on Blu-ray in 1080p high definition with an MPEG-4 AVC encode. The film is presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio from a decent, though far from perfect, transfer. Detail is moderately improved over Fox’s former DVD-R release; that detail is best seen in the ornate costumes and period settings. Facial closeups are not a true test for sharpness or clarity, as Preminger obviously shot many of them through a soft-focus lens; this is most obvious in closeups of the strikingly beautiful Linda Darnell, whose face is never anything other than silky smooth, a slight halo bordering her hairline. Colors are not as resplendent as one would assume of a Technicolor film of this vintage, in part because Preminger obviously shot it to be very dark (was this his decision or the decision of the director from whom he took the reins?). Much of the blues, grays, and greens are built into the costuming and set design, a clear choice communicated to every person on the production team. In addition, it also appears that the image was tinkered with after the film’s completion to darken it further; neither the old Fox DVD-R nor the current TT Blu-ray showcase warm skin tones or realistic hues. Reds often become deep maroons; violets become harsh purples; greens become firs. The film features mostly cold colors shot in chiaroscuro lighting, creating something of an antithetical answer to a Renaissance painting. In general, it’s a pleasing look, one that was highly uncommon at the time the film was made but is all too common today. Still, there’s something amiss about the transfer; it could have been more detailed and a bit more colorful than it is. There’s a minor layer of grain that contributes to the filmic look (with some minor dirt and debris here and there to help things along in that arena), and despite all the blacks, the film is rarely beset by crush. So, in the end, while the image isn’t perfect, one suspects that it could look a lot worse. The film is relatively long, but there’s only one extra clocking in at under an hour, so the BD-50 that TT has used is more than enough to handle the information without the affliction of compression issues.

    The disc features two tracks, one for the film’s original soundtrack, the other for the music only. The former is DTS-HD Master Audio Mono and features no serious issues or flaws. Despite being in mono, the track is beautifully modulated, all the better to hear David Raksin’s soaring and dynamic score. Fidelity is excellent, as are the myriad sound effects, none of which interfere with the dialogue. Some film fans may object to the fact that the music is ever present, but that’s one of the things that makes it the perfect candidate for a music-only track, and Twilight Time has provided one in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. In addition, the film comes with English subtitles for the deaf and hearing impaired per TT’s usual high standards.

    The only other extra is a 1999 episode of A&E’s Biography, but what an extra it is. Titled “Linda Darnell: Hollywood’s Fallen Angel,” it showcases the career and tragic life of the famed actress. Among those interviewed during the program’s 45-minute running time are biographer Ronald Davis; Linda’s sister Undeen Darnell Hunter; Linda’s daughter Charlotte “Lola” Marley; film historian James Robert Parish; actress Dorris Bowdon Johnson; actor Roddy McDowall; actress Alice Faye; producer A.C. Lyles; and others. The program traces Darnell’s life from childhood to almost instant stardom at the age of 15, masquerading as an older woman and under the aegis of 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck, and then hits all the important highlights. After several years of hard work and innumerable hits under her belt, Darnell was finally parted from her Fox contract as a result of the collapsing studio system, the direct result of competition from television. Battling depression and alcoholism, Linda went through several marriages and illicit relationships before finally making her comeback in the Paramount Western Black Spurs in 1965. Her career was tragically ended at the age of 41 in a house fire while spending time with friends in Chicago. Thankfully, the Biography episode places Forever Amber in its proper context within Darnell’s career, covering it at fairly great length.

    Of course, as with all Twilight Time releases, an 8-page booklet is included featuring liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo and full-color stills from the film. Kirgo has never been funnier in her notes than she is here, deftly condemning the forces of censorship while properly reading Forever Amber’s place in both literary and cinematic history. She also covers much of what we cover above but in far greater detail, making for a fun and fascinating read.

    Per Twilight Time’s usual practice, Forever Amber is limited to 3,000 units.

    The Final Word:

    Forever Amber is an interesting, if not entirely successful, film; from a historical perspective, it can be seen as the precursor to the following decade’s more challenging but similarly controversial Peyton Place (1957), itself an adaptation of a scandalous novel (and also released on Blu by Twilight Time). While Linda Darnell fails to conjure the proper mystique for her role as cherubic-faced but conniving Amber St. Clare, the rest of the cast turns in fairly strong performances, and the sets, costumes, direction, and score have much to recommend them, despite some wonky editing on Fox’s part to avoid outright condemnation by the Catholic Legion of Decency. Twilight Time’s Blu-ray presentation features an image that’s improved over Fox’s DVD-R, though it still leaves something to be desired. But the boutique label does offer two compelling reasons to upgrade: a superlative Biography episode about Darnell, and some of Julie Kirgo’s most insightful and funny liner notes yet.

    Christopher Workman is a freelance writer, film critic, and co-author (with Troy Howarth) of the Tome of Terror horror film review series. Horror Films of the Silent Era and Horror Films of the 1930s are currently available, with Horror Films of the 1940s due out in 2018.

    Click on the images below for full sized Blu-ray screen caps!