“Hold Back the Dawn” takes place predominantly along the Mexican border, and although it is 1941, it feels fairly evocative of right now, and might well continue evoking whatever happens in the future of America and Mexico too. It is set in a border town populated by individuals and families yearning to cross into the promised land of America but forced to wait it out on account of the era’s quota system. The film, directed by Mitchell Leisen, opens on 4th of July weekend, where Mexicans celebrate as heartily as their perhaps-soon-to-be compatriots across the border probably are, a gleeful irony made funnier by the American border agent (Walter Abel) who fails to properly quote the inscription on the Statue of Liberty while the Mexicans he’s chatting with can.
Though this suggests something akin to a pro-immigration argument, “Hold Back the Dawn”, written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, isn’t always entirely sure how it feels about America. The protagonist, it turns out, is not a Mexican but a Romanian, Georges Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), who has fled his homeland on account of the Nazi occupation, seeking refuge in America, only to be made, like everyone else, to wait. But wait! His former dance partner, Anita (Paulette Goddard), also holed up on the border makes a suggestion. What if he marries an American to get across the border? Ah, and just a patsy exists in the form of spectacularly plainly named Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), a schoolteacher on a field trip into Mexico with her kids who first repulses Georges before he realize she is his ticket to the promised land.
It’s telling, though, that in their initial confrontation, he is repulsed by her and what he perceives as her stupid schoolkids, viewing them as nothing much more than the embodiment of ugly Americanism. This is an idea the movie returns to occasionally throughout, never more acutely than a later sequence after she’s fallen in what she thinks is love with him and deigns to lecture him on how America is a “lake, clear and fresh, and it’ll never get stagnant with new streams flowing in.”
Georges: “Well, your people are building pretty high damns to stop those streams.”
Emmy: “Just to keep out the scum, Georges! Don’t you see?”
That’s as relevant now as it was then, legitimately shocking to hear given my nation’s current political climate, where Lady Liberty says we’ll take the huddled masses and wretched refuse while a vulgar talking yam (coinage: Charles Pierce) says we only want to take people with our values and that everyone south of the border is...well, you know. This exploration, however, of precisely what informs our values is really just a tease, falling by wayside, as the film falls back on a much more conventional love story between Georges and Emmy.
This is likely telegraphed by the film’s structure, given that it’s actually a flashback, beginning on a lot at Paramount studios, suggesting Georges has made it to America, where he pitches his immigrant’s tale to a movie director. The director is played by the movie’s actual director, Leisen, evoking the sensation that Charles Boyer, who, as has been recounted many times, was not always completely in love with Brackett & Wilder’s screenplay, is pitching re-writes to Leisen, the two men turning this into the film they want it to be, one that opts for melodrama over political intrigue.
At least de Havilland is up for the melodrama, often transforming it into straight drama, convincingly metamorphosing from a plain jane schoolteacher to a woman who has fallen under the spell of the accent and the artful romantic act put on my Georges. Indeed, the scene where she places a call to tell those back home of this whirlwind love affair that has left her engaged to a man she has just met, de Havilland strips everything out of her performance, remaining almost perfectly still, aside from a smile and a slowed-down speech pattern that makes her sound like someone that has fallen under a spell. She conveys such a quietly frightful all-in on this whirlwind marriage that her performance seems to setting up “Hold Back the Dawn” for a smashing denouement in which her steadfast belief in America and its grand instituion of marriage will be skewered by this sham engagement.
Alas, redemption awaits, as Georges begins to fall for Emmy for real, which is often communicated less in behavior put forth by Boyer than voiceovers he speaks. And in doing so, the movie commits entirely to the American ideal, where marriage is true and an immigrant becomes one of us by becoming one of us. He’s no longer scum, in other words, which would have been pretty a wicked joke if the movie actually knew it was making one.