Tag Archives: joan fontaine

Remember How Much I Loved You–Joan and Lilian Fontaine

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Joan Fontaine shares a laugh with her mother, Lilian.

By Lara Gabrielle Fowler

First off, thank you to Jill at Sittin’ On a Backyard Fence and Michael Nazarewycz at ScribeHard On Film for hosting this terrifically clever blogathon, focusing on one star per day via the TCM Summer Under the Stars lineup. Since many readers of this site know of my love for Joan Fontaine, I felt that instead of writing a movie review for this blogathon I would contribute something more personal, a small examination of the relationship between Joan Fontaine and her mother, who played secondary roles in several Fontaine films such as The Bigamist and Ivy.

The Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre as it stands today.

Even today, while Joan lives a quiet life in Carmel at the age of 95, her mother is not far from her mind. Three years ago the Lilian Fontaine Garden Theatre in Saratoga, named for Lilian’s contributions to local theatre, was undergoing renovations. To everyone’s surprise, a huge 5-figure donation came through that would cover all the necessary refurbishments. It was from Joan. She declined to be interviewed, saying that this gift is for her mother, whose ashes are scattered there and who once said about the garden “”If you ever wonder about me, come to this garden, and I’ll be here… somewhere around.”

A graduate of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and also a trained singer, Lilian was a native of Reading–a large English city in the Berkshires. As an adult she ventured to Japan to try her luck in a performance career and ended up staying, marrying a handsome gentleman named Walter de Havilland. Their first daughter, Olivia Mary, was born in Tokyo on July 1, 1916, and Joan came along 15 months later on October 22, 1917. The de Havilland marriage was rocky, and the girls prone to illness, so on the advice of the doctor Lilian soon moved to Saratoga, California with the two girls in tow, in search of a more hospitable climate for their many ailments. Walter stayed behind.

Olivia thrived in California, but Joan remained very frail. As a young child her shyness and frequent illnesses precluded her from making school friends, and her sky-high IQ rendered it difficult for her to relate to her peers. Relations with her sister Olivia were never sunny, so having a friend at home was not an option. Isolated and often bedridden for months at a time, her mother was her sole companion and best friend.

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Joan (child in black coat on the right), Lilian (in the black hat, holding Joan’s arm) and Olivia (far left) with family friends in Saratoga.

Lilian’s mothering skills were very much of her time and upbringing. She was determined that her daughters would grow up to be proper English ladies, and strict lessons in diction, manners, and even walking were commonplace in the house. When she remarried, to accountant and archdisciplinarian George Milan Fontaine, the lessons continued under his tutelage. Everything was expected to be “just so,” and if it wasn’t, extreme punishment could be expected. There was little affection in the house. As a teenager, Joan was severely scolded for holding hands with a boy during a concert, and her mother’s harsh words scarred her for life.

Yet through all of this, Joan retained a deep, unconditional love for her mother. When she began to earn money in movies, she sent monthly checks to her mother, supporting her completely of her own will. She offered Lilian, who had never really made it as an actress, roles in her films.

Skip to 5:45 in this clip from Ivy. Lilian is seated directly to the right of Joan, in the dark dress and hat.

When Lilian fell ill with cancer, Joan took over her care. Though Lilian was not always able to show it, Joan finally heard those words of love she so craved from her mother during their very last phone conversation. Right before they hung up, Lilian said to her tenderly “Remember how much I loved you.”

I like to think that this gave them a sense of resolution to a somewhat complex relationship, and that Joan could cope with the loss of her mother with the assurance that she reciprocated her love. It is a graceful end to a life, and a sweet goodbye from mother to daughter.

Lilian with Joan (on the floor) and Olivia (seated) shortly after their arrival to the United States.

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Last family portrait, 1975.

Thanks again to Jill and Michael!

The Dueling Divas of “The Women” (1939)

Some of the most entertaining duels ever depicted onscreen are concentrated in one single film. The Women (1939), directed by George Cukor and starring Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Mary Boland, Joan Fontaine, and Paulette Goddard, is one of the most well-loved comedies of all time, and much of the acclaim it has received is due to the unique relationships the characters have with each other, and the complex web of competition that occurs among nearly every character with nearly every other.

The Women presents an unprecedented experiment with regard to casting a film, and in regard to the relationships between the characters. Based on the Broadway hit by Clare Boothe Luce, the tagline reads “The Women: It’s all about the men!” Indeed, the women in the film talk so much about their husbands, it may take a while for the viewer to recognize that something is missing. The husbands, when they are heard from, are always either spoken to over the phone or send their communication through letters. True to the Broadway show, the MGM casting department went to great lengths to ensure that every member of the cast was female. From the extras to the photographs to even the animals, there is not one male in the cast of 130 that makes up The Women.

Though a completely feminine picture, and very progressive in its treatment of divorce and extramarital affairs, The Women is still very much a movie made under the code. All divorces are eventually dissolved, and the “wayward” women are punished. Nonetheless, the code strangely holds this film together, leading to a tight finish and no problem unresolved. When the movie was remade in 2008, the filmmakers made an effort to make it more politically correct, liberated, and feminist, which ruined the story and led the film to be universally panned by critics. There is truly nothing like this original version of The Women, a hilarious story of friendship, competition, and gossip among society women.

There is a tightly woven network of duels in this movie, and the plot comes together through exploration of who is dueling with whom! I will list all the main characters here, and then delve into the duels.

  • Mary Haines (Norma Shearer) wife of Stephen Haines
  • Sylvia Fowler (Rosalind Russell), wife of Howard Fowler, cousin of Mary Haines
  • Crystal Allen (Joan Crawford), perfume counter saleswoman, mistress of Stephen Haines and Buck Winston
  • Edith Potter, wife of Phelps Potter
  • Miriam Aarons (Paulette Goddard), mistress of Howard Fowler
  • Peggy Day (Joan Fontaine), wife of John Day
  • The Countess de Lave (Mary Boland), married multiple times, currently involved with Buck Winston
  • Little Mary (Virginia Weidler), Mary and Stephen’s daughter

MARY HAINES vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

While having her nails done, Mary’s cousin Sylvia Fowler learns of the infidelity of Mary’s husband. The mistress is a perfume counter saleswoman named Crystal Allen, and Sylvia immediately takes action by telling Mary to get her nails done with the same woman, so she can hear the story for herself. Mary does that, and upon learning the story, she decides to largely ignore it. Sylvia, however, will do nothing of the kind. Due to her meddling, Mary and Crystal square off when they meet at the fashion show in the middle of the film. Pay special attention to the racy and clever dialogue.

It finally becomes clear that Mary is going to need to get a divorce from Stephen, as Crystal will not give him up.

PEGGY DAY vs. SYLVIA FOWLER

The sweet and shy Peggy Day finally gets fed up with Sylvia’s meddling in Mary Haines’ business, and after a scene at the gym with Edith and Sylvia in which the women gossip about the situation, Peggy complains to Edith that Sylvia is a “dreadful woman” and vows to tell her so. Edith convinces her not to, because it’s just Sylvia’s bad luck that Sylvia ” wasn’t born deaf and dumb.” The clash between Peggy and Sylvia continues through the rest of the movie, though Peggy’s shy demeanor prevents her from making it into an issue.

Peggy’s personality is a bit of a paradox. On the one hand, she is very shy and unassuming, but on the other hand, she resents her husband for not letting her spend her own money. Eventually this becomes too much, and she ends up in Reno with Mary.

MIRIAM AARONS vs. SYLVIA FOWLER

On the train to Reno for her divorce, Mary Haines meets two women going to Reno for the same reason. One of them is the Countess de Lave, an exuberant multiple-time divorcee who nonetheless claims to believe in love by proclaiming “L’amour!” after nearly every sentence. She is intent on marrying Buck Winston, a singing cowboy and radio star with a popular show. The other woman is Miriam Aarons, a former chorus girl going to Reno for her first divorce.

Meanwhile, Sylvia finally gets a taste of her own medicine when she finds out about her own husband’s infidelity. She surprises Mary and Peggy with her own arrival to Reno. Shortly before Sylvia’s arrival, Miriam shared a secret with the Countess–she has been having an affair with Howard Fowler. Miriam does not know Sylvia, and it is a major surprise when Sylvia arrives and they are introduced.

Sylvia gets an article in the mail that shows with whom Howard has been having an affair, recognizes the name of Miriam Aarons. An all-out catfight ensues.

LITTLE MARY vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

While in Reno, Mary finds out that Stephen has married Crystal. Little Mary, Mary’s daughter, does not like Crystal, but is civil to her because Mary has told her to be kind to Crystal. Crystal clearly is not the mothering type, and barely tolerates Little Mary. There is a confrontation between them where Crystal is on the phone in the bathtub with a mysterious man, and Little Mary becomes suspicious and eventually tells her mother.

SYLVIA FOWLER vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

Sylvia and Crystal, who have become chummy, meet minutes after Crystal’s confrontation with Little Mary in the bathtub. Sylvia answers the phone when it rings, and it turns out to be the cowboy radio star Buck Winston. Crystal has been having an affair with the fiancé of the Countess de Lave.

By now, Little Mary has told her mother about the mysterious man, and with this newly found information about Crystal’s affair, Mary decides to take the initiative in getting Stephen back. She dresses for a party occurring that evening that Stephen and all the rest of the ladies are attending, and begins her recapture of her husband.

At the party, Mary tricks Sylvia into spilling the beans that Crystal is having an affair with Buck Winston, and thereby sets the ball rolling toward the end.

THE COUNTESS DE LAVE vs. CRYSTAL ALLEN

Also at the party, Buck Winston publicly declares his love for Crystal Allen. The Countess is humiliated, and Crystal goes for the jugular, implying that she is only after his money. The Countess reveals that all his money is gone, and that SHE is the sponsor of his popular radio show. Crystal is defeated, and her final line of the movie is:

“Well girls, I guess it’s back to the perfume counter for me. And by the way, there’s a name for you ladies, but it isn’t used in high society…outside of a kennel. So long, ladies!”

The movie ends with Mary running back to Stephen with arms outstretched.

Director George Cukor is magnificent in channeling all these feuds into fun and creative scenes. Though there is some serious dueling in the film, the sharpness of the script and slapstick humor keeps the audience entertained and keeps the film from getting too mean.

The Women remains one of the best films of that marvelous year of 1939, and one of the best comedies of all time, thanks to the brilliant performances by the actresses involved and the unparalleled directing of George Cukor.

Today is the final day of the Dueling Divas Blogathon! Be sure to check out all the entries here. Thanks for reading and a special thanks to those who contributed their hard work to this year’s blogathon. I can’t wait for next year!

Dueling Divas 2012