Maria (Francoise Rosay): “What you’re doing is selfish, cowardly, and wrong — a poor foundation for happiness.” (September Affair, 1950)
Joan Fontaine is probably best known for her family connections (she is the younger sister of one of greatest actress of Hollywood’s Golden Era, Olivia de Havilland), she had a very respectable career as an actress. In many of her earlier roles, she played characters that were sweet, innocent women who got caught in traps not of their own making, such as the heroines of Hitchcock’s films Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941). These sweet even-tempered roles sometimes carried through to later films as well and one of those was in September Affair (1950). However, her character Manina Stuart is a not above reproach and the film, although it has the all the makings of a schmaltzy romance, has its interesting points.
The premise of September Affair is rather cliché: Two strangers meet in Italy against a romantic backdrop of canals and statues, fall in love, and decide to try and make a go of it. But the story is full of snags and complications. To begin with, the male half of the relationship (played by Joseph Cotten) is married and has a teenage son. The female half (Fontaine) is a young woman on the verge of a successful career as a pianist. He is stuffy and conventional, almost stiff. She is artistic and free-spirited. Thrown into the mix is a set of circumstances that makes their decision to live in an Italian paradise of their own unmarred by conventional ties like marriage (reminiscent of Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky in Tolstoy’s classic novel) instead of going back to the States to their other lives a little easier.
But as Manina’s only friend and former piano teacher, the wise Maria (played by French actress Francoise Rosay) points out in the opening quote to this blog post, a love built on deceit and egotism cannot succeed (at least not in the 1950’s). The fact that the film allows the couple to live together outside of marriage is a feat in itself, given the film was made during the heyday of the Motion Picture Production Code and the idea of a married man abandoning his wife and son to live happily ever after with another woman and is actually allowed to do so, at least for a while, was taboo.
Photo Credit: Cropped screenshot of Joan Fontaine from Born To Be Bad, the film that came out the same year as September Affair. Note she looks sweet but also a little devious…
But of course, since the Production code was in full swing, the film isn’t so simple. If this film had been made during the Pre-Code era (before 1934), the characters would probably have been edgier and happily immoral and the audience less forgiving of their situation. But one thing many reviews of this film point out is how sympathetic both Cotten and Fontaine are. Lindsey D., for example, says “Cotten and Fontaine’s characters are likable despite their flawed decision-making… They aren’t exactly an honorable or upstanding pair and they shouldn’t be likable for this reason, but they are!” (par. 9) Reviewer MC agrees:
“The movie doesn’t shy away from the questionable nature of their choices or give the characters a free pass when it comes to their behavior, even though they’re both likeable people and you can’t help wishing they could be together.” (par. 3)
While I agree both actors win the audience’s sympathy despite the fact that what they are doing is in some ways reprehensible, I think they might actually be a little too likeable. Cotten has an all-American charm and sturdiness that has made him one of my favorite actors and Fontaine, as New York Times film reviewer Bosley Crowthers describes, “abandons herself wholly to the sweet and smiling archness of her feminine charm” (par. 6). Their amiability almost takes away from the gravity of their situation and the consequences of their actions which, for a while at least, neither is willing to face.
In addition, both characters do not simply whisk themselves away to Naples, Rome, and Capri for a good time, then settle in an Italian villa for life without conscience and guilt:
“[Cotten] has some vagrant longings for his son, for his work and for his wife, from whom, it develops, he departed because he was simply bored. And [Fontaine] has some mild repining toward her abandoned career, despite the fact that she is living in a beautiful villa with a grand piano and can play to her heart’s content.” (Crowther, par. 4)
Of course both of them fight against these regrets and this makes up part of the emotional impact of the film but, predictably, neither of them wins out against the strong pull to “do the right thing” at the end. For Fontaine, her character faces a familiar dilemma that many women in the films of the 1950’s faced – the career vs. family conflict. Independent, strong women who pursued or had a career in films during this period were usually faced with the choice to either keep their careers or give them up for the promise of love and family. Most women (as I point out in the blog post referenced above about Bette Davis’ roles in All About Eve and The Star) in these films choose love and family so it’s an added angle to September Affair that Fontaine chooses her career, although perhaps not so surprising when we consider the love offered to her comes from a married man who never fulfills his promise to get a divorce. So she really has no other option but to go back to her previous life as a rising star in the music world.
Looking at this film in the context of Joan Fontaine’s career, it’s interesting to note that it seemed to lead her into some more challenging roles that broke away from the sweet innocent heroines of her earlier work. The same year of September Affair, another film with Fontaine was released, Born To Be Bad. While Manina is, despite her willingness to live a life of sin, inherently good and virtuous, Fontaine’s Christabel in Born To Be Bad is a femme fatale of sorts but in a much more elegant and devious way. But the seeds were already beginning to sow for Fontaine with this film and I think her work became more diverse and interesting after the 1950’s.
Crowther, Bosley. “THE SCREEN IN REVIEW: ‘September Affair,’ With Joan Fontaine and Joseph Cotten, Opens at The Music Hall.” The New York Times. The New York Times Company, 2017. 2 February 1951. Web. 18 October 2017
Lindsey D. “September Affair 1950.” Web blog post. The Motion Pictures. WordPress. 2 September 2012. Web. 18 October 2017.
MC. “September Affair (1950).” Web blog post. Happy Thoughts, Darling. WordPress. 4 January 2013. Web. 18 October 2017.