Frenchman’s Creek (1944) Directed by Mitchell Leisen. Joan Fontaine, Arturo de Córdova, Basil Rathbone (110 min).
A restless wife escaping stifling London society and her dissolute husband, flees to the family’s remote Cornwall mansion where she meets, and runs away with, a dashing buccaneer. Hotsy totsy for a pirate movie (which are usually for children) Fontaine dresses up as a cabin boy and experiments with gender fluidity and sexual freedom.
Any reader of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca will instantly recognize in Frenchman’s Creek the mysterious house, buffeted by coastal winds, that the second Mrs. DeWinter knew as Manderly, the mysterious beating heart of the author’s most famous novel. Du Maurier’s grand passion was for a real Cornwall, England, house called Menabilly, which appears in different guises in her fiction. In Frenchman’s Creek the house is called Navron, and was actually built by Paramount on a cliff near Mendocino, California, unlike Manderly, in Alfred Hitchcock’s film, which was a miniature.
Daphne was the middle of three daughters born to Gerald du Maurier, a great actor manager and matinee idol of the British theater, and his 3rd wife. The household was unconventional, to say the least. Her father had many young mistresses, but her mother never felt threatened by them, secure in her place in the family. Daphne was shy and imaginative and felt as a child that she was really a boy, a conviction dashed by puberty. Attracted to both boys and girls she loathed the idea of being “Venetian” family code for lesbian. But she wouldn’t be Venetian, if she were really a boy.
She read voraciously, especially Robert Lewis Stevenson, Walter Scott and William Thackeray. The du Mauriers bought a holiday home in the village of Fowey in Cornwall, and Daphne became intrigued by a magnificent old house called Menabilly, hidden amidst the woods and gardens, but facing the sea.
Eventually, she “put the boy in a box” as she would say and decided to do the conventional thing and get married. Unsurprisingly marriage and motherhood did not suit her. After the success of the book and film version of Rebecca, which she did not consider a romance, but an examination of the balance of power in a marriage, she rented Menabilly. She loved the house, even though it was freezing cold and filled with bats and rats which her children found terrifying. Daphne thought they should be perfectly happy wandering around the beautiful grounds with only each other for company and couldn’t understand why they would want to go to school or play with other children. It is not hard to see how her love for this coastal refuge would trigger romantic pirate fantasies.
Set in 1668, Frenchman’s Creek was Paramount’s most expensive film to date. The budget was $3,600,000, a sum that ran rather out of control on location, with the extravagant Mitchell Leisen acting as both producer and director.
Searching for a suitable remote locale, Mendocino, Albion and Ft. Bragg, California filled the bill. There was no need to shoot around the signs of modern life, which were not much in evidence, in fact, housing cast and crew turned out to be a massive headache. Two hundred and fifty persons were on location, all rooms were rented for miles up the coast and a small tent city went up with its own water and sewer system, serving 1000 meals a day. In order to get to the Little River, which was playing Frenchman’s Creek, a road was cut from the top of the cliff to the side of the creek, and a pontoon bridge built for access to the ship.
The boat, “La Mouette” (the Seagull) was built over the hull of the ship Cecil B. de Mille used in Reap the Wild Wind. Constructed on the Paramount back lot, it was 110 feet long, 27 feet from the water at the stern and 20 feet across. Towed by night from the back lot 35 miles to San Pedro Harbour, the ship was loaded on a barge for the remainder of the 600-mile trip up the coast. After filming in Mendocino, part of the deck was removed for closeups back in Hollywood. The hull was then donated to the Coast Guard for target practice, although it’s possible it was burned by vandals before this use. Much later, a local historian who didn’t know that Frenchman’s Creek was filmed in Albion announced he had found an authentic ship of the era.
Forty-six studio sets were constructed, including the waterfront town of Fowey. The superb sword fighting scenes were supervised by international fencing champion Aldo Nadi. Villain Basil Rathbone, of course, was a swashbuckling combat veteran opposite Errol Flynn in Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood, but pirate captain Cordova had to learn fencing for the film. Locals were recruited to play pirates; swimming extras could make $35.00 a day. The film brought both excitement and a needed economic boost to the Mendocino coast, which was suffering the dual effects of WW II and the lingering Depression. A good time was had by all, as locals watched the filming, visited the sets for photographs, and one local couple was even married in front of the country church set built for the film.
There were over 2000 historical props, overseen by Dick Brandow and his crew of nine property men. Half of them were made by Paramount, including a period accurate coach finished in hand tooled leather, furniture and other accoutrements for a 17th century manor house, and reproductions of drawings, cosmetic and jewel cases, pipes and smoking paraphernalia, swords, guns, playing cards, riding crops, nautical instruments, children’s toys, English saddles, baskets, a silver service for twelve and a clavichord.
Wigs became a major task of Wally Westmore, the head of the Paramount make up department, as everyone in the cast had to wear them. Before WW II, most false hair was imported from the Balkans, which became impossible during wartime, and there was a federal law prohibiting the use of native grown American hair (?). Westmore crafted 150 wigs, 2 to 4 for each principal, and 5 hairdressers were tasked with keeping track of them all. Every night, all the wigs were dressed wet, and then allowed to dry in a portable oven.
The costumes were designed by Raoul Pene du Bois and constructed in the shop of the legendary Madame Karinska. According to Ernst Fegté, the production designer, “Raul Pene du Bois and Madame Karinska got screen credit for the costumes, but it was really Mitch (Leisen) who made most of them. Mitch was the only person who knew how many of the clothes of that era were actually put together, and in making them up from du Bois sketches, he changed them a great deal from du Bois original concept. Some of them were his designs from start to finish. He really had to rush, and he was up in wardrobe the whole time. Whenever I need to consult with him about a set, I had to go to wardrobe to find him (Chierichetti 199). The 17th century costumes are unusually accurate for a Hollywood movie, thanks to the research provided by Dwight Franklin, former costume curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Hilda Grenier, former dresser to the Dowager Queen Mary approved “aristocratic British modes and manners, both ancient and modern” (Souvenir program).
Fontaine’s Cornwall and London bedrooms are authentic, the morning rooms of Hamilton Palace, purchased by Paramount from that great pillager of historic homes, William Randolph Hearst, and the Hearst collection provided other authentic building materials and furniture. The two King Charles spaniels were only two of twelve in the entire US at the time.
Joan Fontaine has 18 costume changes. Some skirts measured 600 inches around and the average weight of the costumes was 30 pounds. Her corsets laced her 4 inches smaller than her normal waistline, and correctly, she was unable to lift her arms in her gowns. The wartime restriction on metal hooks and eyes did not present a problem, because the costumes predated metal fastenings, closings were ribbons, lacings and buttons. Fontaine in one scene wore chicken skin gloves, which were believed when worn overnight, would keep the skin soft.
Frenchman’s Creek is not a film that has gotten a lot of love over the years. Mitchell Leisen’s biographer, David Chierichetti, doesn’t have a good word to say about it outside of the Oscar winning production design, although he acknowledges that it is one of the most beautiful Technicolor films of the decade.
Fontaine and Leisen did not get on, yet he was the first director to glamorize her on screen, and her sumptuous costumes, deepening in color saturation as her passion for her pirate lover increases makes for a beautifully visualized story arc. “Returning home and plotting to distract the company, she dons the flaming scarlet and gold gown, and Leisen extends the power of the gown by packing the scene with reds and golds. There are men about, but we see only the dress, the masses of golden hair, her ruby and gold jewelry, goblets of burgundy on the table with an all-gold service and a bowl of oranges. This tour de force was Leisen’s most triumphant moment in his constant quest for the subjective use of color. Screaming forth with extremes of color saturation only the three strip Technicolor process could provide, the image is tempered nonetheless by Leisen’s invincible good taste as manifested in the elegant shapes of all the brilliantly colored forms. With this scene alone, Leisen has won immortality” (Chierichetti 194).
Chierichetti likewise disdains Arturo de Cordova. The wartime leading man shortage provided an opportunity for charisma free actors like John Payne to have a shot at leading roles. But I would never include Mexican matinee idol Cordova in that category. “Cordova simply did not have the variety, the charm, or the strength to play the part interestingly or convincingly, and there was nothing Leisen could do to help him. He was attractive, but in a rugged, realistic way, which was inappropriate for the dreamlike, romantic quality of the film as a whole, and mismated to the fairy tale princess aura of Fontaine” (Chierichetti 194). I seriously beg to differ with the appraisal. Cordova is earthy and passionate, with a poetic side to his adventurousness. His welcoming of Dona’s disguise as a boy, and their clear enjoyment of some sexytime in the captain’s cabin (in defiance of the Production Code) is rather pleasantly shocking. If his acting style is “un-Hollywood” that only serves to underline Dona’s attraction to a dangerous outsider. De Cordoba dons rather bizarre pirate loungewear at one point. One can only imagine the outfit is the director’s particular fantasy. If you want to see him as Mexican superstar, I recommend The Kneeling Goddess or In The Palm of Your Hand.
Fontaine didn’t get along with Cordova, either. They disliked each other so heartily, that they would not film close-ups with each other, and stand ins were used for the reverse shots. Fontaine did not endear herself to the distinguished cast, which also includes Rathbone, Nigel Bruce and Cecil Kellaway by complaining on the set one day what a burden it was to have to carry the whole film on her shoulders. Cast and crew work with each other and loathe each other, but still, a delightful film gets made. It’s one of the eternal mysteries of studio era Hollywood.
George MacDonald Fraser in The Hollywood History of the World is a fan, “There is plenty of action and excitement, the piece is beautifully dressed (the London interiors look properly Restoration), and there is a grand melodramatic scene when the heroine…knifes the caddish Rathbone and clobbers him with a suit of armour. Cecil Kellaway has the acting honours as a French servant, de Cordova is thoroughly gallant, and there are no shocks of The Wicked Lady kind to the sensibilities (Fraser 212)
Leisen’s other Technicolor tour de force, Lady in the Dark, has never been legally available on home video in this country, but Frenchman’s Creek has recently become available on DVD for the first time, on a Universal Vault series disc. Once shown on AMC, in their old movie programming days, I have a deteriorating VHS taped off the network, that does not begin to do justice to this stunningly beautiful film. A non-binary author teamed with a gay director creates one out-of-the-box pirate yarn. The new 4K restoration from Universal and The Film Foundation is meltingly gorgeous. I was thrilled to see it on the big screen. Clearly, it is time for this splendid, feminist-slanted adventure to be rediscovered.
Color photos from Souvenir program for Frenchman’s Creek, Mitchell Leisen: Hollywood Director by David Chierichetti, on set photos from Mendocino and the Movies by Bruce Levene.
c.MoviedivaJune2014, February 2015,May2021