Hold Back the Dawn was written by the winning combination of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, but the director was actually Mitchell Leisen. That was the last time Wilder would let someone else take hold of his work. It’s actually rather meta, a film within a film. We see our director and a film being made (Complete with Veronica Lake), but that is only a pretense for this story to be told.
Georges Iscoveu (Charles Boyer) wanders into the studio hoping to tell his story to somebody who might help him. The tale goes something like this. Much like many other hopeful emigrants, he heads to Mexico in an attempt to try and get into the states, but he’s told that he’ll have to wait and so Iscoveu holes up at the Esperanza Hotel with all the other masses. Time passes and he is getting nowhere fast, but he does bump into an old partner in crime named Anita (Paulette Goddard). Undoubtedly using her feminine charms, she wrangled herself a husband in order to secure herself citizenship. Then she swiftly got a divorce to close the deal. She’s a real peach and she plants the idea in Georges because he is desperate after all.
The gears are turning and he sets his sights on the pretty young schoolteacher, who is in Mexico with some of her students. Their car is in the shop, and after swiping a sprocket, Georges goes into action.
With soaring rhetoric, he wins Miss Emmy Brown over and he puts a ring on it, a borrowed ring from Anita to be exact. He’s a real cad, but it is a Charles Boyer leading man.
To her credit, Olivia De Havilland plays this ingenue and small-town teacher with bright eyes and idealism. We cannot help but feel for her because this is a woman who is swept off her feet and she exhibits true affection. She’s naive, but as Georges acknowledges, she’s swell. Anita has plans for them to meet up once the marriage is terminated because she thinks that she and Georges can run in the same circles once more. But all the time he has spent with Emmy has not left him unchanged. Car rides and travels through Mexico becomes intimate and sweet. So somewhere there is a turning point in the psyche of Iscoveu. It no longer becomes a con game with Anita, but a true romance with Emmy.
However, the trouble comes when the inspector named Hammock (Walter Abel) comes sniffing around because the marriage of Emmy and Georges seems obviously fishy to him. But Ms. Brown does the noble thing and defends Georges not out of ignorance, but charity. She knows she was living a dream and is about to go back to reality, making the drive back to her home in Azusa, California.
Georges has what he had initially set out to get, but the story cannot be over. When he hears of a deadly car accident, he rushes across the border without heed of the law so that he can be with the love of his life. It’s a gushy conclusion that looks like it might end badly. After all, Iscoveu broke some major laws, but Hammock gives him some grace showing he’s a softy at heart. Even Anita gets what she’s always wanted.
The film is a treat because we not only get an A-grade performance from De Havilland, there’s a conniving Paulette Goddard, and even a brief cameo by everybody’s favorite Peekaboo girl Veronica Lake. Curt Bois (the pickpocket from Casablanca) also makes a spirited performance in one of the minor plots.
Hold Back the Dawn certainly begs the question whether Wilder’s own experiences are infused into this story since he often told anecdotes about his emigration into the U.S. which ultimately led him to success in Hollywood. Also, this film suggests that Mitchell Leisen is not so much a great director or a maker of masterpieces, but he is in his element with romances. However, I wonder if part of his success was having the likes of Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges writing scripts for some of his most prominent films (including Easy Living, Midnight, and Remember the Night).