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The 1947 Blogathon: Forever Amber

This post is part of the 1947 Blogathon, hosted by Karen at Shadows and Satin and Kristina at Speakeasy. See the list of participants for this event HERE!

The anti-hero in popular culture is fairly common.

The anti-heroine, not so much.

One usually has to reach into the past to find an honest-to-goodness anti-heroine, and you’ll still only come up with a few: William Makepeace Thackery’s Becky Sharp, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, Margaret Mitchell’s Scarlett O’Hara.

The anti-heroine, Amber St. Clair, of the 1944 novel and 1947 film adaptation Forever Amber owes a lot to these predecessors.

O.K., let’s face it: the story flat-out rips off a lot from those previous characters and novels. Written by Katherine Winsor, the novel is a steamy (for its time) affair. Like Scarlett O’Hara, Amber sustains a love for a man who doesn’t love her back. Like Becky Sharp and Moll Flanders, she sleeps and marries her way out of poverty. Also like Flanders, her generosity with her charms MAY have resulted in a wee bit of inadvertent incest.

Winsor was very interested in history and exhaustively researched the period. So in spite of its salacious tone, the story also conveys a very realistic portrait of the time and place.

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Our (anti) heroine (Linda Darnell) is born as the English Civil War ends. Abandoned as a baby with a Puritan family, she escapes an enforced marriage by running away with a displaced aristocrat named Bruce Carlton (Cornel Wilde). She soon finds herself pregnant and abandoned. On her own, she manages to rise from a stint in prison to fame as an actress, to a respectable marriage and later a title–eventually landing in the court of Charles II as his mistress.

All through her travails, she remains obsessed with her first lover, but this never interferes with her ruthless climb to the top of English society.

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The novel, which was much more explicit before editors toned it down, still shocked and titillated readers of the day, especially women. (It’s even a joke in a Warner Bros. cartoon, Home Tweet Home.)

Not surprisingly, Hollywood saw an opportunity to replicate the success of Gone with the Wind. A movie adaptation was soon in the works at 20th Century Fox, in spite of the fact that the Hays office had already condemned the novel. Peggy Cummins was originally cast in the title role, but was replaced by Linda Darnell. John M. Stahl started directing the film, but he, too, was replaced, by Otto Preminger.

The film was one of the most expensive of its time (the initial $4.5 million budget eventually inflated to $6 million). Although it was a box-office hit, it wasn’t much of a critical success.

It’s not hard to see why. At close to a two and a half hour running time, it’s way too long. That might have been a way they tried to make it like Gone with the Wind, but Forever Amber has less of an epic feel and doesn’t deserve the extra running time. The Restoration period has never filmed that well–for one thing, the male characters, all with the same long hair style and mustache, look incredibly similar. Sometimes it’s easy to mix up Amber’s many lovers and admirers. (Possibly someone realized this, because Cornel Wilde remains clean-shaven throughout most of the movie.)

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This movie does have a few things going for it–Darnell is lovely, as always. She’s one of the few actresses who could credibly play both soft and hard female characters. George Sanders does a short but delicious turn as Charles II. (He’s perfect when he calls to his dogs every time he leaves a room with, “Come, children.”) In spite of the unfortunate male hair choices of the period, the lush production is gorgeous to look at.

Having read the book not that long ago, I would say a major problem was the constraints from the Hays Code. Not necessarily the lack of explicit sexual scenes, but in the way the characters are toned down. Amber is a horrendous person in the book, and yet she’s the protagonist, and a refreshing one at that.

What does carry over from book to film is Amber’s remarkable force of will. In spite of being done wrong by men more than once, she still has agency, driving the plot with her own choices and actions. She ditches her new husband on their wedding day to run to Bruce, then risks her own life and to tend to him when he is struck down by the plague. That this is both a heroic and selfish act gives her character some depth.

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Bruce in both the book and the movie is sort of a Restoration Period Mr. Big, floating in and out of Amber’s life at the most inopportune times. He knows perfectly well she has an unhealthy obsession with him but never breaks with her completely, though in the movie he does move on from her after he marries. (In the book he still can’t let her go.) In the movie, he gets a bit of redemption from the love of a good woman–bleh. It’s more interesting that he’s a consistent rotter in the book.

Some of the more salacious tidbits in the book are left out, no doubt because of the Hays Code: for instance, she has several abortions, only carrying to term children she is certain were fathered by Bruce.

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The most torrid bit is certainly cut–there’s a strong implication in the book that the elderly aristocrat she marries for his title is actually her biological father. (Though one of my favorite scenes in the movie is when she tells the controlling SOB that she thought his pride had dried up years ago–along with the rest of him. Heh.)

Otto Preminger supposedly hated the book, which may be another reason why the movie didn’t become a beloved historical drama like Gone with the Wind.

But it is one of the rare instances in film of a true anti-heroine. Amber is a woman who doesn’t apologize for her actions, and finds ways to flourish in a society that rigs the game against her. On that level, I enjoy it very much.

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19 thoughts on “The 1947 Blogathon: Forever Amber

    1. Thanks! That’s exactly what I thought to myself as I was watching the movie this time: he’s just like Mr. Big! And Amber is just like Carrie, taking him back, time after time. Some tropes never die. 🙂

  1. Thanks for this great pick! I’ve never seen Forever Amber from start to finish, and though I’ve had the book for years, I’ve never read it. Your post has made me want to check out both. I truly enjoyed your insights and your comparisons between the movie and the book — not to mention your referring to Bruce as a Restoration Period Mr. Big!! Thanks so much for this first-rate contribution to the blogathon!

  2. It is fascinating to read about the troubles behind the scenes on a production. I rather like losing myself in an historical epic, but haven’t seen “Forever Amber” in ages. I bet I could get the hubby to take a glance at this as he has a thing for Linda Darnell.

    1. Haha–I’ll bet your hubby will enjoy seeing Linda as a blonde for a change. I love the behind the scenes stories, too. It’s amazing all the things that can go wrong or almost wrong, and a memorable movie can still be the result!

  3. I enjoyed your take on the film. The book had such potential to be an epic but as you said the production code forced Fox to cut the guts out of it. Along with that is the fact that Preminger was just the wrong director for the material. I don’t know why Stahl was removed his more florid style was much more suited to the material.

    Still it’s sumptuous to look at, most of Linda’s costumes are drool worthy and the sets have that highly polished studio sheen that modern films just can’t replicate. Sanders is a blast as the king and it’s always a bit of a shock when Jessica Tandy pops up as Amber’s cohort. But really the big strength of the film is Linda Darnell in the lead, she’s my favorite actress but I don’t think I’m prejudiced saying that she drives the film to any worth that it has. It’s a shame the film didn’t serve her as well as she did it. When it received a critical drubbing for some reason she was blamed to a certain extent when the fault was elsewhere and her status was diminished in the studio pecking order.

    Ironically after years of searching I finally caught up with the film she made while awaiting post production to wrap on this, The Walls of Jericho, where she plays another scheming manipulator with the marvelous name of Algeria Wedge. Because she had to retain her amber locks until she was sure she wasn’t needed for re-shoots it’s the only other film where she doesn’t have her natural shade which she always felt worked best for her. The film which also co-stars Cornel Wilde as well as Kirk Douglas and Anne Baxter didn’t turn out to be a lost treasure but it was a decent drama with Linda and Kirk stealing acting honors from the top billed Cornel and Anne.

    One small tidbit about the behind the scenes action of Amber. Preminger was of course infamously hard on his casts and this one was no different. Linda had worked with him before and disliked him but by the end of this shoot loathed him outright. So a couple of years later when she was filming A Letter to Three Wives and Mankiewicz wanted a look of utter disdain when she looked at a picture that the audience couldn’t see he slipped in a picture of Otto without telling her. He got the desired reaction.

  4. Good pick as this is one of those juicy “making of” stories that I love to revisit, but you included so much more than I knew, especially enjoyed reading about the book changes/adaptation. Thanks for taking part!

    1. Thanks, Kristina! I love reading books classic movies are based on–any time I find them at garage sales, I grab them. Always so interesting to compare the book to the film.

      Thanks for co-hosting the blogathon!

    1. Thanks for linking to Roxane’s article–I love her!

      It’s a shame how this prejudice against unlikable women characters persists. I only care about interesting characters, whether they are nice or not nice.

  5. I honestly never considered the concept of an anti-heroine but now that you mention it there aren’t enough of them. I’m going to have to think about this and make a list of all the ones I can think of. I think they probably get distilled into manic pixies pretty often.

    1. Definitely not enough of them! Manic pixies are a little different because they function as a way for the hero to “find” himself. Anti-heroines are all about what they want–and I kind of love that!

  6. Very interesting piece – I haven’t seen this, but would certainly like to. I do tend to like Preminger so would be interested to see what he brings to the material. I’m reminded that in one of the Chalet School books that I read when I was a kid, one of the girls is expelled for reading ‘Forever Amber’ – she’s told that she is now no longer an innocent child!

    I’m wondering if some of Bette Davis’ characters could be described as anti-heroines, for instance in ‘Jezebel’? They always seem to get punished, though, so maybe not – but her characters do have that determination and energy.

    1. Thanks!

      There are a few anti-heroines who don’t get punished–Moll Flanders comes to mind. And Fanny Hill, too (if you could consider her an anti-heroine, she’s not really villainous). Becky Sharp lands on her feet at the end of Vanity Fair.

      But most get punished. In the book version of Forever Amber, she is tricked into believing Bruce wants her back, and sets off the America to claim him. In the movie, Bruce takes their child away from her.

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