Hold Back the Dawn (Blu-ray Review)

  • Reviewed by: Dennis Seuling
  • Review Date: Sep 24, 2019
  • Format: Blu-ray Disc
  • Bookmark and Share
Hold Back the Dawn (Blu-ray Review)


Mitchell Leisen

Release Date(s)

1941 (July 16, 2019)


Paramount Pictures (Arrow Academy)
  • Film/Program Grade: B-
  • Video Grade: B+
  • Audio Grade: B
  • Extras Grade: A

Hold Back the Dawn (Blu-ray Disc)



Hold Back the Dawn (1941) takes place in a Mexican border town filled with European émigrés hoping to get into the United States. The small, sun-drenched town is dusty, hot, and dull. All those wanting to gain entry must bide their time and make the best of a bad, hopefully temporary, situation. Among them is George Iscovescu (Charles Boyer), a Romanian who gets the demoralizing news that the wait time for émigrés from his home country is eight years.

An unexpected encounter with his former professional dance partner and old flame Anita Dixon (Paulette Goddard) reveals that she married an American to shortcut the immigration process and divorced him as soon as she was granted citizenship. Inspired, George attempts to follow the same plan but the only American women he finds want a brief flirtation and are already married.

His prospects brighten with Emmy Brown (Olivia de Havilland), an American schoolteacher in town on a field trip with her class. She is enchanted with George’s courtly manner and falls for him. Things appear to be going according to plan until George realizes he’s developing real feelings for Emmy.

Director Mitchell Leisen bookends the story with George on the run, disheveled and out of breath, approaching a movie director (played by Leisen) he has met before and offering to sell him his story. Intrigued, the director listens to his tale, and virtually the entire film unfolds as one long flashback.

Boyer, whose screen portrayals often have an element of gigolo, is a perfect fit for George. Paulette Goddard is well cast as a tough broad who’s learned how to play the angles to get what she wants. Olivia de Havilland is very good as well, though her character is troublesome. Her enamored teacher Emmy seems awfully irresponsible and naive not to see through George’s feigned attraction to her. She doesn’t seem appropriately concerned with the welfare of her students either, allowing them to toss lit firecrackers at pedestrians and even leaving them in the care of strangers when telephoning the school to explain that they’ll have to stay in Mexico overnight because their bus broke down.

Written by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, the movie lacks the wit of other Wilder pictures. Apparently, the script contained more humor—some of it dark—that didn’t wind up in the finished film, making it more melodramatic. This was Leisen’s decision. The idea of being trapped indefinitely and its effect on individuals was used a year later in Casablanca with “letters of transit” the only way out of the Nazi-occupied country.

The plot hinges on U.S. immigration quotas that were established for various countries. The issue of controlling migration from the south has been problematic for politicians for decades, and recent headlines about migration from Central American countries give the film a timely relevance. Hold Back the Dawn went on to receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), and Best Screenplay.

The Blu-ray release, featuring 1080p resolution, is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1 and has been transferred from original film elements. The booklet lists the following information about the restoration: “A safety duplicate 35mm negative was scanned in 2K resolution on an Arriscan at NBC Universal. The film was graded on Digital Vision’s Nucoda Film Master and restored at R3Store Studios in London. The original mono mix was remastered from the optical negatives at Deluxe Audio Services, Hollywood. All materials for this respiration were made available by NBC Universal.”

The visual quality is sharp, with rich blacks. The small Mexican town is bright, suggesting a ubiquitous and oppressive sun blazing down on the dusty streets. A village celebration of married couples shows the husbands and wives holding candles as they make their way to the altar to receive a blessing from the priest. The car chase is an exciting sequence with many camera set-ups and even some tracking shots.

The soundtrack is uncompressed English mono LPCM. The dialogue is crisp throughout. Spanish is spoken by minor characters but is always translated by English-speaking characters. Sound effects include firecrackers tossed by one of Emmy’s students, which creates a loud pop that breaks the general quiet of the sleepy village; a car horn’s impatient honking; a mariachi band at a festival celebration; and solemn organ music during a church sequence. Victor Young’s atmospheric score suffers the most because the recording is muddy and individual instruments do not stand out. Optional English subtitles are available for the hearing impaired.

Bonus materials on this Unrated, newly-restored Blu-ray release include an audio commentary, a filmed appreciation of the film, an audio interview with Olivia de Havilland, a radio adaptation, an image gallery, a booklet, and a reversible sleeve. The film’s running time is 1 hour, 56 minutes.

Audio Commentary – Film scholar Adrian Martin refers to the film as the result of contributions from the director, writers, producer, and studio. He discusses the prologue of the film and its overall structure. Mitchell Leisen plays the director in the movie, Mr. Saxon. Billy Wilder, who was a genius at script construction, is more famous today than Leisen. Wilder was still learning English when he wrote the screenplay with Charles Brackett. Wilder’s scripts usually break down into 10-minute segments. George is a manipulator, and we are asked to admire and appreciate the fast thinking of a schemer. Charles Boyer was an actor who could exploit different aspects of his personality. Leisen eliminated much of Wilder’s dark humor, and Wilder was not pleased with the final film. The themes of identity, role play, and redemption through love are all present in Hold Back the Dawn and other Leisen films. Emmy becomes the expert game player, reversing roles with George. The final section of the film is faster paced and contains an exciting car chase. Leisen takes the time to give minor characters a send-off and George, in the final shot, moves through the crowd toward freedom and love.

Love Knows No Borders – Film critic Geoff Andrews refers to Mitchell Leisen as “one of the most underrated Hollywood directors” even though he was one of Paramount’s most important directors in the 1930s and 1940s. His reputation has suffered because he was an “uneven director,” often taking on less than top-quality pictures. Both Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges were not happy with the films Leisen directed based on their scripts. Leisen had been a costume designer for Cecil B. DeMille on King of Kings and The Sign of the Cross. He learned from DeMille that you can tell a story through the look of a film. Leisen was interested in the effects of money (or lack of it) and class on people’s lives. Themes and characters are discussed.

The John Player Lecture: Olivia de Havilland – In this 1971 audio interview for the National Film Theatre, Olivia de Havilland discusses her career, beginning with her casting in Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Radio Drama – The 1941 Lux Radio Theatre production of Hold Back the Dawn, starring Charles Boyer and Paulette Goddard in their original film roles and Susan Hayward as Emmy, is introduced by Cecil B. DeMille.

Image Gallery – A very rapid slideshow features black-and-white film stills and American and foreign movie posters. Unfortunately, you cannot freeze individual images.

Booklet – A 20-page insert booklet includes the essay Frontiers of the Heart: Revisiting Hold Back the Dawn by Farran Smith Nehme, 3 black-and-white photos, 3 poster reproductions, a cast and crew listing, and details of the restoration.

Reversible Sleeve – The sleeve features both the original poster art of Hold Back the Dawn (Boyer with de Havilland on the left, Boyer with Goddard on the right) and newly commissioned artwork by Jennifer Dionisio.

– Dennis Seuling