The Joan Fontaine Centenary Blogathon: 1952’s Ivanhoe

Sir Walter Scott wrote thrilling action-adventure novels with intricate plots, often about his country when it was in it’s early days; Scotland.  He also wrote his best known novel about that neighboring country, and sometime foe of Scotland, England, set during the rule of King Richard I.  In the 1950s, using rich technicolor, the major movie studios were on a “historical” film fix, and MGM was no exception.  Wanting to make money with such a film, producer Pandro S. Berman got the greenlight to make a lavish film version of Scott’s novel, Ivanhoe.  Curious to me, that the majority of the cast was British or had ties to the UK, but for the lead, American actor Robert Taylor was selected to play Ivanhoe.  Two beautiful actresses were chosen to play the two women that love Ivanhoe, Elizabeth Taylor as Rebecca, and Joan Fontaine as Rowena.

Today, October 22nd, would have been Joan Fontaine’s 100th birthday.  She happened to be the younger sister of another great actress, Olivia de Haviland, who is still alive and kicking, at 101!  To celebrate this great actress’s life and career, be sure to visit Crystal’s blog site at In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood and Virginie’s at The Wonderful World of Cinema to read all of the great posts from other classic film fans.  

Joan, I felt, lived an exotic type of life.  She was born in Tokyo, Japan, to British parents.  Sadly, her parents’ marriage failed, and she and her sister Olivia were taken to CA by their mother, who had herself been on the stage as a young woman, and I think had an idea to have her daughters also pursue acting as a career.  Olivia had successes first, and then Joan did, also.  Joan’s first film role was in 1935’s No More Ladies playing a very minor role, but by 1940, better parts were coming her way and in 1941, she won the Best Actress Oscar for her part as the wife convinced her husband was out to kill her in Suspicion.

Ivanhoe, was an ensemble film, in that there were quite a few characters  all revolving around the hero, Ivanhoe.  For those not familiar with the novel or the film, I’ll explain the plot, but it will contain spoilers. Wilfrid of  Ivanhoe(Robert Taylor)  is the son of a proud Anglo-Saxon man, Sir Cedric of Ivanhoe(Finlay Currie).  Sir Cedric is also an angry man, angry that the dastardly Normans have conquered England, have brought their way of government and laws and taxes to crush the Anglo-Saxons with, and he is also mad that his son, Wilfrid, has decided to run off on a wild goose chase to find King Richard(Norman Wooland) who, while traveling to fight in the current crusade,has disappeared.  Wilfrid does find King Richard, he is a prisoner of King Leopold of Austria, who is holding King Richard for a huge ransom.  King Richard’s slimy little brother, Prince John(Guy Rolfe), knows all about this but is enjoying ruling for his absent brother.  Prince John decides to do nothing  to spring his brother out of King Leopold’s dungeon.

Super serious Ivanhoe

Ivanhoe returns to his father’s home to ask his father for help in procuring the ransom money, but his father, Sir Cedric, refuses to raise any money to rescue a Norman King! Ivanhoe also takes time during his visit to woo his love, the fair Lady Rowena(Joan Fontaine), who is his father’s ward.  Several wayward travelers arrive at Sir Cedric’s door, asking for food and a place to sleep for the night: two Norman knights, Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert(George Sanders) and Sir Hugh de Bracy(Robert Douglas) and Isaac of York, a Jewish money-lender(Felix Aylmer).  During the meal, the Normans insult the Anglo-Saxons, they ogle Lady Rowena, and as word has spread that there’s a money-lender at Sir Cedric’s, several men attack Isaac when he is checking on his  horse at the stable. The evil men’s plan to steal Isaac’s money fails when Ivanhoe rescues Isaac.  Sir Cedric has ordered his son out of his sight by this time, so Ivanhoe offers to escort Isaac to his home.  Wamba(Emlyn Williams), Sir Cedric’s jester, asks to be Ivanhoe’s squire, and accompanies Ivanhoe on the trip to Isaac’s home.  Once there, Isaac, so moved by Ivanhoe’s rescue of him, gives him the money to pay for King Richard’s ransom. Isaac also asks Ivanhoe to beseech the King that Jews in England won’t be persecuted anymore.  Isaac’s beautiful daughter, Rebecca(Elizabeth Taylor), quietly gives  Ivanhoe her late mother’s jewels to add to the ransom amount. This is  her way of thanking Ivanhoe for saving her father’s life.  Ivanhoe and Rebecca immediately are attracted to one another, but neither will act on their feelings due to the strict rules of the day forbidding Jews from  marrying Gentiles.

Isaac thanking Ivanhoe for saving his life

Joan Fontaine as Lady Rowena

I won’t go into too many more plot points, but there is a great jousting scene, a castle siege scene, Rebecca, Rowena, and Sir Cedric all get kidnapped by the evil Norman Knights, Sir Brian and Sir Hugh, as the two men are lusting after Rebecca and Rowena.  The two knights also know that holding these three hostage will bring Ivanhoe to them and they can kill him.  Prince John gets a whiff of a rumor that his big brother has been sprung from that dungeon in Austria, and he’s becoming a nervous wreck.   Of course, it will be Ivanhoe to the rescue, with some help from Robin Hood and his Merry Men(but they go by different names in this film.)

Evil, whiny, Prince John

Baddie Sir Brian trying to explain to Rebecca his love for her.

Lady Rowena thanks Rebecca for all she had done to save Ivanhoe’s life

Robert Taylor, plays his role well; very stoic throughout.  He doesn’t laugh much  because he has a lot of heroic things to do! George Sanders is great as nasty Norman Sir Brian, but then as the film progresses, we see his inner struggle with falling in love with a Jewish woman who doesn’t love him.  Elizabeth Taylor is gorgeous in the film, and plays her character with sincerity and warmth and a quiet strength.  Felix Aylmer, Finlay Currie, and Emlynn Williams are superb in their supporting roles, as is Guy Rolfe as Prince John.  Joan Fontaine, while not billed before Elizabeth Taylor on the movie poster, plays Rowena as a calm, and wise woman, who just wants peace for England, and for peace to exist between the man she loves, Ivanhoe, and his father.

To see this rousing epic, that was one of the top 4 films in England in 1952, and earned MGM big box office profits, seek out Ivanhoe.  As luck would have it, TCM will be airing Ivanhoe this week, on Oct. 25th, at 4:00 pm eastern/3:00 pm central.  The film is also available via Amazon’s instant rent.  Here is the link to Youtube to see the British version of the film trailer.

Lovely Joan Fontaine

 

 

 

 

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11 responses to this post.

  1. I like the background info you include with your reviews. I’ve learned a lot from you, and this review is no exception.

    I’ve not seen this film in its entirety because there’s something about Robert Taylor’s performance that puts me off. It might be his lack of humour…but, like you said, he is Very Busy doing Heroic things!

    Reply

  2. Posted by Le Magalhaes on October 26, 2017 at 10:51 PM

    Ivanhoe was very entertaining, but I thought Joan received less attention than Elizabeth Taylor. Well, it might have been Liz’s eyes in Technicolor!
    Kisses!
    Le

    Reply

    • Hi! Yes, you are right, Elizabeth Taylor got a lot more attention and her name was listed higher than Joan’s on most of the movie posters I viewed for this film. ET was a rising star in the early 1950s, which I can understand the studio wanting to make money off of her, but at the expense of somewhat ignoring an established star like Joan Fontaine makes it a bit sad, imho.

      Reply

  3. MGM certainly poured a lot of their best talent into this adaption of the classic. Everyone looks lovely, and the battle scenes are exciting.

    Reply

    • Hi Patricia,

      Yes, it’s a gorgeous looking film. The sets, costumes, technicolor, the filmed jousts all add to a great film. I couldn’t find the reason why Robert Taylor was cast in the lead, though, as I’m fairly certain there were a number of British actors who could’ve acted the role perfectly.

      Reply

  4. This was one of my favorite movies as a child. I even read Sir Walter Scott’s novel thanks to my love of this film.

    Reply

  5. […] from Portraits by Jenni gives us a great review of Ivanhoe a film starring two of classic films’s best ladies: Joan […]

    Reply

  6. I recently borrowed this film at the library but in the end didn’t have time to watch it so it’s still on my movie list. I think the fact that it reunites two of my favourite actresses should be enough to convince me to see it! Your review was great and made it another good reason to see it! Just the way you write about Elizabeth Taylor’s performance convinces me! And from your text, Joan Fontaine’s character sounds like a fascinating one.
    Thanks so much for your participation to our blogathon!

    Reply

  7. […] Portraits By Jenni joins the party with an intriguing article on Ivanhoe ( 1952 ) […]

    Reply

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