Fox Cinema Archives DVD Review: Forever Amber (1947)

Now Available to Own   

Like the hand-painted pages in an old-fashioned storybook, Forever Amber is a lush Technicolor adaptation of Kathleen Winsor’s eponymous, scandalously sexual 972 paged epic.

Obviously inspired by Scarlett O’Hara, Amber concerns a willful social climber in 17th century England who escapes what she perceives will be a dull life as a farm wife for the first of many affairs and men until she reaches a higher status and title as part of the royal entourage.

Given the sudsy potential of Winsor’s rabid bestseller that in all actuality boasts too much plot to easily capture in a little over two hours, Twentieth Century Fox wasted no time in snapping up the rights of what they hoped would be the next Gone With the Wind.

Replacing not only its original lead (with a sensational Linda Darnell filling in for young inexperienced newcomer Peggy Cummins) but the film’s director as well, Fox pulled out all the stops to ensure that their adaptation of the book that had been banned by the Catholic Church and condemned by the Hay’s Code would be worthy of the public’s adoration.

Giving the work a whopping estimated budget of six million dollars, studio bosses kept a close eye on production. Needing to substitute Leave Her to Heaven helmer John M. Stahl (after thirty-nine days and three hundred thousand dollars worth of funds had been spent), they chose Otto Preminger, who not only had a history with Fox but with each successive film had begun branching out to different genres.

Following his work on early screwball comedies (like Danger – Love at Work) to Broadway adaptations (Margin for Error) and Film Noir (Laura), Preminger proved adept at period productions, tackling A Royal Scandal and Centennial Summer for Fox.

He banded together with an impressive group of behind-the-scenes collaborators including the man who’d lensed Stahl’s gorgeous Leave Her to Heaven and would go on to film South Pacific, The King and I, and Cleopatra in the form of Leon Shamroy. And together, Preminger and Shamroy made a staggeringly ambitious, sophisticated sudsy epic that painted Amber in Scarlett O’Hara light, complete with a heartbreaking final shot.

Reuniting with composer David Raskin who’d scored Laura with what is now considered a definitive Noir genre soundtrack, Preminger and Shamroy’s frames inspired Raskin to new heights as his lively, romantic Amber score garnered the musical virtuoso an Oscar nomination.

An easily compelling period work — while admittedly daring in its frank depiction of a morally loose woman — Amber also managed to make us empathize and identify with the self-sufficient and at times coldly ambitious (anti)heroine against the odds.

Given Amber’s multifaceted characterizations that are much more fascinating when viewed through the lens of a different time period, credit is due to its three talented screenwriters who’ve managed to address certain double standards about gender in a surprisingly daring work for its 1947 release date (not to mention its 17th century setting).

Hardly an era of women’s lib, nonetheless Amber’s struggle to reconcile her own needs and wants with her role as a single mother — while the father of her son lives a carefree life free from responsibilities — is touched upon in intriguing ways throughout the film.

While we can’t abide her more manipulative side, all in all, Amber is damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t while trying to find her way in a time period where women are defined by their associations with men.

Released during the height of the post-Casablanca/post-WWII women’s weepie subgenre, the film helped foreshadow the popular theme of ‘50s melodramas in which sometimes people don’t live happily ever after. Likewise arguing that there are different societal roles and expectations for each gender, Amber’s rich subtext makes Preminger’s long out-of-print, engrossing epic such a tantalizing find today.

A conflicted, complicated movie with its fair share of conflicted, complicated three dimensional characters, Forever Amber has been given a beautiful high gloss polish to the old Technicolor negatives for this Fox Cinema Archives release.

The latest entry in the studio’s collection of manufactured on demand Preminger titles (following the recent slate of his earliest directorial efforts released at the start of the year), Forever Amber will also be forever remembered for helping give birth to the popularity of its heroine’s name in post-WWII newborns of the baby-boomer generation.

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