Directed by Mitchell Leisen and written by screenwriting superteam Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder, Hold Back the Dawn is an uncomfortably prescient movie to revisit in 2019. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that classic Hollywood wasn’t all epics and noirs. The social pictures, when they came, they came for you hard.
Such is the case here. In previous decades, Hold Back the Dawn might have been best remembered as the only collaboration between the suavest of leading men (Charles Boyer) and the sweetest of leading women (Olivia de Havilland). It’s a romance, yes, but more of a romantic tragedy than a comedy, even though it ends happily enough. There’s nothing more tragic than the United States’ backwards stance on immigration.
Yes, that’s the backdrop of Hold Back the Dawn — immigrants and refugees waiting to cross the Mexican border in 1941 in the hopes that they will become U.S. citizens. The film centers on Boyer’s Georges Iscovescu, a Romanian gigolo whose initial motives for emigrating from Europe are pretty churlish compared to the German family waiting for their visas so their next child will be born on U.S. soil: Thanks to the War, European women no longer have money, and Georges can no longer coast along in the luxury to which he’s been accustomed. He wants to keep coasting in New York but gets stuck in Mexico because that year’s quota of Romanians has already been permitted through the border.
Lucky for Georges, he meets former flame Anita (Paulette Goddard) who tells him the secret: Marry an American, and you only have to wait weeks instead of years to get on the other side of that fence. Wait a couple more weeks until your citizenship papers come through, and file for divorce. Ditch the marriage, keep the visa. Simple as that.
Georges sets his sights on Emmy Brown (de Havilland), a naive young schoolteacher visiting Mexico with a band of unruly students. He sweeps her off her feet, marries her just before she returns to the U.S. and inconveniently falls in love with her when she unexpectedly returns to Mexico to go on an impromptu honeymoon with him.
It’s about as Hollywood a story as you can get with a familiar boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl plot that takes some fairly dramatic turns to keep you on your toes. But it’s the immigration stuff that sets this romance apart, because it roils.
Even in 1941, immigration was a hot-button issue. Hold Back the Dawn was released two months before Pearl Harbor, when the United States was trying to stay out of the war and panicking about the amount of European refugees coming to its shores. Two years before, the U.S. turned back a ship of Jewish refugees who were fleeing the Nazis, a full third of whom were later murdered in concentration camps. Many more were refused entry with the catch-all alarmist reasoning that these refugees could be German spies.
It is not an exaggeration to say thousands of people needlessly died during World War II simply because of restrictive U.S. immigration policies. Hold Back the Dawn never openly acknowledges this, of course, but it does harbor some bitterness toward the U.S. or its fear-based refusal to open its borders to those who most desperately need sanctuary.
And there’s where it really gets interesting. Consider Hold Back the Dawn’s location — the Mexican border — and its hopeful immigrants. White Europeans, all. Classic Hollywood has pretty much always done whatever it can to erase people of color from their own struggles in order to reassign those struggles to white people. Most egregiously, Captain Blood, another de Havilland film from 1935, completely omits African slavery in 17th-century Jamaica in favor of fictitious “white slavery,” a dangerous myth that persists today. The same holds for Dawn, which, as a film, is in favor of immigration … as long as those immigrants are white.
In the same breath that de Havilland’s Emmy praises the diversification of American names from Ives to Iscovescu, she reiterates that most American of beliefs: Strict immigration laws are good because they keep the scum out. The scum she refers to seems nebulous until one considers that she is saying these words in a rural Mexican village, where she and Georges have crashed a saint’s day celebration on their honeymoon. The people of the village welcome these white interlopers and bless their new marriage along with all the others, yet her meaning is clear based on her surroundings: The villagers are the scum. They belong here in Mexico. They do not belong in America.
At the same time, in its efforts to whitewash immigration, Hold Back the Dawn makes the Europeans guilty of all the tactics white Americans attribute to non-white immigrants, both today and in the past. These Europeans marry Americans to get their visas, they sneak across the border to give birth to their children on American soil, they find ancestral loopholes that grant them automatic citizenship, they literally crash through the gates and lead Border Patrol on a wild goose chase throughout southern California. The white people here ought to be labeled scum, according to American rhetoric. But of course, they never are.
It’s possible I’m projecting too much of the current crisis on this 78-year-old movie, but it’s also impossible to not do so. On the one hand, it’s a relief to know today’s nativist hatred is nothing new; on the other, it’s also incredibly demoralizing. From then to now, the parallels are there. The hypocrisy is there. The only thing that’s missing is the children in cages and the concentration camps. That’s a 2019 addition, not a relic from 1941.
Hold Back the Dawn is now available on Blu-ray from Arrow Films, with a handful of special features that will mostly please fans of de Havilland (still alive and kicking at the grand old age of 103). More importantly, though, think about your history. If you are not Native American, you are a descendant of immigrants, whether violent colonizers or desperate refugees. My grandfather’s family of French Huguenots fled religious persecution in the 1600s; my Macedonian grandmother was a year old when her mother escaped the Nazis with her small children on the last commercial ship out of Italy before World War II.
Think, just for a moment. Then donate to RAICES. And then vote.