Each decade enjoys nostalgic costume movies - usually with ladies in corsets and bustles. The war-torn years of the 1940s seem especially keen on remembering yesteryear.
Enter Lydia (1941) in which a never-married lady of a certain age (Merle Oberon) reminiscences with her former beaux (including Joseph Cotten) about her many romances at the turn of the twentieth century.
Why would any self-respecting person sit there and listen to stories of his ex's conquests, reliving why she spurned him and in the company of the other men?
Are there some details that now make the torture of rejection easier to bear? No. Is anyone making amends for poor behavior in the distant past? Not really. Are the characters wiser for having listened? No.
What's the point?
According to Bosley Crowther, who reviewed the film for the New York Times:
"The only point which is made is that a woman seldom knows her own mind, and when she does pick out a lover he is likely to be the wrong one. For that is the way it is with Lydia, and in old age she merely sighs and drops a tear."
Despite paying lip service to the decisive, wise, independent female type, our heroine is fickle and foolish and she ends up being no less self-centered in her twilight years. Come, darlings! It's a reunion where we all talk about me! me! me! and why I never married you! Doesn't that sound fun?
Lydia isn't all bad. The parts which work are the vignettes of the past. Each actor is particularly winning when he or she is playing his/her younger self. It is not youth which makes the characters interesting, it’s the distinctive character traits.
When playing the older version of their roles, the actors seem generic, as if sitting down in a white wig imbues you with forty extra years of experience on this planet. It doesn’t. The men -who earlier had distinct personalities - are now almost indistinguishable from one another. Their performances in the later scenes are almost patronizing.
It's a shame, really. This could have been a Citizen Kane (also released in 1941), where, yes, the aging makeup is overdone, caked on and dated, but you still get a sense of the person underneath the rubber crows feet.
Another problem with Lydia is the strange editing. The present constantly interrupts the flashbacks. Flashbacks work well when you involve the audience for a long enough time for them to relax into the second story and gradually bring them out again at a decent interval.
For example, I'm really getting into the Lydia and the Sailor vignette, the guy breaks her heart, then the movie snatches me back out of it to chuckle over how foolish Lydia was to have an "affair" with some random dude. I'm not in the mood to laugh, movie. I'm still bereft about the two of them not getting married, thank you.
Perhaps the movie shouldn’t give away so much information up front so they can create suspense later. Perhaps it should all be told in chronological order. Or perhaps more of the narrative could have been given to each guy so that we see his point of view and get more of the story.
There are terrible flaws in this film, but watch it anyway for these reasons:
- Edna May Oliver is outstanding as Lydia’s salty grandmother. She’s stern and wise , she has dignity and gives a sense of humor to a role that easily could have been unlikeable since she has to say “no” to our heroine a lot. Perhaps it’s because she is the real thing – a lady with plenty of life experience who actually is decisive and independent – that the older Lydia pales in comparison..
- The Walter Plunkett 19th century/ early 20th century costumes are a joy to see. I love the muffs.
- The performances in the vignettes are very good. Perhaps you should skip straight to the flashbacks.
- Julien Duvivier, the director, directed another episodic nostalgic film - the one, perhaps, on which Lydia is based - the French film Un carnet de bal (1937).
- For a Hollywood film in the 1940s which gives more polished flashback editing and storytelling, watch A Letter to Three Wives (1949), written and directed by Joseph Mankiewicz. Like Lydia, it is also about female nostalgia and the men they love.