I first ran across Frenchman’s Creek (1944) when I was putting together the Man Candy Monday post on Basil Rathbone and was intrigued. Unfortunately, there were no stills from the movie online other than the tiny, black-and-white one I found of Rathbone in his costume, and the film seemed to be out of print near as I could tell, so I moved on to other pursuits. Then, my friend Andrew contacted me a few months ago to let me know that he had obtained a DVD of Frenchman’s Creek, and would I like to come up to San Francisco and watch it over some dinner and wine? You bet I would!
Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, the story opens in 1668 and centers on Dona, Lady St. Columb (Joan Fontaine), who is in a dead-end marriage with a buffoonish husband, living an unfulfilling life of privilege in London society while slowly dyyyyyiiiiing of boredom and the incessant sexual harassment of her husband’s skeezy best friend, Lord Rockingham (Basil Rathbone). As any good feisty redhead worth her fiery temperament, Dona decides she’s absolutely had enough of both her husband and Rockingham’s bullshit, and she packs her things and her kids off to her country estate on the coast of Cornwall (which looks suspiciously like Mendocino, California).
Dona has no real idea of what she plans to do once she’s installed at her oceanside estate, but a path out of her boring life becomes immediately apparent when she discovers that her home has been used as a safe house for a pirate crew in her absence. Said pirate captain is a dashing Jean Benoit Aubrey (Arturo de Cordova) who declares he had already fallen in love with Dona’s portrait by the time the real woman has shown up, and it doesn’t take much more than a couple of scenes of witty banter to convince Dona that she’s crushing pretty hard on Aubrey in return.
What makes this an interesting film of its time is that it features a female lead with a whole lot more agency than women’s roles were usually accorded (hell, even today it’s rare to get a female character with as much self-determination as Dona has). Don’t get me wrong, it’s still awash in gendered stereotypes, but the story at least lets Dona be a strong lead without resorting to sexual manipulation or making her the bad girl.
The costumes were designed by Raoul Pene Du Bois, and I give him high marks for largely sticking to the appropriate late 1660s silhouette for both men and women. This means the men are transitioning from petticoat breeches and shorter frock coats into the longer lines of the later 17th century, while the women have the tight, cylindrical shape to their bodices, low collars, and plenty of heaving bosoms. That’s not to say that there aren’t the usual Golden Age of Hollywood glamour touch-ups, notably where hair and makeup are concerned. But overall, the costumes are beautiful and evocative of the era even if they don’t slavishly stick to accuracy.
Dona has a costume change in practically every scene, so I am only going to cover the ones I thought were particularly noteworthy in the interest of conserving server space. Forgive me if you’ve seen this film and I skipped one of your beloved costumes … Or just donate some money to us so we can afford to upgrade our servers, and I can post all 100+ images I screencapped of every single costume Joan Fontaine wears in the film.
Dona’s Black and Silver Gown in Frenchman’s Creek
Can you say “fabulous”? This is the first gown Dona wears in the film, and I love it. I love the hair jewels, the dramatic black and silver lace, the swooping skirt … Just give it all to me.
Dona’s Dark Green Velvet Traveling Outfit in Frenchman’s Creek
One of my favorites, mostly because of the buttoned front on the bodice, which you can see she’s undone to loosen her stays after five days in a carriage. I though that was a nice little touch.
Dona’s Pink Striped Picnic Gown in Frenchman’s Creek
I think this one was one of the weakest of her gowns, owing to the weirdness in the bodice and neckline. It almost looks like it was too small for her and they had to hack it to make it fit.
Dona’s Pink Quilted Dressing Gown in Frenchman’s Creek
Dona’s White Satin Dinner Gown in Frenchman’s Creek
You’re going to have an intimate dinner with a pirate captain, what else would you wear?
Dona’s Blue Visiting Gown in Frenchman’s Creek
Dona visits the neighbors to stir up a little drama and gather intel for her pirate boyfriend while wearing this fetching number.
Dona’s Pirate Raid Costume in Frenchman’s Creek
Dona changes into boy’s clothes to assist Aubrey with capturing a merchant ship. Obviously this fools everyone into thinking she’s actually a boy.
Dona’s White Striped Mantua in Frenchman’s Creek
This was the one outfit I had to quibble with, mainly because the mantua style does not make its first appearance until about 10 years after the year that the film is set in. Also, that fontange is awful.
Dona’s Orange Silk Tissue Gown in Frenchman’s Creek
So, so pretty and so, so hard to get a good screen cap of it.
Dona’s Red and White Striped Jail Visit Dress in Frenchman’s Creek
Stripes are always a good call when you’re visiting your pirate boyfriend in jail.
Captain Aubrey’s Costumes in Frenchman’s Creek
Aubrey spends most of the film running around either shirtless under his jerkin or wearing a crop-top chain maille shirt. It’s a thing, I guess.
Lord Rockingham’s Costumes in Frenchman’s Creek
Rockingham, oh Rockingham … You rock-my-world-ing-ham.
The Full-Bottomed Wigs in Frenchman’s Creek
I love a man in a full-bottomed wig, and Frenchman’s Creek definitely delivers on that account.
Pirate Shenaniganry in Frenchman’s Creek
Have you seen Frenchman’s Creek (1944)? Tell us what you think!