Other Noteworthy Supporting Performances:
Mary Astor (The Hurricane)
Fay Bainter (Make Way for Tomorrow)
Andrea Leeds (Stage Door)
May Whitty (Night Must Fall)
Gail Patrick (Stage Door)
Mary Nash (Easy Living)
Gale Sondergaard (The Life of Emile Zola)
Constance Collier (Stage Door)
Alice Brady (In Old Chicago)
Since Dita Parlo’s Elsa appears on the screen so little in Jean Renoir’s masterpiece Grand Illusion, my choice may appear frivolous – a brazen attempt to shoehorn in an actor I admire. While my overall admiration for Parlo’s skills may have influenced my decision, it did not determine it. Yes, she has a relatively small role, but what she does in that limited time is so heartfelt and convincing that, for me, it’s an obvious choice.
In the last third of the picture, after the pair of French prisoners of war escape from the German POW camp, we meet a woman who has to bear the true cost of war on an intensely personal level. Elsa’s husband and brothers have died leaving her to take care of the isolated family farm and raise her child alone. When Maréchal and Rosenthal stumble into her life she has already mourned. There is no more time for frivolous emotion and she has resigned herself to her fate without a word of complaint, as though complaint could change anything. With this fact in mind, she quietly goes through the motions of life, resolved to raise her child as best as she can in her war-scarred home.
Maréchal, though, gives her a glimpse of happiness and Parlo does a wonderful job of gradually letting down Elsa’s guard as she allows the French officer into her life and her heart. She knows his foreign language and uniform makes him the enemy, she knows his countrymen killed her men, but she doesn’t have the emotional energy to hate any more than she has the energy to mourn anymore. Blind hatred won’t bring back her loved ones; it was, after all, blind hate that caused their deaths in the first place. Just as she abandoned overt sentimentality for the dead, she also rejected unnecessary antipathy. This pragmatic approach to human relationships grants her the ability to love again, something the nations of Europe were not able to translate diplomatically after the First World War leading to another disastrous war, exactly as Renoir feared.
Of course she knows it can’t last. Maréchal has to leave her or he will be arrested. This awareness tinges her rare smiles with a wary fatalism. Yes, Maréchal promises to return after the war, but does she believe him? Does he believe himself? When he leaves her, alone on the farm with her child, she probably knows she will never see him again, but accepts the fleeting joy he brought her. It is better to enjoy the spurts of good time life gives, than to dwell on that which is lost.
Dita Parlo is able to temper her natural vulnerability for a much stronger, weather-beaten woman. Elsa may have been sweet-natured and sensitive at one time, but it would be safe to assume those traits were beaten down with each successive death notice along with the day-to-day burden of caring for a child and farm. Elsa’s story is written on her face; there are no histrionics or award-obvious monologues. It’s all Dita Parlo’s subtle performance which turned a small part into a major character, both narratively and thematically. It’s the kind of performance that is easily overlooked, but deserves to be remembered and appreciated.