Lydia MacMillan (Merle Oberon) is an elderly woman who has never married, and whose life’s focus is philanthropy. After attending a dedication ceremony for a children’s home she’s given an endowment to, Lydia is visited by Dr. Michael Fitzpatrick (Joseph Cotten), a man she has not seen in nearly four decades.
Michael had once hoped to marry Lydia, and the two reminisce about the past. Michael invites Lydia to tea, and she readily accepts. But whens he arrives at Michael’s apartment, she finds a surprise: he’s also invited two other men she loved when she was young to tea. Bob (George Reeves) was a college football star, and Frank (Hans Jaray) was a musician when Lydia knew them all those years ago.
Lydia is delighted to catch up with these old friends, and as they talk about the events of the past forty years or so, their conversation turns to Lydia’s rejections of each of their proposals to her when they were young. The truth is, she only ever truly loved one man: Richard Mason (Alan Marshal), a sailor. Lydia, wanting to offer a proper explanation for why she refused to marry Michael, Bob and Frank (and why she broke their hearts), begins to tell the story of all of her great romances, beginning with the day she first met Michael in 1897.
Julien Duvivier directs Lydia, a remake of his own 1937 French film, Un carnet de bal. Duvivier’s original story, co-written by L. Bush-Fekete, was adapted for Hollywood by Ben Hecht and Samuel Hoffenstein.
They just don’t make romantic films like this anymore. Lydia effortlessly blends comedy, drama, sweetness and a reflective quality. Its pace is moderate but steady, and while the story is sentimental it never has the Velveeta level of sentimentality that would send it tumbling off of the Corny Cliff.
The characters are all lovable here. Even Richard Mason, who breaks Lydia’s heart and should be seen as villainous, oozes too much charm for the audience to completely hate him. Like Lydia, we fall somewhat under his spell.
Though Lydia herself remains the viewer’s main point of concern throughout the film’s running time, there are a few stand-out side characters, the most delightful being Lydia’s grandmother Sarah, portrayed by Edna May Oliver.
Lydia’s dear granny brings great comic relief to the film, and her relationship with Lydia is so nice to watch. Sarah offers up wisdom without trying to control her granddaughter, acting as both a mother-figure and a best friend. She’s very witty as well. (In one scene she remarks that a doctor who tells her to rest has “the brains of a worm”; in another, she says that Lydia needs to be checked by a doctor because she “came staggering home like a pelican.”) Oliver and Oberon work incredibly well together, and the close, realistic bond between their characters is only bolstered by their performances.
Though the script itself doesn’t bring the cheese, the truly fantastic cast also keeps this romantic drama heartfelt and touching rather than sappy. Merle Oberon definitely carries the film, but every single supporting cast member is perfect. From the suitors to Lydia’s grandma to even the butler (John Halliday), there is not a single bad performance given here.
Lydia is one of the best romantic dramas I’ve discovered all year. It doesn’t appear to be available anywhere on home video, which is a serious shame, but keep an eye out for it next time it pops up on TCM — it is more than worthy of a watch! The score: 5/5!