Romancing Immigration

The poetic, romantic dialog spoken by star Charles Boyer is often grating and obvious in Hold Back the Dawn. But, that’s also on purpose – Boyer is playing a Romanian immigrant, staying on the US/Mexico border, trying to woo an American woman for purposes of citizenship. The faster he marries, the faster he enter America. Speaking in the language of a swooning love letter makes that happen.

In 1941, immigration stalled Stateside. Wartime fears were partly responsible, along with leftover national resentment from World War I. Then comes Hold Back the Dawn, an often scathing look at the border and the policies that guide it. There is balance. Boyer’s character is a shyster, exactly the caricature of the criminally influenced waiting for their shot to cross national borders. Through the script, the dialog, the romance, Boyer reforms. Anyone is right for America in the end.

If the main storyline doesn’t capture the angst among immigrants holding their place at a small border hotel, the side characters do. One is pregnant, hoping her papers will come in before the birth so her child can hold citizenship. She suffers and refuses medical treatment as her contractions start, slipping out of the hotel, slyly lying to a guard, and having her baby on US soil. It’s dangerous. It’s stupid. But it matters that much.

Hold Back the Dawn returns to relevancy each election season

There’s also the dialog. One man recites the plaque on the Statue of Liberty. Boyer and co-star Olivia de Havilland share a conversation, describing America as “clear and fresh… it’ll never get stagnant while new streams are flowing in.” Boyer retorts, “Your people are building pretty high dams to stop those streams.” Hold Back the Dawn returns to relevancy each election season. Released two months prior to Pearl Harbor, Hold Back the Dawn is a film desperate to see change; the message sadly came too late.

Earning an Oscar nomination for her part, de Havilland plays a naive school teacher, swindled for a while and pushed into marriage. She’s stellar in the part, blissful and unaware of possible complications that come with marrying a non-US citizen. De Havilland tells Boyer of the fear emanating from her family, with one conservative members sure that Boyer is a brutish criminal because he’s not American. Stereotypes incite suspicion. Without bias on her mind, de Havilland doesn’t pre-judge, leading to a Hollywood-ized outcome.

Improbable as the concept is – de Havilland goes from bystander to wife in less than day, with no sense of apprehension – the storybook romantic pieces serve Hold Back the Dawn. Or at least, hold the external pieces together. The goal is to woo an audience with love. Then, a show of empathy for those struggling to earn better life.


Arrow gives this early ‘40s film a gorgeous presentation. Notable is the gray scale, rich and pure with sensational contrast. Mexico’s sun hits hard, full of brightness and life as if Hold Back the Dawn hasn’t faded a bit in 80 years. Shadows hit pure density with no drop of detail lost inside.

Scratches and dirt will impede this print. Damage is minuscule in terms of impact though. They add to the vintage aesthetic rather than take away. It’s stable imagery thankfully, with no gate weave or distortion. Hold Back the Dawn’s natural, analog age makes for an attractive HD transfer.

With enough sharpness, source imperfections fade anyway. This high-res scan treats Hold Back the Dawn with care and offering it appropriate prominence. Resolution produces beautiful detail, capturing the best of this California-sourced scenery. Under the scrutiny of modern mastering, the Mexican setting looks authentic with detailed set work. Close-ups pull out facial detail at a level uncommon for the era.

Minus any obvious processing, grain stands out without turning digital. This convincingly looks like film.


Clarity in the uncompressed PCM track manages dialog with firmness. The hollowness of early sound-on-film isn’t evident here. That’s left to the score, straining at the top but keeping well-managed bass.

The only real problem point is a parade where the overall volume sounds stretched, leading to a mangled mono tussle.


Adrian Martin offers his commentary work, detailing production anecdotes and history as he speaks. Alternatively, an interview with de Havilland from 1971 is available over the film too. A video essay appreciation for director Mitchell Leisen runs 22-minutes, with the radio play following and an image gallery afterward.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

Hold Back the Dawn
  • Video
  • Audio
  • Extras


A fervent defense of immigration immediately prior to World War II, Hold Back the Dawn uses border town romance to make its point.

User Review
0 (0 votes)

The 15 unaltered images below represent the Blu-ray. For an additional 18 Hold Back the Dawn screenshots, early access to all screens (plus the 30,000+ already in our library), 75+ exclusive 4K UHD reviews, and more, support us on Patreon.