She was the dreams and the dreamer, the object of delusions and bearer of her own delusions. 1941's Lydia is a romantic film that muses sadly over the illusion of romance. At times stunningly gorgeous with perfect performances from Merle Oberon and Joseph Cotten, its screenplay co-written by the great Ben Hecht, Lydia is a bittersweet contemplation of infatuation.
Oberon plays Lydia. We meet her with pretty bad ageing makeup after she's led a long life as an admired administrator of orphanages for blind children. Even this is a reflection of the film's central theme, that Lydia chooses to become the custodian of blind children. Joseph Cotten plays Michael, one of the four men whom she considers the great loves of her life, and he brings her to a gathering with two of the others. Most of the film is a flashback as Lydia and the three men recount their relationships and Lydia discusses Richard (Alan Marshal), the only man who is not present, whom she loved more than the others.
Another of the men, Frank (Hans Jaray), is a blind pianist who works at the orphanage. He becomes infatuated with Lydia though he erroneously believes she has blue eyes and blonde hair. Bob (George Reeves) immediately corrects Lydia's story about a ballroom where she first met him--first we see a filmed version of her story; a great room with mirrored walls and an orchestra fit for kings; Bob remembers a small room with a third rate orchestra and, crucially, he remembers Michael looking pretty miffed when he whisked Lydia away onto the dance floor.
Again and again, the movie presents these wouldbe lovers having an impression inspired by their own feelings crushed by reality. Lydia, in her recollections, at one point consciously dissociates herself from the woman she remembers--even for her, Lydia is a being perceived, not a being that could have its own point of view.
Lydia comes from a wealthy Boston family--her mother is played with wonderful, sharp strictness by Edna May Oliver. Lydia is incredibly beautiful and it seems as though she and the men spend their lives trying to figure out what to do with this rare treasure that is an exceptionally beautiful woman with exceptional means. She seems like she was meant for a great romance, so they all go through the effort of making one, yet none of it quite seems to pan out. Through it all, Michael is solid and always there for her, but as we know from the beginning of the movie, even that romance doesn't actually connect. The beautiful dream Lydia becomes the real woman who leads blind children through the world.