Saturday, 31 August 2013

The Wicked Lady (1945)
Margaret Lockwood
Madonna of the Seven Moons may be Gainsborough’s most over-the-top film, but there can be little doubt that The Wicked Lady is the studio’s most famous. I can well recall the fuss that surrounded the filming of Michael Winner’s 1983 remake starring Faye Dunaway. Even then, the reverential way that journalists referenced the original impressed upon me what an impact it had made in 1945. And no wonder.
Based on the novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, it's the story of a woman who steals her cousin’s fiancée, grows bored with married life, turns to highway robbery, cuckolds her husband with the country’s most notorious highwayman, then turns to murder before dying after a bungled robbery, and is an absolute classic of British cinema. Margaret Lockwood is gloriously seductive as Barbara Worth/Lady Skelton, the Wicked Lady of the title ...
Margaret Lockwood
James Mason is icily cold as her highwayman lover, Jerry Jackson ...
Lockwood & James Mason
... and Patricia Roc is the perfectly innocent foil to their antics: even when Lockwood sets about stealing Roc’s second fiancée (played by Michael Rennie), Roc seems happy to accept her fate.
The film was an absolute triumph; 104 minutes of escapist fun for a nation that had grown weary of war and was eager for glorious melodrama. The incredible fact is that in terms of tickets sold, The Wicked Lady is the ninth most successful film ever shown in British cinemas. In other words: Margaret Lockwood was a more popular man-eater than Jaws, and more cinemagoers saw the inside of Maryiot Cells (Lord and Lady Skelton’s home) than the inside of Hogwarts School. No wonder Lockwood was voted Britain’s favourite actress for three years running during the late 1940s.
And what was the main selling point? Sex.
Here we see Lockwood looking towards the source of the film's major attraction:
Patricia Roc and Margaret Lockwood
In the words of Time Out's film reviewer, Paul Taylor: "Post-war uplift become almost exclusively a matter of Ms Lockwood's cleavage in this period melodrama, that caused a censorious and highly profitable controversy in a teacup for its quaint bawdiness."

Lockwood’s cleavage revealing gowns and man-eating ways were lapped up by audiences. It’s the old case of women wanting to be her and men wanting to be with her. She’s a dangerous character but in 1945 audiences were living in dangerous times, moral boundaries had shifted and audiences were happy to lap up these dangerous tales. Such was the impact of Lockwood and Roc’s low-cut gowns that the film fell foul of American censors, with some scenes being re-shot to conceal the offending flesh.
The film also features another of Gainsborough’s most famous ladies, Jean Kent. Her role is rather minimal appearing in a single scene. Her role is rather confusing for audiences since James Mason’s lover appears in two scenes, yet Kent only appears in one of them. The first time the unnamed character appears she is played by Valerie White who fell ill before she could film later scenes:
Valerie White
Jean Kent
Of course, this being a Gainsborough film there is plenty of wide-eyed staring ...

... slaps ...
Patricia Roc & Margaret Lockwood
... violence
Margaret Lockwood & James Mason
... and dramatically staged death:
My favourite line comes in the wedding scene. When Margaret Lockwood is sent to the bedroom to await her husband she tells the rest of the women: "I want to go dancing and enjoy myself." To which her friend replies:
"You don't have to dance to enjoy yourself."
Although the film's melodramatic style is long out of date, I'm amazed the story itself has never been returned to for a new version. Period dramas remain the staple of so many hours of British television. This started me thinking who would star in any new version?
Since the story is British, is set in the past and involves acres of flouncy dresses, I suppose that the industry would insist on the ubiquitous Keira Knightley in the Lockwood role, leaving Carey Mulligan in the Patricia Rod role. Let me say, I would not be convinced.
My choice?
Anyone who saw Lara Pulver play Irene Adler in the BBC series Sherlock will know why I would happily put her name forward.
After all, any actress whose most celebrated role is as the woman who nearly seduced Sherlock Holmes is ideal to be anybody's Wicked Lady.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)
Phyllis Calvert
I am recent convert to the films of Gainsborough Studios. As a youth I imagined they would be dull, romantic, costume dramas. If only I'd known the truth:
Instead they are deliciously over-the-top melodramas of a type that the film industry could never get away with these days.
And Madonna of the Seven Moons is maybe the  cream-of-the-crop. Set in 1930s Italy, it tells the story of a young rape victim (played by Phyllis Calvert) who marries and has a daughter but, driven to madness by her early experiences, leads a double life. When gripped by madness, she loses all memory of her respectable life as the wife of a wealthy wine merchant and instead rushes into the arms of her gangster-lover, played by Stewart Granger.
Stewart Granger & Phyllis Calvert
Calvert plays against type, being more familiar as the innocent victim, or the figure of stability as she played in Two Thousand Women or Indiscreet. As she later revealed to the author Matthew Sweet - author of Shepperton Babylon - she actually preferred to play a feisty character rather than a good-girl. And in Madonna of the Seven Moons she grabbed the opportunity and appears to relish the chance to go from convert school girl ...
Phyllis Calvert
... to respectable housewife and mother ...
Phyllis Calvert
 ... to woman on the verge of madness ...
Phyllis Calvert
... to killer!
Phyllis Calvert
The transformation is handled well, with Calvert changing her clothes at night before slipping out of the house dressed as a peasant woman. Even her hair colour appears to change to a darker hue courtesy of how she is lit. Her character change is reflected by a line delivered to her by Granger. Early in the film she is a quiet, pious, troubled woman, nervous about meeting her daughter after five years apart. But living with Granger in Florence she is set free. As he tells her: "I love it when you laugh - it's like ice and fire."
Considering the film was made in 1945, but set in late 1930s Italy, it is surprising that no mention of the fascist regime is made. But as an omission it is irrelevant. Instead we have plenty of other things to think about.
First of all we have the two leading ladies, Calvert and Patricia Roc, as mother and daughter:
Phyllis Calvert & Patricia Roc
Whilst Calvert, 30 years old when the film was made, was the perfect age to be playing someone who had fallen pregnant as she left school and whose daughter has just finished school, Roc was a curious choice. Just months younger than Calvert, Roc was far too old to be playing a teenage girl. But she too relishes her role as the flirty, flighty teenager returning home from London to see her parents  with her diplomat boyfriend in tow.
In light of the negligible age gap between them, it is comical to see Calvert playing the shocked mother seeing her daughter's fashion choice of shorts:
Patricia Roc
Phyllis Calvert
Whilst we are discussing the 'Gainsborough girls', one has to mention Jean Kent who plays Calvert's rival for the affections of Stewart Granger.

Phyllis Calvert & Jean Kent


Kent later famously said:

However, in Madonna of the Seven Moons Kent keeps her clothes on and it is her familiar screen partner Patricia Roc who provides the glamour, dancing around her bedroom in her underwear:

Whilst the women steal the show, Granger does have the good fortune to wear an unusual and rather rare style of jacket. With pleats at the shoulder and waist, his light coloured double breasted jacket is a perfect contrast to the more traditionally styled suits of the more respectable characters:

So, Madonna of the Seven Moons: melodramatic, over-the-top, mysterious (we never discover whether Roc is the product of rape - although I suspect the audience is meant to assume it), and - above all else - great fun.

If you like wide-eyed stares ...

... murderous envy ...

... Italian wide-boys ...
... and Stewart Granger playing the guitar ...

... this is the film for you.

This original trade advertisement is currently available from Greg Edwards:

Monday, 26 August 2013

The Beloved Vagabond (1936)
Maurice Chevalier
The film is available as part of volume five of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, which has been put together by Network DVD to finally make available some forgotten films from the 1930s before the launch of the 'Ealing Studios' brand, along with some of the studios lesser known, and generally unavailable, output. It's an effort that must involve rather a lot of hard work and have limited rewards, yet must be applauded for making so many films available for the first time.
The first thing I noticed about this film was that it starred Margaret Lockwood, possibly one of the biggest stars ever to grace the British cinema screens. Then I noticed that she was billed below Betty Stockfeld, who was obviously  a much bigger star at the time and yet whose name is known to none but those with a most dedicated interest in British cinema.
Betty Stockfeld
Despite the billing, there's no doubting the identity of the female lead. Stockfeld is reduced to segments opening and closing the film, whilst it is Lockwood - as an orphaned French travelling musician - who has the bulk of the screen time opposite Chevalier.
Margaret Lockwood

Set in 1900, the film follows a struggling French architect (Chevalier) who, after his plan to marry Betty Stockfeld is thwarted, leaves London and returns to France where he teams up with Lockwood and they tour the countryside singing and playing at village fairs and country inns. Unusually for British films of the period, filming of The Beloved Vagabond wasn't restricted to the studio and there are both numerous outdoor scenes  and scenes filmed on location in what appears to be France.
The transformation of Lockwood from a shy teenage orphan to a beautiful woman who steals Chevalier's heart is perhaps slightly obvious, but it is still fun. For fans of British cinema it is perhaps most interesting just to get an early glimpse of Lockwood as she takes the first steps towards being the beautifully dominant force that she was in the years ahead. Her attempts to walk like a Parisian, rather than a country girl, are played for laughs ...
Margret Lockwood
... as is the nightclub scene where she sees an older man with two young women and naively believes them to be his daughters ...
... and her first taste of champagne prompts a nicely quotable line from Chevalier:
Maurice Chevalier & Margaret Lockwood
"Champagne is dangerous stuff. See those bubbles, those are all your secrets. When you drink, they burst and out pops the truth."
Chevalier is a man caught between two cultures: British high society, into which he plans to marry, and France where he enjoys his freedom. The film makers happily ridicule British society and present France as a land of freedom. As Chevalier tells Stockfeld when she criticises his behaviour: "For a moment I was natural, is that a crime here?'
His status as an outsider is confirmed by his dress. He appears at his wedding in an individualistic take on fashion of the period:
Maurice Chevalier
 His style contrasts with the formality of his British love rival:
It is Chevalier's clothing that eventually seals his fate, gives the film its best line, and sees him cancel his wedding to Stockfeld to return to France with Lockwood. At a party for the wedding Stockfeld and her friend comment on his unconventional choice of tie:
Maurice Chevalier
He tells her: "Is my future happiness going to depend on a tie."
To which her friend replies: "Either you've chosen the wrong tie to go with the wife or the wrong wife to go with the tie."
The comment finally makes him see what the audience had known for some time, that he is really in love with Lockwood.
A lightweight comedy, musical drama? Yes. A deep intellectual study of a man caught between two women and their respective cultures? No.
And, more to the point, it's fun.
Oh yes, and for those viewers who like a bit a glamour, Lockwood appears is her underwear:
Maurice Chevalier and Margaret Lockwood