NICE AND NAUGHTY
Impudent where other films were cautious, fanciful where others embraced verisimilitude, Gainsborough Pictures’ melodramas of the 1940s were inveterate unspoken-rule breakers. The realism and upstandingness for which British cinema has long been variously championed and criticized are conspicuously absent from these racy costume pictures, which ran roughshod over all questions of propriety. Their unbridled devilishness brought out audiences (especially female ones) in droves during World War II. The best of them, visceral tales of class and sexual warfare, rife with betrayals, psychosis, and murder, were thrillingly escapist entertainments.
Founded in 1924 by Michael Balcon (destined to become a legendary cinema impresario in England), Gainsborough Pictures had been around for nearly two decades when it hit this peak. Balcon had left in 1937 to take over Ealing Studios, and been replaced as head of production by Edward Black. But it was Black’s replacement by Maurice Ostrer in 1943 that set in motion the transformation of the studio into what film historian Charles Barr has called “Ealing’s less respectable sister.” The 1941 acquisition of Gainsborough by the industrialist and producer J. Arthur Rank had expanded the studio’s distribution network considerably, and Ostrer took better advantage of the mainstream audiences Gainsborough could now reach than his predecessor had; he wasn’t afraid of artificiality and was drawn to films with vivid, outsize emotions. His sensibility was officially announced with the release of The Man in Grey in 1943, an adaptation of a novel by Lady Eleanor Smith. Directed by Gainsborough mainstay Leslie Arliss, it is the tangled tale of a nineteenth-century love quadrangle that ends quite badly for all: the virtuous Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert); the vile Lord Rohan (James Mason), who marries Clarissa only to sire an heir; Clarissa’s manipulative school chum Hesther (Margaret Lockwood), who wishes to seduce Rohan; and the dashing actor Rokeby (Stewart Granger), with whom Clarissa falls madly in love.
With its overheated emotions and air of bodice-ripping unrefinement, The Man in Grey both flouted new guidelines from Parliament encouraging studios to produce tales of nobility and sacrifice for wartime audiences and disgusted critics, who saw it as the stuff of cheap paperbacks. This mattered little to moviegoers, who not only gobbled up the film’s plot twists, making it one of the year’s ten highest-grossing films, but also delighted in its fresh crop of stars, especially Mason, whose sensually cruel Rohan made him an overnight sensation. Despite its guilty pleasures, though, The Man in Grey is hardly frivolous: beneath its pulpy exterior, there’s a sophisticated depiction of the ways class and gender inform social interaction (race is a different matter, thanks to the decision to cast a white child in blackface in a major role).
In subsequent years, Gainsborough made many kinds of films—military adventures, contemporary women’s pictures, the eerie 1945 ghost story A Place of One’s Own—but The Man in Grey served as a model for its most successful ones. Though the height of the studio’s popularity would last only a few years, from about 1943 to 1946, that brief era would forever cement Gainsborough’s reputation for gleefully indulging in disreputability.
As World War II raged on, Gainsborough melodramas rivaled Hollywood pictures for popularity in Britain. Studio head Maurice Ostrer had hit upon a winning formula with The Man in Grey and had every intention of continuing to exploit it. Gainsborough went into production on a series of similarly florid melodramas, all starring members of The Man in Grey’s breakout cast: 1944’s Love Story, about a doomed romance between a terminally ill pianist (Margaret Lockwood) and an ex–Royal Air Force pilot who’s going blind (Stewart Granger); 1945’s Victorian soap opera Fanny by Gaslight, starring James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, and Granger; and, most sensational of all, the same year’s Madonna of the Seven Moons.
This was the directorial debut of Arthur Crabtree, who had served as cinematographer on dozens of Gainsborough films, including The Man in Grey, and who would go on to fashion such gory delights as Fiend Without a Face and Horrors of the Black Museum—the former featuring a spongy disembodied killer brain, the latter a serial murderer who gives his victims acid baths. While most of Madonna of the Seven Moons may seem far from such ghastliness, one can see the seeds of Crabtree’s future preoccupations in the violent underworld it reveals.
After opening with the vague statement “This story is taken from life” (it was actually adapted from a book by the horror and detective novelist Margery Lawrence), Madonna of the Seven Moons plunks the viewer down in the middle of a dreadful scenario: In early twentieth-century rural Italy, a pubescent girl in pigtails is being pursued through an idyllic woods by a leering Gypsy; the wordlessness—not to mention racial dubiousness—of this girl-in-peril scene lends this prologue a primitive, D. W. Griffith feel. An ellipsis, after which the girl returns distraught to the convent where she lives, implies that she has been raped. Though the rest of the film takes place years later, after the girl, Maddalena, has blossomed into an upper-class, devoutly Catholic wife and mother, this violent scene hangs over it like a shroud.
The righteous Maddalena is portrayed with such doe-eyed sensitivity by Calvert that one is blindsided by the psychotic break that sets in motion the second half of the film. After her modern-minded daughter, Angela (Patricia Roc), returns to the family estate from boarding school, Maddalena seems distressed. Following the girl’s welcome-home party, Maddalena runs off into the night, leaving her family to piece together what has happened. The truth is hard to believe: something triggered Maddalena’s second personality, a Gypsy girl named Rosanna, and she has gone back to a life she began, in a previous split, in the seedy streets of Florence, with the charismatic criminal Nino (Granger). The patent preposterousness of the plot only enhances the strange beauty of this richly expressive psychological drama, which allows Crabtree to employ vivid camera flourishes and Calvert to demonstrate her versatility.
The ire the lurid film aroused among critics did nothing to keep appreciative audiences away, and makes it no less enjoyable today. Or any less intriguing: as a representation of a woman’s desperate need for freedom from social and religious strictures, Madonna of the Seven Moons is downright bracing.
CRUEL AND UNUSUAL
Truth in advertising: Gainsborough’s The Wicked Lady (1945) does indeed feature one of cinema’s most calculating and callous female protagonists. Barbara Worth (Margaret Lockwood, whose fierce, raven-haired beauty was rarely used to such dramatic effect) makes a grand entrance, snatching away, in the film’s first fifteen minutes, the wealthy fiancé of her best friend, Caroline (Patricia Roc)—during their wedding weekend. This coldheartedness masks profound unhappiness, however, and Barbara finds married life a miserable bore. Soon, she decides to work out her aggression by disguising herself as a highwayman, stopping the carriages of wealthy travelers and robbing them at gunpoint. These nighttime sorties lead to an affair with the notorious criminal Captain Jerry Jackson (James Mason). Yet even all this cannot quench Barbara’s thirst for adventure and social impropriety, as evidenced by the frightening steps she remorselessly takes to preserve the secret of her identity.
The Wicked Lady was and remains the most beloved of the Gainsborough melodramas (it was even remade into a much reviled 1983 Faye Dunaway vehicle of the same name). Released in November 1945, after World War II ended, the film was England’s highest-grossing picture of the year. Like most of Gainsborough’s biggest hits, it was particularly popular with female moviegoers, and like The Man in Grey and Madonna of the Seven Moons, it was based on a novel by a woman, in this case, Magdalen King-Hall.
By this point, head of production Maurice Ostrer’s taste for lusty, outré scenarios was well-known, but this film, directed by Leslie Arliss, who had all but invented the formula with The Man in Grey, pushed the Gainsborough melodrama into new realms of slick transgressiveness. It did so by creating a sensationally independent and fearsome female character; and in The Wicked Lady’s most subversive twist, we feel compelled to root for this undeniably villainous creature. The story ensures this sympathy by splashing Barbara’s colorful actions across a background of drab domesticity—the film may be in black and white, but Lockwood is like a streak of red on a grey canvas. Women identified with her, and men, of course, desired her (for its U.S. release, the studio was forced to reshoot many of the film’s scenes, primarily to cover Lockwood’s copious cleavage). As with the greatest noir antiheroes, even at her most diabolical—like some truly poisonous behavior toward a fanatically devout old servant—we want her to prevail.
Gainsborough continued to make melodramas in the years just after the war, but under its new head, Sydney Box (who replaced Ostrer after the smash success, in 1945, of Box’s independently produced, Gainsborough-influenced Mason vehicle The Seventh Veil), the studio foundered. Box preferred contemporary melodrama based on social realism to the ornate costume pictures that had been the studio’s bread and butter, and audiences stayed away—due in part, no doubt, to a general downturn in the industry, though the comparative blandness of Box’s fare must also bear some of the blame. The studio shut its doors in 1949, but Gainsborough will always be remembered for the short period in the 1940s when it ruled the box office by embracing the outlandish and the overwrought, tapping an audience that wanted to not only watch movies but be ravished by them.
Michael Koresky is staff writer at the Criterion Collection.