The Wicked Lady (1945)

“How could I fail to love a man as rich as he is.”

I first saw the 1983 remake of The Wicked Lady starring Faye Dunaway as the deliciously nasty female whose need for excitement  is satisfied by a life of crime and a highwayman lover. The remake is a bawdy romp and it worked beautifully for its 17th century setting. This 1945 version directed by Leslie Arliss is subject to the censorship of the times. As a result, it’s tamer, but it’s still an excellent film for fans of period pieces or of the film’s stars, Margaret Lockwood, Jason Mason, & Patricia Roc. Apparently critics hated the film, but it was a huge box office success at the time. It’s not hard to see why.

The Wicked Lady begins with 19-year-old Caroline (a very squeaky clean, healthy-looking Patricia Roc) riding with Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones)–her guardian. They are going to be married, and it’s a marriage of convenience for staid boring Sir Ralph, but for Caroline, it’s a love match. This discrepancy in feelings sets the stage for the trouble ahead as Sir Ralph admits to Caroline that he doesn’t love her but that he’s “very fond of” her. Turns out he’s marrying her–more or less—for her housekeeping abilities.

Enter Caroline’s cousin glamorous Barbara (Margaret Lockwood) who arrives at Skelton Manor to be Caroline’s maid-of-honour at the upcoming wedding. Caroline is sweet-natured, but Barbara is bold, beautiful, and as it turns out quite bad. The two cousins haven’t seen each other in five years, and while Caroline’s lived quietly in the country, Barbara has been brought up by her merchant uncle. Barbara has all sorts of notions about men and marriage and brags that “a clever woman can make her husband do what she likes.”

The chemistry between Barbara and Sir Ralph is instantaneous and obvious to everyone except innocent Caroline. Soon crafty Barbara manipulates a compromising moment with Ralph and she swiftly stages a drama that allows her to steal Caroline’s fiance. This act is, in essence, her first crime–at least the first one we see–although Barbara later admits in a rare moment of frankness: “All my life, I’ve cheated to get what I want.”  Caroline’s very ‘niceness’ contributes to the situation as she does the noble thing and sacrifices her desires to Barbara’s wishes. These early scenes reveal Barbara’s corrupt nature to the viewer–again most of the characters remain oblivious to her designs. Henrietta (Enid Stamp-Tayl0r), the wife of Sir Ralph’s friend is an exception, and a bitchy exchange takes place between Henrietta and Barbara during the wedding celebration. In this great scene, Barbara, flush from all the dancing gushes about the traditional kiss claimed by the male partners at the conclusion of each dance. Henrietta cattily suggests that Barbara ask Caroline to pitch in:

“After all you two have  shared so much.”

But Henrietta isn’t a match for Barbara’s spite, and Barbara, who’s just finished dancing with Henrietta’s husband excuses Henrietta’s behaviour with the barbed comment:

“No woman can bear it if her husband finds another more attractive.”

Once married Barbara quickly discovers that life as Lady Skelton is boring, and she begins to compensate by taking to the highways as a masked highwayman. While Barbara’s life of crime begins as a lark to repay Henrietta, she soon becomes addicted to the thrills of her secret life. The roads around the Skelton Estate are the hunting ground for infamous highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson (James Mason), and Barbara finds that the notorious highwayman makes an exciting and dangerous lover. Over time, Barbara even commits murder, and she seems to grow even harder and crueller with each crime.

The film juxtaposes some great scenes. At one point, Caroline says that Barbara might as well have her wedding dress since she’s taken everything else, and after Caroline storms off in tears, Barbara smirks and says she “wouldn’t caught dead” in Caroline’s dress. The next scene shows Barbara in a much flashier gown looking quite satisfied with herself as she sits in a carriage on her wedding day. At another point, one scene shows Barbara flagrantly unfaithful to her husband while Caroline and Ralph decide against adultery. In yet another comparison, faithful, trusting servant Hogarth (Felix Aylmer) is dying in bed, and the next scene shows Barbara ‘prostrate’ with grief taken to her bed too. But perhaps my favourite scene sets Barbara in the arms of the highwayman Jerry Jackson as they lock in a passionate embrace before a fire. You can’t miss the symbolism of the fires of hell.

Some of the lines are quite risqué for the times (“an armful of hungry passion for my leisure hours” ), and the costumes are sumptuous. Underneath the scandalous story, the film shows that the plight of single women is not an enviable one. Two dotty old maids, the interchangeable Aunt Moll and Aunt Doll (Beatrice Varley & Amy Dalby) and also cousin Agatha (Martita Hunt) all live on Ralph’s charity. Their aimless lives seem to add to their general dottiness, and the film seems to proffer the idea that women’s lives aren’t full of choices. At one point, Barbara rails against her fate as if she can’t quite understand why her life is so dull:

“I’ve got brains, looks, and personality. I want to use them instead of rotting in this dull home.”

Barbara’s plight is not entirely unsympathetic (marrying for the life she thinks she wants–only to discover she lives in a gilded cage), and the intervention of  fate emphasizes that things might have been different.  Based on the book The Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, is supposed to be based on the real life story of a highwaywoman, (speculated to be Lady Katherine Ferrers). The film also stars Jean Kent as Captain Jackson’s doxy and Michael Rennie as Kit.

Jerry Jackson: When I’m with you, it’s like a giant meal prepared by the gods. I eat and I eat until I can’t face another morsel.

Barbara: And then?…

Jerry Jackson: And then I look at you again and before I know it, I’m clamouring for another helping.

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