Tag Archives: Gainsborough Studios

Caravan (1946)

You’ll oblige me by keeping her ladyship out of that dirty mind of yours.”

Based on a novel by Eleanor Smith, Caravan, a costume drama from Gainsborough Pictures is set in the 19th century and features versatile Stewart Granger at his swashbuckling best. Granger plays Richard Darrell, a penniless author who hopes to make his fortune in order to marry his childhood sweetheart, Oriana Camperdene (Anne Crawford). Darrell, the son of an English country doctor and a Spanish mother has no fortune of his own, but he’s not without talent. His childhood was spent brawling with the gypsies, poaching on the land of the wealthy,  and picking up various survival skills. One of Darrell’s significant childhood relationships is with Oriana, but he has competition in the form of wealthy Francis Castleton. Francis is a sneaky underhand boy who grows up to be a cruel womanizer who will stop at nothing to possess Oriana. Flashback scenes from Darrell’s childhood establish his early rivalry with Francis over Oriana’s affections.

When the film begins, Darrell, eyeing a window full of succulent food, contemplates using his last coin to buy supper, but fate intervenes when Darrell comes to the aid of wealthy Spaniard, Don Carlos (Gerard Heinz) who is robbed. Darrell not only fights the two men who are attempting to rob Don Carlos, but he also returns him, wounded, to his home. Don Carlos, a dealer in precious jewels, is grateful to Darrell, and arranges to get his book A Way Through the Woods published. Then he employs Darrell to deliver a priceless necklace which once belonged to Queen Isabella back to Spain. Darrell takes the mission because it will help fund his writing career and enable his marriage to Oriana, but at the same time, he doesn’t want to leave her.

While Oriana and Darrell see their separation as the necessary precursor to their marriage, Francis (a dastardly Dennis Price), sees Darrell’s trip to Spain as an opportunity to rid himself of his rival. Darrell’s departure leaves Oriana unprotected as her father has recently died, and since he gambled away most of the estate, she is left with a 100 pounds a year on which she must live. Francis sees Oriana’s penury and isolation as the perfect setting to manipulate her into marriage, and with Darrell off to Spain, Francis plots the destruction of his rival using his evil sidekick, Wycroft (Robert Helpmann),  and he also leads Oriana into believing she is in his debt.

If this all sounds like great melodramatic romance and exotic adventure, well it is. We have the star-crossed lovers, Oriana and Darrell who become separated by circumstance–some planned and some caused by fate. The exotic sets are mostly just that–studio sets, so don’t expect much authenticity here. In fact, the film’s glaring weaknesses are apparent in the opening credits when we see the back of man with  a guitar who is supposedly serenading a woman up in a balcony. Apart from the fact that if he is singing, the song goes on for far too long, he never moves, so the opening creates a wooden artificiality while the opening was supposed to set the scene for romance. With Caravan, you have to accept the fake stuff to enjoy the fun of the story which is over-the-top at times. Caravan is basically a 1940s version of a bodice ripper, and there are plenty of allusions to what goes on behind bedroom doors including a libidinous husband who promises not to demand his rights and then immediately reneges on the deal. The marvellous Jean Kent plays Rosal, a hot-blooded gypsy girl who makes her living as a dancer, and this involves banging a huge tambourine and stamping the floor from time-to-time. The passionate, wild,  and jealous Rosal is in complete contrast to the very correct British Oriana. Both women love Darrell of course, and here he’s cast as an Errol Flynn type character with all of his physical abilities on bold display: boxing, horse riding and even whipping. The film’s best scenes include Francis and Oriana–although there’s another marvellous scene involving  a group of London prostitutes who meet Oriana.

Dennis Price is deliciously evil as the dastardly Sir Francis, and he has the best role and the most memorable lines in the film–some of which refer to Ariane’s sexual incompetence, suggesting at some points that she could learn a few things from prostitutes and that she needs to start delivering the goods. Due to its sometimes over-the-top moments, Caravan does have its camp factors, so just sit back and enjoy the show. The story is great fun–believable or not.

“You see my dear, I suffer from an exaggerated sense of property and having gone to the trouble of getting something, even though it may be rubbish, I have the awkward habit of hanging onto it.”

Directed by Arthur Crabtree

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Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

Food for my son, you cheap slut!”

Implausible but utterly delightful, the 1945 film Madonna of the Seven Moons from director Arthur Crabtree and based on the book by Margery Lawrence was one of the era’s successful Gainsborough costume dramas. Its story appealed to a female audience for its issues of escapism and the double life led by the film’s main character, Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert). So cast aside your skepticism at this story of Italian passion acted by a British cast whose upper class accents drum up visions of empire, and just enjoy this unlikely costume drama.

Maddalena is raped by a gypsy as a young girl, and she never discusses the incident. Finding relief in religion at her convent school, she’s horrified by the idea of marriage. Fast forward to Maddalena as the wife of successful wine merchant Guiseppe Labardi (John Stuart) as they await their only daughter’s return to Rome from boarding school in England. Angela (Patricia Roc) left as a child and returns five years later as a budding young woman who–to her mother’s horror–wears short skirts and travelled home alone with a young diplomat. While Angela’s father can accept the changes in his daughter, Maddalena cannot, and she overreacts rather dramatically to her daughter’s dress and actions. Since we are in on the fact that Maddalena was raped as a teenager, we understand what motivates her, and mainly it’s a concern that the same thing doesn’t happen to her daughter.

The plot thickens when Maddalena wakes up one night with a different identity. Stealing her own jewels, she grabs a train to Florence and disappears…

Labardi reveals to Angela that Maddalena has disappeared three times over the course of their marriage–the first time was right after the ceremony (so we can guess what that was about), the second time was when Angela was at boarding school, and now this disappearance makes the third time. Angela is determined to find her mother and tracks some of the missing jewelery to Florence.

Meanwhile Maddalena has returned to her old haunt in Florence. With no memory of a former life as the wife of a wealthy wine merchant, she knows herself only as Roseanna, the jealous, passionate mistress of Nino (Stewart Granger), the leader of a band of petty crooks. Maddalena returns to Nino’s life, throwing out his current mistress Vittoria (Jean Kent) with threats of violence. It’s great fun to see Phyllis Calvert morph from the neurotic pampered wife to sexually liberated gypsy.  Since Maddalena/Roseanna has been in and out of Nino’s life three times in almost 20 years, the story has some plausibility problems–not to mention the fact that it’s entirely possible for Angela to be Nino’s child, but the film doesn’t sail those dangerous waters, so instead Maddalena as Roseanna picks up where she left off.

Angela’s hunt for her mother is complicated by the fact that she trusts slimy gigolo/thief/con-man Sandro (Peter Glenville) to help her find her mother. Straining the coincidence factor, Sandro also happens to be Nino’s brother….

Ok, so it’s implausible, but I love these old Gainsborough films. Can’t help myself–although I think the best of the lot has to be The Wicked Lady followed by The Man in Grey. These costume dramas were designed to make the audience forget their real-life problems and provide the glamour that was glaringly absent during the austerity of WWII. Given that these films were tremendous box-offices successes in their day, I’d say that the studios achieved their goal, and for classic film lovers, these Gainsborough Pictures are gems to watch.

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The Man in Grey (1943)

“Has anyone ever told you what a slut you are?”

I read somewhere that the 1943 film, The Man in Grey is a bodice ripper. This unfortunate description does not accurately describe this excellent period piece film set in Regency England. The Man in Grey isn’t pure breast-heaving romance–although it does contain elements of romance. It’s also a tale of innocence and skullduggery that explores the treacherous relationship between two very different women. The film is based on one of the novels written by Eleanor Smith (also known as Lady Eleanor Smith).  Eleanor Smith is now almost completely faded into the shadows, and that’s a shame as she was a great storyteller. Think along the lines of Jamaica Inn and that’s the sort of high drama/romance/adventure that you typically find in the novels of Eleanor Smith. She also had a great passion for gypsy lore, so it should come as no surprise that a gypsy appears in a signficant role twice in this film. A number of films were made from her novels: Caravan (1946), The Man in Grey (1943), The Men in Her Life (1941), Gypsy (1937), and Red Wagon (1933).

The film is a frame story, beginning and ending in WWII Britain with an auction at the Grosvenor’s Square home of the Marquis of Rohan. The last marquis in the line has been killed in action at Dunkirk, and so the contents of the house (and possibly the house itself) are up for sale. A brash pilot, (Stewart Granger) introduces himself to a young woman in uniform (Phyllis Calvert). He tells her that he’s connected with the Rohan family in a vague way, and as it turns out she’s Clarissa Rohan, the last of the Rohans. The pilot is at the auction to bid on an item, and the first few moments focus on a Regency era portrait of Lady Rohan (also played by Phyllis Calvert) and the contents of her trinket box.

Then the film segues to Regency times–specifically to Miss Patchett’s School in Bath. The pupils are young ladies from the higher echelons of society who are expected to marry well, but there’s a new arrival Hesther (Margaret Lockwood). Hesther is well-aware of the humiliations of being the object of charity, and when the kindest pupil, Clarissa tries to befriend her, Hesther initially rebuffs her attempts. Eventually the girls part ways and Clarissa is introduced to the Marquis of Rohan (James Mason). Rohan, a notorious rake and duellist is required to produce an heir, but as one of his acquaintances notes: “I wouldn’t give him a dog I cared for.” This doesn’t bode well for Clarissa, but she agrees to marry him to please her guardian. Rohan doesn’t love his wife, but since he has to produce an heir, he does so with as little fuss, and affection, as possible.

Years pass with the Rohans leading separate lives in their Grosvenor Square home. Clarissa doesn’t love her husband, and she has no illusions that he loves her. But at the same time, she seems to be aware that her life is empty. She’s never experienced love or romance and that lack, of course, makes her vulnerable. Fate brings Hesther back into Clarissa’s life once more. At this point, Hesther is scraping a living as an actress with a troupe of traveling actors. She claims to be a widow, and Clarissa, struck with pity and terribly lonely, urges Hesther to return with her to London.

To quote the Marquis de Sade: No good deed goes unpunished.

The Man in Grey is full of marvellous performances from its stellar cast. Character and fate play substantial parts in the story that develops, and we see that human nature is immutable; the good characters cast into lives where they brush up against wickedness do not change due to the experience, and neither do the wicked improve from their proximity to decency. Included in the cast is Stewart Granger as the dashing actor Peter Rokeby and Nora Swinburne in a small role as the Prince Regent’s mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert.

The film doesn’t overdo it with its portrayal of the wicked Marquis of Rohan. We know he’s a cad due to a scene that takes place between the Marquis and his mother, and we see glimpses of cruelty when he arranges a dog fight. Clarissa doesn’t see this side of her husband, and for a great part of her life, her innocence serves as a protection. The Marquis is attracted to Clarissa’s friend, Hesther, and under other circumstances, they’d be made for one another and would very likely bring each other only misery. When the Marquis tells Hesther, “I could cherish a wicked woman,” she takes that comment entirely too seriously.

The costumes and the settings are marvellous, and it’s intriguing to see Clarissa and Hesther together. Clarissa looks innocent, kind and good, and Hesther manages to look like a Regency tramp. There are some great scenes from Lockwood as she flips into her personas of the caring, supportive friend and the slutty mistress. In one great scene, Hesther says she “doesn’t like sugary things,” and that comment, of course, is directed towards sweet Clarissa. The film’s best scene, however, takes place when Hesther visibly wrestles with her conscience.

On the down side, the film includes a white child actor (who plays Clarissa’s page) blackened with make-up so that he appears to be black. It’s appalling, and no less so as one of the scenes depicts Othello with Rokeby in the lead role. There are also a few references to Rokeby’s “lost” estate in Jamaica, taken by “half-crazed savages.”

The Man in Grey is considered the first of Gainsborough Studios costume melodramas release, and if you enjoy it, then I recommend a companion film The Wicked Lady with the same stars (Lockwood and Mason), and the same director, Leslie Arliss.

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