“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.