Tag Archives: 40s film

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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Under Capricorn (1949)

“You took part in an unsavoury debauch.”

Whenever I watch a film that deals with the old convict days of Australia, I wonder how modern-day Australians feel about this part of their history, so that thought cropped up as I watched the lesser-known Hitchcock film, Under Capricorn. Based on the novel by Helen Simpson, this should be a torrid tale of passion–the classic love triangle–or quadrangle– that takes place in the heat of 1831 Australia amidst the snobbery and hypocrisy of British rule. The film isn’t entirely successful as it never seems to go quite far enough into the dark corners of human nature, but it’s still well-worth catching.

Appropriately the film begins with the arrival of the new governor played with a perfect touch by Cecil Parker– a man who’s quietly appalled by the conditions he’d rather not see. The Governor has a poor relation in tow, second cousin Charles Adare (Michael Wilding), and there’s the unspoken idea that while the penniless Adare is supposed to somehow or another make his fortune in Australia, he’s also been sent there as some sort of last-ditch effort in recuperation. Adare, who’s Irish, is very open to the notion of making new acquaintances, and his merry countenance indicates an openness that’s lacking in the prim-and-proper Governor and his staff.

Adare almost immediately strikes up an acquaintance with Sam Flusky (Joseph Cotten)–a so-called “emancipationist” which is a delicate term for ex-convict. Although Flusky has served his 5-year sentence for murder and is now a wealthy landowner, he’s ostracised from the upper echelons of Australian society. Flusky invites Adare to his home for dinner, and the Governor warns Adare that under no circumstances must he ever dine at the home of an ’emancipationist.‘ This is a country in which newcomers are advised not to talk about the past, and while that may indicate that the past is supposedly forgiven and forgotten, that’s not true. An intense snobbery reigns about origins–it’s just not discussed. This lack of discussion is mirrored throughout life in 1830s Australian society, and consequently we see no small amount of neurotic and sadistic behavior that takes place behind closed doors. Flusky chafes at the fact he’s not good enough for the ball at the Governor’s Mansion, and yet he treats his convict servants like a pack of wild animals. Several times throughout the film, he threatens his staff with their “pink slips.”

Adare, intrigued by Flusky, and in direct defiance of his cousin, arrives at the Flusky estate at dusk. The coachman who delivers Adare to the gates, refuses to go inside the mansion “Minyago Yugilla” which is translated to mean: “why weepest thou.” The coachman’s reluctance to enter the estate seems to be a wise move, for Adare, unable to gain entry to the mansion peers through to the kitchen where he spies one servant being held down while she’s whipped by another.

Things inside the Flusky household don’t get any better. The dinner party turns out to be a bizarre event, and while various local men of substance attend, all of their wives beg off with various excuses of ill health. It’s an “epidemic” Adare notes as he grasps the social consequences.  Even Flusky’s wife Lady Henrietta (Ingrid Bergman)  is absent–ill supposedly–until she makes a dramatic appearance barefoot and drunk.

As fate would have it, Adare remembers Henrietta as a glamorous figure from his youth, but the Lady Henrietta he once knew no longer exists–Henrietta Flusky is now an alcoholic who hoards bottles of booze in her bedroom, and while she’s largely confined to her room, the treacherous viper of a housekeeper, Milly (Margaret Leighton) rules the roost with delectable sadism and religious hypocrisy. It’s obvious that there’s an unhealthy undercurrent to the Flusky household , but what went wrong? A young vibrant and defiant Henrietta eloped with Flusky who was her family’s groom, and while this may explain the giant chip on his shoulder, there’s obviously something unhealthy simmering beneath the surface.

Under Capricorn has gothic elements which are never fully realized–there’s the build-up around Adare’s arrival, for example, the business with the shrunken heads, and then there’s Henrietta’s madness… she’s unhinged at the beginning of the film but then seems to undergo repair under Adare’s encouragement. The plot also hints at some darker elements which are never explored. At one point, for example, Adare asks Henrietta how she survived financially in Australia during the 5 years she waited for Flusky. This question seems to cause some mental anguish, so we are left to guess the answer to that one.

Hitchcock first became interested in Under Capricorn when he was sent a copy of the novel. He claimed that he made the film for Ingrid Bergman, yet ironically the filming placed some strain on the relationship between Hitchcock and his leading lady. Before shooting finished, scandal swamped Ingrid Bergman due to her much publicised affair with Italian director Robert Rossellini. Bergman and Rossellini subsequently left their spouses in order to live together–a relationship that led to Bergman’s ostracism from Hollywood for several years, and the bad publicity at the time did little to help Under Capricorn at the box office.

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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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Deception (1946)

“They say never confess a secret to a woman.”

Deception, a 1946 film from director Irving Rapper, frequently appears on film noir lists, but the story seems rooted in soap-opera drama more than anything else. The plot involves a love triangle between pianist Christine Radcliffe (Bette Davis), cellist Karel Novak (Paul Henreid), and eccentric composer Alexander Hollenius (Claude Rains).

The film begins in New York with Christine arriving late to a concert. Judging by Christine’s emotional reaction to the cello playing of star musician Karel Novak, this is no ordinary concert, and that proves to be correct when after the concert Christine goes back stage to meet Novak. He’s surrounded by fans, but after they melt away he sets eyes on Christine. This is clearly a reunion, and it’s revealed that Novak and Christine were lovers during the war in Europe. Separated by circumstances, they lost contact, and it’s a miracle that they’re reunited.

Christine takes Novak home, and he imagines that she’s had it tough living on her own piecing together a living as a struggling musician. Christine’s home is at the top of huge skyscraper accessible, for the most part, by a lift. The film shows Novak and Christine exiting the lift and then there’s a dark set of stairs up to Christine’s apartment. Novak clearly imagines Christine lives in a garret (so did I), but Christine’s splendid, spacious apartment is decorated with antiques and one whole wall gives a marvellous view of the skyline of New York. Novak is obviously suspicious about where the money came from for such luxuries, and his suspicions are confirmed as he prowls around her apartment and spies fur coats in the cupboard and fine paintings on the wall.

The lovers who’ve been separated for years are at each other’s throats within minutes, but Christine manages to dissuade Novak of his suspicions with stories of taking wealthy, talentless pupils for piano lessons. Obviously Novak has no idea about rents in New York otherwise he’d sniff that the story is ridiculous, but he swallows it hook, line and sinker.

Christine and Novak plan a wedding with a reception to be held in her apartment. The champagne flows generously but the party is broken up by the arrival of grumpy, imperious composer Hollenius whose rudeness sends the guests out the door. The composer’s speeches to Christine indicate the possessiveness of a jilted lover, and once again Christine mollifies Novak’s suspicions with stories that Hollenius is an eccentric, wealthy friend and nothing more.

As the plot thickens, the ties between the three main characters tighten. Hollenius appears to befriend the newlyweds, and he indicates that he wants to take Novak under his wing and nurture his career. Christine suspects Hollenius’s motives, but there’s not much she can do without telling Novak the truth about her relationship with Hollenius.

Claude Rains as Hollenius seems to have the best role and the best lines here. He’s a petty, jealous tyrant capable of pitching the most outrageous scenes both publicly and privately. In one scene, he takes Novak and Christine out to dinner and plays the temperamental epicurean to the hilt. In another scene, Christine storms Hollenius’s bedroom ready to do battle for her man, but she’s met with sarcasm and derision:

“To be faced with a virago at this time of the morning, Christine, my constitution simply will not stand for it.”

Shots focus on interiors. Christine’s modern apartment is in contrast to the interior of Hollenius’s house which resembles, rather appropriately, the inside of a lavish medieval European palace and reflects the temperament of its owner. One marvellous shot shows the reflection, in shadow, of an ornate staircase on the wall.

Deception is not Bette Davis’s best film, but it’s well worth catching for the scenes that include Hollenius. Claude Rains seems to have great fun with this role as he moves from imperious demands to almost bitchy feigned indifference. The film’s best scene takes place between Christine and Hollenius in his palatial bedroom, and he makes some excellent points about Christine’s erratic behaviour.

Deception (a Warner Bros. studio film), was the first Bette Davis film to follow the only film she made with her own production company Stolen Life (1946). According to biographer, Barbara Leaming, Davis, whose behaviour was “even more arbitrary and destructive than usual,” on the set of Deception, announced her pregnancy during the filming. She was married to third husband William Grant Sherry at the time and the marriage was to end in divorce a few years later in 1950.

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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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H.M. Pulham, Esq. (1941)

“They say you can get over anything in time. I don’t believe you can, but given enough time, you can put it where it belongs.”

H.M. Pulham,  Esq., based on the novel by John P. Marquand, is a gentle study in class conditioning & its impact on adult values and the relationships we choose. H.M. Pulham,  Esq. is, as his name hints, an inoffensive and stuffy upper class businessman. When the film begins, he’s middle-aged, married and he runs the family firm. The film begins with a very typical day at the Pulham household. These opening scenes define the life of H.M. Pulham (Robert Young)–a life of order, routine & predictability conducted with precision timing. Pulham’s morning routine depicts him expecting everything in the household in its place as usual. As he prepares to go to work, he puts his arms out, fully expecting the maid to be there ready to assist him with his coat (and she is), and he places covers on his shoes which are then removed in the office. These cinematic touches emphasise the predictability, fussiness and details of Pulham’s orderly life.

The trouble starts in two directions. Pulham receives a note from his old love, Marvin Myles who says she’s in town and would love to meet him. The second event comes in the form of a meeting to discuss an upcoming Harvard reunion. Pulham is required to write a class history and a short bio of himself, and as he labour over just how to sum up his life in just a few sentences, he re-evaluates some of the decisions he’s made. Over the course of a night he agonises over his life, and he begins to question just how much choice he ever really had about the decisions he made.

A large part of the film takes aim at conformity. Pulham is the only son of an upper class Bostonian family. He attends St. Swithin’s school (as did his father) where he is subjected to hazing. Individuality is discouraged and the boys are taught to think in very specific ways. As a young man, Pulham attends Harvard where once again he conforms into the slot assigned to a man of his social position. The film’s male ‘rebel’ is  Bill King (Van Heflin)–a man who pokes fun of Harvard football and its sacred traditions. While Pulham marvels at Bill’s alien attitudes to the institutions Pulham’s been taught are sacred, he doesn’t rebel but neither does he reject Bill’s friendship.

A short stint in WWI (almost caricatured through a few ridiculous scenes of pomposity and then triumph through Paris), Pulham is sent back to America, but instead of returning to the bosom of his Boston family, he takes a job in an advertising firm in New York where he shares an office with his old friend, Bill King and the ravishing Marvin Myles (Hedy Lamarr)….

As Pulham reminisces about his past, he mulls over the guilt he felt about trying to establish his individuality and own youthful career in New York. In flashback, we see Pulham’s father, John (Charles Coburn) arguing that Pulham should forget this advertising nonsense and return back home where he belongs. Pulham’s mother (Fay Holden) isn’t above playing the invalid card, and even in Pulham’s early childhood both parents manipulate their son into relationships with ‘suitable’ girls. In adulthood, he’s expected to take over the family business and marry a girl who’s from their social circle. Pulham’s career is New York is viewed by his family as a rejection of their shared values.

There’s an underlying criticism of America’s old families–a dying breed according to Bill. He advises Pulham to break free while he can. The Pulham family’s corroding snobbery has its damaging impact, and this is mostly seen in the Pulham family’s treatment of Marvin Myles. But while Pulham may be able to navigate both the advertising world of New York, and the staid Victorianism of the Pulham family mansion, Marvin has her own values and future to think about. Marvin is an ambitious career woman, but she’s in danger of being judged as ‘fast’ and ‘immoral’ for simply requesting a drink.

The jolt from the past forces Pulham to re-evaluate his life, and there’s a definite ‘Road Not Taken’ moment. Directed by King Vidor, this excellent 40s film possesses a sort of quaintness and  innocence in its depiction of a man who tests class boundaries and values without really understanding quite what he’s doing. It’s interesting to note that the topic of relationships between classes emerges frequently in the fiction of W. Somerset Maugham. In Of Human Bondage, for example, tragedy ensues when the classes mix. There’s no trauma in H. M. Pulham, Esq. but its lack of trauma and rather gentle approach underscores a different sort of anguish: the life that never was. H.M Pulham, Esq. asks whether or not its main character would have been any happier if he’d made other choices.

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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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