“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.