Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Wicked Lady (1945)

Bad apples. Something to steer clear of. Except in the movies, where a villain – unmitigated, cunning, hissable – can elicit a particularly satisfying mixture of disapproval and delight. The part can be a banquet for a stylish actor – and for the audience. Make that villain a glamorous woman with a drop-dead wardrobe, velvet in her voice and a to-do list that ranges from home-wrecking to homicide and points beyond. And you’ve got that most intoxicating of fiends – the femme fatale.

You could say it started with Eve – a notably successful promoter of bad apples. Certainly the movies have never suffered from a shortage of sexy schemers – from Jezebel and Delilah to Bridget O’Shaughnessy. There’s Gene Tierney implacably spinning her Technicolor web in “Leave Her to Heaven”. And Kathleen Turner who etched her name on the blood-red honor roll in “Body Heat”. Should she ever decide to join , Angelina Jolie seems to have everything it takes for full membership in this scintillating sisterhood of the adder.

British actors enjoy a reputation for being able to wear period clothes with real plausibility and flair. So maybe it’s not surprising that England’s quintessential screen vixen emerged in a costume film. The picture was “The Wicked Lady”. And though few critics did cartwheels over it, audience response was tremendous. When it opened in Britain late in 1945 , “The Wicked Lady” played to packed houses everywhere – for a long, long time.

The film had its basis in an old English legend attached to one Katherine Ferrers, 17th century blueblood. Purportedly arising out of the discovery (after her death) of a mysterious secret chamber in the family mansion – a chamber that discreetly led outdoors. Explanations were advanced – fanciful, titillating. The one that eventually took hold was the Tale of the Wicked Lady – noblewoman by day, highwaywoman by night. In 1943 a certain deliciously named Magdalen King-Hall (her friends called her Madge) rewhipped the ingredients into a hot-blooded novel called “The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton”. The book’s brisk sales convinced Gainsborough Pictures to bankroll a film version. It proved to be one of the studio’s all-time best brainstorms.

The story: beautiful Lady Barbara snatches her best friend’s fiance. But quickly finds married life in the country stifling. Losing a favorite brooch in a card game, she impulsively poses as a highwayman to retrieve it. The excitement proves addictive and milady’s soon embarked on a secret life of larceny and mayhem. She takes a lover too – a dashing bandit. Eventually betrays him. And adds a few colorful murders to her catalogue along the way – before finally receiving a nasty and well-earned come-uppance.

There were reasons, of course, why “The Wicked Lady” packed such a box-office wallop. Beyond the time-honored appeal of velvet, brocade, jewel-encrusted goblets and swashbuckling action on the King’s highway. The need for escapist entertainment on the home-front fuelled a movie-going boom during the WW2 years. For the British public, the war represented a vast, mutually shared trauma. But it served as a profound bonding experience too. The communal ritual of sharing a movie in the dark with a crowd fed on and embellished the intensity of that experience. The spectre of television was still years away. And movies continued to reign supreme. The dynamic energy, the celebratory mood of the immediate postwar period kept movie houses packed. Box office figures for ’45 and ’46 were through the roof.

“The Wicked Lady” struck a particular chord with the female audience. With so many men in the services, women had stepped into the workforce in unprecedented numbers. And many women found they liked the new freedom and autonomy. They were forging identities outside of home, pursuing (and achieving) success in a man’s world. It’s likely that a significent female viewership saw their newly kindled ambitions reflected in the exploits of Lady Barbara. Reckless. Determined. Even ruthless. But definitely someone who took men on at their own game. The fact she did it with glamour and panache was icing on the cake. Now the war was over. And in Barbara’s disastrous end it’s not far-fetched to speculate that women saw an unsettling hyper-reflection of their own frustrated ambitions and diminished prospects as the men returned and women were expected to make a full retreat to domesticity.

“The Wicked Lady” also benefited from the presence of a sympathetic director. Leslie Arliss (son, as it happens, of that cagey old show-off George Arliss) didn’t see the film as some sort of imposed assignment. He’d already enjoyed considerable success with romantic costume drama – and genuinely responded to the genre. That enthusiasm translated nicely to the screen. Intrigued by the novel – and instantly sensing its picture possibilities – Arliss approached Gainsborough execs, only to find out they’d already optioned it and wanted him to direct. So there was an element of happy predestination at work here.

The timing was perfect, placing “The Wicked Lady” at the crest of a very successful mid-40’s trend – the Gainsborough romance. The studio’s series of fancy dress fairy tales – seasoned with generous dollops of palpitating passion and pistols at dawn – caught the public’s fancy in a huge way. In Britain they still command a special fondness. Gainsborough Studios had been around since the 20’s, efficiently churning out unpretentious programmers. No threat to Hollywood or Korda, but a modestly successful little operation known for squeezing value out of every penny. Amusing no-frills comedies with Will Hay ( a sort of W.C. Fields/Alastair Sim fusion) were dependable moneymakers. And there were occasionally more ambitious projects – several well-received Hitchcock thrillers and a fairly elaborate Lady Jane Grey biopic. But for the most part, it was the modest little bread and butter B pictures that kept the Gainsborough pot bubbling.

In 1943 the studio’s profile suddenly got a lot higher with the release of “The Man in Grey” directed by Leslie Arliss. Studio chief Maurice Ostrer had a master plan – to create homegrown stars who could match the appeal and glamour of their Hollywood counterparts. By the end of ‘43 he had five of them, four of whom made their big star-making splash in “The Man in Grey”

Phyllis Calvert had graduated from pratfalls with George Formby to decorous cooing with impeccable Robert Donat and was regarded as mildly promising. “The Man in Grey” shot her to stardom. The picture’s lushly exaggerated period gowns and bonnets suited her to the ground. And Gainsborough’s craftsmen, experts by now at imaginative (and economical) use of every resource, created stylized sets that embraced the artificiality of the soundstage, turning the screen into an exquisite 19th century jewel-box. Calvert was one of those rare creatures emanating physical AND spiritual beauty. In the 40’s she was ravishingly pretty, with large expressive eyes and a lovely voice. All of it amplified by her graceful knack for projecting a genuinely engaging spirit. Audiences invested tremendous sympathy in Calvert’s Clarissa as outrageous fortune hurried her along from girls’ school to a loveless (but luxury-equipped) marriage, a passionate love affair and a tragic end. Hollywood had chosen a British Scarlett O’Hara. Had they wanted a British Melanie too, they couldn’t have done better than Calvert. Goodness without the boring bits.

In “The Man in Grey” the apple of her eye was relative newcomer Stewart Granger – and he emerged fully-formed as Britain’s definitive swashbuckling heart-throb. Audiences thrilled to his devil-may-care wooing of the gentle Calvert. Probably the best dash meets decorum partnership since Flynn and
de Havilland.

But even more intense was the impact of the film’s two baddies. James Mason’s the dastardly “Man in Grey” himself, thwarting poor Calvert at every turn, steeped in Dorian Gray depravity. Disdainful as Clifton Webb, handsome as the devil and oozing a distinctive and dangerous sex appeal. A factor that ignites his dealings with Hesther, the picture’s scheming stop-at-nothing vixen – vividly embodied by Margaret Lockwood. A Joan Bennett-Hedy Lamarr type beauty with style, authority and a memorable hint of menthol in her voice, she was already a name. Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” had given her global exposure in the late 30’s. And she’d had several modest successes since. But Lockwood’s Hesther was her ticket to the top. “The Man in Grey” broke attendance records all over Britain. People couldn’t get enough of the story, the fashions and - above all – the stars. And Gainsborough certainly had no intention of denying them. By the end of ’43 a fifth Gainsborough superstar had emerged. Lovely Patricia Roc, one of the era’s great beauties and a fine actress, too – proved a magnet for audience sympathy in “Millions Like Us”,a movie which successfully showcased her as the definitive girl on the homefront. It effectively launched Roc’s palmiest period.

For the next several years, the studio mixed and matched these five stars in every possible combination. Not always in period pictures. “Love Story”, for example, offered terminally ill concert pianist Lockwood battling Roc for the affections of flyer Granger to the accompaniment of “The Cornish Rhapsody” and blissfully sobbing audiences. But it was the period films that elicited the most rabid enthusiasm. And long, long queues. Titles like “Fanny By Gaslight” (Calvert, Mason, Granger) and “Madonna of the Seven Moons” (Calvert, Granger, Roc) were sheer catnip.

In the 40’s, every Gainsborough picture opened with the studio logo – a glamorous milady, bewigged and beplumed. She slowly turns, graciously inclines her head and smiles in a way that seems to promise all manner of powdered wig shenanigans. As famous and familiar, in her day, as Rank’s Man with the Gong.

Such was the scene when “The Wicked Lady” opened late in ’45. Movie attendance was still sky-high and fans had been clamouring for the new Lockwood/Mason/Roc teaming. Even so, no one was quite prepared for the scale of its success. Beyond the impressive star power, “The Wicked Lady” had a rousing story and an unusually racy tone. The script had Barbara cheating on her husband (frequently). The dialogue was uniformly sharp, often funny – but some of it, including a number of spicy double entendres, was downright naughty. Exactly how it got past the censors remains a puzzle. But audiences were clearly titillated. When a Royal Command Performance was scheduled there was considerable concern that the film might offend the Queen Mother. It didn’t. As a matter of fact, the old girl loved it.

The bang-on casting in “The Wicked Lady” goes well beyond the leads. Mariyott Cells, the country estate where much of the action occurs, comes stocked with its own little Old Vic company. Complete with a welter of elderly female relatives, including an imposing aunt and a couple of twittering silly-billy old maid twins. A concentrated mass of tea party eccentrics - the whole passle of them rolling through the halls like a chattering clump of tumbleweed. The great Martita Hunt (pre-Miss Havisham) is the aunt. And when she hears good-natured Roc extolling the beauty of Barbara’s eyes, she intones (in delectable Hunt style):

“Cats have green eyes. I don’t like cats.”

The under-rated Griffith Jones makes the most of his role as the upright Ralph, the first rabbit who tumbles into Barbara’s snare. Jones is often at his best when he’s at the onscreen mercy of a calculating female. Especially charming a few years later when he falls under the spell of the movies’ all-time best mermaid, Miranda (the ever-tasty Glynis Johns).

Felix Aylmer, a dean among character actors, has dour fun as Hogarth. He’s a sort of household manager of accounts and morals, enemy of levity in all its forms. Apprised of some innocent winter fun among Londoners, he can only lament:

“Skating and sinning.”

Lockwood’s Barbara lands in this cozy domestic scene like an A-bomb. She’s just come from other relatives and quickly offers Roc her opinions on that household:

“All Aunt Beattie thinks about is what’s going to happen to you when you’re dead. If I can’t live while I’m alive I’ll go mad!”

Not that she’s any fonder of Roc. Initially friendly to her face, she’s soon privately referring to her as a “self-sacrificing little ninny.” At any rate, it’s not long before the duplicitous Barbara has re-arranged everything at Mariyott Cells to her own liking. Although, since Barbara’s never satisfied with anything once she’s got it, she’s soon itching for new thrills.

Enter sister-in-law Henriette from London. The part’s played by Enid Stamp-Taylor, a gifted actress who died young. Her precisely accomplished needling of Barbara enlivens every scene she’s in. A handsome woman, she looks and sounds like a RADA trained Gypsy Rose Lee. Though Lee would probably have killed for half Stamp-Taylor’s skill with dialogue. Not that Lockwood doesn’t counter in delicious Cecily-Gwendoline style. Sample exchange:

Henriette: “ It’s hard to believe that six months could have changed you so much. You know, I used to quite envy you. You used to look so young and lovely.”
Barbara: “Oh, is it only six months? Then it must be the journey that tired you out. Traveling makes one look so bedraggled.”

Barbara loses her brooch to Henriette. And before you can say “your money or your life”, the highwayman phase of the story is underway. Enter Captain Jerry Jackson (a deeply dashing James Mason, merrily riding to Hell and daring us to follow). Jackson has no illusions about himself. And few about others. He recognizes Barbara for the bitch she is. But she’s an exciting bitch . And he’s drawn to her. This wouldn’t work if Lockwood herself didn’t project the requisite snap, crackle and pop. The splash of lipstick (probably jungle red), the impudent beauty mark perched on her cheekbone – these signifiers work so well only because Lockwood, the actress, is fully able to convey the inner Barbara, a whirlpool of wilfulness, greed, frustration, lust for excitement, sensuality and insatiable longing – turbulent qualities that complement rather than diminish her beauty. Jackson responds to it all - and to a recklessness that matches his own.

The attitude towards sex in the film is amazingly freewheeling. Lots of gleeful innuendo peppers the procession sweeping Ralph up to Barbara ‘s bedchamber on their wedding night. And, wouldn’t you know, Barbara doesn’t even get one night’s satisfaction out of Ralph – because she’s already met a man she prefers – at the reception. Stewart Granger was otherwise engaged. So this role fell to up-and-comer Michael Rennie (the future Klaatu, no less), giving the movie another little sprinkle of stardust. And the Lockwood/Mason chemistry that comes later sizzles. There’s no mistaking what Barbara and Jerry are up to during their regular trysts at the Leaping Stag Inn.

“The Wicked Lady” plugged into sexual currents that were buzzing in the air. WW2 brought vast population shifts; women watched the men in their lives go away, sometimes for years, Britain was flooded with randy North American servicemen, women were tasting a newfound independence bringing with it increased empowerment and curiosity. And of course the war fostered a kind of “live for today” attitude. As a popular song of the time said, “For all we know, we may never love again”. But society’s official policy was still “repress it”. And most movies continued to play by the book. The sexy vibe of “The Wicked Lady” beat the tom-tom with a very different and intriguing message.

To get a perception of “The Wicked Lady”’s box-office performance, it’s worth noting that one 2004 publication (factoring in inflation) ranked the film among Britain’s all-time top ten grossers, nestled between James Cameron’s “Titanic” and one of the Harry Potter films. In 1945 this amazing success couldn’t help but set antennae in Hollywood quivering. U.S. distributors clamoured for the American rights. A deal was negotiated (with Universal). But trouble reared its head in the form of those veteran party-poopers, the censors. Chief objection: the deep-dish decolletage exhibited by the film's females. In the end, to protect the supposedly delicate sensibilities of the American public, scenes were actually re-shot with suitably altered dresses. Bottom line, though : the sexual electricity generated by Lockwood and Mason had very little to do with costumes.

“The Wicked Lady” didn’t exactly sweep America. But it did get noticed. With plenty of provocative publicity and certainly more stateside playdates than most British films ever managed. Plus it made money. Tinseltown had already begun to sit up and take notice of the Gainsborough stars. This was the era of “Forever Amber”. Kathleen Winsor’s spicy novel about a bed-hopping 17th century beauty had taken America by storm. And when 20th Century Fox bought the film rights, they launched a huge Scarlett O’Hara type search for Amber. Every presentable actress but Lassie was mentioned for the part; several big names campaigned ardently for it. But Zanuck offered the plum to Margaret Lockwood. An incredible coup! Except that, as it happens, Lockwood had already spent a brief sojourn in Hollywood in the late 30’s – and hadn’t really enjoyed it . The U.S. success of “The Lady Vanishes” had gotten her a short-term deal at that same Fox studio. There, she’d found herself posing for publicity photos and playing third fiddle to Shirley Temple in the nondescript “Susannah of the Mounties”. Neither California life nor studio politics appealed to her much. And when Carol Reed offered Lockwood a meaty part in “The Stars Look Down” back in Britain, she chose not to re-sign with Fox. And scurried home. Now six years later, ensconced as Britain’s top box-office star, she preferred to remain in her homegrown roost. It might have been fun to see Lockwood, now at her peak, in Hollywood. But, as things turned out, when “Amber” finally made its appearance – for all its color and cost – it wasn’t nearly as much fun as “The Wicked Lady”.

Patricia Roc was the first of the Gainsborough group to head for Hollywood. Walter Wanger signed her to star in a big color western called “Canyon Passage”. The film did well. But, unfortunately for Roc, “Canyon Passage” also starred Wanger’s hottest property, Susan Hayward. Who knows what went on behind the scenes? But Roc found herself stuck in a pallid little plain-jane part, while Hayward monopolized the screen with spectacular red tresses, flashing eyes and all the liveliest dialogue. It’s odd. Most British actresses who went to America at least benefited from the Hollywood makeup and styling wizards. Roc crossed the Atlantic merely to be turned into a drab little wren. When the picture was finished, she hot-footed it home, never to return. Back in English films, she quickly re-emerged as her familiar dazzling looking self. A puzzlement.

Phyllis Calvert’s agents signed deals with Paramount and Universal. And she embarked on the adventure with considerable fanfare, even snagging a Life Magazine cover in June,1948. But the American films she made between ’48 and ’51 failed to showcase her properly, drawing only shrugs. The last of them (“Appointment with Danger”) teamed her with red-hot Alan Ladd. But any potential sparks were considerably doused by the fact that she played her entire role in a nun’s habit. She and her husband did form a lasting friendship with Ladd and his wife, one of the few positive legacies of her Hollywood stay. But Calvert, too, returned to Britain where, like Lockwood , she followed her movie star years with a long, successful career on stage and in television, eventually emerging as a beloved veteran of the British entertainment scene.

Hollywood proved to be a much better proposition for the Gainsborough men. Stewart Granger signed with MGM , kicking off the association with a blockbuster hit, “King Solomon’s Mines”. And for the next several years reigned as the studio’s prime adventure star. “Scaramouche” in ’52, with two glamorous leading ladies (Eleanor Parker and Janet Leigh), a rocking villain (Mel Ferrer) and some spectacular swordplay , proved an especially splendid showcase for Granger’s distinctive athleticism and panache. As for James Mason, his Hollywood years helped establish him as one of the world’s most admired and respected actors – a brilliant artist and an enduring world-class movie star.

For a long, long time, I’ve harboured a special fantasy about the Gainsborough players. It’s a recasting thing, a massive one. In 1948, just about the time the Gainsborough stars were fielding overtures from Hollywood, MGM released an ultre-lavish version of Dumas’ “The Three Musketeers”. It was a great success at the box-office. And it’s unlikely anyone at Metro regretted that. But, though the picture was an eye-popping showcase for 40’s Technicolor, I’ve never cared for it. The cast just doesn’t do it for me. And their various levels of unsuitability – visuallly, vocally, temperamentally – collide awkwardly, exacerbating the clumsy, shifting tones of the piece. Slapstick, adventure and high drama jockey constantly for position, never quite sure when to take center stage. Gene Kelly (D’Artagnan) offers a prime example. Certainly he’s athletic enough – and worked diligently on his swordsmanship. But he undercuts the impact of every duel with clunky vaudeville schtick (often accompanied by distressing cartoon music cues). Even in regular dialogue segments, he often resorts to exaggerated line readings and mugging. Of course, he’s absolutely 20th century, resolutely American – and so firmly identified with musicals that we keep waiting for the songs. These aspects of Kelly’s persona worked beautifully that same year in “The Pirate”, a rousing musical spoof of swashbucklers, beautifully helmed by Vincente Minnelli. Here a strolling player motif and an amazing , stylized tropical fever-dream setting worked marvelously with both musical-comedy and swashbuckling conventions. Minnelli kept the whole high-wire act going from start to finish. (Judy Garland’s presence didn’t hurt either). But in “The Three Musketeers”, director George Sidney seemed to have no control – vainly struggling to express a light heart with a heavy hand.

Equally jarring is the saccharine presence of June Allyson, with her squirm-inducing brand of Andy Hardy meets Norman Rockwell Americana. Allyson doesn’t even project any pep (Kelly, of course, supplies entirely too much of it), delivering her lines in a tone of constant (and phony) concern. A sedated Mickey Rooney in a wig would hardly have made a worse Constance.

And finally there’s Milady de Winter, one of literature’s most celebrated villainesses – and a role that’s been poorly handled in version after version of the story. The ’48 edition’s no exception. Lana Turner seems to have her hands full just supporting the elaborate gowns. She brings zero charisma, no verve and precious little ability to the part. A sort of blank space inside the extravagant costumes and headgear. Her beauty’s as bland and generic as her acting. From the moment she leans out of a carriage to speak, her colorless mid-American tones make you want to hear another voice – any voice – just not hers. Emotionally, dramatically, the performance is like a flat-line reading in an operating room. Lana goes for broke in her big imprisonment scene, pared down to only a semi-elaborate hair-do and two coats of paint. She widens her eyes purposefully and tries to deliver her portentous lines in the grand manner – but predictably screws it up with a misbegotten “watch me now!” attempt at theatricality.

“To be hanged! A common criminal! An English NEWSE!”(She means noose)
Thespian fireworks – Lana style! Raquel Welch could learn from her. Oh wait a minute. I think she did.

Obviously MGM poured a lot of money into this production – and they probably wouldn’t have done it without proven box-office stars like Turner, Kelly and Allyson onboard. But it still hurts. The supporting cast’s no great shakes either, with Keenan Wynn grating, unfunny and - needless to say – anachronistic. Frank Morgan is King Louis (at least that’s what the cast list says) but it’s just standard-issue Morgan. And his predicable dithering was getting very old by this time. Van Heflin makes Athos, the tragic musketeer, simply a lethargic downer – a characterization that’s equal parts chloroform and mothballs. Gig Young looks good in his costumes but WILL insist on opening his mouth every once in awhile and spoiling the effect.

Swashbuckling films don’t necessarily need British or European actors. They sure help though. If you’re casting an American, then you need one who can bring something elegant and courtly to the banquet, something appropriate to the genre. Tyrone Power was an American. But few equalled his ability to shine in a swashbuckler – always right at home among the plush trappings and the derring-do. The bunch in “The Three Musketeers” seem more like party-crashers – an ostentatiously dressed assortment of very sore thumbs.

Do you see where I’m going? If only MGM had decided to outbid the other studios and bring the Gainsborough gang over to America en masse. Then spend the same amount of money on a version of “The Three Musketeers” – for them. There’d recently been several British films which had scored heavily at the U.S. box-office without big stars (“Great Expectations”,”The Red Shoes”). And “The Three Musketeers” was a famous property with a lot of inherent audience appeal. It might well have raked in the coin even without American superstars bolstering the cast. But with the Gainsborough contingent starring, it could have been a pretty terrific movie too.

Stewart Granger was, of course, an ideal D’Artagnan. Dashing, a devil with the sword, playful – but not in the way Gene Kelly was. Kelly’s D’Artagnan seemed, more often than not, a kind of duelling Milton Berle. America embraced Granger as a swashbuckling star only a few years later. Surely they could have moved up the timetable a bit and welcomed him into the fold in ’48.

Patricia Roc was as right for Constance as Allyson was wrong. Which is to say she was perfect. I can see her in the part – and love her already. The role of Queen Anne (played to surprisingly little effect by Angela Lansbury in the Kelly version) would’ve had to be expanded a bit to accommodate Phyllis Calvert’s star status. But her special presence – gently regal – would’ve fit the role like a glove. In the generally over-rated ’74 version, Geraldine Chaplin found ways to make the part resonate. Calvert would’ve certainly done no less.

James Mason is such an inescapably perfect choice for Athos it’s really infuriating he didn’t get to play the part – especially considering the hash Van Heflin made out of it. A haunted figure, a poetic speaker, a charismatic, soulful man with a tragic secret. This IS Mason! And of course, what levels of accomplishment he’d have brought to the role.

Gig Young out. Michael Rennie in. Already I’m breathing easier. Another couple of Brits – and there were plenty in Hollywood – could replace Keenan Wynn and Frank Morgan. I can live with Vincent Price as Richelieu. But why not Raymond Massey? John Sutton stays. Non-negotiable.

And Milady de Winter? Need you ask? Put Lana in a cab and send her home to deal with that lifeless bleached-out Dynel hair of hers. Margaret Lockwood had everything the part needed. The look. The style. The presence. The voice. The talent. She nailed perfidy in “The Man in Grey” Perfected it in “The Wicked Lady”. And how great it would have been to see her doing it with all of Metro’s enormous resources behind her. As a matter of fact, it would’ve been something to see the whole Gainsborough group in color that vivid, on sets that immense. An MGM/Gainsborough “Three Musketeers” could have changed the tangents of all their careers in fascinating ways. All the Gainsborough stars in one spectacularly splashy epic. Reaching an audience vastly bigger than any Gainsborough film ever had. Now that’s “All for one and one for all!”

The Gainsborough romances had a glorious run but not a long one. Granger’s “Caravan”(‘46) maintained the level of the earlier triumphs. “The Magic Bow”(’46) was a biopic of Paganini with Granger and Calvert and everything in it, including the stars, looked ravishing. “Jassy”(’47) was Gainsborough’s first color film and gave Lockwood and Roc a chance to switch their accustomed roles. This time Roc was the bitch. But the script was flapdoodle, without the fun or the flair of yore. Attendance dropped sharply around this time and Gainsborough execs looked for new formulas. They never found one that matched the appeal of the old costumers. Then, shockingly, in the early 50’s, Gainsborough Studios quietly closed – a victim of changing times, changing tastes and that old bugaboo corporate restructuring.

In 1982 British director Michael Winner revealed plans to remake “The Wicked Lady”. There was considerable buzz in the British press. And when Faye Dunaway’s name was announced to headline the project, that buzz reached international proportions. Her controversial work in “Mommie Dearest” had attracted unexpectedly hostile press (thoroughly undeserved – it’s a great performance). And was to have long-term consequences for her career. But she still ranked as a major star, the press following her every move. The “Wicked Lady” casting seemed exciting. After all, Dunaway had played Milady de Winter in the 70’s version of “The Three Musketeers”. And had been the only actress ever to fully exploit the role. Her remarkable display of stylish villainy in that otherwise boorish enterprise made it clear she’d be a superb Lady Barbara.

As it turned out, the new “Wicked Lady” was a rather mixed bag. The project is, after all, a star vehicle. And Margaret Lockwood had certainly delivered star quality, firmly commanding center stage. The thing is the reflected glow from the marvelous performances around her amplified her impact. The new “Wicked Lady” had no such luck. Denholm Elliott’s almost elderly Ralph was a dreary old pudding. Avuncular at best – and for the ladies a singularly unlikely bone of contention. Nondescript Oliver Tobias, defiantly charisma-free, emerged as another petty object for Barbara’s affections. Glynis Barber WAS able to bring a little something to Caroline – a bit of warmth, a fleeting charm. But she lacked Patricia Roc’s individuality. Veterans Joan Hickson, Prunella Scales and John Gielgud all supplied sturdy professionalism - but were utterly unable to erase memories of Martita Hunt, Enid Stamp-Taylor and Felix Aylmer. And there was a world of difference between James Mason and the new Jerry Jackson, Alan Bates. A feeling of smallness clings to everything about Bates’ performance. He seems uninvested in the role. Insignificant – he hardly catches your eye, something one could never ever say about Mason. Bates was a good actor. But his voice was, perhaps, best suited to quiet speeches. There’s a sense of empty noise when he raises that voice. Which he does frequently in “The Wicked Lady”.Ultimately, the effect is sheer tempest in a teacup. Hardly calculated to set hearts ablaze. Or keep audiences awake.

The script stuck very close to the original. Except for some gratuitous nudity involving extras, an au naturel love scene with Barber and Tobias and a catfight (complete with whips) between Dunaway and an eventually topless trollop. But the momentum just wasn’t there. Somehow the story often seemed to drift when it should have plunged headlong – as the ’45 version did. One simply didn’t care about most of the characters. With Bates and Elliott just phoning it in, there simply wasn’t a lot of audience involvement. The accumulation of all these factors leaves Dunaway with a great deal of responsibility. In effect, it’s up to her to salvage the picture. That she does so to such an impressive degree is a tribute to her special gifts.

Although the photography’s by the famed Jack Cardiff, the color seems overly drab and muted. Except for Barbara’s costumes. Dunaway’s wardrobe in the picture is way way beyond anything Lockwood had worn in ’45. It’s one amazing outfit after another. And Dunaway knows just how to move in them, act in them, inhabit them. One of the film’s unalloyed pleasures is watching her glide, rustle, twirl and curtsy, incorporating the fabulous clothes into her performance. The initial shot of her emerging from her carriage – exquisite salmon-colored gown, amazing hair, enormous hat, bathed in late afternoon sunlight – well, it knocks you off your feet. It’s Faye Dunaway in the full blazing Indian summer of her beauty. Dunaway’s Barbara displays more of the ice queen than Lockwood’s.The new Barbara’s scarier. Crazier. But still commanding. Mesmerizing. And there’s no question of vocal deficiency or unsuitability. She’s utterly at home in the 17th century settings. Dunaway’s voice seduces with its low tones and expressive nuances – well-bred and dangerously compelling. Take note, Emily Proctor. THIS is star acting.

The film failed at the box-office. Dunaway’s status was clearly suffering from the “Mommie Dearest” fall-out. Suddenly reviewers weren’t taking her seriously. A pity because she was – and is – an impressive force onscreen. Probably offscreen too. In effect, she’s the one thing that makes the ’83 “Wicked Lady” worth watching. The picture remains a lovely souvenir of old-fashioned movie star glamour – a rare commodity in the 80’s. And Dunaway’s a delicious “Wicked Lady” – glorious looking, suitably crafty, marvelously inscrutable. If her tongue’s in her cheek, it’s her little secret.

During the flurry of publicity that accompanied the film’s launch, it was rumoured that Margaret Lockwood had been offered a cameo. The lady herself maintained a studied lack of interest in the project, suggesting (a) she’d never been approached (b) she had no interest – after all, what would she play, one of the silly cousins? Lockwood might have made a sly impression as Mrs. Munce, dispenser of poisons. But she was probably wise to remain uninvolved. Reviewers in ’45 had turned their noses up at “The Wicked Lady”. But the release of the remake had them suddenly recalling it with fondness, unanimously agreed that the new “Wicked Lady” wasn’t a patch on the old one.

Some years ago, I had the good fortune to meet Phyllis Calvert backstage after a performance of “She Stoops to Conquer”. She proved to be a warm, down-to-earth and charming woman, Still pretty. Still effortlessly casting a spell with those big eyes. I asked her if she kept in touch with any of her Gainsborough colleagues, and she delighted me by saying, yes, she and Margaret Lockwood remained great chums. They talked all the time and frequently got together, occasionally taking their grandchildren for joint outings in the park. Sometimes recognized. Sometimes not. A piquant epilogue to the Gainsborough saga. Sweet Clarissa and wicked Lady Barbara – who’d set the hearts of Stewart Granger and James Mason beating faster in many a fanciful and florid costume epic, who’d had Hollywood wooing them too and who’d managed to connect – lastingly - with millions of moviegoers during Britain’s most turbulent decade. Not wicked at all. But ladies certainly.

Lovely ones. The Gainsborough girls.

3 comments:

janmaa said...

I'm glad you enjoyed Enid Stamp-Taylor's performance in "The Wicked Lady". I follow Enid's life with a passion especially as she was my father's cousin. Their mothers were sisters. I am always after more information about her and welcome any contributions.
Thanks

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for commenting. Nice to have an intriguing celebrity in your family tree. And it's great that THE WICKED LADY survives as a souvenir of so many wonderful talents including Enid Stamp-Taylor.

Norman said...

I too would like more information about Enid Stamp Taylor especially her burial site. Born in Monkseaton 1904, it would also be nice to know exactly where seeing I live near to Monkseaton. It seems Enid had been feeling unwell and left the cast of Is Your Honeymoon Really Necessary playing at the Duchess Theatre, London.
A bathroom incident at home soon after resulted in her being admittted to St George's Hospital, Wimbleton where she died some 4-5 days later leaving a young daughter, Robin Ann.