Fanny By Gaslight
Phyllis Calvert, James Mason, Stewart Granger
US DVD: 15 May 2012
VCI’s deal with the Rank Collection has resulted in many British classics hitting DVD recently, and here are two examples of WWII-era escapism from major directors.
The 1939 programmer The Arsenal Stadium Mystery is an early assignment for Thorold Dickinson, who promptly made the excellent first version of Gaslight and later one of the most voluptuously visual British films of the 1940s, The Queen of Spades. It’s shot by Desmond Dickinson (no relation), who went on to such British classics as the Laurence Olivier Hamlet, The Rocking Horse Winner and The Importance of Being Earnest. So I’ve long wished to see this little whodunit, and now here it is in an amazingly crystalline print.
It moves at a jolly pace to solve the murder of a soccer player (or football as they call it) in the middle of a match. A few nicely evocative shots include a beautiful-but-dead blonde stretched across a bed, which always brings out the best in directors and cameramen. Leslie Banks is the eccentric CID inspector who plays with different hats and rehearses a police show with men in tutus. A couple of scenes cock a snoot at Hitler. While it’s all very pleasant once you get past the opening reel of soccer antics (and it opens with a newsreel, like Citizen Kane but not really), it’s at best a mildly cheeky lark that doesn’t quite promise the dazzling talents of the future.
Thoughtfully, somebody at VCI added optional subtitles; this might be useful with some English accents. Less happily, the transcriber has so many misheard lines, I had to turn them off to avoid the distracting nonsense. In one speech, “much anticipated” becomes “not participated” and “Gaumont British News” becomes “government of British news.”
With the war in full swing, Gainsborough Pictures made a killing with costume dramas. These were semi-sexy tales of scandalous women and dashing men, and one such example is Fanny By Gaslight. It’s not enough that poor Fanny (Phyllis Calvert) is orphaned when a sadistic and dissipated nobleman (James Mason, curling his lip something fierce) pushes her step-daddy, who runs an ill-famed establishment for gentlemen’s entertainment to Fanny’s innocent ignorance, to his death under a horse. Oh no, it’s only then that her troubles begin.
In the wake of the scandal, Fanny travels through as many households as David Copperfield, uncovering the mystery of her birth and finding her life haunted at every turn by this same scoundrel, who seems to be responsible for everything bad that ever happens to her. Can she find love with hardworking Stewart Granger, whose family disapproves of Fanny’s low-class (yet secretly high-class) origins? Honestly, we can’t say. As directed with assurance by no less than Anthony Asquith, it’s well-mounted balderdash whose ambiguities may reflect wartime uncertainties about the future and the evolution of class and gender roles. If you will.