Reviews

Strong Women and Dark Doings: 'Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures'

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945)

There’s a lot to enjoy in a good melodrama, if you’re willing to accept the conventions of the genre and exercise a little suspension of disbelief.


The Wicked Lady

Director: Leslie Arliss, Arthur Crabtree
Cast: James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, Margaret Lockwood, Stewart Granger
Distributor: Criterion
Studio: Gainsborough Pictures
Release date: 2012-10-09

Melodramas don’t seem to wear nearly as well over time as other genre films—while Ealing comedies and Hammer horror films have plenty of fans today, the third great brand of mid-century English film, Gainsborough melodramas, have nearly fallen out of sight. For whatever reason, audiences are generally willing to overlook the ridiculous aspects of a horror film, while the overwrought aspects of melodramas seem to rub many people the wrong way. That’s a shame, because there’s a lot to enjoy in a good melodrama, if you’re willing to accept the conventions of the genre and exercise a little suspension of disbelief.

A new Criterion release of three melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures—The Man in Grey (1943), Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), and The Wicked Lady (1945) offers the opportunity to sample several representative films from this genre. These films make no claim to being high art, but embrace their nature as popular, escapist cinema, intended to entertain a largely female audience during the dark days of World War II.

Contemporary critics weren’t particularly keen on them, but audiences flocked to the theatre—in fact, a 2004 box office chart showed that, after adjusting for inflation, Wicked Lady was the ninth most popular film in British history (beating out both Titanic at tenth, and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at 11th).

The Man in Grey was one of the ten most successful British films of 1943, and established the template for Gainsborough melodramas to come. Based on a novel by Eleanor Smith, the main story is set in the Regency period, with a framing story set in 1943 and involving an RAF pilot (Stewart Granger) and a WREN (Women’s Royal Naval Service; Phyllis Calvert) who meet cute at an auction.

In the Regency period story, the impossibly good Clarissa (also Phyllis Calvert) becomes best friends with a stereotypical bad girl Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) from a lower social station. Hesther disgraces herself with a naval ensign, while Clarissa is matched with Lord Rohan (James Mason), the man in grey of the title, who is rich, but no prize as a husband (he refers to his wife as a “breeding sow"). Clarissa does Hesther a good deed by getting her a job as a governess, and Hesther responds by starting an affair with Clarissa’s husband, while Clarissa takes up with an actor (Stewart Granger).

There’s certainly no lack of action in this one (slave rebellions and murder also figure in the plot), and what is left unresolved in the 19th-century story is nicely tied up in the frame story, so the audience could be titillated by all the evil doings on screen and still leave the theatre reassured that all is right with the world.

The Man in Grey (1943)

The action in The Madonna of the Seven Moons ostensibly takes place in Florence in the '30s, but the characters are as British as any that have ever appeared on the screen. The story wastes no time getting started—in the opening scene a teenage girl, Maddalena (Phyllis Calvert), looking for all the world like Little Red Riding Hood skipping through the forest, is raped by a predator right out of central casting. Nonetheless, she marries a man of her father’s choice, and bears a beautiful daughter.

Jumping ahead about 20 years, the daughter is enjoying the life of a privileged young adult, and the two women suffer from a generation gap as great as any experienced in the '70s. Maddalena is marked by her early trauma, and her convent upbrining, while her spirited daughter (Patricia Roc) has been raised as a modern girl who likes short shorts and boys with fast cars. Maddalena’s unresolved issues with her past also cause her to have bouts of panic and confusion, and occasional flights into a life far removed from her everyday experience as a respectable wife and mother.

The Wicked Lady (1945)

The eponymous character in The Wicked Lady is Barbara Worth, played with great gusto by Margaret Lockwood, who seems to have had a particular talent for playing the bad girl. She steals the fiancé of her best friend (Patricia Roc) in the first 15 minutes of the film, then, when marriage proves too dull for her liking, takes up a career as both a highwayman and a highwayman’s mistress. As is usual in these pictures, it’s the women who get most of the action, and Griffith Jones, who plays Barbara’s husband, and James Mason, her highwayman boyfriend, are both left in the dust by Lockwood.

This collection is part of Criterion’s Eclipse series, which is intended, as it says on the slipcase, to present “a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.” So there’s no extras beyond the liner notes for each disc, and the sound and picture quality is not up to the standard of the regular series of Criterion releases. In truth, sound and visuals are pretty good for Madonna of the Seven Moons and The Wicked Lady, while both can be rough (dialogue dropping out, scratches on the image) in The Man in Grey. Fortunately, the story is easy enough to follow, and you shouldn’t pass up the chance to see this films just because they are not restored to museum quality.

7
Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Music

The 10 Best Experimental Albums of 2015

Music of all kinds are tending toward a consciously experimental direction. Maybe we’re finally getting through to them.

Books

John Lewis, C.T. Vivian, and Their Fellow Freedom Riders Are Celebrated in 'Breach of Peace'

John Lewis and C.T. Vivian were titans of the Civil Rights struggle, but they are far from alone in fighting for change. Eric Etheridge's masterful then-and-now project, Breach of Peace, tells the stories of many of the Freedom Riders.

Music

Unwed Sailor's Johnathon Ford Discusses Their New Album and 20 Years of Music

Johnathon Ford has overseen Unwed Sailor for more than 20 years. The veteran musician shows no sign of letting up with the latest opus, Look Alive.

Jedd Beaudoin
Music

Jazz Trombonist Nick Finzer Creates a 'Cast of Characters'

Jazz trombonist Nick Finzer shines with his compositions on this mainstream jazz sextet release, Cast of Characters.

Music

Datura4 Travel Blues-Rock Roads on 'West Coast Highway Cosmic'

Australian rockers Datura4 take inspiration from the never-ending coastal landscape of their home country to deliver a well-grounded album between blues, hard rock, and psychedelia.

Books

Murder Is Most Factorial in 'Eighth Detective'

Mathematician Alex Pavesi's debut novel, The Eighth Detective, posits mathematical rules defining 'detective fiction'.

Music

Eyedress Sets Emotions Against Shoegaze Backdrops on 'Let's Skip to the Wedding'

Eyedress' Let's Skip to the Wedding is a jaggedly dreamy assemblage of sounds that's both temporally compact and imaginatively expansive, all wrapped in vintage shoegaze ephemera.

Film

Of Purges and Prescience: On David France's LGBTQ Documentary, 'Welcome to Chechnya'

The ongoing persecution of LGBTQ individuals in Chechnya, or anywhere in the world, should come as no surprise, or "amazement". It's a motif undergirding the history of civil society that certain people will always be identified for extermination.

Television

Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.

Film

Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".

Music

The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.

Music

The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.

Music

Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.

Music

​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.

Music

John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.