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

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.

RATING 7 / 10
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