Tuesday, June 29, 2010
In November 2004, the British Film Institute compiled a list of the all-time most popular films ever shown in England, not just those made in Great Britain but across the globe. This list wasn't created by opinion polls or statistics, but by the most accurate data available....the number of tickets sold. Not ticket sales, which can change dramatically over decades due to inflation, but actual tickets sold to viewers. What a novel idea! And of the tens of thousands of movies shown in Britain, number nine on the list was The Wicked Lady (1945), a lush and lusty historical potboiler made in England and starring the ravishing Margaret Lockwood and the rakish James Mason. You may have heard of it but chances are the average modern classic film fan hasn't and yet it beat out Jaws, the Harry Potter series and even each individual installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, none of which even made it into the top ten. What? How could an obscure little swashbuckler made just after the war, with a running time of only 104 minutes, sell more tickets than these blockbuster heavyweights?
The Wicked Lady, released in December 1945, just so happened to be England's highest earning film for 1946. The British box office coffers fairly exploded with the bodice ripping tale, set during the Restoration. Critics thought very little of it but the public couldn't get enough. Based on a novel by Magdalen King-Hall called The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, the story apparently has its roots in real life events of the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers (pictured right), an heiress and wife of prominent landowner Thomas Fanshawe, in 17th century England. The conniving female of the film's title is Lady Barbara Skelton (Lockwood), who has been invited to the wedding of her childhood friend, Caroline (played by the lovely Patricia Roc). Upon arrival, the beautiful and scheming Barbara charms and bewitches bridegroom-to-be Sir Ralph Skelton (Griffith Jones), a wealthy, albeit uninspiring landowner. She marries the unassuming Ralph and becomes lady of the manor, a grand Jacobian mansion called Maryiot Cells (the huge estate is actually Blicking House in Norfolk, now a property of the National Trust). Bored with what she considers a dull life as a country lady, she dons a mask and men's clothes and becomes a highwayman, a rogue in days of old who worked as armed robbers of passing carriages on remote highways. She meets up with another thief of the same order, the infamous Jerry Jackson (Mason) and, as bored with her her husband as she is with domestic life, she and Jackson become lovers. Wicked doesn't begin to describe our lass, as her shenanigans multiply, eventually leading to murder, as well as yet another man floating about in the background to raise her temperature (Michael Rennie).
The Wicked Lady was a product of Gainsborough Pictures, a film studio in Islington, London, which was a part of the Rank empire, the leading movie production company in Britain. Gainsborough gave rise to a small group of up and coming actors which included Stewart Granger and Phyllis Calvert, as well as Lockwood, Mason and Roc, and specialized in interchanging these players in various historical, as well as contemporary dramas. Lady is a perfect example of the Gainsborough formula and by far the most commercially successful. One simple reason for the film's popularity was the fact that risque Restoration romance was all the rage in 1945. American author Kathleen Windsor had just released her debut novel Forever Amber the previous year to enormous success, with a film version in the works by 1946. The Wicked Lady was very similar to Amber in atmosphere and theme and was a better representation of the genre for a fraction of the cost its American counterpart would incur. The fiery melodrama made no pretense of being high art, instead embracing its dime store romance novel status with sumptuous interior decor and lavish costumes given exquisite attention to detail.
When it came to U.S. distribution of the film, the costumes became a huge bone of contention. American motion picture censors considered Margaret Lockwood's cleavage much too prominent to be allowed on Yankee movie screens and costly reshooting was required in order for the picture to be shown this side of the Atlantic. There was also no lack of innuendo and racy dialogue. Upon meeting the dark and daring Jerry, who has no qualms about wrapping his hands around Barbara's nibble worthy neck, she asks: "Do you always take women by the throat?", to which the sensual thief wantonly answers, "No, I just take them."
Lockwood is without doubt the star of the show. She had already made a name for herself nearly a decade earlier as the female lead in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). By the time she played Lady Skelton, she was one of England's most popular movie actresses. Bearing a striking resemblance to American film star Joan Bennett, Lockwood runs dramatically amok in The Wicked Lady. She is a cross between Jezebel and Lucretia Borgia, definitely the stronger character next to her weaker male film counterparts. When all is said and done, number nine on Brits top list is just good dirty fun.