Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Wicked Lady (1945): Or Cleavage and the Crafty Wench

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.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bette vs. Miriam, Bout of the Divas: Meow

About a year ago, I wrote a short piece on the legendary feud of two legendary Hollywood actresses, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins. Since then, I have expanded this forum and also, delved deeper into the abyss that was the Davis/Hopkins relationship. Bette was infamous for her battles with certain co-stars, male (paging Mr. Flynn! Mr. Errol Flynn!) as well as female (calling Joan Crawford!), but they seemed to pale in comparison to her feeling for Miriam Hopkins. Their’s was a deep seeded, long standing rivalry, which began even before either woman made a single movie.

Round 1
In 1928 both young actresses were in a stage production on the east coast called Excess Baggage. Both were part of a repertory acting company headed by director George Cukor, although at this point, unlike their future film pairings, Miriam, not Bette, was the big cheese. Hopkins also made leading lady status in Hollywood long before Davis, with star turns in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) and Design for Living (1933), among other notable films of the early 30’s.

Round 2
In 1933, Hopkins starred in Jezebel on Broadway. It was the story of a tempestuous Southern belle (a part tailor made for the real life Southern spitfire) in the era before the Civil War, ala Scarlett O’Hara. The play was unsuccessful, running only a few dozen performances and closing after a month. Not only did Miriam star in the play, but she was part owner of the rights to it. When Warner Brothers studio showed interest in the story as a vehicle for its rising star, none other than Miss Bette Davis, Hopkins balked, refusing to sell the rights unless the deal included her in the lead role of Julie, which she had originated. In order to obtain the rights, she was given the impression that she would be cast, so when top brass gave the plum part to Davis, Miriam was livid. To add insult to injury, Bette won her second Oscar for her performance in Jezebel. The story goes that Miriam cried.

Round 3
In late 1938, with her career in somewhat limbo, Hopkins signed a two picture deal with Warner Brothers. The first film under her new contract was the historical melodrama The Old Maid (1939), based on an Edith Wharton story. In the film, she played second lead to guess who….Bette Davis, Warners reigning queen supreme. But neither actress was a shrinking violet and there was tension aplenty on the set, with director Edmund Goulding at the helm. A studio memo summed up the stressful situation when it relayed, “…Goulding has a tough job on this picture with these two girls. Not that they want to cause him any trouble or worry, but each one is fighting for a scene when they go into it…”

Davis had fought hard with the studio to get where she was professionally, and she wasn’t about to take guff from her rival. But Miriam certainly tried to get a rise out of her at any opportunity. On her first day on the set, Hopkins wore an exact duplicate of the dress Davis had worn in Jezebel. Davis reflected on this time with Hopkins in her autobiography with the following observations: “Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one…When she was supposed to be listening to me, her eyes would wander off into some other world in which she was the sweetest of them all. Her restless little spirit was impatiently awaiting her next line, her golden curls quivering with expectancy."

Warner Brothers publicity department took full advantage of the dueling divas and played up their feud to boost ticket sales for the upcoming film. They even went as far as to circulate a photo of the actresses in full costume with boxing gloves on, ready to duke it out, with director Goulding looking resigned between them. (above)

Round 4
During the making of The Old Maid, Hopkins was married to director Anatole Litvak. Litvak had directed Bette Davis in her follow up film to Jezebel called The Sisters (1938), and Miriam suspected the two were having an affair, but Davis was too taken with her Jezebel director, William Wyler, at the time to look at Litvak. However, reportedly Litvak and Davis DID have a short affair during the filming of All This and Heaven Too in 1940, but by that time the director and Hopkins had already divorced.

The Old Maid was excellent box office, and Warners signed Miriam on for another spin with her nemesis in 1943 to make Old Acquaintance, the story of two childhood friends/rivals who spar incessantly over men, career, and a child. The romantic yarn was perfect for the pair, but wasn’t without its backstage fireworks. Edmund Goulding was again slated to direct but had a heart attack shortly into the production. Knowing the emotional state of the set and the stress Goulding had been under with the two high maintenance queens, studio head Jack Warner jokingly accused him of having the heart attack on purpose. At 40, the dew was off the lily for Miriam, and when production wrapped on Old Acquaintance, she sold her house in California, packed her bags and went back east to the stage. When she returned to Hollywood, it would be in character roles over half a decade later.

Sunday, June 6, 2010


With the passing of Memorial Day, the unofficial start of the summer season is upon us and the sultry heat and lush atmosphere of the approaching solstice is sumptiously displayed in a few photos from heatwaves of the past, featuring some of Hollywood's most gorgeous female players. Above, buxom brunette bombshell Ava Gardner showed she knew what fun in the sun was all about, and looked amazing doing it. This picture was made about the time she was married to Mickey Rooney.....lucky boy, that Mick.

Beautiful Linda Darnell was no stranger to the cheesecake department. Her raven haired exotic beauty made her one of the most popular stars at 20th Century Fox in the 1940's.

Blonde and leggy Betty Grable is taking in the sun, surf and sand while catching up on her news........or checking out the most recent racing form.

Lovely Jeanne Crain, poolside, showing off her curves aplenty. Hard to believe this woman ended up having seven children.

Screwball cutie Carole Lombard, aka Mrs. William Powell AND Clark Gable, is reclined and refined. Not the typical swimsuit model type, Lombard had a face and figure to match even the most well known pin-ups.

One of Hollywood's coolest cucumbers in the 1940's, comely Gene Tierney is the picture of summer glamour in this fantastic shot. No wonder JFK and half of Hollywood fell for her.

Marvelously mellow Marilyn Monroe is ripe and luscious as a any summer fruit in her white one piece. Stunning.


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