August 1, 2014

Gainsborough Melodramas: A Unique Phenomenon

The films known as the Gainsborough Melodramas are generally taken to be the series of costume dramas, based on popular novels, beginning with The Man in Grey (1943) and ending with Jassy (1947). Typically these are characterised as high-flown, unbelievable and formulaic, although they have a more respectable reputation amongst students of film history. They still receive the occasional airing on television, but are not generally as well-known as other landmarks of British cinema – notably the Ealing Comedies. Less appreciated today is the fact that there exists a handful of Gainsborough films which were set contemporarily, often utilising the same actors, and which in themselves made a link between the wartime escapism of the Gainsborough costume dramas, and the more gritty realism of the Rank films of the fifties (which pre-dated Gainsborough’s merger with the Rank organisation).

The Man in Grey, first in the costume series, is interestingly framed by a present-day setting, whereby two characters meet by chance at an auction of the Rohan family treasures – a formerly aristocratic and powerful family. The auction itself represents the break up of the old order represented by the war, in which (according to the orthodoxy) all levels of British society were pulling together for the common cause. A typically Gainsborough ‘coincidence’ is that Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) and Rokeby (Stewart Granger) are both scions of families whose ancestors are closely bound together by the Regency period story framed by the auction, which starts to unfold as the blackout plunges the setting into darkness. In the Regency period we meet a cast of characters, actors and types who would become very familiar to audiences as the series unfolded: the resentful, determined and thoroughly ruthless Margaret Lockwood, the younger and loyal Phyllis Calvert (as the Regency Clarissa), the violent, dissolute and unprincipled Lord Rohan as played by James Mason in the first of a series of such roles, in both period and modern dress – (he later admitted to playing these roles in varying degrees of drunkenness). Also present is the thoroughly good-egg Stewart Granger, an actor who has lost his estates in the West Indies through slave rebellions. Clarissa is later murdered by Hesther (Lockwood) who attempts to marry Lord Rohan, but who is whipped to death by him for her trouble. Returning to the present day, the auction ends just before the contemporary Clarissa and Rokeby can buy their desired heirlooms, but love flourishes and their story is presumed to have a happier ending than that of their ancestors.

As is often the case with popular culture, critical reception for The Man in Grey was scathing, whilst the public lapped it up and it was highly successful at the box office. It is interesting that it was framed by the present day, since its popularity has been cited as due to escapism from the horrors of wartime Britain. Indeed, another of the successful costume films (Madonna of the Seven Moons) was largely set in the present day and featured a respectable housewife (Calvert again) who periodically develops amnesia and becomes a wild gypsy who leaves her family in London to become the mistress of a jewel thief (Granger) in Florence. More certain is that the costume melodramas appealed to a new audience of newly-powerful and independent women who flocked to see films which dealt with love, romance, treachery, and vitality in all its glory. To assume that these audiences were undiscriminating and genuinely believed the florid settings depicted on screen is disingenuous and naïve. Of course they knew they were not witnessing history, and the films often depicted cynical and violent characters – most of whom did get their comeuppance.

Most interesting is that by far the most popular characters, and thereby actors, were the villains, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in particular. From Rohan in The Man in Grey, Lord Manderstoke in Fanny by Gaslight to Captain Jerry Jackson in The Wicked Lady, Mason was a thoroughly bad lot, and audiences loved him for it, laying the foundations for a long and successful career that was to flourish both in Britain and Hollywood. In a similar way, Lockwood specialised in female equivalents, husband stealers, treacherous, femme fatales in the extreme. As well as Hester in The Man in Grey, she excelled in The Wicked Lady as the scheming, murderous Highwaywoman Barbara Worth (ably assisted by Mason), although she is redeemed somewhat in Jassy the last film in the series, where she plays the done-to heroine rather than the doer-of.

The films are often set in exotic locations and feature similar characters – often gypsies, signifiers of difference and transgression in those pre-enlightened times. It may well be that the dullness of austerity in everyday wartime life, mixed with occasional but vivid episodes of danger gave these films their rationale and success. It must have seemed very glamorous for a bored and ultra-conventional London housewife and mother to be able to flit off to Florence when the moon was right and become a jewel thief with a swarthy Stewart Granger for a lover; and the historical settings of the films and the popular novels upon which they were based also afforded an escape from an everyday which was both mundane and brutal.

The Gainsborough costume melodramas are a world where nothing is quite as it appears. They portray a world where dark secrets bubble frantically just below the surface: in Fanny by Gaslight follows up witnessing the death of her father at the hands of (who else) James Mason, by discovering that the family have been running a brothel net door to their house all along; in Caravan amnesia again proves useful Richard Darrell (Granger) suffers a complete loss of memory and marries a gypsy (of course) whilst his betrothed, Oriana, marries the dastardly Sir Francis Castleton – the latter played by Dennis Price, who often stands in for the James Mason character in later films. The Wicked Lady is riddled with secrets, betrayals and killings and probably serves its status as the most well-known of the films: Barbara steals Sir Ralph from her compliant friend Caroline (Patricia Roc), then realises she has made a mistake as she falls for Kit Locksby (Michael Rennie, this time, standing in for the Stewart Granger character). Along the way she smothers Hogarth (Felix Aylmer), the loyal family retainer who has discovered her duplicitous existence and is about to spill the beans.

In the midst of all this transgression, of course, there had to be resolution and the Gainsborough melodramas provided this. The circle had to be squared. Whilst it was acceptable for audiences to be thrilled and shocked by the sheer audacity at the heart of these films, they could not be allowed to conclude that wickedness paid off. This being Britain, we did not need a hays Code to enforce this, but we had the Censor and the studios own imperatives not to offend. So the villains could not get away with it: in The Man in Grey, as we have seen, Hester is beaten to death for her murder of Clarissa; in Fanny by Gaslight, Fanny’s attempts to ignore the class barriers are constantly thwarted by Manderstoke; Maddalena’s transgression in Madonna of the Seven Moons is punished by death; Barbara Worth dies a lonely death abandoned by her true love in The Wicked Lady; in Caravan order is restored and the rightful lovers reunited, somewhat in the manner of a Shakespearean comedy; whilst in Jassy, the eponymous heroine is cleared of murder at the end by the confession of Lindy, the real murderer.  We are allowed to marvel and thrill at the wickedness of all these characters, but not to witness them profit from it. That would never do.

Interestingly enough, the films were released in America where the bawdy and sometimes (for the era) sensuousness was deemed to be offensive. Fanny by Gaslight, for example, fell foul of the Hays Code and had its release delayed, eventually having seventeen minutes cut from its original running length. For a film which ran for 107 minutes, this must have left a not inconsiderable gap in understanding.

I have already touched on some of the actors involved in these films and the success many of these later enjoyed, both at home and in the United States, derives directly from their involvement in the Gainsborough melodramas and the immense exposure this gave them. As well as Margaret Lockwood, James Mason and Stuart Granger, the films featured Phyllis Calvert, John Laurie, Patricia Roc, Dulcie Gray, Jean Kent, Michael Rennie, Felix Aylmer, Martitia Hunt, Dennis Price, Maurice Denham and Nora Swinburne, amongst others. It is a roll call of forties and fifties British cinema.

As I mentioned earlier, at the same time there were other films being made by Gainsborough at the same time as the costume pieces, and these shared some of the same characteristics and cast members, although there were also essential differences caused by the modern day settings and values. These include A Place of One’s Own (1945), They Were Sisters (1945), The Root of all Evil v(1947), and Dear Murderer (1947). The last of these was produced by Betty Box, whose husband had acquired Gainsborough in 1946 and thus provides a link to the Rank Organisation and the British films of the fifties which were to follow.

A Place of One’s Own was a ghost story based on an Osbert Sitwell novel and starred Mason, Lockwood, Price, Dulcie Gray and Barbara Mullen (later better known as Janet in Doctor Finlay’s Casebook), which involves possession of the Margaret Lockwood character by the spirit of an invalid girl murdered forty years previously in the house they have just moved in to. Mason and Mullen were playing characters much older than themselves, with the assistance of costume and make-up, and the film features many of the melodramatic aspects of the costume dramas.

In They Were Sisters, James Mason again features, this time along with Phyllis Calvert, Dulcie Gray and Anne Crawford. It had a near contemporary setting, covering the period from the end of the First War to the late 30’s (similar ground to Millions Like Us). The film deals with marital abuse and features Mason in a familiar bullying and sadistic role, this time as Geoffrey Lee, husband of Charlotte (Gray) who abuses her physically and mentally, and subjects her to humiliation in front of other family members. The other sisters, played by Calvert and Crawford, witness this abuse and the films ends tragically as Charlotte dies under the wheels of a car in an ill-fated attempt to flee her husband.

The Root of All Evil features Calvert and Rennie who exploit an old man by buying land cheaply from him, knowing there are substantial oil deposits beneath. Jeckie Farnish (Calvert) becomes richer and more ostentatious and eventually the resentment of the elderly man duped for his land results in him setting fire to the oil refinery which now occupies it, causing a (somewhat unlikely) re-evaluation of Farnish’s character and an ending where she marries the humble man who has held a candle for her all along. (Resolution again).

The contemporary Gainsborough films have not endured in the same way as their costumed cousins, and this is perhaps because their contemporary settings anchor them firmly. With other films of the period, this does not matter so much as the subject matter is humorous and universal. The features which make the Gainsborough costume melodramas inviting, exhilarating and timeless work against the non-costume variety, since the latter do not possess similar levels of allowable fantasy. Even if we were not born in the forties, we have heard, read and seen so much about the period that we have an internalised picture of what it was like: there are films, documentaries, newsreels which provide the imagery for us. With the costume films, we can wallow in the same world of make believe as the original audiences. As long as we remember that order reasserts itself in the end.



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About Gerry Cobb

Gerry Cobb has written 4 post in this blog.

Gerry Cobb lives in Norfolk and in a freelance writer, arts worker and trainer. He studied Drama at University, which included a strong Film element, and started – but alas never finished – a PhD on the Living Newspapers in 1930s America.