The Wicked Lady (1945) Directed by Leslie Arliss. Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Patricia Roc, Michael Rennie (104 min).
This is my entry in the CMBA (Classic Movie Bloggers Association) Hidden Classics Blogathon
Bad, bold Barbara (Margaret Lockwood from The Lady Vanishes) steals her cousin’s (Patricia Roc) fiancé (Griffith Jones) on the eve of the wedding, but quickly tires of him. Bored with country life, and, seething after losing her dead mother’s treasured brooch at cards, she dresses up as the highwayman Captain Jackson to rob passing coaches at pistol point. But, what will happen when she encounters the real Jackson (James Mason)? England’s highest grossing film of 1946 features a heroine of transgressive villainy, a romance novel femme fatale. Lockwood’s eyes glitter with danger and excitement, and she declares, “Once a man has taken to the road everything else must seem tame and insipid. I don’t know how he could ever give it up.”
When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, I was preparing a “Swashbuckling Women” series of films at the Carolina Theatre of Durham (NC). Sadly, they seemed to be few and far between. There is Geena Davis’ unjustly maligned Cutthroat Island, and my old favorites Frenchman’s Creek and The Prince Who Was a Thief. As I did my research, I was reminded of a couple of Maureen O’Hara features, Against All Flags and At Sword’s Point. I discovered the amazing Anne of the Indies, with Jean Peters, which brought up all sorts of interesting gender issues. Two other films with adventurous heroines, Buccaneer’s Girl with Yvonne DeCarlo and Princess of the Nile with Debra Paget turned out to be thrilling additions to my theme.
There’s no film quite like The Wicked Lady, however. Those swashbuckling heroines are, by and large, on the side of good (or they reform, for the hero’s sake). But no other film has such a definitive anti-heroine. Right from the beginning, you see that she is, not just naughty, but evil and destructive, and yet you root for her devious, patriarchy-skewering ways.
The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall was published in England in 1944. It was a runaway best seller, reprinted twice within in the year, and the screen rights were quickly snapped up by Gainsborough Studios for 5,000 pounds. King-Hall was born in 1904. She had the genteel (sketchy) education of a young lady of quality, and published her first book in 1925, The Diary of a Young Lady of Fashion 1764-65. It was presented, not as a novel, but as a genuine rediscovered diary by Cleone Knox, an Anglo-Irish woman perambulating around Europe in the 18th century. At first, it was mistaken for an actual diary, and outed as a literary hoax. But, King-Hall never intended to fool anyone. She had used only her own imagination and the public library for background research. Her literary celebrity resulted in a best seller, and she became a journalist, while continuing to write fiction. She married a distant cousin and they had three children. When he inherited some money, he was able to quit his job managing a cotton plantation in the Sudan. They had been splitting their time between the UK and Africa, but returned as a family to England in the 1930s and then moved to Ireland, where King-Hall continued her historical novel writing career.
Her book was based on a popular Hertfordshire folk tale concerning a woman named Katherine Ferrers. Katherine was born in the mid-1600s, and, an heiress, was married at 14 to a husband who mistreated her. As legally required, she had signed all her property over to him, and it was sold off bit by bit. According to legend, she dressed as a man and became a highwayman (some versions of the story in tandem with a low born lover). She was shot while committing a crime and returned home to die on the steps of her own family home in the village of Markyate, which she supposedly haunts to this day. Her story was codified in the mid-19th century, in a narrative poem, and in a local history of Hartfordshire. The real-life Katherine seems to have died a much more conventional death, in childbirth, and it seems unlikely that the historical person committed the crimes traditionally ascribed to her. Yet, the folk tale was widely believed, and reprinted in the 1940 book Haunted England by Christina Hole, which gave King-Hall the inspiration for her book. That book devoted a single page to the tale, and it was King-Hall’s imagination that gave long life to the legend. Historical fiction gives an author an opportunity to foreground a woman character, which male-dominated history often does not, and has typically been disdained for this reason. It also gives female novelists a chance to explore taboo subjects that would have been unacceptable without the distance of a vanished era.
King-Hall’s novel begins with the destruction of the Skelton house of Maryiot Cells by a Nazi bomb during World War II. The first 75 pages tell tales of the mansion, haunted through the ages by Barbara’s restless spirit. Once the book shifts into the story of Lady Skelton, the movie reflects a fairly faithful version of the novel. A notable exception is that the characters of Carolyn (called Pamela in the book) and Kit do not appear in any major role until nearly the end. In King-Hall’s original, Barbara consents to the arranged marriage with Sir Ralph Skelton at 16, because that’s her one option to get out of her parents’ house and begin her life. She does not steal her best friend’s beau. But, bringing the two “good” characters into the story from nearly the beginning allows the audience to see them react to her perfidy and brings depth to her character.
There’s a wonderful scene where she dons men’s attire for the first time, “How she had smiled at her own unfamiliar reflection as she dressed herself behind locked doors for the night’s adventure, telling herself that she made a very pretty young man, in the long skirted coat and breeches of dark cloth that she had purloined from the big chest where Hogarth the steward kept the men-servants’ spare suits. Beneath the large, flat-brimmed beaver hat her face was provocatively feminine. But, a mask would remedy that. The high, spurred boots, the heavy gauntlet gloves, the leather belt and pistol holster—what a piquant change from muffs, lace caps and painted fans!” (King Hall 115). After she has regained her mother’s jewel (a ruby pendant in the book, rather than a brooch) she reflects on her success, “No doubt she had much to learn, but she had all the qualifications for a successful highwayman, daring, good horsemanship, a quick eye and hand, coolness, and a firm disregard of other people’s feelings” (King-Hall 121).
Margaret Lockwood was born in Karachi, India, now Pakistan. Her father was an official on the Indian railroad. She was brought to England when she was three, along with her older brother. The theater was her childhood ambition, she wrote plays in which she persuaded her little friends to perform. She made her professional debut in a charity performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream when she was 17. She studied acting at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; her first film role was in 1935. She became a popular British actress in the 1930s, American moviegoers know her best as the plucky heroine of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes.
She became a major star in 1943 with Gainsborough’s The Man in Grey, a daring historical melodrama in which she was teamed with James Mason. Fan magazines reported that her mail increased after she played spicier characters. Her most famous of these, The Wicked Lady, spoke directly to the freedom that women had with the men away during WW II. They were doing men’s jobs and wearing men’s clothes, and their independence often included sexual freedom. Before WW II “nice” girls didn’t have affairs before they were married, but the trauma of the war changed that. Women were reluctant to relinquish it all when the “boys” came home. The appeal to female audiences, as with all the Gainsborough films, was brashly apparent, especially when you consider the extremely scornful reviews the film elicited from (presumably) male critics. It was a risk to appear as such an unlikeable character, and she told Picturegoer magazine, “I hope my fans don’t mind” (Street 34). But, they emphatically, did not mind a bit. Critics felt that one of the differences between American stars and British ones, was the distasteful overt sexuality of many Hollywood actresses. British stars were, above all, ladies first, and they were horrified at Lockwood’s brashness. Lady Barbara wants “to be admired and talked about” and Lockwood certainly was in these racy films.
Lady Barbara in her wedding gown, wearing her mother's brooch.
James Mason was born in Yorkshire, England, the son of a wool merchant. He studied architecture at Cambridge, but had some experience in theatricals and decided that during the Depression there was more of a chance of his finding a job in acting than in architecture. He became a screen heartthrob as a series of rakes and scoundrels, like Jerry Jackson, at Gainsborough. His UK film career peaked when he starred as the wounded Irish revolutionary seeking shelter in Carol Reed’s Odd Man Out. Mason had always been contemptuous of England’s film industry, and he came to the US planning to recreate his matinee idol stardom. The American studios were not anxious to cast him, in his 40s, as a romantic hero, and emphatically did not care for his rather pompous press statements. But, in 1954 he received an Oscar nomination for co-starring with Judy Garland in A Star is Born, and had his most financially successful release, ever, Walt Disney’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where he played Captain Nemo. He continued to have a robust career as a character actor until his death in 1984. Lockwood recalled in a 1980 interview that she had recently seen Mason, and he had fond feelings about the film. She teased him, “Don’t you remember? You said it was load of old codswallop” (You Tube).
Mason in disguise as highwayman Jerry Jackson
The Wicked Lady had been quickly put into production, and released in late in November of 1945. “The hoary, the tedious and the disagreeable are married with an infelicity rare even in costume” sniffed the Sunday Times and the Manchester Guardian scoffed “A mixture of hot passion and cold suet pudding. Never misses bathos” (Hirschorn 81). Audiences strongly disagreed, and shared Barbara’s delight when her downward social mobility rewards her with thrills, excitement, and much greater autonomy than that granted through an upper crust marriage. They loved the saucy banter with Mason’s highwayman Jerry Jackson. It became the highest grossing British film of 1946. “The studio shut its doors in 1949, but Gainsborough will always be remembered for the short period in the 1940s when it ruled the box office by embracing the outlandish and the overwrought, tapping an audience that wanted to not only watch movies but be ravished by them” (Criterion.com).
The film’s premiere was planned as a glamourous charity event with the Dowager Queen Mary, grandmother of Elizabeth II, in attendance, the first such occasion since the end of WW II. But, after the negative reviews, the royal minders worried that it would be too shocking for the elderly lady’s eyes. An equerry representing the interests of the royal family was dispatched to view the film before the event, and he approved. Lockwood remembered that during the screening, the movie folk strained from their seats to see Queen Mary’s reaction. Luckily, the royal gaze was not offended, and the Queen made a point of telling Lockwood that she had enjoyed the film. Nevertheless, The Wicked Lady retained its slightly risqué air, and British censors refused to approve a sequel, alarmed by the criminal behavior and extramarital sex of its heroine.
The American censors had an entirely different issue. Because of the ample cleavage displayed by Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc, the Production Code condemned it. There was no way the film could be shown in the US, without editing out the provocative necklines. One solution was to enlarge the image using an optical printer, so tempting bosoms would appear only below the edge of the frame. Lockwood and Roc were also recalled, a year after the film was completed, for retakes in less scandalous attire. The New York Times wrote: “The décolleté, which gave Hollywood pause, has been corrected, but it might be noted, it is still interesting” (FIR Jan 1991 p.13).
The story is set in the time of the Restoration, when the British court was known for its licentiousness. Barbara, stuck in the country, yearns for thrills she views just out of reach. Since this era of history was shadowed, not just by the Civil War which tore England apart, but the Great Plague (1665) and the Great Fire (1666) it echoes the enormous conflict in which Great Britain had just (barely) survived, and which had caused so much grief and devastation. “The refusal of Barbara Skelton to toe this line is both a reflection of the changing patterns of female behaviour during wartime; and, for readers after the war, a reminder of the type of freedom that has suddenly vanished. Barbara’s sense of stifled frustration, if not her cold-hearted self-interest, would have struck a chord with many of (King-Hall’s) readers” ( Rowland).
John Bryan’s production design was “eclectic” and did not hew to a particular historical period. He mixes the Baroque, the Jacobean, the Elizabethan, the Puritan and the Medieval, to create a “dense visual texture.” It wasn’t that the historical advisors were not available, but that he chose to combine the objects, which also reflects the accumulation of any large house over time. “Bryan’s décor shows great wit; when Margaret Lockwood lowers her eyes on her wedding night, a short dissolve compares her expression and posture ironically with the Botticelli Madonna on her petit-point embroidery in the next scene” (Harper).
The costumes, by Elizabeth Haffenden, evoke a lavish femininity and a luxurious use of materials that had been rationed during WW II. Not every woman yearned to wear trousers, many wished for the swishing skirts, ruffles and frills of pre-War fashion. Some do evoke a 1940s aesthetic, but others reflect their period more accurately, for example the ensemble in which Barbara makes her entrance. Harper makes note of the fact that the most interesting detail of the outfit, the beautifully draped back, is hidden from the male characters within the film, but revealed to the audience. Lockwood’s many extravagant costume changes, as well as her male mufti, are clearly meant to appeal to female viewers.
Interestingly, a 1985 analysis, calls the film “a sombre picture, masquerading as an 18th (sic) century romp.” Jill Forbes thinks that it is a film about the unfairness of the divorce laws, that if only Barbara could have divorced her husband, all would have been well. “It is obvious that the producers gambled on the character of Barbara coming across not as the monster that she objectively is, but as the victim of a social system and class rigidities which impose certain canons of behaviour on women and condemn ill-matched couples to live together forever” Forbes 323). The viewer must decide if a divorce would tame Barbara’s wild ways, I tend to think, not.
This once wildly popular book, like so much commercial fiction, has vanished from the shelves. A modern critical edition of the novel celebrates the post-war progressive attitudes that made the book and movie so popular. Modern retellings blur the line between the folk tale, the novel and the movie, so much so that the oral tradition has become hopelessly tangled with the modern retellings, which spoke so forcefully to the post-WW II cultural attitudes about a woman’s place in society.
NB: I watched this on a Criterion Eclipse disc: Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures. I think the DVD is out of print, but as of May, 2021, the film is streaming on You Tube. Possibly illegally. So, hurry!
Heroines Without Heroes by Sarah Street, The Films of James Mason by Clive Hirschhorn, Introduction to The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall, introduction by Rowland Hughes, quotes from the 1946 first American edition Rinehart and Company Incon Murray Hill, New York, Eclipse Series 36: Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures | The Current | The Criterion Collection “Margaret Lockwood” by Jerry Vermilye, Part 1 in January-February 1991 Films in Review, Part 2 in March-April 1991 Films in Review, “James Mason” by Michael Buckley in the May 1982 Films in Review, “The Wicked Lady” in The Monthly Film Bulletin Jan 1, 1985 by Jill Forbes, “Gainsborough: What’s in a Costume” The Monthly Film Bulletin, January 1, 1985, by Sue Harper, The Hollywood History of the World by George MacDonald Fraser, Margaret Lockwood interview: Margaret Lockwood Interviewed on TV - YouTube