Videodrone Rediscovery: The Wicked, Wicked Ways of Gainsborough
Three potboiler costume dramas that had great success from bad behavior in wartime Britain
"Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures" (Eclipse/Criterion) is a perfectly appropriate title for this trio of Gothic-pulp melodramas that became huge popular hits in Britain during World War II. Gainsborough had been around since the twenties but found sudden popularity with the potboiler costume drama "The Man in Grey" (1943), a dime-novel version of a Gothic melodrama set in the cruel culture of the British aristocracy. The four stars that defined the studio in its brief heyday are all in this one, led by James Mason in his breakout role as the title character. Lord Rohan is a brutish, proud aristocrat who marries a sweet, sunny heiress (Phyllis Calvert) simply to secure an heir to the name. Top-billed Margaret Lockwood (of Hitchcock's "The Lady Vanishes") is the dark to Calvert's light, bitter and calculating and ready to sacrifice her best (and only) friend in the world to grasp fortune as Mason's mistress, and Stewart Granger is an itinerate player and carnival barker with no money but far more soul than the cruel aristocrat Mason.
Its success spawned more costume melodramas of plucky heroines, wicked villainesses, and darkly seductive antiheroes, all defined by a surface of elegance on a budget (plenty of painted landscapes and austere sets) and a gleeful plunge into bad behavior that trumps any kind poetic justice. Calvert and Granger return for "Madonna of the Seven Moons" (1945), she as a good Catholic girl so traumatized by a rape (not shown but clearly signaled in the opening scene) that she develops a split personality and joins a gang of thieves, he as the gangleader in love with this wild version of the repressed heroine. Set in Italy, it's got gypsies, tramps, thieves, and a gigolo who targets Calvert's modern but completely honorable daughter (Patricia Roc) as she searches the slums of Florence for the only clue she has for her runaway mother.