A Journey Through the Eclipse Series: Leslie Arliss’ The Wicked Lady

The last of my three reviews from a holiday weekend spent reveling in Eclipse Series 36: Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures.

Though I have to admit that the notion of “Gainsborough Melodramas” conveyed no particular significance to me when Criterion first announced the release of this set back in August, I’ve become a big fan of the brand over the past week or two. The three films contained in this gaudy little box, all dressed up so appropriately in tantalizing fuchsia and purple, simmer over with emotions barely kept in check by the heavy pressures of Victorian moral approbation. Each of them feature a protagonist whose scandalous behavior flies in the face of conventional respectability as they boldly, shamelessly pursue desires nearly repressed into extinction in most viewers, providing in the process a measure of relief and exhilaration as we see them brazenly flout the scolds without a moment’s hesitation about the trouble that their scheming might land them in. The Man in Grey featured James Mason as a cold-hearted cad whose monstrous self-absorption, jaded sense of entitlement and callous contempt for humanity somehow made him irresistible and enticing. Madonna of the Seven Moons provided its female lead with a semi-plausible “post-traumatic stress” alibi for her romp from respectable pious housewife to slinking gypsy wannabe. But Gainsborough’s most outrageous (and financially lucrative) creation of all was a woman whose driving ambition was rivaled only by the power of her beauty and cunning to get what she wanted: The Wicked Lady.



But before we delve into her titillating saga, a brief word about the film’s director, Leslie Arliss. Though he didn’t go on to have as long or as varied a career as Arthur Crabtree (director of Madonna of the Seven Moons), nor was he anywhere nearly as successful and celebrated as Anthony Asquith, who also took on a few jobs for Gainsborough during the WWII years, Arliss seems to have been one of the leading go-to guys for Gainsborough Pictures. He certainly landed their most successful assignments. How much credit he gets for the phenomenal commercial success and lasting reputation of The Man in Grey and The Wicked Lady is quite debatable – Arliss is no auteur. The films are solidly crafted, durable enough constructions, but it’s truly the flourishes that the actors toss into their performance, and a voluptuous atmosphere conjured up by the flamboyant costumes and set designs, that give them their life. The script (which Arliss also had a hand in) was fairly despised and mocked off-camera by the principles, especially James Mason, for its ham-handed dialogue and overbearing corniness. But they carry on with the show like troopers, delivering their lines with all the sincerity they can muster, leaving it to the audience to determine just how much heartfelt pathos to invest in the affair, with sheer admiration for the gusto that went into pulling it off making up the balance of our viewing enjoyment.



Perhaps Arliss’ most commendable knack was his ability to start his pictures off with a bang. The Wicked Lady certainly wastes no time in establishing the scheming depravity of its focal figure. Within the first few minutes, we meet an admirable couple, Caroline and her fiance Ralph, a young lawyer destined for a respectable career as a judge, but a bit stunted in his emotional development and unable to comfortably admit that he loves her. It’s the eve of their wedding and Caroline’s thrilled that her lifelong best friend Barbara will arrive just in time to serve as her maid of honor. But the wily Barbara, quickly surmising the opportunity that a rich, naive bachelor of the landed gentry presents to her, craftily conspires to interfere with the groom’s plans.



Sure enough, even as Caroline is being fitted with her wedding gown, Barbara tearfully bursts into the bride’s dressing room to proclaim that Ralph has fallen madly in love with her – when in fact, all that’s happened is that she seduced the pampered simpleton before he ever knew what hit him. Caroline’s misguided sense of honor and loyalty to her bosom friend leads her to not only hand over her fiance to The Wicked Lady with hardly a whimper of protest, but to go the extra mile of martyrdom to serve as Barbara’s maid of honor.



Barbara’s cruel back-stabbing is provocative enough on its own, but she’s only getting started. No sooner has she spoken her vows and begun  socializing as the newlywed Lady Skelton than she begins a new foray into flirtatious realms with Kit Locksby, a tall mustachioed on-looker who swoops in to seize the moment with a hot-blooded woman to his own liking, matrimonial commitments be damned.  But alas, after just one steamy kiss, it’s time for Barbara to be escorted by her attendants to the most opulent-but-saddest bridal chamber ever.



The stifling propriety and dainty pastimes imposed upon a noblewoman’s home life soon render Barbara bored and restless, seeking whatever diversions present themselves. Card-playing was considered immoral enough for a lady of her standing back in those days, but Lady Skelton doesn’t find it quite stimulating enough unless there’s a hefty wager resting upon the next  turn. But after gambling  away some family jewels that she really can’t afford to lose, Barbara concocts a ruse to get them back. Donning the garb and as masculine a voice and demeanor as she can muster, The Wicked Lady impersonates Captain Jerry Jackson, a notorious highwayman known for robbing stagecoaches on the open road in the wee dark hours of the night.

One of the lastingly inexhaustible delights of this film is watching Margaret Lockwood, probably best known to Criterion fans from her charming ingenue roles in The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich. She utterly nails the role, obviously relishing each new twist and turn deeper into the amoral morass that Barbara’s restless appetite for adventure drives her, delivering her lines with disciplined constraint and never falling into the trap of hammy overacting or soapy hysteria.



Even though Barbara and Ralph are trapped in a sterile, loveless marriage, Lockwood’s simmering sex appeal is simply too potent to keep under wraps in a film like this. Fortunately for us, Gainsborough’s contracted players made possible a reunion of The Man in Grey‘s hot couple. James Mason makes a late but impressive entrance into the action as the highway robber Jerry Jackson, allowing the attractive pair of masked bandits to pursue their outlaw escapades on horseback under cover of darkness for our enjoyment.



But just to make sure that all members of the audience are given some measure of satisfaction, The Wicked Lady has her periodic moments of comeuppance, sure to please those who find her behavior simply reprehensible. When Barbara lets her guard down long enough to admit to Caroline that she never loved Ralph but only took him from her friend in order to explore the fun possibilities that come with living a life of luxury. Her brazen confession earns her the cold hard slap that scheming bitches like her so heartily deserve!



But back to the main business at hand, in which The Wicked Lady cheerfully ignores Capt. Jackson’s advice, that “we’ll come to the gibbet soon enough, let’s not dash for it.” Indeed, Barbara proves more than capable of running at full gallop down her road to perdition, wantonly cavorting with her lover and planning bigger, more audacious heists than even he ever dared to pull off. And when old Hogarth, the scripture-quoting servant of her husband finds damning evidence of even greater misdeeds, she feigns religious conversion for the sake of covering up her crimes… leading only to further outrages against all that is decent and true.



Whatever the media, whether it be literature, the theater, cinema or this stage we call “the real world,” such blatant disregard for the concerns and feelings of others has a way of generating forces of opposition that level things off toward something resembling justice. And so, after a delirious dash through tight scrapes and potentially disastrous disclosures more fun to watch than to read about, an end must come to the story of The Wicked Lady and her partner in perfidy, Lucky Jerry Jackson. If there’s a touch of old fashioned sexism in the story (and there is), one of the most obvious examples is in how they go about making their exits when the time comes to atone for their sins. Jackson goes to the gallows brimming with unrepentant confidence and joviality, having carved a merry, manly path for himself through this world, while the Lady Barbara Skelton, though ranking right up there with Lady Macbeth and just about any other lethally charismatic villainess one might care to name, is forced to bow out a broken, abandoned woman.



I’ll give the last word on the movie to Margaret Lockwood herself, who shares some priceless anecdotes in this rare and splendid video clip from 1980. She gave the interview just before going into a reclusive retirement, some 35 years after The Wicked Lady soared to the top of UK box office charts as that nation was settling into new realities following World War II. Women who’d been living an independent life while their husbands and boyfriends were fighting across the Channel could find echoes of their own stories in the (mis)adventures of Barbara and Caroline, while the men who tagged along with their dates to see what all this “Gainsborough melodrama” hubbub was all about were more than content to just gaze upon the magnificent acres of cleavage on display, after months or years of martial deprivation.

I recognize that these films may not fit as easily into some readers’ comfort zones. If melodrama is still a new language, or one that you have yet to learn to appreciate despite a few tentative explorations, these films offer a solid tutorial, with a sterling cast, sumptuous attention to period details and no need to read subtitles! And though the presentation adheres to the usual minimalist Eclipse Series standard, the packaging is really quite lovely, taking fine advantage of glossy publicity stills produced when the films were dominating British theaters. Since it came out in October,  I haven’t heard much buzz about this set – maybe they’re just not the kind of movies that gets Twitter and movie bloggers fired up. And let’s face it, there’s been some pretty strong competition over the past couple months. While they’re nowhere near as badass as other recent releases like Rosemary’s Baby, Godard’s Weekend or the reissued Rashomon, nor as geeky-cool as the When Horror Came to Shochiku Eclipse set, in their own way, these bodice-ripping potboilers are wicked awesome.