Daphne du Maurier’s novel Frenchman’s Creek (1941) was made into a Paramount movie in 1944 and told the story of Lady Dona St Columb (Joan Fontaine, above, in her second Du Maurier film) whose love for a French pirate has her disguising herself as a cabin boy, betting, and wielding a knife, amongst other activities not expected of an aristocratic lady in 17th century Cornwall.
Although the gorgeous colour and lavish costumes of Forever Amber and Frenchman’s Creek make the films very easy on the eye, both of them seem excessively long and not nearly as much fun as they should be. This cannot be said of The Wicked Lady (1945), a film adaptation of Magdalen King-Hall’s The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton, which had been published earlier that same year. Loosely based on the life of Lady Kathleen Ferrers, it starred Margaret Lockwood as Barbara Skelton, who opens the film by stealing the groom of her best friend Caroline (Patricia Roc) at the altar. (Roc also supported Lockwood in Love Story (1944) and Jassy (1947), slapping her face in all three films.)
Bored with married life as the lady of the manor, Barbara starts dressing as a highwayman and carrying out armed robberies at night. During one such escapade she meets notorious highwayman Jerry Jackson (James Mason), and the two become lovers as well as partners in crime. Inevitably, their exploits catch up with them, Caroline gets her revenge, and the gallows beckon for at least one of the wicked pair…
Margaret Lockwood clearly relished the part of Lady Barbara, and audiences loved her performance. Gainsborough melodramas excelled in such bodice-ripping productions, with lavish costumes and Gothic settings. Unfortunately, when the film crossed the Atlantic in 1946, the American censors were upset by what they saw.
Although it had not been a problem in Britain, the low-cut costumes worn by Margaret and Patricia exposed rather too much flesh for American tastes, and in consequence, Lockwood and Roc were called back to Gainsborough Studios at the end of August so that certain scenes (such as the two ladies bouncing along in a coach on their way to Tyburn) could be re-shot from different angles. This was a tedious and costly business, as – to ensure continuity – both actresses had to replicate gestures and expressions, while props needed to be reassembled in precise positions. Decorative frills and ruffles were added to Elizabeth Haffenden’s beautifully-designed costumes to cover up any bare flesh, and one of Lockwood’s dresses had to be borrowed back from Hermione Gingold who was using it a sketch in her satirical revue Sweetest and Lowest at the Ambassadors Theatre. Gainsborough resented the tiresome and costly fuss, but it succeeded in generating a great deal of publicity that gave the film a new lease of life at the box office.
The studio, of course, needed to accept the distributors’ demands in order to have The Wicked Lady shown in the U.S.A. In outlining the nature of the problem, officials at the MPAA devised a new word, ‘cleavage’, which replaced the old-fashioned ‘décolletage.’ How they came up this word I do not know; perhaps the answer can be found in original papers held in the MPAA archives? As a youngster I used to wonder why the Bible (in the King James Version with which I grew up) had the line: ‘Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh’ – which suggested two things cleaved together – when everyone knew a meat cleaver cut things in two. I’ve still never really understood that, but the OED defined ‘cleavage’ as ‘The cleft between a woman’s breasts as revealed by a low-cut décolletage,’ and stated that the first use of the word was in an article in Time magazine on 5 August 1946, which I give in full below.
[Note: The ‘Johnston Office’ is a reference to Eric A Johnston (1896-1963) who succeeded Will H Hays in 1945 as president of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association. Understandably, one of his first actions was to simply the organisation’s unwieldy title to the Motion Picture Association of America.]
Cleavage & the Code
Time: the weekly news magazine
Vol. XLVIII, No.6 (August 5, 1946) p.98
Which is more sexy – an actress’ half-covered bosoms or her uncovered legs?
British moviemakers, puzzled by U.S. cinemorality, want a serious answer to this question. For the past fortnight, the man who knows all anyone needs to know about U.S. censorship has been in London trying to explain it in simple English. It is a tough job – even for the Johnston Office’s jowly, jolly Joe Breen, No.1 U.S. ‘interpreter’ of the Hollywood morality Code.
The basic fact that amazes the British – the Code is a voluntary brake Hollywood puts on itself. Its clearest purpose: to keep non-Hollywood censors – official and amateur – out of the industry’ hair. (The Code’s dozen-odd pages of printed rules need no explanation. Samples: ‘Adultery…must not be…justified, or presented attractively…Complete nudity is never permitted…)
Wicked Lady, a 1945 picture starring Margaret Lockwood, James Mason and Patricia Roc, was a big moneymaker in England. But the U.S. will have to wait to see it. Low-cut Restoration costumes worn by the Misses Lockwood and Roc display too much ‘cleavage’ (Johnston Office trade term for the shadowed depression dividing an actress’ bosom into two distinct sections). The British, who have always considered bare legs more sexy than half-bare breasts, are resentfully reshooting several costly scenes.The picture’s chief moral lapse: it makes adultery look like too much fun. At the end of all his wenching, the rake dies as he has lived – happy and unrepentant. Death is not just what he deserves, but the Johnston Office wants him to show some remorse too.
Pink String and Sealing Wax stars Googie Withers, who was none too careful about that cleavage. The Hollywood Codists – who convinced themselves that Hollywood’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice were morally clean – have raised eyebrows over the picture’s theme: premeditated murder.
Bedalia allows Margaret Lockwood to poison three husbands for their insurance and then commit suicide when her fourth begins to get the idea. Suicide, in the U.S. is a sloppy out for wrongdoers. A tidy U.S. ending will hand the murderess over to the cops.
In London, last week, Interpreter Joe Breen’s good humor was holding up. ‘The difference between me and most people in Hollywood,’ he said, ‘is that I know I am a pain in the neck.’ But the British press – ignoring the fact that British movie men had invited him over – attacked him as a bluenose. The New Statesman and Nation complained:
…America’s artistes many strip
The haunch, the paunch, the thigh, the hip,
And never shake the censorship,
While Britain, straining every nerve
To amplify the export curve,
Strict circumspection must observe…
And why should censors sourly gape
At outworks of the lady’s shape
Which from her fichu may escape?
Our censors keep our films as clean
As any whistle ever seen.
So what is biting Mr. Breen?
At Barnstaple pannier market a while ago I came across this old framed print and – after circling the stall several times – succumbed to temptation. The illustration is taken from the book In Fairyland: A Series of Pictures from the Elf World (London: Longmans, Green, Reader & Dyer, 1870) and was the work of Punch illustrator Richard Doyle (1824-83.)
The artist was of one of the seven children of political cartoonist John Doyle (1797-1868), whose artistic skill was inherited by his four sons Richard, James, Henry and Charles (father of Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.) Of the four, Richard Doyle had the most successful career, and his early talent found him a place on the staff of Punch magazine when he was only nineteen. It was he who devised the famous image of the Punch cartoon character that adorned the magazine’s front cover from January 1849 until October 1956, replacing his earlier cover (January 1844) that featured crowds of elves and fairies.
Doyle’s talent for fairy drawings was first made public in 1846 with his artwork for The Fairy Ring (a new translation of Grimm’s tales), followed in 1849 by his illustrations for Fairy Tales from All Nations and Punch editor Mark Lemon’s The Enchanted Doll. He clearly relished the subject matter, and his skill in depicting pixies, elves, fairies and other fantastical creatures attracted commissions for a series of other fantasy titles such as The Story of Jack and the Giants (1850), and John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River (1850), which went through three editions in its first year of public.
Another publication in 1850 had important consequences for Doyle’s career, however.
Doyle came from a devout Irish Catholic background and found himself increasingly unable to reconcile his faith with the magazine’s trenchant anti-Catholic stance. After the above cartoon appeared in November 1850, Doyle resigned from Punch. Over the next few years he undertook book illustration work for Thackeray and Dickens, before finding a new sense of purpose when he returned to his fairy artwork in the late 1860s.
This was by no means unusual at a time when fairies inhabited nearly every nook and cranny of Victorian literary and artistic culture. Their popularity raises some intriguing questions for a society that saw strident advances in industrial technology, and seemed proud of the victory of scientific progress over naive superstition. One wonders if the colourful jewel-like fairy world offered a sense of hope, an antidote, or the possibility of escape, when set against the rapid expansion of sprawling, smoking cities and the loss of rural traditions. Great artists – including Royal Academicians – recorded their fantastical visions of fairy lore on huge canvases, with the same painstaking precision and technical virtuosity applied to serious landscapes and religious subjects.
Here is just a small selection:
The artist worked on this painting between 1855 and 1864 when he was transferred from Bethlem Hospital to Broadmoor.
It is to this tradition of Victorian fairy painting that Richard Doyle’s In Fairyland belongs. Although dated 1870 on the title page, it was actually published in time for Christmas 1869. The folio was richly bound in green cloth, cost over 30 shillings, and has been described as one of the finest examples of Victorian book production. There are 16 colour plates – of which this my picture is the last – and 36 line drawings. Doyle was given free rein to design his own illustrations, which were later re-used in Andrew Lang’s The Princess Nobody (1884.)
Each plate was accompanied by a verse written by Irish poet William Allingham (1824-89), whose wife Helen was a skilled watercolourist and illustrator. That for Plate XVI reads:
Asleep in the moonlight. The dancing Elves have all gone to rest; the King and Queen are evidently friends again, and, let us hope, lived happily ever afterwards.
I have hung the picture on my study wall, between an oil painting of my childhood home and a line drawing of the cottage in which I now live. It seemed an apt place for the fairies to sleep.
For those unfamiliar with the film, it’s a military comedy following musketeer Gustav Diestelbeck (Heinz Rühmann) in his attempts to outwit his bullying sergeant and impress barmaid Emma. Life at the barracks is further complicated by interlocking love triangles and overlapping cases of mistaken identity, into which enters the grand-duchy’s Prinz Willibald (Wohlbrück) who is travelling by train to celebrate the troop’s centenary with them. The carriage in which he is travelling (with Bobby), gets separated from its engine, stranding him in the middle of nowhere: then along comes a car driven by local singer Vera (Trude Berliner), a local singer who also happens to be the girlfriend of Gustav’s superior, Lieutenant Gernsbach (Viktor de Kowa)….
The film was shot between 26 October and 17 November 1931 – you can see how bare the trees are in the outdoor scenes – and released at the beginning of January 1932, proving highly popular with cinema audiences. Despite its success, Bobby does not seem to have pursued his screen career much further. Shame – the death of Rin Tin Tin that year could have provided just the opening he needed.
Films about royalty – like the actual monarchs themselves – need to find a fine balance between public office and private personality. In Mary of Scotland the rival queens both get the balance wrong: Mary is tempted to follow her personal feelings over her state duties – ‘What’s my throne?’ she tells Bothwell, ‘I’d put a torch to it for any one of the days I’ve had with you.’ In complete contrast, as Mary tells Throckmorton, ‘Elizabeth has never taken a single step that wasn’t political.’ The film grinds home the connection between Elizabeth’s preoccupation with power and statecraft and her status as the ‘Virgin Queen.’ While Elizabeth is continually surrounded by her courtiers and cabinet, frequently seated behind a writing desk or large table, we see Mary in domestic settings, small intimate gatherings that feature music, needlework and gentle banter with her ladies-in-waiting.
Such a dichotomy between a women’s sexuality and her career fits better with the outlook of the ‘Thirties than with contemporary views on gender equality, but the film’s portrayal of the two queens was shaped by a number of factors.
Kate originally wanted the film directed by George Cukor, who enjoyed a reputation as a ‘women’s director’ due to his nuanced work with strong female leads. He worked with Hepburn on eight films, including her debut A Bill of Divorcement, and also found success with stars such as Bergman, Garbo, Crawford and Holliday. The box-office failure of cross-dressing Sylvia Scarlett (1935) meant that RKO producer Pandro Berman refused to hire Cukor, signing instead John Ford, regarded as a ‘man’s director’ – his output of 140-odd films is dominated by male stars, with only a handful of decent female roles.
Unsurprisingly, Ford placed less emphasis on the romantic aspects of the story than he did on the film’s historical pageantry and atmospheric set designs. Mary and Bothwell’s relationship develops against a backdrop of fog-shrouded castles, the courtyards of which are teeming with soldiers and animals; there are torchlit processions, massed bands of pipes and drums, plus the inevitable clashing of claymores and rearing horses.
The queen did not remain aloof from all the action, and in one scene Kate had to run down a flight of stone steps in her heavy costume before mounting her horse and galloping off. She did the stunt herself, as she would continue to do until her early seventies, despite the danger of tripping over the cumbersome dress with its flowing train.
Her costumes had once again been designed by Walter Plunkett, who excelled at recreating period dress and worked closely with Kate during her RKO years. One of these, a dress of crimson silk, decorated with gold thistle emblems, was displayed at the V&A’s Hollywood Costumes exhibition (2012-2013.) Plunkett was not the only one to take period detail seriously. Before filming began, both Ford and Hepburn spent time researching Scottish history and reading up on Mary’s life and background. Kate rehearsed in private wearing Plunkett’s costumes, practising – for example – how to turn her head naturally wearing a high ruffs collar such as this.
The screenwriter Dudley Nichols – a regular collaborator with Ford – did away with Maxwell Anderson’s blank verse, but his screenplay retains much of the speechifying and dramatic monologues that betray its stage origins. Kate did her best with the stilted, over-expository dialogue, but neither Ford’s direction nor Nichols’ script really allowed her enough space to develop Mary’s character. Frustration about this led to a disagreement during filming on the 10th April, when they were due to shoot the intimate scenes between Mary and Bothwell on the ramparts of Dunbar Castle, the night before their final separation. Ford wanted to drop the scenes as an unnecessary piece of soppiness, while Kate regarded them as central to the film’s depiction of the relationship. After a heated exchange, Ford handed her the script and megaphone, walked off the set and told her to direct the scene herself if she thought it so important. She did, and the film is better for it.
Ford’s direction of Hepburn reveals the strong feelings he had for her: there are a disproportionate number of close-ups, the camera lingering upon her face with an attentiveness granted to no-one else in the cast. Few films captured Katharine’s beauty so well. The luminosity of Joe August’s cinematography, combined with the close-up editing of Jane Loring, made the footage of Kate fit perfectly with Elizabeth’s comment on Mary, in Anderson’s play, that not since Helen of Troy:
has a woman’s face
Stirred such a confluence of air and waters
To beat against the bastions. I’d thought you taller,
But truly, since that Helen, I think there’s been
No queen so fair to look on.
Filming was completed on 25 April 1936 and Mary of Scotland was released on the 28 August. Three days later the New York Times praised the picture’s ‘depth, vigor and warm humanity’, but admitted dissatisfaction with Hepburn’s portrayal of Mary. The moments when the Scottish queen was ‘womanly, tender, impetuous and of high courage’ were convincing, but – while Anderson’s play showed Mary’s vengeful and ruthless side – the film script had tried to soften this and thereby introduced inconsistencies to her character.
It was only towards the end of the film, when Mary was imprisoned and put on trial, that this forcefulness began to burn through and Kate’s performance took on new vigour.
On the night before her execution at Fotheringay Castle, Queen Elizabeth was made to go into Mary’s cell and have an altercation with her. It is common knowledge to those of your Lordships who are interested in the history of Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots that they never met in their lives.
Lord Mersey then proposed a motion calling for ‘some form of control over the historical accuracy of films produced or shown in this country.’ After the Marquis of Dufferin pointed out that cinema’s presentation was little different from the romantic stories passed on by Shakespeare, Scott and Dumas, and that the fictitious meeting also appeared in Schiller’s Maria Stuart, Lord Mersey withdrew his motion.
Debate continues – albeit less formally – about Katharine’s performance, and indeed about her casting in historical films. In the early part of her career, she appeared in a series of 19th century period dramas – The Little Minister, Little Women, A Woman Rebels (notice a theme..?) – few of which stand comparison with the witty contemporary comedies in which she played characters more similar to herself.
To suggest that her best performances are those in which her characters are closest to her own personality, is not to diminish her acting skills. The distance between Mary, Queen of Scots and Katharine – in terms of both time and personality – challenged her, demanding more effort, and it is interesting to hear Kate’s voice in Mary of Scotland display far wider range and pitch than in her later films.
Part of the problem lay with Kate’s lack of empathy for her character. In her autobiography Me she recalled: ‘I never cared for Mary. I thought she was a bit of an ass. I would have preferred to do a script on Elizabeth.’ There is certainly little doubt that Kate would have excelled as Elizabeth. Both Ginger Rogers and Bette Davis had wanted the part but had been rejected by Ford. Davis only had to wait three years before playing the queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex, adapted from another Maxwell Anderson play.
Hepburn returned to playing royalty later in her career, winning an Oscar for her performance as Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine in The Lion in Winter, which also starred the late Peter O Toole as King Henry II. Her success here was largely due to her ability to identify keenly with Queen Eleanor as a person: ‘She was something I’ve always tried to be — completely authentic.’
Sadly, the same cannot be said of Mary Stuart, whose downfall was brought about through a series of compromises and misplaced confidences. Kate, on the other hand, was far too sure of her own identity and opinions to let herself be shaped by others. Fiercely independent in spirit, she defied whatever conventions clashed with her style, and the drama critic of The Sunday Times summed this up succinctly in his review of Mary of Scotland when he wrote ‘Her accent was not of the Highlands, the Lowlands, nor a pure French equivalent. It was pure Hepburn, and nothing else.’
What else did we expect?
This post is part of the Great Katharine Hepburn Blogathon hosted by Margaret Perry at The Great Katharine Hepburn.
Follow this link http://margaretperry.org/the-great-katharine-hepburn-blogathon-has-finally-arrived to see all the other posts this weekend!