Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Man in Grey (1943)

The Man in Grey was the first of a series of wildly successful women’s melodramas made by Britain’s Gainsborough studio in the 1940s. These movies were quite unapologetically targeted at a female audience. They were costume pictures so as well as featuring gloriously overheated melodramatic plots, forbidden love and forbidden sex, jealousies, betrayals, sexy bad boys and sexy bad girls you also get some fairly lavish period sets and  gorgeous costumes. The Man in Grey makes no attempt to be art. It’s a steamy Regency romance and it was a massive box office hit in Britain.

There’s a framing story set in 1940s England which I personally thought was a bit unnecessary but it does add even more romance and that’s what this movie is all about. The actual story takes place in Regency England. A new pupil arrives at an exclusive girls’ school. The other girls are all from rich families but Hesther Shaw (Margaret Lockwood) is a penniless orphan who has only been accepted because the headmistress owed her mother a favour. Hesther is very aware of her poverty. She is proud and resentful. She also has some definite long term plans to escape from poverty.

An unlikely friendship develops between Hesther and Clarissa Marr (Phyllis Calvert). Clarissa is Hesther’s opposite in every way. Hesther is a raven-haired beauty, Clarissa is blonde. Clarissa is all sweetness and light and assumes that everybody will like her. Hesther doesn’t care if people like her or not as long as they don’t interfere with her plans. This girlish friendship comes to an end when Hesther scandalises the school by eloping with a handsome but decidedly not respectable man.

The most eligible bachelor of the time is the young and handsome Lord Rohan (James Mason). Lord Rohan does not have a very good reputation. He devotes his life to pleasures of a frankly sensual nature and he is gloomy and moody. On the other hand he has a very distinguished title and oodles of money. In other words he’s the type of man to set female hearts a-flutter. Rohan has no interest in marriage but he does need to produce an heir so he will have to marry someone and Clarissa Marr seems as suitable as anyone. Clarissa, who is as naïve as she is sweet, accepts his proposal.

Not surprisingly Clarissa finds marriage to be very disagreeable. She seems to have found her wedding night to be particularly disagreeable. Rohan then explains the facts to her. All she has to do is to bear him a son. Once she does that they can live more or less separate lives, each free to have affairs as long as they are discreet. Lord Rohan has little time for conventional morality but he dreads scandal. The arrangement seems to suit Clarissa. And then she runs into her old school friend Hesther. She also runs into an old acquaintance of Hesther’s. Hesther and Rokeby (Stewart Granger) are in the theatre. Not a respectable profession in the early years of the 19th century and Hesther and Rokeby are traveling players, even less respectable. At the time actresses were assumed to be at lest part-time prostitutes and in fact it does seem quite likely to be true in Hesther’s case. Hesther is penniless and unhappy and Clarissa, who just wants everybody to be happy, comes up with a brilliant idea. She’ll persuade her husband to employ Hesther as their son’s governess. When she runs it by Lord Rohan he suggests something even more brilliant - Hesther can be employed as a companion for his wife.

Of course things are going to get very complicated. Rokeby, who is actually the owner of an estate in Jamaica that has been overrun by rebellious slaves, gets a job as librarian to Lord Rohan and soon he and Clarissa have fallen madly in love and are having an affair. Meanwhile Hesther has achieved her first major goal and has become Lord Rohan’s mistress. It sounds like a workable arrangement. Clarissa doesn’t care if her husband sleeps with other women - as long as he doesn’t want to sleep with her she’s happy. And Rohan has no objection at all to Clarissa sleeping with anyone she likes as long as she’s discreet.

Unfortunately not everybody is as discreet as they should be and Hesther is still plotting, still aiming at something more than just being a nobleman’s mistress. Hesther’s ambitions and Rokeby’s recklessness are going to bring everything crashing down.

As you may have gathered there’s a great deal of implied sex and most of it is very definitely illicit, if not perverse as well. And the film is pretty open about it all. It raised some eyebrows at the time and there are moments that still seem pretty damned steamy even today. Much of this is due to the casting. James Mason is of course perfectly suited to the role of the slightly dissipated, somewhat cruel and generally dangerous nobleman. Margaret Lockwood was one of the screen’s all-time great bad girls. She and Mason would team up again in The Wicked Lady and together they’re sexual dynamite. Phyllis Calvert has a difficult role since she has to make Clarissa convincingly naïve without making her seem stupid and she has to make her sweet and good-natured without being cloying. On the whole she manages it fairly well. Stewart Granger makes a wonderful reckless romantic hero (it turns out he’s really a nobleman as well but the slaves took over his estate in the West Indies).

The characterisations are not quite as unsubtle as you might expect. Lord Rohan is a bad boy but he’s not really a villain. Clarissa is sweet and wants to please people but she’s not especially virtuous. Rokeby is excitable but well-meaning. Hesther is definitely wicked, in fact very wicked indeed, but life has dealt her a bad hand so we can at least understand her motivations .

There’s a good deal of political incorrectness in this film. If it shocked audiences in the 40s it’s quite likely to shock modern audiences although for different reasons. 

Network’s Region 2 DVD release offers a fairly good transfer and, unusually for this company, some extras including a documentary on James Mason’s career. This movie has also been released in Region 1 in a boxed set in Criterion’s Eclipse series. 

This is a movie that packs as much twisted romance and illicit sexuality into its running time as it can. It’s a women’s picture, a chick flick if you like, so if you’re male you have been warned. It’s an out-and-out melodrama and it’s an unashamed bodice ripper but it’s a stylish and well-made example of both breeds and if that’s what you’re looking for then it delivers the goods. Highly recommended.

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