For a period of about three years in the mid-1940s, London's Gainsborough Pictures was one of the most audacious, enterprising film studios in the world. They'd been around since the 1920s, but after taking over in 1943, new studio head Maurice Ostrer refused to let his company take a back seat to anyone, igniting a commercial wildfire through the studio's final decade, producing some of the most righteously nasty melodramas in the history of cinema, British or otherwise. Gone were the dashing, romantic heroes and the prim and proper heroines of old, replaced by selfish, sadistic brutes and damaged, vindictive dames. This is the stuff of what we've come to know as afternoon soap operas and telenovelas, only with lavish sets, garish costumes, and up-and-coming stars, packaged and sold with an equally reckless verve.
The Man in Grey, from 1943, boldly displayed Gainsborough's newfound fearlessness, setting the stylistic template and narrative temperament of the Ostrer regime. It also announced the arrival of a handful of actors who would come to be identified with the Gainsborough methodology. James Mason and Margaret Lockwood star, respectively, as a narcissistic marquis in a passionless marriage and a conniving friend attempting to further disrupt the matrimony, and it's to these two portrayals that most of the subsequent Gainsborough characterizations can be traced. Heartless, egotistical, and downright evil, these characters more often than not stop at nothing to get their way, sacrificing family, friendship, and goodwill in order to satisfy their every impulse. Couching these histrionics in period design and royalty trappings afforded the Gainsborough directors and screenwriters a unique freedom to work outside of reality and traditional rationale, heightening the emotional dynamic of their narratives by gleefully declaring just how inherently preposterous these tales were.
As The Man in Grey proceeds, mostly at the expense of Mason's long-suffering wife, Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert), who's persuaded by Lockwood to entertain the advances of a local actor, it grows more and more carnivalesque, a surreal succession of misogynist impulses, dramatic disputes, and flagrantly racist histrionics (director Leslie Arliss made extensive use of blackface makeup throughout the film, only enlisting black actors as sideshow attractions or brutish strongmen in a few brief scenes). In comparison to what was to come, however, The Man in Grey is fairly tame, maintaining at least a modicum of plausibility even as it begins to push the envelope that its successors would tear straight through. And while Mason would reap the most immediate benefits of the film's popularity, quickly rising to international stardom, Gainsborough's most lasting gift is that of its women, who would soon after find themselves headlining their studio's new films, turning the women's picture further on its ear with each successive outing.
Befitting its title, 1945's Madonna of the Seven Moons is perhaps the most outlandish Gainsborough effort and proof of their ladies' ability to anchor entire productions. Like a lot of the films from the Gainsborough stable, it's a challenge at first to even tell where the narrative is heading. After a brief, ominous prologue, Madonna begins in a stately, demure manner, calling to mind both Renoir and Dreyer in its early scenes set in both an upper-class mansion and a convent from which Phyllis Calvert's Maddalena flees in a passionate, schizophrenic act of personal reclamation. Of course, things careen wildly from there, as Maddalena's worldly daughter returns from boarding school with a newly liberated sense of self, provoking her mother to embark on an unannounced quest to revive a long-forsaken identity among the Italian middle class. It's to the credit of director Arthur Crabtree that he was able to maintain not only a flow between some wildly disparate tones, but was able to build a sense of sympathy for protagonist and antagonist alike, even as lines between the two begin to blur. Indeed, by the end it's difficult to even remember the quaint, almost serene opening passages of the film. And yet Calvert's presence is so magnetic that it hardly matters, the energy of the film directly proportional to her every unpredictable gesture.
Leslie Arliss would attempt to streamline the volatile gait of the quickly solidifying Gainsborough style that same year with The Wicked Lady, widely considered the best film the studio ever produced. As a narrative, it's the tightest of these most popular of Gainsborough films, focusing its energy in an almost monomaniacal manner on Margaret Lockwood's personification of Barbara, a woman for whom the term "wicked" is about the nicest way of describing her or her actions (within minutes of her arrival, she's stolen her best friend's husband and convinced her to be the maid of honor in her stead—and this is the least of her eventual transgressions). As she lies, cheats, and eventually murders her way to hollow self-satisfaction, it becomes clear that each devious act is an end unto itself, a perpetual cycle that can only turn in place for so long before eventually giving way. Much like the studio itself, it would be impossible for Barbara to forever walk such a treacherous tightrope. But as the quintessential Gainsborough anti-heroine, Barbara leaves an unforgettable mark. If she's the studio's most lasting creation, she's also further proof of that old cliché that it's better to burn out than fade away. And Gainsborough Pictures, as we continue to come to know them, certainly burned bright and without remorse.
Criterion has graciously debuted three of the most popular Gainsborough films in one of their cleanly packaged, barebones Eclipse box sets, presenting each film in mostly untouched but compulsively watchable form. The Man in Grey, the earliest of the films, exists in the roughest shape. Scratches and other period detritus remain visible on the print, while sound is an equally bumpy ride, dropping out at times while generally showing the limitations of the original production. Madonna of the Seven Moons and The Wicked Lady fair much better: Both are relatively clean and well balanced, while dialogue is smooth and easy to discern. Nothing here rises above what one should expect from even a modest rendering on standard-definition DVD, but preserving under-recognized works such as these in a satisfying manner is the hallmark of the Eclipse line.
As per Eclipse standards, there's nothing in the way of digital supplements. Helping to contextualize things, however, is Michael Koresky, who again provides liner notes for all three films, printed on the inner sleeve of each individual slipcase.
Gleefully abandoning most rational standards of good taste and plausibility, London's Gainsborough Pictures would, for about a three-year stretch in the mid-1940s, take the melodrama to heights yet untouched with a series of audacious, preposterous tales of treachery and deceit. [Slant]