The Wicked Lady (1945)

THE WICKED LADY, from England in 1945, concerns the scandalous misadventures of a 1670’s noblewoman with low morals and lower necklines, wreaking social havoc with intimates unfortunate enough to be fooled by her, and conducting a second, secret private life as a robber, becoming accomplice and “doxy” to a notorious highwayman. An insatiable appetite for excitement and control calls for pluck and luck; her vixen wiles work, for a while…

I never could resist anything that belonged to somebody else.”

‘Barbara Worth’ (Margaret Lockwood) brazenly steals the intended husband of her friend ‘Caroline’ (Patricia Roc), who is a gracious loser (or sap) to a fault, going so far as being Barbara’s maid of honor, further irony in that Babs possesses none. Country life as ‘Lady Skelton’ soon bores her: no wonder, considering what a dull fellow wealthy husband ‘Sir Ralph Skelton’ (Griffith Jones, snore) turns out to be (we knew that as soon as he was introduced). Danger and sex arrive in the dashing form of coach poacher ‘Captain Jerry Jackson’ (James Mason), who knows a wanton wench when he snares one. Enter ‘Kit Locksby’ (Michael Rennie), another honest fool. Murders, a hanging, a rape. Hurt feelings, spoiled parties, ruined clothes…

The most famous of a series of bodice-rippers produced in the 40s by Gainsborough Films, this was written & directed by Leslie Arliss. The biggest hit of the year at home, aided by ample displays of décolletage as much as through lusty work from the cast, its risqué melodrama also did well upon migration to the States (with some trims). Arliss took his script off “Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton a novel based partly on (legendary) events in the life of one Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660). In “The Hollywood History Of The World”, George MacDonald Fraser offered “it fulfilled the popular notion of the Restoration as a time of flopping wigs and bulging bosoms (which it was) when gallants and wenches rioted in four-posters and discarded heaps of fashionable clothing.” *

Though some of the process photography (of the stars riding horses) may as well be from the century portrayed, the litany of lies and lust otherwise looks luschious, and moves fairly well, possibly because the editor was Terence Fisher, later famed for directing those vivid Hammer horror pictures. Highlights include a rousing gallows speech from Mason, and pretty much everything to do with Lockwood, whose plunging bustlines stirred more pulses than Churchill. Those gaudy, exposure-ensuring period duds were designed by Elizabeth Haffenden, who seemed to know a good deal about buttresses.

The Battle of the Breastworks was subsequently waged across the Atlantic, when American censors insisted the USA could handle blitzkriegs and banzai charges from Hitler and Tojo, but not boobs from Britain. Six minutes of cuts resulted, forcing the cast to return for reshoots. As lovely Lockwood scoffed, “we enjoyed making that film together. We did not enjoy remaking it, exactly one year later”.  Temporarily saved from fainting over frontal assaults from England, in a few years red, white & blue-noses would face the combined heaving bosoms of Italy and France, a fight to die for.

Others in the cast include Felix Aylmer, Enid Stamp-Taylor, Martita Hunt and Jean Kent. 104 minutes in the proper, un-cleaved cut.

* Making a clean, smooth, ivory breast of it—trying to sort out statistics can drive you to a pub. The figures available indicate the movie cost £900,000 to make in 1945, roughly $3,630,000 (in 2022 around $56,500,000). Cogerson has the American gross at $5,300,000, placing 66th for the year. It was THE #1 hit in Great Britain, with a gross (refiguring pounds to dollars) that may have been at least $9,100,000 ($125,000,000 in 2020). Another pint, if you please, and fresh ale for the horse I wrote in on.

Mason, from “Before I Forget”, his witty, self-effacing autobio: “They said at the time that the late Queen Mary frequently asked for the film to be run for her at Marlborough House, but I have no means of verifying this report.”

Referred to on a site devoted to movie locations as “Lady Skelton’s stately pile”, the ‘Maryiot Cells’ at ‘Maiden Worthy’ in Buckinghamshire, is actually Blickling Hall, part of an estate in Norfolk. The mansion, in its redbrick Jacobean glory, is a National Trust property, the house and garden open to the ‘Wicked’ curious faithful.

Speaking of piles, the film was lavishly and coarsely remade in 1983 by hash director Michael Winner, with Faye Dunaway, Alan Bates and copious nudity instead of sample teases. Lady Faye hoped it would be a combination of Bonnie And Clyde with Tom Jones. Instead, coarse  commoner Winner turned it a loser, a critical and box office disaster.

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