New from The Criterion Collection’s Eclipse series is a trio of melodramas from the British studio Gainsborough Pictures. The studio specialized in providing pure escapist entertainment, often with a slightly scandalous bent, for British audiences weary of war during the 1940s. Eclipse Series 36 is a three-DVD set containing The Man in Grey (1943), Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), and The Wicked Lady (1945). These were each lavishly produced period pieces. The first and third of them starred the studio’s breakout star, James Mason. Modern viewers are almost certain to find that their mileage highly varies, depending largely on one’s interest in this particular niche in film history.
Leslie Arliss directed The Man in Grey, a 19th century costume drama in which Mason portrayed a man who indeed dresses in grey clothing, Lord Rohan. This rogue marries a former student named Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert), who abandoned her girls’ school following a mini-brouhaha involving her friend Hester (Margaret Lockwood). Rohan has no feelings for Clarissa, he was merely seeking to breed her in order to carry on his family name. Clarissa winds up falling hard for an actor by the name of Rokeby (Stewart Granger). She, of course, needs to officially split with Rohan and complications ensue amongst the characters. All of this is framed by a then-modern day setting in which a man and woman (dual roles for Granger and Calvert) meet at an auction. No surprise given the casting, they turn out to have familial ties to the characters of old.
Phyllis Calvert is back in Madonna of the Seven Moons, this time with an even juicier role than Grey. In fact, Seven Moons has a fairly shocking twist midway through that turns the film on its head. While this off the wall plot development is better left discovered by the viewer, it does involve Calvert’s character, Maddalena, who grew up scarred over an assault committed against her. Whereas Grey felt a little like a chore to sit through, despite Mason’s leering performance, Seven Moons is an overheated, lurid treasure. Calvert’s work here is quite striking and makes the movie something special. Experienced cinematographer Arthur Crabtree made his directorial debut with this (he later directed the pulpy sci-fi cult classic, Fiend Without a Face).
The Wicked Lady reunites writer-director Leslie Arliss with both James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. This one might be the most entertaining of the trio, so it’s hardly surprising that the disc’s liner notes inform us it was England’s top-grossing film of 1945. Lockwood seems to relish the chance to play the supremely bitchy Barbara Worth, the “wicked lady” of the title. Beginning by essentially stealing her friend’s fiancé and marrying him herself, Barbara is immediately a character we love to hate. She’s bored to tears by married life and takes up a dual identity as a bandit, robbing coaches. She eventually happens upon the inspiration of her side career, the infamous Captain Jerry Jackson (Mason). The two become sort of an old school Bonnie and Clyde, embarking on robberies together. Nearly 40 years later, the film was remade (under the same name) starring Faye Dunaway and John Gielgud.
Criterion’s Eclipse series, by their own description, “is a selection of lost, forgotten, or overshadowed classics in simple, affordable editions.” As such there are no special features for any of the films and the standard definition transfers are serviceable, rather than the full-on restorations customarily done by Criterion. Each disc is housed in its own slimline DVD case, with the three cases bundled by a cardboard slip case. There is no booklet, but each film has helpful notes by Michael Koresky included in the case’s inlay. Recommended for fans of over-the-top period melodrama, Three Wicked Melodramas from Gainsborough Pictures is certainly not going to be everyone’s cup of tea.