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Gainsborough Melodrama

1940s costume dramas for a newly independent female audience

Main image of Gainsborough Melodrama

Although Gainsborough Pictures had been in existence for two decades prior to the release of The Man in Grey (1943) and had generally specialised in comedy, the studio's reputation now largely revolves around a group of lurid and often ludicrous costume melodramas which it produced between 1943 and 1947. Although critically derided at the time, they dominated the box office at a time when ticket sales were at an all-time high.

To give some indication of their appeal, a chart of inflation-adjusted box office figures drawn up in 2004 by the British Film Institute placed The Wicked Lady (1945) in ninth place, with the heavily Gainsborough-influenced The Seventh Veil (1945) at number ten - bookended by Titanic (US, 1997) at number eight and Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone (US, 2001) at number eleven.

So why were they so popular? It wasn't just that they were specifically aimed at women (who made up the bulk of the mid-1940s cinema audience), it was that Gainsborough successfully targeted an entirely new type of female audience. The Second World War directly led to large numbers of women gaining an unprecedented degree of financial and sexual independence, caused by the fact that they had to go to work to compensate for the absence of their male breadwinners on the battlefields of Europe, North Africa and South-East Asia. Families were split up, the birth rate fell sharply, contraceptive use increased and casual sexual relationships flourished.

In short, the traditional British social rulebook had been torn up, and Gainsborough responded to these developments in two quite distinct ways - by making films exploring women's lives both during wartime and afterwards, and by creating shamelessly escapist fantasies, usually set in the distant past, that offered powerful images of female independence and rebellion that resonated deeply with audiences of the time.

It is hugely revealing that the genre's two biggest stars - at least according to magazine polls - were Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, who were significantly more popular than Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and Patricia Roc, even though the latter three were generally on the side of justice. Audiences were clearly meant to cheer The Wicked Lady's deliciously amoral Lady Barbara Skelton to the rafters and swoon over Mason's strangely sexy displays of callous brutality towards his various female partners - or even use the latter's behaviour as justification for short-term flings. Though the Gainsborough melodramas usually reached conservative conclusions, along the way they presented thrilling alternatives to an audience only too happy to lap them up.

Their roots lay in the success of The Young Mr Pitt (d. Carol Reed, 1942), a collaboration between Gainsborough and 20th-Century Fox whose underlying propagandist message (its Napoleonic setting reminding its audience that this wasn't the first time Britain had had to face a threat from mainland Europe) proved far less appealing than its lavish costumes and sets. The following year, in-house writer-director Leslie Arliss adapted Lady Eleanor Smith's Regency bodice-ripper The Man In Grey. Consciously defying an unspoken convention that British cinema at a time of war should be broadly realistic, Arliss, with cinematographer Arthur Crabtree, production designer John Bryan and costume designer Elizabeth Haffenden, devised a flamboyantly baroque visual approach that established the distinctive "look" of the cycle right from the start, which also belied the film's modest budget.

The Man In Grey was an enormous hit, and studio head Maurice Ostrer happily green-lit three more melodramas in 1944, though each showed sufficient individuality to absolve Gainsborough of the charge of merely exploiting a successful formula. Fanny By Gaslight (d. Anthony Asquith) turned a Victorian melodrama into a surprisingly pointed study of social class. Love Story (d. Arliss), set uncharacteristically in the present day, used a trashy romantic plot (a terminally ill pianist falling in love with a man stricken with impending blindness) to explore the theme of grasping fleeting opportunities with both hands -particularly resonant at the time. Even more fascinating was Madonna of the Seven Moons (d. Arthur Crabtree), which showcased Phyllis Calvert's most challenging role as a woman whose personality is split between a respectable Italian housewife and the mistress of a notorious Florentine bandit.

1945's releases were just as intriguing. They Were Sisters (d. Crabtree) was set in the late 1930s, but its theme of a devoted sister picking up the pieces of her two siblings' failed marriages had just as much relevance during wartime. The Wicked Lady (d. Arliss) offered the most enticing female antihero that British cinema had seen to date, a woman who from the start deliberately challenges every single social, moral and sexual code that she has been brought up to follow. Perhaps the definitive Gainsborough melodrama, it was easily the studio's biggest hit - though it only just edged ahead of The Seventh Veil (d. Compton Bennett), a film which, though not produced by Gainsborough, clearly showed the influence of its melodramas, down to the casting of James Mason as the faintly sadistic male lead. It was so successful that its producer Sydney Box was invited to become head of Gainsborough the following year after Ostrer was outsted in an internal coup.

But by the end of the war, Gainsborough's melodramas were falling out of fashion. Despite flashes of inspiration, Caravan (d. Crabtree, 1946) was a much more conventional Boy's Own adventure, and The Magic Bow (d. Bernard Knowles, 1946) was a dull biopic of the violinist Niccolò Paganini, a subject that should have kindled far more dramatic sparks. Jassy (d. Knowles, 1947) was the last "official" Gainsborough melodrama, the addition of Technicolor failing to compensate for a weak script and a bafflingly inconsistent central character - though it was clear by then that audiences had lost interest too: the following year, The Idol of Paris, an independent production by Maurice Ostrer and Leslie Arliss that was intended to hark back to the heyday of the Gainsborough melodrama, was an ignominious commercial flop.

Ironically, despite being hired for his perceived expertise in the genre, Sydney Box disliked the costume melodramas and only allowed Jassy to go ahead because it was ready for production at a time when they needed new material. His preference was for social realism, though there were sufficient melodramatic elements in juvenile crime-and-punishment dramas Good-Time Girl (d. David MacDonald, 1947) and Boys In Brown (d. Montgomery Tully, 1949) to suggest that Gainsborough hadn't quite let go of its most successful formula, and other late 1940s Gainsborough films with melodramatic elements include the sinister thriller Daybreak, d. Compton Bennett, 1948). But the studio's late-1940s costume dramas, The Bad Lord Byron and Christopher Columbus (both d. MacDonald, 1949) were critical and commercial failures, and Gainsborough Pictures closed shortly afterwards.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Boys in Brown (1949)Boys in Brown (1949)

A progressive Borstal governor tries to reform his boys

Thumbnail image of Caravan (1946)Caravan (1946)

Flaming passions, treacherous gypsies and Stewart Granger

Thumbnail image of Daybreak (1948)Daybreak (1948)

Eric Portman stars as a man leading a double life as hangman and hairdresser

Thumbnail image of Fanny By Gaslight (1944)Fanny By Gaslight (1944)

Costume melodrama about a Cabinet minister's illegitimate daughter

Thumbnail image of Good-Time Girl (1948)Good-Time Girl (1948)

Gainsborough melodrama about a girl's descent into ruin

Thumbnail image of Jassy (1947)Jassy (1947)

Technicolor melodrama about a gypsy girl with second sight

Thumbnail image of Love Story (1944)Love Story (1944)

A terminally ill pianist falls in love with a man who's going blind

Thumbnail image of Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

Florentine melodrama about a jewel thief and his amnesiac mistress

Thumbnail image of Magic Bow, The (1946)Magic Bow, The (1946)

Stewart Granger (and Yehudi Menuhin) as the violinist Paganini

Thumbnail image of Man in Grey, The (1943)Man in Grey, The (1943)

Melodrama about two girls whose fortunes run on very different paths

Thumbnail image of Seventh Veil, The (1945)Seventh Veil, The (1945)

Melodrama starring James Mason as a young pianist's obsessive guardian

Thumbnail image of They Were Sisters (1945)They Were Sisters (1945)

James Mason drives his wife to drink as her horrified sisters look on

Thumbnail image of Wicked Lady, The (1945)Wicked Lady, The (1945)

A bored Margaret Lockwood finds fulfilment through highway robbery

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Costume DramaCostume Drama

Britain re-enacts its past, real and imagined

Thumbnail image of MelodramaMelodrama

Torrid passions and doomed desires

Related People and Organisations

Thumbnail image of Arliss, Leslie (1901-1987)Arliss, Leslie (1901-1987)

Director, Writer

Thumbnail image of Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)Asquith, Anthony (1902-1968)

Director, Producer, Actor

Thumbnail image of Calvert, Phyllis (1915-2002)Calvert, Phyllis (1915-2002)


Thumbnail image of Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)Crabtree, Arthur (1900-75)

Cinematographer, Director

Thumbnail image of Granger, Stewart (1913-1993)Granger, Stewart (1913-1993)


Thumbnail image of Lockwood, Margaret (1916-1990)Lockwood, Margaret (1916-1990)


Thumbnail image of Mason, James (1909-1984)Mason, James (1909-1984)


Thumbnail image of Ostrer, Maurice (1896-1975)Ostrer, Maurice (1896-1975)


Thumbnail image of Roc, Patricia (1915-2003)Roc, Patricia (1915-2003)


Thumbnail image of Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)