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Nell Gwyn (1934)

British Film Institute

Main image of Nell Gwyn (1934)
35mm, 85 min, black & white
Directed byHerbert Wilcox
Production CompanyBritish And Dominions Film Corporation
Screenplay (uncredited)Miles Malleson
PhotographyF.A. Young
MusicPhilip Braham

Cast: Anna Neagle (Nell Gwyn); Sir Cedric Hardwicke (Charles II); Jeanne De Casalis (Duchess of Portsmouth); Muriel George (Meg); Esme Percy (Samuel Pepys); Helena Pickard (Mrs Pepys); Moore Marriott (Robin)

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1668. A Cockney stage actress (a former orange seller) and a French born Duchess are mistresses and rivals for the affections of King Charles II and for the hearts of the British people.

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The international success of Oscar winner The Private Life of Henry VIII (d. Alexander Korda, 1933) persuaded British producers that lively stories about past royals were just the ticket. Herbert Wilcox had directed an earlier silent Nell Gwynne (1926) starring Dorothy Gish, and 1934 seemed an opportune moment to remake Nell's story starring his new protégée Anna Neagle. Released in August 1934, Nell Gwyn was one of several 1930s Wilcox 'royal' films, (others being Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938), all popular with audiences. Nell Gwyn also connects with popular 1930s 'shopgirl' romances, such as Sunshine Susie (d. Victor Saville 1931), which portray how a girl of humble origins can win the heart of a wealthy man.

The real-life Nell was much less innocent than depicted here, and the film avoids questions of moral judgement, providing a whitewashed view of Nell mainly through comedy, both visual (a comic dog, Nell seductively wiggling her toes in bed), and mildly bawdy dialogue. It was censored by the US Hays Office, both for its non-condemnation of 'immorality' and for Nell's cleavage. Critic Graham Greene wrote "I have seen few things more attractive than Miss Neagle in breeches". She performs a song (more like an Edwardian music hall number) at Drury Lane and a lively dance to a 'Merrie England' tune by Edward German (composed 1902). Neither have any period authenticity.

But Wilcox's direction is unsure: there is a clumsy insert of Nell's 'vision' of the Chelsea Pensioners (fast forward to 1934), which would have been better placed as an epilogue, and technical deficiencies include muffled sound recording (when the Duchess is described as a 'foreign whore', the sound is indistinct, so it sounds more like 'foreigner', perhaps to circumvent censorship). Wilcox is clearly reluctant to abandon silent film techniques - exterior shots (of horses arriving) are wholly silent, and the concluding scene could be lifted from any silent melodrama. For its subtle use of light and shadow credit must be due to cinematographer Freddie Young.

Nell Gwyn was an early hit for the gamine young Neagle. She performs with gusto in a nudge/wink manner throughout, in a performance as ripe as Nell's oranges. Nell became one of her signature roles (along with Queen Victoria and Florence Nightingale) and was revived again in the 1953 stage production 'The Glorious Days', filmed as Lilacs in the Spring (d. Wilcox, 1954).

Roger Philip Mellor

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Video Clips
1. At Drury Lane (5:03)
2. Defying the Duchess (1:26)
3. A final request (4:22)
Production stills
Private Life of Henry VIII, The (1933)
Hardwicke, Sir Cedric (1893-1964)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Neagle, Anna (1904-1986)
Wilcox, Herbert (1890-1977)
Young, Freddie (1902-1998)