Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Margaret Lockwood's 95th Birthday

(Since tomorrow is Margaret Lockwood's birthday and A Shroud of Thoughts is hosting the Margaret Lockwood 95th Birthday Blogathon tomorrow, I thought I would do my entry for the blogathon tonight.)

It was 95 years ago today, on 15 September 1916, that English actress Margaret Lockwood CBE was born Margaret Mary Lockwood Day in Karachi, British India (now a part of Pakistan). Her father was a clerk for a British railway company.  Her mother was a rather strict, domineering woman of Scottish descent.  She was three years old when she and her brother Lyn moved with their mother to London. Given her mother's temperament, it should be little wonder that young, shy, and sensitive Margaret Lockwood would escape into the make believe world of the theatre. Indeed, as history shows, Miss Lockwood would make a very good living at what had begun as mere escapism.

Indeed, at the height of her fame in the Forties, Margaret Lockwood was the top grossing star at the box office in the United Kingdom. While in the United States Miss Lockwood was merely a British star of some fame, in the UK she was a veritable phenomenon. At personal appearances throughout Great Britain in the Forties it was not unusual for Margaret Lockwood to draw the sort of mobs that Frank Sinatra did in the United States at the time or The Beatles would twenty years later in both the U.S. and the UK. It was little wonder that the dark haired beauty was called "the Queen of British Hearts."

Margaret Lockwood began her path to stardom while still very young. She attended the Italia Conti Academy in London as a young girl. She made her stage debut at age 12 as a fairy in a production of A Midsummer's Night Dream at the Holborn Empire. In 1933, at the age of sixteen, she enrolled in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. She was at the Royal Academy performing in a production of Hannele when she was spotted by agent Herbert de Leon. From there Miss Lockwood got a screen test and not long after that the role of Annie Ridd in Lorna Doone (1934).

For the next few years Margaret Lockwood would appear primarily in ingénue roles in films such as The Beloved Vagabond (1936) and Doctor Syn (1937). It would be two films that would change the course of Miss Lockwood's career. The first was Carol Reed's drama Bank Holiday (1938). While the character of nurse Catherine Lawrence was not too different from the ingénues Miss Lockwood had been playing, the movie was very successful in the United Kingdom and established her as a star. The second film would have an even greater impact on Margaret Lockwood's career. That film was Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938). In the film Miss Lockwood played Iris, a young woman who was independent, strong willed, intelligent, and resourceful. Indeed, it would be Iris who would suspect a conspiracy when elderly Miss Froy (played by Dame May Whitty) disappears. The film would not only cement Miss Lockwood's stardom in the United Kingdom, but establish her fame in the United States as well. Indeed, in the United States, Margaret Lockwood may be best known for The Lady Vanishes (1938).

With the success of The Lady Vanishes Margaret Lockwood would find herself in Hollywood. Sadly, Hollywood not treat Miss Lockwood well. The first film she made there was a Shirley Temple vehicle, Susannah of the Mounties (1939), in which she got third billing to Miss Temple and Randolph Scott. In Frank Lloyd's Rules of the Sea (1939) Miss Lockwood was at least the lead actress. Unfortunately the film was rather forgettable and Miss Lockwood's part not particularly remarkable. After only two pictures Miss Lockwood left Hollywood for the greener pastures of England and Gainsborough.  It was perhaps the best career decision she ever made.

Indeed, the first film she made after her return to England was another Carol Reed movie. In The Stars Look Down (1940) Miss Lockwood played selfish, manipulative Jenny Sunley. The role was a departure for Miss Lockwood and arguably the first truly wicked character she ever played. She would follow The Stars Look Down with another Carol Reed movie, this one a thriller. In Night Train to Munich (1940) Miss Lockwood played the daughter of a scientist who finds herself in a Nazi concentration camp. If there was truly a turning point in Miss Lockwood's career, however, it was perhaps the Regency period piece The Man in Grey (1943).  In the film Margaret Lockwood played the scheming Hester Shaw, a woman so amoral that she even betrays her best friend (played by Phyllis Calvert).  The Man in Grey inaugurated the era of the Gainsborough Gothic, melodramas that sometimes pushed the envelope with regards to sex and sin.

In fact, what may have been the most famous of the Gainsborough Gothics may also be Margaret Lockwood's most famous film besides The Lady Vanishes. In The Wicked Lady (1945), Miss Lockwood played Barbara Worth, a nobleman's wife who takes up a life of crime as a highwayman. It would be one Gainsborough Gothic which proved rather too hot to handle for Hollywood's Breen Office. The Breen Office ruled that the actress's costumes showed far too much cleavage (even though they were based on actual Restoration fashions) and also demanded changes to dialogue which the Hollywood censors thought a bit too risqué. Because of the demands of the Breen Office, Miss Lockwood actually had to postpone a vacation in order to re-shoot whole scenes before the movie could be released in the United States. Regardless, the film would prove incredibly successful in the United Kingdom, with an estimated 18.4 million people going to see it (this places it at #9 in the top ten biggest films in the UK according to the British Film Institute). The Wicked Lady  would not see such spectacular success in the United States, but it would do respectably well there. In the wake of the success of The Wicked Lady, Margaret Lockwood would be at the top of the United Kingdom's box office for the following five years.

Quite naturally Margaret Lockwood would play more femmes fatales after The Wicked Lady, most notably a serial poisoner and black widow in Bedelia (1946).  Eventually she would drift away from the wicked ladies for which she was known to other roles. She played a gypsy servant accused of murder in Jassy (1947), the warden of a home for wayward girls in The White Unicorn (1947), and a British Embassy employee in Rio de Janeiro who marries the wrong man in Look Before You Love (1948). 

Unfortunately, as the British cinema declined in the late Forties and early Fifties, so too did Margaret Lockwood's popularity. This may well have been complicated by some bad choices on her part. She turned down an offer from Hollywood to star in Forever Amber (1947) and later the film adaptation of Terence Rattigan's play The Browning Version (1951). In the Fifties Miss Lockwood would not see the success on the silver screen that she had in the Forties. Her only remarkable film from the era would be Cast a Dark Shadow (1955), in which she co-starred with Sir Dirk Bogarde. It would be one of her best performances.

Miss Lockwood would return to the stage. She would play the title role in Peter Pan, star in Noel Coward's Private Lives, play Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion, and other plays ranging from Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband to Agatha Christie's Spider Web (which Miss Christie wrote for Margaret Lockwood). She would also appear on television, on such series as ITV Play of the Week, ITV Playhouse, and Whodunit. She would appear alongside her daughter Julia in the series The Flying Swan. Miss Lockwood's most famous television work may have been the series Justice, which ran from 1971 to 1974. The series featured Miss Lockwood as barrister Harriet Peterson. Miss Lockwood would make her last appearance on screen in The Slipper and the Rose: The Story of Cinderella (1976). 

Margaret Lockwood was dubbed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1980. She died on 15 July 1990 at the Cromwell Hospital in London. 

Margaret Lockwood would be the last wholly English star to dominate the British cinema. What is more, she was an actress who attained a modicum of fame in the United States without appearing in Hollywood movies. To some degree it is very easy to understand why Miss Lockwood would be so successful. There can be no doubt that she was beautiful. She was of the same class of brunette beauties as Vivien Leigh and Gene Tierney, women so stunning it was hard not to stare at them. And there can be no doubt that she was talented. Although Miss Lockwood is now best known for playing femmes fatales, she played a variety of roles throughout her career and did so convincingly. She played everything from a music hall star (I'll Be Your Sweetheart-1945) to fatally ill pianist (Love Story-1944) to a serial killer (Bedelia). It must be pointed out that in British cinema of the Forties there were other actresses who were fantastically beautiful and other actresses who were extremely talented as well. Why then was Margaret Lockwood the centre of such devotion in the United Kingdom in the Forties that she became a phenomenon?

Part of this could be explained by the nature of British cinema in the Forties, as well as possibly Margaret Lockwood herself. In 1946 62% of the British movie going audience was female. This means that the majority of Miss Lockwood's fans at the time could well have been women. While most of Miss Lockwood's fans may have been female, Gainsborough producer Edward Black said, "Margaret Lockwood had something with which every girl in the suburbs could identify." It would seem then that most women could identify with Miss Lockwood, and this is reflected in many of the roles she played. While perhaps prettier, more intelligent, and more resourceful than most, Iris Henderson in The Lady Vanishes is essentially an average girl from the upper middle class. Similarly, Catherine Lawrence in Bank Holiday was an average working class girl in a profession common to women at the time--she was a nurse. Although very beautiful, Miss Lockwood was very adept at playing the "average" woman.

That having been said, it would seem that Miss Lockwood's appeal had to go beyond the average woman being able to identify with her. Indeed, it is hard to see how any woman could identify with Barbara Worth from The Wicked Lady, let alone Bedelia in the movie of the same name. It would then seem that in addition to playing roles with which the average woman could identify, she could also play roles in movies that were pure escapism for the average woman. This is particularly true of the Gainsborough Gothics, costume melodramas with often lurid plots that sometimes pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Margaret Lockwood played these roles as convincingly as those of the "average" women she played, putting her at an advantage over many actresses of the era, who were often typecast in one sort of role or another.

So far I have only discussed Miss Lockwood's appeal to women. Speaking as a man, I must say that she must have appealed to men as well. Miss Lockwood was obviously beautiful and well shaped. There is no doubt that she was appealing to the male eye. What is more, many of her films were so blatantly sexual that they pushed the envelope of what was acceptable at the time. Indeed, in the case of The Wicked Lady the Breen Office in the United States thought Gainsborough had gone well beyond what was acceptable. In real life Margaret Lockwood may have been an average (if extremely beautiful), middle class woman, but on screen she could absolutely ooze sex appeal. Combined with the sometimes racy scripts of the Gainsborough Gothics, I would rather be surprised if Miss Lockwood was not the object of sexual fantasy for a few British men in the Forties.

While women may have identified with Margaret Lockwood and men may have wanted her, there could be a reason that both women and men in the United Kingdom of the Forties adored Margaret Lockwood. With but few exceptions, Margaret Lockwood played intelligent, independent women. In fact, her two most famous roles are examples of this. In The Lady Vanishes Iris Henderson knows something is wrong when Miss Foy vanishes. What is more, she sets out to investigate what has happened and lets nothing stand in her way as she does so. In The Wicked Lady Barbara North not only seduces Sir Ralph Skelton into marrying her, but launches herself into a successful life of crime as a female version of  Dick Turpin. Many of Margaret Lockwood's characters shared these qualities of intelligence and high spirit with Iris and Barbara. From music hall star Edie Storey of I'll Be Your Sweetheart to Lucy of The White Unicorn, whether good or bad, Miss Lockwood's characters were always intelligent and they were never pushovers. Both women and men could appreciate characters who were bright, independent, and strong willed. 

Regardless, Margaret Lockwood would be the queen of the British box office in the Forties and perhaps the last fully English star to dominate British cinema. Furthermore, she has maintained popularity worldwide, even in the United States where Hollywood movies have tended to predominate. I rather suspect that the qualities which made her popular in the Forties have maintained her popularity since that time and will continue to do so in the future.


Brandie said...

Great overview and celebration of Margaret Lockwood's career!

I've posted my submission over at True Classics:

Thanks for hosting this shindig! I've enjoyed learning more about ML this week as I wrote my post. :)

mister_tmg said...

Great blog post!

However, one minor quibble - you say that "it is hard to see how any woman could identify with Barbara Worth from The Wicked Lady, let alone Bedelia in the movie of the same name". Actually, the common consensus is that The Wicked Lady (aside from being a jolly good film) symbolised the desire for women to escape from domesticity in post-war Britain. Bedelia explores some similar themes.

grandoldmovies said...

Really enjoyed your review of Margaret Lockwood's career and its highlights - fascinating that her 1940s films had censorship troubles in the U.S.; Britain must have been a bit more relaxed when it came to intimations of sex and violence in its homegrown product. I've always liked Lockwood's spunky heroines in The Lady Vanishes and Night Train to Munich, where she projects intelligence and capability. I haven't seen her 'Gainsborough Gothics,' but now I definitely want to after reading your post, they sound like a lot of fun - hope they're on DVD!