Tuesday, 10 February 2015

The Wicked Lady: The British Film Censored by Americans and How It Changed the English Language

After The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Wicked Lady (1945) is probably Margaret Lockwood's most famous film. What is more, it is also probably her most successful film in the United Kingdom. It was the top British film for the year 1946 in the United Kingdom. What is more, it still ranks among the top grossing British films in the United Kingdom when adjusted for inflation. Of the melodramas released by Gainsborough Studios in the Forties, it was by far the most successful. The Wicked Lady would also do well in the United States, although it would also prove to be a source of controversy in the United States as well.

The Wicked Lady was based on the novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall. The novel in turn was based on popular legends surrounding Lady Katherine Ferrers, who allegedly became a highwayman who preyed on travellers in  Hertfordshire. Like the novel, the film centred on the beautiful Lady Barbara Skelton (née Worth), who finds excitement in engaging in highway robbery. For all that it was based on a bodice ripper with plenty of sex and violence, The Wicked Lady did not generate a great  deal of controversy upon its initial release in the United Kingdom. There were critics who decried the film as being "immoral," "disgraceful," "bawdy," and "salacious," but that was about the extent of it. Of course, it helped that the film had royal approval. Queen Mary (the Queen Consort of the late King George V) attended the film's premiere at the  Gaumont, Haymarket on November 19 1945 and thoroughly enjoyed the film. Audiences agreed with the Queen Mother. The Wicked Lady proved to be a sensation at the box office, breaking box office records for the time across the United Kingdom.

While any controversy regarding The Wicked Lady was generally confined to film critics in the United Kingdom, the film would create a bit more of a stir in the United States. In fact, there were signs that the movie could cause controversy in the United States well before it was even released here. It was in February 1946 that a copy of the script of The Wicked Lady was sent to the Motion Picture Association of America's Production Code Administration (PCA).  Joseph Breen, the head of the PCA, commented on the script, "This basic story is unacceptable because of its extremely low moral tone." He went onto mention that it contained "...several incidents of adultery, illicit sex, murder, rape, unacceptably intimate details of a bridal night, many offensive lines referring to mistresses, etc., and an unacceptable dance sequence." Needless to say, when the PCA actually screened The Wicked Lady they would find even more objectionable material.

Of course, The Wicked Lady was not the first British film to run afoul of the PCA. It wasn't even the first Margaret Lockwood film to run into trouble in the United States. The PCA required several cuts to Bank Holiday (1938), which would be released in the United States as Three on a Weekend, before they would give it a seal of approval. In all about five minutes of material would be cut from Bank Holiday before the PCA found it acceptable. The Wicked Lady would also see even more extensive cuts, among other things, before it would receive a Production Code Administration seal of approval.

Indeed, upon screening The Wicked Lady the PCA found a good deal of the completed film objectionable, even though Joseph Breen personally liked the film (he thought it would be a "...great money-maker"). The PCA recommended that several sexually suggestive lines be cut from the film, as well as scenes involving beds. They also expressed concern over the historically accurate, but very low-cut gowns worn by Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc. It was in discussing these low-cut gowns that the PCA gave new meaning to a then somewhat rarely used word in English language. Previously when discussing the hollow between a woman's breasts as exposed by a low cut garment, the word décolletage would have been used. For whatever strange reason the PCA chose to use the word cleavage, a word that literally means "the act of cleaving" or "the state of having been cleft". Prior to 1946 the word cleavage was used in various sciences, for instance, geologists referring to the way various minerals can break or biologists describing the division of cells in embryos. After 1946 cleavage would bring to mind something else entirely. The word cleavage, meaning "the hollow between a woman's breasts as exposed by a low cut garment," entered common usage because of the controversy over The Wicked Lady. For example, Time magazine referred to the term in its article on the controversy, "Cleavage & the Code", in its August 5 1946 issue.

Ultimately the PCA, American distributor Universal, and the Rank Organisation agreed upon reshooting those scenes in The Wicked Lady that had an amount of cleavage that would be "objectionable" in the United States. It was then in August 1946 that Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc returned to  Gainsborough Studios to reshoot specific scenes. The reshooting was a painstaking process. Sets and props had to be reassembled. Costumes had to be modified to show, well, less of Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc. In order to preserve the film's continuity, the actresses had to precisely duplicate any facial expressions or gestures from the scenes as originally shot. Beyond the reshooting of specific scenes, The Wicked Lady would also have have five minutes worth of footage cut from the film for American audiences.

While the reshooting of entire scenes for The Wicked Lady to satisfy the PCA would seem to have been a bit of a hassle for Gainsborough Studios, in the end it would prove to be worth it. The controversy over the film in the United States would give The Wicked Lady a good deal of press coverage it might not have otherwise had. Publicity materials created for the film in the United States even capitalised on the idea that The Wicked Lady was a film filled with sex and sin. Posters featured referenced "...violent love and love of violence" and proclaimed "She couldn't resist anything that belonged to someone else!" Posters also prominently featured an image of stars Margaret Lockwood and James Mason in a passionate embrace. The controversy insured that The Wicked Lady would be a success in the United States.

The Wicked Lady would be neither the last Margaret Lockwood movie nor the last Gainsborough film to run afoul of the PCA. A whole new ending had to be shot for Bedelia (1946) in order for it to receive Production Code seal in the United States.

The Wicked Lady was a phenomenal success in the United Kingdom upon its initial release and it remains among the highest grossing British films of all time there. In the United States it would be a source of controversy as what was perceived as an absolutely scandalous motion picture. Ultimately that controversy would not only lead to big box office receipts in the United States, but it would give new meaning to a word that had previously been infrequently used in English.

No comments: