It was in 1943 that Gainsborough Pictures saw great success with The Man in Grey, the first of what would come to be known as the Gainsborough Melodramas. A bodice ripper set largely during the Regency, The Man in Grey starred Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, and Stewart Granger. The film proved to be an enormous success. While Margaret Lockwood was already a star, The Man in Grey propelled her to even greater heights of stardom. As to James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, and Stewart Granger, they suddenly found themselves to be bona fide film stars. As would be expected Gainsborough Pictures sought to emulate the success of The Man in Grey with similar melodramas. In short order The Man in Grey was followed by Fanny by Gaslight (1944), Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945), and They Were Sisters (1945). Given the success of The Man in Grey and the other Gainsborough Melodramas, it should come as no surprise that Gainsborough Pictures decided to adapt the best selling 1944 novel The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall for the big screen.
The Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton was inspired by legends surrounding the real-life Lady Katherine Ferrers, who allegedly became a highwayman who preyed on travellers in Hertfordshire. Gainsborough shortened the title of the film simply to The Wicked Lady, but like the novel the film centred on the beautiful Lady Barbara Skelton (née Worth), who finds excitement in engaging in highway robbery. The Wicked Lady reunited two cast members from The Man in Grey, with Margaret Lockwood playing Lady Barbara Skelton and James Mason playing notorious highwayman Captain Jerry Jackson. In the role of Barbara's romantic rival and the film's "good girl", Caroline, was cast Patricia Roc, who had already played opposite Margaret Lockwood in Love Story (1944). Jean Kent, who would soon be a major star herself, had a minor role as Captain Jackson's doxy. The role was to have originally been played by Valerie White, who had to bow out of the production due to appendicitis.
Margaret Lockwood threw herself into the role of Lady Barbara Skelton, For the role she had to learn to ride side saddle. Miss Lockwood had never ridden before, but took lessons in horsemanship every day. By the end of one week she had ridden so much she could barely walk. For the most part the cast enjoyed making The Wicked Lady. Patricia Roc said, "I loved making The Wicked Lady. We had such fun. It was just gorgeous." Miss Roc enjoyed working with Margaret Lockwood, saying of her co-star, "...it was a joy working with Maggie. I adored her." Perhaps the only member of the cast who did not enjoy making The Wicked Lady was James Mason, who at the time had pretensions of becoming a "serious actor". He considered the film to be beneath him, and it was a regular occurrence for him to walk angrily off the set muttering curses under his breath. Fortunately Mr. Mason's fits of pique did not disrupt the filming of The Wicked Lady.
Gainsborough Pictures promoted The Wicked Lady heavily. It should come as no surprise, then, that the film's premiere would be a gala event. Its premiere was held at the Gaumont on Haymarket in London. The proceeds for the premiere would go to the British Hospital for Mothers and Babies in Woolwich, Greater London. What is more, Queen Mary would be in attendance. Unfortunately the press was insistent on turning The Wicked Lady into a controversy. Critics decried the film as being "immoral," "disgraceful," "bawdy," and "salacious." Some even took insult that Queen Mary had been invited to view such a film.
The press's attacks on The Wicked Lady led to some concern as to whether the film was suitable viewing for Queen Mary. In fact, only hours before the premiere an advance screening of the film was arranged for an equerry to determine if The Wicked Lady was fit for the Queen Mother to watch. Fortunately The Wicked Lady received the equerry's approval and Queen Mary attended the premiere. Quite naturally Gainsborough was nervous as to whether Queen Mary would like the film. Ultimately they need not have worried. Queen Mary told Margaret Lockwood as she left the theatre, "That was very good. I enjoyed it very much."
While Queen Mary liked The Wicked Lady, critics most certainly did not. The Manchester Guardian referred to it as, "...an odd mixture of hot passion and cold suet pudding." In the Daily Express Leonard Mosley wrote, "I cannot believe in Miss Margaret Lockwood as a femme fatale." In Woman magazine Freda Bruce Lockhart wrote that Margaret Lockwood "...doesn't even look naughty." As mentioned above, many in the press were intent on labelling the film as "immoral," "disgraceful," "bawdy," and "salacious." Regardless of what the critics said, British audiences loved The Wicked Lady. It was the highest grossing film in the United Kingdom in 1946. Within three years of its release it had been seen by more than 30 million people in the United Kingdom and had grossed £23,000,000.
While the British press had tried to turn The Wicked Lady into a cause célèbre, The Wicked Lady would find itself at the centre of a very real controversy in the United States. In fact, it would be one that would change the English language forever. In February 1946 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 on to 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.
While Joseph Breen actually liked The Wicked Lady ((he thought it would be a "...great money-maker"), the PCA suggested several changes to the film after they screened it. Among other things, they recommended that several sexually suggestive lines be cut from the film, as well as scenes involving beds. They expressed a great deal of 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 "unacceptable" 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 painstaking. 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 maintain 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 five minutes worth of footage cut from the film for American audiences.
While the reshooting of entire scenes in The Wicked Lady would be inconvenient for Gainsborough, it ultimately proved worth it. The controversy over The Wicked Lady actually generated a good deal of press coverage for the film in the United States that it might not have otherwise gotten. Publicity materials for The Wicked Lady even capitalised on the controversy, giving people the idea that the film was 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 hit in the United States.
The Wicked Lady would continue to be a success in both the United Kingdom and the United States well after its initial release. Unfortunately such success insured that there would eventually be a remake. Director Michael Winner had seen the original film as a boy and had long wanted to remake the film. Faye Dunaway played the role of Lady Barbara Skelton, while Alan Bates played Captain Jackson. Like the original the remake generated its share of controversy. The British Board of Film Classification wanted to cut a scene in which two women fight with whips and Michael Winner refused. The fight over the scene (which ultimately remained in the film) delayed the release of the movie. As it was, the controversy would not help the remake. Released on April 21 1983 in the United Kingdom, the remake of The Wicked Lady not only met with scorn from critics, but with indifference from audiences. The film bombed at the box office. While The Wicked Lady (1945) is today regarded as a classic, The Wicked Lady (1983) sometimes numbers on lists of the worst films ever made.
The initial success of The Wicked Lady is not hard to explain. Released not long after the end of World War II, there can be no doubt that audiences were looking for escapist entertainment that was filled with thrills and excitement. Often pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable at the time, The Wicked Lady certainly did not disappoint. It must also be pointed out that The Wicked Lady also had a little bit of everything for everyone. British women still constrained largely in traditional roles could live vicariously through Lady Barbara Skelton, who led a daring double life as a highwayman. For British men there were two beautiful women to look at (Margaret Lockwood and Patricia Roc), not to mention more action and excitement than seen in many American swashbucklers. While the film was made for adults, even children could appreciate The Wicked Lady. Little girls could live vicariously through the wicked Lady Barbara, while little boys could thrill to the many fights throughout the film.
It is perhaps because The Wicked Lady has something for everyone that the film continues to be popular to this day. The film boasts gorgeous costumes and set design that is only matched by Warner Brothers' swashbucklers and the Hammer Horrors. It also boasts one of the best casts of any British-made film, with Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, and Patricia Roc in the lead roles. As to Leslie Arliss's script, it is filled with thrills, spills, excitement, and enough sex to satisfy anyone. In fact, the original, British cut of the film contained more sex than most American films would until the late Fifties. Ultimately, The Wicked Lady seems like a much more modern film than many of the American movies produced in the same period. And in the end that will probably insure its popularity for decades to come.