Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Man in Grey (1943)

 (This post is part of the "British Invaders Blogathon" hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts)

In Hollywood it was often the case that major studios became identified with a particular genre of film. To this day Universal is known for their horror movies of the Thirties and Forties. Warner Bros. is still known for the gangster films they made in the Thirties. MGM remains remembered for their many musicals. The same holds true for the various British studios. Ealing Studios made a variety of films, but are best known for their comedies. Hammer Films remains firmly identified with the horror genre. In the case of Gainsborough Pictures, the studio remains best known for their melodramas made in the mid to late Forties.

Gainsborough Pictures was founded in 1924. In the Twenties and Thirties they released a wide variety of films, including movies directed by Alfred Hitchcock (including The Man Who Knew Too Much, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, and The Lady Vanishes) and Carol Reed (including Bank Holiday, Climbing High, and A Girl Must Live). It was in 1943 that a film would be released that would set the course of the studio for a few years. Quite simply, The Man in Grey (1943) was the first Gainsborough melodrama.

The Man in Grey was based on the 1941 novel of the same name by Lady Eleanor Smith. The Man in Grey proved to be a best seller not only in the United Kingdom, but in the United States and elsewhere as well. Given the success of the novel, it perhaps came as no surprise when Gainsborough Pictures elected to make a motion picture adaptation. The script was written by Margaret Kennedy (perhaps best known for her novel The Constant Nymph), Doreen Montgomery (who would later be pivotal in the development of the character of Cathy Gale on the classic TV show The Avengers), and  Leslie Arliss (an experienced screenwriter for whom The Man in Grey would mark his directorial debut--he would go onto direct The Wicked Lady).

Like the novel The Man in Grey was set in the Regency Period. It centred on the relationship between two women:  sweet aristocrat Clarissa Richmond (played by Phyllis Calvert) and the jaded, impoverished Hester Shaw (played by Margaret Lockwood). Clarissa eventually marries the cold hearted Lord Rohan (played by James Mason), who would come to play a significant role in Hesther's life as well. Into this mix eventually enters Rokeby (played by Stewart Granger), a young man with his own rather interesting past.

At the time that The Man in Grey was made, Margaret Lockwood was already a major British star, having appeared in such films as Bank Holiday (1938), The Lady Vanishes (1938), The Stars Look Down (1940), and Night Train to Munich (1940). It should then come as no surprise that when Gainsborough's head of production, Maurice Ostrer, gave Miss Lockwood the script he expected her to read for the part of Clarissa, who appears more in the film than any other character. Despite this, Margaret Lockwood found herself more interested in the part of "bad girl" Hester Shaw. Maurice Ostrer consented and Miss Lockwood was cast in the role of Hester. While she would receive top billing, Margaret Lockwood would then have less screen time in The Man in Grey than Phyllis Calvert (who was cast as Clarissa). 

In the role of Lord Rohan, James Mason was cast. James Mason and Margaret Lockwood had already worked together on the film Alibi (1942). The role of Rokeby, essentially the second male lead in the film, would not be cast until the day before shooting was to start. The role went to Stewart Granger, a young actor for whom it would be his first major role. The search for someone to play Rokeby caused production on The Man in Grey to fall behind schedule by several weeks. This was complicated by the fact that Phyllis Calvert was pregnant with her first child at the time. Director Leslie Arliss was then forced to shoot The Man in Grey faster than he might have otherwise. 

The Man in Grey was released on August 23 1943. It did not receive a particularly warm reception from critics on either side of the Pond. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times referred to it as"...a stiff, ostentatious costume-picture—mechanical, tedious and dull." Fortunately for Gainsborough Pictures, audiences in Britain apparently disagreed with the critics, as they flocked to The Man in Grey in droves. It was ultimately the seventh most successful film in the United Kingdom for 1943.  It was also very popular in Australia, where it was the tenth highest grossing film of 1943.

Americans watching The Man in Grey today might be shocked by some of the film's content. After all, it not only contains instances of adultery, but also some language that would be considered objectionable even by today's standards. The British Board of Film Censors passed The Man in Grey with no cuts, but gave it an "A" certificate, meaning that children could only see the film if they were accompanied by an adult. In the more conservative United States The Man in Grey faced much more opposition from the the Production Code Administration (PCA). The PCA demanded that the N-word be cut, as well as the word "slut". They also demanded that the lines "Never know until you try," "A reputation that would not do discredit to a woman of the streets," and "..may have as many lovers as she likes" be cut. Eventually the PCA would relent on two of the lines in the film, but insisted that the N-word and the word "slut" would absolutely have to be cut as they were on the PCA's list of forbidden words. Ultimately, The Man in Grey was cut to 93 minutes for release in the United States and distributed by Universal. Given its subject matter, it might come as a surprise that the National Legion of Decency only gave it a "B" rating, meaning it was "morally objectionable in part". They would not be so lenient with some of Gainsborough's other melodramas. 

Because of its success The Man in Grey would have a lasting impact on British film. It certainly had an impact on its stars. Margaret Lockwood was already a major star when she appeared in The Man in Grey, but the film marked the beginning of the peak of her career as a box office star. It also marked a change in the sort of roles she played.  While Miss Lockwood had played villainous characters before (The Stars Look Down being an example), it was with The Man in Grey that she began playing them with some regularity. At the time The Man in Grey was released, James Mason was not nearly as big a star as Margaret Lockwood. That having been said, he had already played the lead in many movies (a good number of them quota quickies). The Man in Grey would make James Mason one of the top stars of the day. As to Phyllis Calvert and Stewart Granger, the two of them had appeared primarily in bit parts prior to The Man in Grey. With its success they became major stars nearly overnight.

While The Man in Grey would have an impact on its stars, it would also have an impact on Gainsborough Pictures. The success of The Man in Grey led Gainsborough to produce more melodramas, many of which were costume dramas like The Man in Grey. These melodramas would prove exceedingly popular at the British box office, often outgrossing films produced in Hollywood. In fact, one of them--The Wicked Lady--remains one of the most profitable films in Britain to this day. In the end, Gainsborough Pictures would become identified with melodramas in the same way that Ealing Studios became identified with comedies and Hammer Films would become identified with horror.

Seen today it is perhaps easy to understand the success of The Man in Grey. While Leslie Arliss's direction is adequate at best, the film has an impressive cast, with both Margaret Lockwood and Stewart Granger giving particularly impressive performances. It also benefited from a fine script, with clearly delineated characters and several great lines. Arthur Crabtree's cinematography and Elizabeth Haffenden's costumes give The Man in Grey a lush look that makes the film appear more expensive to make than it actually was. Seen today it is easy to understand why wartime audiences flocked to see the film when it was first released. It is also easy to understand why it would lead Gainsborough Picturs to make yet more melodramas.


Caftan Woman said...

Oh, Stewart Granger - be still my heart!

The style and mood of Gainsborough melodramas fill a niche that no one else could touch. There are times when nothing else will do.

Fascinating look at the censor board's and what they will or definitely will not allow. What a bother that must have been for producers.

Thank you for hosting this interesting blogathon.

Virginie Pronovost said...

Yay! Margaret Lockwood team! :D I loved your review Terence! It was very informative and entertaining at the same time. Even if the film was not a critical success, I hope you convinced a few people to see it and understand its importance and impact in British cinema. :) I've always loved this film (except for the fact that the young black servitor was played by a white little boy. Awkward...).

Quiggy said...

Didn't realize James Mason had been around that long. The earliest movie I think I saw him in was The Desert Fox, although I guess surely it should have occurred to me that he had been in movies before that...

Terence Towles Canote said...

Quiggy, his career goes back to the late Thirties. For the longest time I thought the Gainsborough melodramas were his first starring roles, but he played his first lead well before that.


James Mason is always a-mason (LOL). Kidding aside, he is one of my favorites and I also must watch more of Margaret's movies! your thoughtful review made me want to watch this movie.
Thanks for hosting this event!