Thursday 3 December 2009

The Divine Lady (1929)

Director: Frank Lloyd
Stars: Corinne Griffith, Victor Varconi and H B Warner
Carps about the state of the industry today notwithstanding, 1929 is without a doubt the worst year that Hollywood ever had. Sound hadn't just arrived by this point, it was taking over, but the industry was still struggling with the nascent technology to decidely mixed results. During 1928 many studios had successfully resisted this new trend but by 1929, it had become irresistible and so audiences were treated to silent movies with hastily added soundtracks. As you can imagine, this often didn't turn out particularly well. This one from First National is one of the few American films of that year to remain silent, albeit with a few songs that entirely fail to sync with Corinne Griffith's lip movements and are patently not sung in her voice (or even the same voice throughout).

She's the divine lady of the title, Lady Hamilton, though we first meet her in 1782 as the common as muck Emma Hart. She's such a cheeky soul that she winks back at the coach driver who delivers her and her mother to the house of the Hon Charles Greville, who has hired the latter as a cook. She does slap the driver when he kisses her, but that's still wanton enough for Greville to take back the offer, not wanting such a brazen hussy to enter his house. Of course it doesn't take much in the way of feminine wiles to change his mind, merely a little leg, a couple of puppy dog eyes and some liberally applied flattery. Soon he's describing her to his uncle in letters as an unpolished gem fast developing into a rare jewel.

His uncle is Sir William Hamilton, His Brittanic Majesty's Ambassador to the Court of Naples, hardly a minor personage of the day, and someone Greville is more than eager to play up to, given that he's currently Sir William's heir. He and Emma fall in love, of course, but on a trip to Vauxhall with its midget wrestlers and fireworks, where he introduces this unpolished gem to his uncle, he's given some apparently sound advice that he follows. Given that if his uncle marries he will cease to be his heir, it would be in his best interest to find him a sweet companion socially unacceptable as a wife. So off goes Emma to Naples, with a constantly broken promise that Greville will follow. And sure enough, she soon becomes Lady Hamilton, the Ambassadress, though that's an ugly word indeed.

It's here that the story really starts, though it takes an amazingly long time to come to fruition, because in Naples Lady Hamilton meets the young Capt Nelson. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, this pair embarked upon what would be seen today as a celebrity scandal, a flagrant affair between England's greatest beauty and England's greatest sailor, while both were married to other people. Their first meeting is set up well, with an offhand comment from Sir William: 'By the way, there's a young naval officer waiting. Will you see him for me?'

One brief meeting and he's off again, then it's war and before we know it he's an admiral with his right arm blown off. Here Lady Hamilton gets to save the free world because only she can persuade Queen Maria Carolina to open her ports for Nelson and the English fleet, racked with scurvy and doomed to failure if she can't resupply. At this point Naples was more than friendly to England but fearful of France, especially given that the Queen's sister is Marie Antoinette whose visit to the guillotine comes in the same news as England's declaration of war on France. It's only when Napoleon's fleet is annihilated and Nelson returns to his Emma in Naples rather than to a knighthood and rapturous welcome in England that we really get down to business with the scandal.
The film is powerfully done, enough to stir my patriotic pride as an Englishman, but it's nonsense of course. It looks good, with lavish sets, ships of the line firing on each other and able supporting actors like H B Warner, Montagu Love and Marie Dressler, though the latter gets almost no screen time at all. Nelson is played by Victor Varconi, who was actually Austro-Hungarian not the expected Italian, and who had played Pontius Pilate to H B Warner's Jesus two years earlier in The King of Kings. In fact The Divine Lady looked so good that John F Seitz was nominated for an Academy Award for his cinematography and Frank Lloyd won as Best Director, beating names like Lionel Barrymore and Ernst Lubitsch, not to mention himself: while there were no official nominees announced that year, he appears three times on the records, the other two being for Drag and Weary River.

Corinne Griffith was also nominated as Best Actress, though she's hardly awe inspiring here. Then again she's far better than Mary Pickford was in the almost painful Coquette, which is the performance that the Academy honoured. I've seen three of the six performances in the records and it's the third that shines brightest thus far: Bessie Love in The Broadway Melody. Griffith's performance aside, I'm no expert on the Napoleonic Wars, let alone the celebrity gossip of the time, but it would seem that the Lady Hamilton she plays doesn't bear a whole lot of resemblance to the real one. This is Hollywood, after all, so I hardly expected historical accuracy, but while there are at least some details of truth dotted in and amongst, much of this is pure fiction.

For a start the real Emma Hart was really Emy Lyon, only to take up the name of Emma Hart at Greville's instigation. By then she'd already been a maid, an actress, a model, a dancer and a mistress to the aristocracy. She'd had one child, to Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, out of wedlock of course. Painter George Romney appears at the beginning of the film here and expresses a wish to paint her, but that's it for that strand of her life. She was in fact a frequent model, clothed and nude, for Romney and many other artists of the day. She was Greville's mistress but he sent her to his uncle because he needed to marry into money and relieve his uncle of the burden of having a poor relative, even though he was a Member of Parliament. There's no mention of revolution in Naples that Nelson put down without the help of the British government, no mention of the death of Sir William and no mention of the child that Lady Hamilton bore Nelson. Of course there's no mention of her massive decline after the death of her lover in 1805, given that it was hardly a pretty thing.

Even ignoring that era of her life, she's hardly depicted as a divine lady here, the story being sourced from a novel called The Divine Lady: A Romance of Nelson and Emma Hamilton, by E Barrington. There are many films that include this relationship, indeed two predate this, both called Nelson and released in 1918 and 1926. Vivien Leigh took the role in That Hamilton Woman in 1941 and Glenda Jackson did likewise in Bequest to the Nation in 1973. I haven't seen either but the latter purports to be at least a little more faithful to historical truth than this film, probably because it was made over forty years later in England.

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