Madonna of the Seven Moons
d. Arthur Crabtree / UK / 1945 / 110 mins
Viewed at: A3.03 @ UEA (Norwich, UK)
Ealing Studios may have all the prestige, all the historical monographs, all the cinematic retrospectives and DVD boxsets, but in the 1940s there was another very big studio on the British block – one that was much less interested in concepts of Englishness and consistently managed to put British bums on seats.
Gainsborough Pictures may have been portrayed as the ugly stepsister of the British film industry of the 1940s – pandering to the needs of the lowest common denominator with easily dismissible tripe – but one thing cannot be argued: in terms of popularity, Gainsborough – along with the similarly maligned British Lion – occupied a position way above Ealing or any other British studio before or since.
Starting as a sister studio to Gaumont-British, which was famed for its ‘quality’ productions, Gainsborough took care of melodramas, comedies and other assorted ‘B’ pictures. And yet, according to the Ultimate Film Chart – a list compiled by the BFI in 2004 detailing the top 100 films at the British box office according to admissions estimates – in amongst a top ten bulging with the likes of Gone with the Wind (1939), Star Wars (1977) and Titanic (1997) are three little known British films of the 1940s.
Herbert Wilcox’s British Lion production Spring in Park Lane (1948) is the first British film to appear (coming in at fifth), whilst Gainsborough’s The Wicked Lady (1946) and the unashamedly Gainsborough-esque The Seventh Veil (1945) – not only round out the top ten, but feature ahead of all manner of giant sharks, killer dinosaurs, boy wizards and friendly hobbits. (Ealing’s first appearance on the list, incidentally, was at twenty-nine with Basil Dearden’s 1950 Dixon of Dock Green progenitor, The Blue Lamp.)
Although by no means as successful as The Wicked Lady, Arthur Crabtree’s Madonna of the Seven Moons is more or less typical of the kind of middling melodramatic fare peddled by Gainsborough in the 1940s, much of which was exceedingly popular nonetheless. The film itself is an entertaining but feeble attempt at a peculiar blend of Italian exoticism and English manners, in which a bunch of ‘Italians’ walk around with the plummiest accents you’ve ever heard. They may have Italian names, but these characters are more English than at least half of England.
In fact, none of the major characters here are wholly likable, each possessing something in their personality that is downright contemptible. And the incongruities don’t stop there. The very basis of the film – that Phyllis Calvert (here looking a lot like Britain’s answer to Bette Davis) plays a character with such severe Schizophrenia that she disappears for months on end into a completely different life and emerges from it with absolutely no memory of what has happened – is purely preposterous.
But somehow it works – and not in terms of that post-ironic, high campness that is often attributed to older films – but simply because it remains engaging. Indeed, its easy to see why, when Britain was most in need of escapism, the Gainsborough melodramas delivered so very well. And if no one does entertainingly confused muddle as well as the British, no British studio did it better than Gainsborough.