|The Wicked Lady
|novel Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall
|R. J. Minney
|Jack E. Cox
|Eagle-Lion Distributors Limited (U.K.)
|15 November 1945
|£900,000 or $672,000
|over $1 million (US rentals)
£375,000 (UK rentals) or $2,250,000 (UK gross)
The Wicked Lady is a 1945 British costume drama film directed by Leslie Arliss and starring Margaret Lockwood in the title role as a nobleman's wife who becomes a highwaywoman for the excitement. The film had one of the largest audiences for a film of its period, 18.4 million.
It was one of the Gainsborough melodramas, a sequence of very popular films made during the 1940s.
The story was based on the 1945 novel Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton by Magdalen King-Hall which, in turn, was based upon the (disputed) events surrounding the life of Lady Katherine Ferrers, the wife of the major landowner in Markyate on the main London–Birmingham road.
The film was loosely remade by Michael Winner as The Wicked Lady in 1983.
In rural England in the late 1600s, Caroline invites her beautiful friend Barbara to attend her marriage with wealthy landowner and local magistrate Sir Ralph Skelton. But the scheming Barbara soon has Skelton entranced, and it is Barbara who becomes Lady Skelton, as Caroline looks on. At the wedding reception, however, Barbara meets a handsome stranger, Kit Locksby. It is love at first sight for both, but it is too late.
Married life in the country becomes a bore for Mrs. Skelton—that is, until a visit from her detested sister-in-law Henrietta. In a game of Ombre, Henrietta wins Barbara's prized jewels, including her late mother's ruby brooch. A chance remark about a notorious highwayman, Jerry Jackson, gives Barbara an idea. Masquerading as Jackson, Barbara stops Henrietta's coach and retrieves her brooch and the rest of her jewels. Intoxicated by the experience, she continues to waylay coaches until one night, she and the real Jerry Jackson finally meet. Jackson is amused to find his imitator a beautiful woman. They become lovers and partners in crime. Yet at the same time, she warns him never to be unfaithful to her with another woman. Together, they profit off of unfortunate travellers. But their plot to rob a huge gold shipment goes awry, resulting in the death of one of Sir Ralph Skelton's tenants. Skelton offers a handsome reward to anyone who can assist in Jerry Jackson's capture. So one evening, when Barbara finds Jackson in bed with another woman, she anonymously betrays his whereabouts to her husband. Jackson is captured and sentenced to be hanged.
In London, Barbara views the execution with Caroline. In his speech from the scaffold, Jackson talks only of faithless women but does not refer specifically to Barbara. Then a riot breaks out. The two ladies are rescued by Kit Locksby, who has recently become engaged to Caroline. After the hanging, Jackson's accomplices cut him down and revive him. He later breaks into Barbara's bedroom at the estate and rapes her. Fearing his next move, she begs Kit to marry her. But he will not betray Caroline. Late one evening, Barbara, in highwayman's gear, awaits her husband's coach with a loaded pistol. Jackson shows up and realizes Barbara's scheme. He plots to warn Skelton, but Barbara kills him. When the coach with Caroline, Ralph, and Kit arrives, Barbara, still in disguise, hijacks it and attempts to shoot her husband—not knowing the three have agreed to find a way for both couples to be together. Kit shoots her, but she escapes. Back at the estate, a mortally wounded Barbara confesses all to Kit, pleading he stay with her until the end. After her death, Caroline and Skelton reunite, determined to put the past behind them.
Magdalen King-Hall's Life and Death of the Wicked Lady Skelton was published in 1944. Mason, Lockwood and Arliss' involvement in the movie adaptation was announced in November of that year.
In a 1945 issue of Picturegoer, Arliss said that it was Eleanor Smith (author of the book which had inspired his 1943 hit The Man in Grey) who gave him King-Hall's novel. He went on to say:
I told Maurice Ostrer of Gainsborough Pictures that I had found my ideal film subject and found that he had already purchased the rights himself! The character of Barbara is wicked enough even for me, and how vastly interesting is this most complex character as it develops through the action of the story.
Lockwood later wrote in her memoirs, "This was an enchantingly 'wicked' part. At first, as usual, I did not like the thought of playing a villainous role again, but it was such a good one that I knew it would be madness to refuse it."
Stewart Granger turned down the role that Mason played. Lockwood practiced riding for the role and added a black beauty spot.
Caroline, the character played by Roc, is a movie script addition, not existing in the novel.
Filming started March 1945.
The film was made at Gainsborough Studios in London with location shooting at Blickling Hall in Norfolk. James Mason disliked Leslie Arliss and hit him during filming.
Lockwood wrote "we enjoyed making that film together. We did not enjoy remaking it, exactly one year later" when they had to re shoot scenes for American censors.
Queen Mary wished to attend the film's premiere, which caused some concern in light of the film's subject matter, and reportedly the operator in the projection box turned down the sound during key exchanges of dialogue. However Queen Mary told J. Arthur Rank she enjoyed the film and felt it had "a fine moral". Rank later said:
Queen Mary is the only person to see in the film what I see myself. I only agreed to it because there’s a moral in it. You have two pretty girls, Margaret Lockwood and Pat Roc. One of them falls to temptation, and gets shot in the end; the other lives happily. That’s the moral. Both girls are pretty, you see; it wouldn’t have meant anything if one of them had been plain.
The Wicked Lady was the most popular film at the British box office in 1946. According to Kinematograph Weekly the "biggest winner" at the box office in 1946 Britain was The Wicked Lady, with "runners up" being The Bells of St Marys, Piccadilly Incident, The Road to Utopia, Tomorrow is Forever, Brief Encounter, Wonder Man, Anchors Away, Kitty, The Captive Heart, The Corn is Green, Spanish Main, Leave Her to Heaven, Gilda, Caravan, Mildred Pierce, Blue Dahlia, Years Between, O.S.S., Spellbound, Courage of Lassie, My Reputation, London Town, Caesar and Cleopatra, Meet the Navy, Men of Two Worlds, Theirs is the Glory, The Overlanders, and Bedelia.
In Latin America the film earned $160,475.
Problems with American censors made extensive re-shooting necessary before the film was released in the United States (according to Robert Osborne of Turner Classic Movies).
The problems were that the women's dress bodices (appropriate for the era portrayed) were very low-cut and showed too much cleavage for the USA motion picture production code. It was a problem Jane Russell had in The Outlaw (1943). TCM sometimes airs the original, uncensored version on its USA basic cable network.
Margaret Lockwood said "We had to do nine days of retakes to satisfy the censor on that film and it all seemed very foolish."
Mason said "I don't like it now", referring to the film after the changes.
Maurice Ostrer reportedly wanted to make a sequel but this was vetoed by J. Arthur Rank who had taken over ownership of Gainsborough studios. In 1950 it was announced Arliss had written a sequel, The Wicked Lady's Daughter but it was never made.
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