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The Law and the Lady

The Law and the Lady(1951)

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teaser The Law and the Lady (1951)

"The story begins in London at the turn of the century. If they had known what was ahead, they never would have turned it."
Opening title for The Law and the Lady

Greer Garson was nearing the end of her reign as queen of the MGM lot when she made this rarely seen adaptation of Frederick Lonsdale's comedy of manners The Last of Mrs. Cheyney. With the declining power of Louis B. Mayer, her number one fan at the studio, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find suitable roles for the aging actress, particularly as changing audience tastes made her image as the stalwart noble Englishwoman seem pass. Yet Garson was so firmly typed, she wasn't allowed to display the versatility of her younger MGM rival, Deborah Kerr. It wasn't that she lacked the acting chops to pull off roles like Spencer Tray's alcoholic wife in Edward, My Son (1949), which had brought Kerr an Oscar® nomination. It was just that MGM's executives didn't want to risk such a radical departure for her. The furthest they seemed willing to go was putting the redhead in a black wig for her role in The Law and the Lady as a former maid masquerading as an aristocrat to fleece her wealthy hosts.

After the failure of The Miniver Story (1950), a sequel to her Oscar®-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942), the studio dusted off Lonsdale's play, which it had filmed twice previously. Under its original title, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney had served as a very popular vehicle for Norma Shearer in 1929 but had fared less well for Joan Crawford in 1937. With MGM's contract for the rights due to expire in 1953, they may have felt they had one more shot at generating box office with the comic romance. For the 1951 version, the studio changed the title and most of the character names. Writers Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg also gave the story a more international flavor, sending Garson and criminal cohort Michael Wilding trotting off to Monte Carlo, Shanghai and San Francisco, all of it reconstructed on the MGM lot.

The story supplied some rare opportunities for Garson to display her comic gifts, skills she rarely got to use in her MGM vehicles. And the studio gave her two hot leading men. As her partner in crime, Michael Wilding made his first U.S.-shot film, on loan from Allied Artists, a studio for which he would never make an American picture. He had been coming along nicely in British films, particularly after appearing in Noel Coward and David Lean's World War II epic In Which We Serve (1942), and had starred in two of Alfred Hitchcock's lesser efforts, Under Capricorn (1949) and Stage Fright (1950). His presence at MGM put him in the perfect place to become the second Mr. Elizabeth Taylor, catching her on the rebound from her disastrous first marriage to Nicky Hilton.

Also paying court to Garson was Argentine heartthrob Fernando Lamas, in only his second MGM picture. He had been discovered by studio drama coach Lucille Ryman when he co-starred with her husband, John Carroll, in The Avengers (1950), a Republic film shot on location in Mexico. Like Ricardo Montalban, he provided a solidly attractive leading man for stars like Lana Turner and Esther Williams. Unlike the happily married Montalban, he was also an ideal escort for MGM's contract women, eventually marrying the studio's Arlene Dahl and Esther Williams after a torrid affair with Turner.

Rounding out the cast was one of the few character players remaining from MGM's golden years, Marjorie Main, as the wealthy San Francisco widow whose jewels tempt Garson and Wilding. Main was still at the studio because of the success of her Ma and Pa Kettle films, made at Universal, which often led the year's box-office reports. Unfortunately for Main, the films were made on loan-out, so the hefty sums Universal paid for her services went straight into MGM's corporate coffers, while all she got was the much-lower salary she had negotiated on signing with the studio years earlier.

Producer Edwin H. Knopf, brother of publishing magnate Alfred Knopf, had not directed since 1933's The Rebel. He had started his career as a stage actor before turning to producing, which brought him to MGM in 1941 for a remake of The Trial of Mary Dugan, starring Larraine Day and Robert Young. His major productions there were The Seventh Cross (1944) and Edward, My Son, both starring Spencer Tracy, and the 1953 hit Lili, with Leslie Caron. The Law and the Lady would be his only film there as a director.

Even with substantial re-writes (or possibly because of them), The Law and the Lady did not fare well with critics or audiences on its initial release. Nor did it help that the film had to be withdrawn from release in 1953 with the expiration of MGM's rights to the original play. In recent years, however, it has attracted positive notice from Garson's fans, who relish the chance to see the star demonstrating her comic abilities while wearing a glamorous wardrobe. The film's limited availability -- it has not been released for home viewing and rarely turns up on television -- has added to its cachet, making it a real find for movie buffs.

Producer-Director: Edwin H. Knopf
Screenplay: Leonard Spigelgass, Karl Tunberg
Based on the play The Last of Mrs. Cheyney by Frederick Lonsdale
Cinematography: George J. Folsey
Music: Carmen Dragon
Cast: Greer Garson (Jane Hoskins), Michael Wilding (Nigel Duxbury), Fernando Lamas (Juan Dinas), Marjorie Main (Julia Wortin), Hayden Rorke (Tracy Collans), Margalo Gillmore (Cora Caighn), Rhys Williams (Inspector McGraw), Natalie Schafer (Pamela Pemberson), Andre Charlot (Maitre d'Hotel), Bess Flowers (Mrs. Bruno Thayer), Anna Q. Nilsson (Mrs. Scholmm), Victor Sen Yung (Chinese Manager).

by Frank Miller

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