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The Divine Lady (1929) concerns the various winds of fortune and romance that carry a girl of a lower social rank to high society and then exile.
Accompanying her mother to a new job as a cook in the home of aristocrat Charles Greville (Ian Keith), Emma Hart (Corinne Griffith) finds the course of her life forever changed by her mother's handsome new employer.
Seeing great promise in the beautiful girl, Greville grooms her into a lady, and then passes her on as an enticing diversion to an elderly uncle, Sir William Hamilton (H.B. Warner), serving as British ambassador at the Court of Naples. But Sir Hamilton becomes so smitten by Emma he eventually proposes, transforming a poor peasant girl into a lady.
Following her transformation into Lady Hamilton, Emma then finds true, illicit love in the arms of a British naval hero of the Napoleonic wars, Lord Horatio Nelson (Victor Varconi), who destroys the French fleet on the Nile and bottles Napoleon up in Egypt.
Despite the potentially scandalous fact that in real life, both Lord and Lady remained married during their love affair, the film dwells with a surprising insistence on their erotic, adulterous passion, at one point showing scenes of breaking waves and then a calm sunset as the couple embrace. When social scorn makes them pariahs, Lady Hamilton and Captain Nelson retire to his country estate.
The Divine Lady was adapted from E. Barrington's The Divine Lady: a Romance of Nelson and Emma Hamilton. Director Frank Lloyd won an Oscar® for Best Director for his dramatization of that historical love affair, and Corinne Griffith and cinematographer John F. Seitz were both nominated for Oscars® for their work on the film. Like two of Lloyd's other dramas, including his well-known 1935 version of Mutiny on the Bounty and The Sea Hawk (1924), The Divine Lady had its share of maritime battles including some impressive miniature sequences of several battles at sea between British and French sailing ships.
Though The Divine Lady was released on the cusp of sound, it is by and large a silent film accompanied by Vitaphone sound effects such as one of the first songs, "Lady Divine", presented on screen since The Jazz Singer (1927).
Though it was billed as a part-dialogue film by First National, in reality the film was only "part-singing" notes film historian Donald Crafton since there is no actual recorded dialogue. For instance, though Griffith sings and plays the harp on several occasions in the film, her speaking voice is, oddly, never heard. What's more, the voice audiences heard singing was not Griffith but a voice "double." Audiences of the time were scandalized to hear that some of their favorite actresses and actors, like Richard Barthelmess in Weary River (1929), were never actually singing, but lip-synching to the work of professional singers.
Though First National sunk a small fortune into The Divine Lady's visuals including sets, costumes and photography, and its two beautiful, charismatic leads Corinne Griffith and Victor Varconi the film was a far from successful disappointment. Variety's critic called it only a "moderate entertainment."
Director: Frank Lloyd
Producer: Richard A. Rowland
Screenplay: Adapted from the novel by E. Barrington by Forrest Halsey and Agnes Christine Johnston.
Titles by Harry Carr and Edwin Justus Mayer
Cinematography: John F. Seitz
Production Design: Horace Jackson
Music: Song "Lady Divine" by Joseph Pasternac and Richard Kountz
Cast: Corinne Griffith (Emma Hart/Lady Hamilton), Victor Varconi (Horatio Nelson), H.B. Warner (Sir William Hamilton), Ian Keith (Charles Greville), Marie Dressler (Mrs. Hart), Dorothy Cumming (Queen of Naples), William Conklin (George Romney), Montagu Love (Capt. Hardy).
by Felicia Feaster