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The Forbidden Street

The Forbidden Street(1949)

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Fiery actress Maureen O'Hara got a homecoming, or something close to it, with The Forbidden Street (1949), a romantic drama of status and sacrifice and blackmail in Victorian England. The Irish actress had been busy in Hollywood since her stateside debut in the 1939 production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, shooting all of her British period pieces on Hollywood sets. But for The Forbidden Street, 20th Century Fox shipped the production over to Fox London to make use of studio funds frozen in Great Britain. It wasn't quite Ireland but O'Hara was in an unhappy marriage to Will Price, a former Hollywood dialogue director and a drunk, and was glad for the break.

Based on Margery Sharp's 1946 novel Britannia Mews, The Forbidden Street stars O'Hara as Adelaide Culver, a headstrong woman from an aristocratic London family who defies her mother (Fay Compton) to marry her handsome music tutor, Henry Lambert (Dana Andrews, in a professorial beard). It's an impulsive act by a nave young woman and she ends up shunned by her family, unhappy and alone in the slums of Britannia Mews until she meets Gilbert Lauderdale, a dead ringer for her Henry (and also played by Andrews) but a far warmer and more loyal fellow. As Henry, Andrews is overdubbed with a distinctive English accent (no credit is given), while his familiar voice returns as the amiable Gilbert. O'Hara, meanwhile, slips from a cultured, educated English accent to cockney as she remains in The Mews (as the locals call it).

Shooting in London's Shepperton Studios gave the production access to the studio's big, busy old England street set, filled with accents and details unavailable in Hollywood's versions of Victorian London, and access to an array of continental talent. The great Shakespearean actress Sybil Thorndike takes the role of a feared, hideous hag of The Mews known as "The Sow" (O'Hara, in her autobiography, affectionately remarks that Thorndike steals the film) and Fay Compton, a stage legend who was so memorable in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) and Orson Welles' Othello (1952), is Adelaide's imperious society mother. Wilfrid Hyde-White, who specialized in befuddled or oblivious figures of authority, plays Adelaide's father.

It's shot by French-born cinematographer Georges Prinal, who photographed Jean Cocteau's The Blood of a Poet (1932) and some of the best British films of the thirties and forties, from The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) to The Four Feathers (1939) to The Fallen Idol (1948). Though the film is entirely studio bound, Prinal gives the film a rich canvas, from the first exciting, terrifying views of The Mews as seen from the perspective of the wide-eyed little Adelaide, sneaking out of the house on a dare, to the adult Adelaide's view on the grubby little street. Russian-born art director Andrej Andrejew made his fame in the glory days of silent and early sound German cinema, with such classics as Pandora's Box (1929) and The 3 Penny Opera (1931) and he helps set a distinctive character for this overcrowded slum. British composer Malcolm Arnold went on to win an Academy Award for his memorable score for David Lean's The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Jean Negulesco, a painter by training who entered the film industry as a sketch artist and graduated to directing, had made his name with a strong series of moody crime and espionage thrillers at Warner Bros. and an Oscar nomination for directing Johnny Belinda (1948), which earned an Academy Award for star Jane Wyman but ended his association with Warner. He continued his run under a new contract with 20th Century Fox with Road House (1948). The Forbidden Street was Negulesco's second film under his Fox contract. An artist in his own right, Negulesco may have been attracted to the artistic side of the characters. He gives Henry's artistic endeavors a classically romantic style and Henry's treasures, a set of articulated marionette dolls that are the toast of France but dismissed as mere toys in England, a handsome sense of craftsmanship. Negulesco liked and respected Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of Fox, and Zanuck liked Negulesco. Both of them thought the production would make a good film but it was a disappointment in both Britain, where it was released under the title Britannia Mews, and in the U.S., where it had almost been titled Affairs of Adelaide. Negulesco and O'Hara both dismiss the film in their respective autobiographies, but they forget the shadowy beauty of the cinematography, the gorgeous sets, and the unusual character of the London slum known to all as The Mews.

Things I Did ... and Things I Think I Did, Jean Negulesco. Linden Press / Simon & Schuster, 1984.
Maureen O'Hara: The Biography, Aubrey Malone. University Press of Kentucky, 2013.
'Tis Herself, Maureen O'Hara with John Nicoletti. Simon & Schuster, 2004.

By Sean Axmaker

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