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Although England's Ealing Studios had been founded in 1902, it still didn't have much of an identity in 1948 when, like several other British film studios at the time, it tried to outdo Hollywood at its own game with Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), a big-budget historical romance. Though it was never a hit on the same level as a Hollywood blockbuster, artistically, it was easily the most successful big British production of that era. Yet the film - the first Ealing production in color - is far removed from the small, whimsical comedies that would put Ealing on the map in the next few years.
The impetus to film Saraband for Dead Lovers came from The RankOrganisation, which had a distribution deal with Ealing and provided 50percent of the studio's production costs. As part of that deal, Rank couldimpose a limited number of productions on the studio and since they were courtingU.S. audiences with their own Technicolor adaptation of Shaw's Caesarand Cleopatra (1945), Rank ordered Ealing to adapt Helen Simpson's popular,fact-based romance novel into what would become the studio's mostexpensive production ever. To sweeten the deal, theythrew in the services of Stewart Granger, who had risen to stardom atGainsborough Pictures, another Rank subsidiary.
Simpson's novel was based on the disastrous arranged marriage betweenPrincess Sophie Dorothea (Joan Greenwood) and Hanover's Prince George-Louis(Peter Bull), who would later become England's George I. After askillfully filmed wedding-night rape, Sophie turns for solace to achildhood friend, Count Konigsmark (Granger,) who becomes her lover (inreality, they probably never consummated the relationship). Their attemptto run off together is complicated by the machinations of his vengefulex-mistress, Countess Platen (Flora Robson).
To write the screenplay, Ealing recruited the American-born Alexander Mackendrick, a recent arrival at the company who would prove a very important factor in the studio's later success. Mackendrick would go on to direct some of Ealing'smost popular comedies, including The Man in the White Suit (1951) andThe Ladykillers (1955), both starring Alec Guinness. For Saraband forDead Lovers, he added a distinctive visual style to the film,storyboarding the entire picture (a first for England) and helping producerMichael Relph scout locations in Prague.
Working for the first time in Technicolor, cinematographer DouglasSlocombe, who would later shoot Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the LostArk (1981), ignored the advice of the Technicolor advisors and shot the filmas though he were still working in black and white. The result was aseries of stunning scenes, particularly the shadow-filled sword fight thatclimaxes the film.
Saraband for Dead Lovers was a box-office failure that ended anythought of further historical films from Ealing in the near future. Still,it managed to impress critics and win an Oscar® nomination for its artdirection. Over time, the film has won praise for its sumptuousromanticism, strong performances (particularly from Bull and Robson) andhistorical accuracy.
Producer: Michael Relph
Director: Basil Dearden, Michael Relph
Screenplay: John Dighton, Alexander Mackendrick
Based on the Novel by Helen Simpson
Cinematography: Douglas Slocombe
Art Direction: Michael Relph, Jim Morahan, William Kellner
Music: Alan Rawsthorne
Principal Cast: Stewart Granger (Count Philip Konigsmark), Joan Greenwood(Sophie Dorothea), Francoise Rosay (Electress Sophie), Flora Robson(Countess Platen), Peter Bull (Prince George-Louis), Anthony Quayle(Durer), Megs Jenkins (Frau Busche), Michael Gough (Prince Charles).
by Frank Miller