In 1943, Great Britain’s Gainsborough Pictures launched a series of lavish romances, dubbed “Gainsborough melodramas,” with this black and white film. With its historical setting and strong female characters, The Man in Grey was perfectly poised to appeal to a largely female wartime audience whose work for the war effort had granted them an unprecedented level of independence. The film and those that followed provided a welcome escape from the realities of World War II even as some of the cities where the films played were still suffering aftereffects of the German bombing.
Although Gainsborough had recently been bought by The Rank Organisation, it maintained its identity as a division of its new parent company. Gainsborough had produced a variety of films since its founding in 1924, with varying degrees of success. As World War II raged, studio head Maurice Ostrer decided British audiences needed escapist fare. Writer producer R.J. Minney suggested he look at Lady Eleanor Smith’s 1941 novel, The Man in Grey, which had become a best-seller in Great Britain and the U.S. With a romantic story combining elements of the gothic novels and melodramas of 19th century author Matthew “Monk Lewis’, Rebecca (1940) and Gaslight (originally filmed in England in 1940), it seemed a sure thing at the box office.
In Smith’s book, the Marchioness of Rohan discovers her family’s checkered past while her husband is off fighting World War II. She uncovers a story of thwarted love and illicit passions during the Regency period, the 1810s, involving Clarissa Richmond, an independent young woman, and the bitter Lord Rohan. Friends and relations push the two to marry. They produce an heir, but Clarissa cannot bring herself to love her cynical, often violent husband. When she discovers an old school friend, Hesther, who has turned to acting after being left an impoverished widow, she convinces her husband to let her hire Hesther as her companion. She also finds herself falling for Hesther’s leading man, Swinton Rokeby, whose family fortune was lost after the slave rebellion in Jamaica. Hesther, who has started an affair with Rohan, encourages her friend’s romance, hoping to become lady of the manor in her place.
Ostrer picked up the film rights and assigned the script to Margaret Kennedy, writer of the novel and play The Constant Nymph, screenwriter Doreen Montgomery and Leslie Arliss, who had written and directed Gainsborough’s thriller The Night Has Eyes (1942), starring James Mason. Their main change was to create a new framing device in which the last of the Rohans and a Rokeby descendant meet during the war as the Rohan estate is being auctioned off. This added an egalitarian twist to the historical tale of people fighting to maintain and rise to noble status.
The film had four strong roles, but Gainsborough was only able to hire one established star, Margaret Lockwood. She hesitated about playing Hesther, preferring to play good girls, though she had enjoyed success as the villainess in Carol Reed’s The Stars Look Down (1940). Finally, she decided it was worth the risk because the role was so meaty, the kind of thing Bette Davis would have played in Hollywood. The more virtuous role of Clarissa went to Phyllis Calvert, who had been steadily building a reputation as a film actress since her feature debut in the Gainsborough crime drama They Came by Night (1940).
Ostrer’s nephew-in-law, Mason, also had his doubts because he didn’t like the script. He finally agreed to do the film when his agent convinced him it would be a big success. That meant signing a five-picture contract with Rank, which he would come to regret. Mason was originally hired for the more heroic Rokeby, but when Eric Portman turned down the villain’s role, Mason moved into it. Gainsborough had a hard time finding a replacement Rokeby until Robert Donat, who declined the role, recommended Stewart Granger, with whom he had worked on stage. From the moment he walked on the set, Lockwood knew he had the perfect swagger for the role that would make him a star.
None of the stars were particularly happy working with Arliss as director. Mason had fought with the director on their earlier film and on this one became so upset with his direction he hit him. He also hated what he saw as a very thinly written character, later saying, “Only my permanent aggravation on the set gave the character colour and made it some sort of memorable thing” (James Mason quoted in Sheridan Morley, James Mason: Odd Man Out). In Calvert’s opinion, Arliss was simply lazy. At one point he was so late getting to the set she and Granger directed their scene themselves. She also claimed that “Arlissing about” became slang at the studio for slackness.
The Man in Grey opened in London to dreadful reviews, with James Agate calling it “bosh and tosh.” When it moved to small town theatres, however, it did so well, Gainsborough gave it a second London premiere, this time announcing it as a hit. It would go on to be one of the top films at the British box-office for 1943. It also was a big hit in Australia, though it did not do as well as later Gainsborough melodramas in the U.S. It made stars of Calvert, Granger and Mason, who was appalled to learn that female audiences found his beating his mistress sexy. Even worse, he and the others were stuck in similar films like Fanny by Gaslight (1944 — Mason, Calvert and Granger), The Wicked Lady (1945 — Mason and Lockwood) and Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945 — Calvert and Granger) for the duration of their Rank contracts.
On its initial release The Man in Grey only won praise for its visual elements — particularly Arthur Crabtree’s chiaroscuro camera work and Walter W. Murton’s period sets — and the star presence of its four leading players.
The genre faded away in the post-war years. Gainsborough’s last period melodrama, Jassy (1947), was the first in the genre shot in Technicolor and did well at the box office, but new management decided to move into other types of film. The studio ceased to operate in 1951. More recent critics have reevaluated films like The Man in Grey, praising them for their creation of a fantasy view of the past, their subtle commentary on class distinctions and their representation of female desire. Moreover, the films are valued for the ways they sought to appeal to working class female audiences.
Morley, Sheridan. James Mason: Odd Man Out.
Williams, Tony. Structures of Desire: British Cinema, 1939-1955.