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Three gems recovered from a forgotten English studio

By Dave Kehr
New York Times

There are three great brands in the British cinema, each associated with a specific product line: Ealing comedies, Hammer horror films and Gainsborough melodramas.

The Ealing comedies, like Robert Hamer’s “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949) and Alexander Mackendrick’s “Man in the White Suit” (1951), have long been critical and popular favorites on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Hammer horrors, with their juiced-up, living-color reinterpretations of classic horror themes in Terence Fisher’s “Curse of Frankenstein” (1957) and Freddie Francis’ “Dracula Has Risen From the Grave” (1968), were resisted by the cultural gatekeepers but have found legions of fans.

The Gainsborough melodramas – a series of lurid bodice rippers, mostly derived from popular novels, that began during World War II and continued until the dissolution of the studio in 1949 – have largely been forgotten outside their home country and never enjoyed much in the way of critical support at home or abroad.

But for audiences battered by the day-to-day hardships of life during wartime and, later, the harsh deprivations of a hard-earned victory that ultimately didn’t feel like one, the Gainsborough films provided escape and a symbolic resolution of social tensions. Seen today, they are tremendously entertaining: witty, perverse and gleefully malevolent.

A new boxed set from the Criterion Collection’s no-frills Eclipse Series, “Three Wicked Melodramas From Gainsborough Pictures,” offers a well-chosen sampling of the studio’s output:

• Leslie Arliss’ “The Man in Grey” (1943) set the pattern for the Gainsborough melodramas and made a star of the intense, insolent young James Mason.

• Arthur Crabtree’s “Madonna of the Seven Moons” (1945) features Phyllis Calvert in a dual role.

• Arliss’ “Wicked Lady” (1945) is perhaps the apotheosis of the Gainsborough style, with Margaret Lockwood as a 17th century adventuress who takes up highway robbery for fun and profit.

Lockwood is probably best known to U.S. audiences as the perky Englishwoman abroad in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” (1938), a Gainsborough production.

But with her dark beauty straight out of romantic fiction – raven-hued tresses and emerald-green eyes, or so the screenplays frequently assert – she became Gainsborough’s resident bad girl, a role she establishes with absolute authority when, as the lowly born but ambitious Hesther Shaw, she sweeps into the Regency setting of “The Man in Grey” like a lowering thundercloud, ready to unleash her fury.

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