Monday, April 29, 2013

That Hamilton Woman (Korda/United Artists, 1941)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was That Hamilton Woman, a recent recording from Turner Classic Movies’ “Star of the Month” tribute to Laurence Olivier and Olivier’s third and last film with his second wife, actress Vivien Leigh. It was made in 1941, but sources differ as to exactly where it was shot — lists the location as producer-director Alexander Korda’s studio in Denham, England, while TCM host Robert Osborne says it was filmed in Hollywood (which was believable because when Winston Churchill became prime minister he closed down the British film industry altogether for two years on the ground that it was wasting strategic materials needed for war production; later he relented, possibly inspired by the example of the U.S.-made but British-set war film Mrs. Miniver, which he publicly declared was “propaganda worth a thousand battleships”). It is known that when the film was made Olivier had already enlisted in the Royal Air Force and Churchill personally authorized his being put on leave to play Lord Horatio Nelson in this film (later Olivier washed out of the RAF because his poor eyesight made him a lousy pilot). It’s a rather awkward movie but also a quite stirring one even though the junctures between the two plot lines — Nelson’s heroic service to the Crown in the war against Napoleon’s France, and the scandalous love affair between him and Lady Emma Hamilton (Vivien Leigh) — often jar, and let’s face, under the watchful eyes of the British Board of Film Censors and the U.S. Production Code Administration, it was almost insuperably difficult to do a drama about an adulterous affair from any position of emotional and dramatic honesty.

One curious thing about That Hamilton Woman is how severely Vivien Leigh had already been “typed” — after her star-making turn in Gone with the Wind, in which she played the female lead in a doomed romance set against the backdrop of a major war, she was assigned to the 1940 Waterloo Bridge, in which she played the female lead in a doomed romance set against the backdrop of a major war, and now here she was again playing the female lead in a doomed romance set against the backdrop of a major war. What’s more, Emma Hamilton’s character arc as depicted in the script by Walter Reisch and R. C. Sherriff is quite similar to Scarlett O’Hara’s: she begins as a flirtatious flibbertigibbet but soon decides to use her charms to advance her country’s war effort, and by the end of the film she’s an heroic and ultimately a tragic figure. The film actually opens with Emma homeless and living a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Paris (adding irony to the insult: not only did she lose all her money and social standing after Nelson was killed at Trafalgar but she ended up in the country that was the enemy Nelson fought so bravely!), getting busted for stealing a wine bottle from a tavern and being put in a cell with a prostitute who, as luck (or authorial fiat) would have it, is also British, which means that Lady Hamilton can narrate her whole story in English. (The opening scene is actually in French — a rarity in U.S. or British movies set in France — but it quickly switches to a spectacular scene of Leigh chewing out the cops arresting her in English, and them responding in kind.)

She recalls how she was first engaged to the nephew of Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray), the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples (remember this was well before either Italy or Germany became unified countries!), and when the nephew wrote her a letter jilting her Sir William offered to marry her himself, less out of love than out of his collectors’ instinct: he’s assembled a major collection of classical and medieval art and both she and we get the distinct impression he considers her just another bauble in his collection. It’s already been established that she started out poor and had a succession of affairs with rich men that gave her at least a toe-hold in society — early on Sir William says that he’ll give her all the perks of marriage to a nobleman except a presentation at court (though later she gets that one, too). Emma and her mother, Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon (Sara Allgood), live a superficial existence at the ambassador’s villa, but Emma befriends the Queen of Naples and, when Nelson shows up and it’s love (or at least lust) at first sight between them, he needs 10,000 Neapolitan soldiers to bolster the forces of the Brits battling Napoleon. Sir William can’t get a meeting with the King in time for the reinforcements to do Nelson any good, but his wife can: she gets the Queen to introduce him to the King, and the King signs the order sending his forces into battle as Nelson’s allies. The film tells the story of Nelson’s various triumphs in Italy and Egypt, for which he’s given medals and honors by the British government, but his warnings that there can be no lasting peace in Europe while Napoleon is still in power and the only way to deal with dictators is to defeat them utterly are ignored. During these speeches the 1801 = 1941 parallel the writers were going for is really hammered home with anti-dramatic obviousness — ironically writers like Howard W. Koch at Warner Bros. in the U.S. in films like The Sea Hawk were making these points a good deal more subtly — and at times Olivier sounds like Winston Churchill in a period costume and a hotter bod. According to a “trivia” poster on, the reason these speeches sound like Churchill wrote them is because he did; supposedly he actually composed two speeches for Nelson that got inserted into the script by Korda.

The film goes on like this for more than two hours of running time, with Nelson alternately romancing Lady Hamilton and getting impatient with the British government putting him on display in elaborate parades when he’d rather be off fighting Napoleon. When Sir William Hamilton dies, Nelson buys Emma a house of her own and pays her bills while still remaining married to his wife Frances (Gladys Cooper), who doesn’t love him anymore but won’t divorce him, and they’re reasonably happy until Napoleon breaks the fragile peace treaty the Brits had signed with him (the script’s parallels to Chamberlain, Hitler and Munich really get forced and too blatantly obvious to serve the propagandistic intent) and Nelson has to go to Trafalgar to confront the recently rebuilt French navy, bolstered by the Spanish one. (Napoleon had occupied Spain and requisitioned its ships; in World War II Churchill was so fearful that the same thing would happen with the French navy — that its ships would be commandeered by Hitler and bolster the German naval forces — that he laid plans for an attack that would sink the French ships, though in the end most of the French ships were either sunk by the French themselves or sailed to French colonial ports that were outside German control.) Alas, for someone so savvy in many things, Emma Hamilton proves too utterly naïve in matters of finance for her own good: she’s already let her late husband’s fortune get away (his heir is the scapegrace nephew that deserted her at the start of the film!) and Nelson’s attempts to provide for her are broken by his family and the British government, and in keeping with the careful romanticization of the whole piece Emma, back in the French jail she was in at the start of the film, refuses to say just how she fell so far so fast. “There is no ‘then,’ there is no ‘after,’” she tells the English whore she’s talking to, and the film fades out.

That Hamilton Woman — released in the U.K. with the less blatantly scandal-mongering title Lady Hamilton (on the assumption that British moviegoers would know who Lady Hamilton was but U.S. ones wouldn’t) — is a curious mixture of romantic drama and war movie that doesn’t really come off as either; though Laurence Olivier had responded well to directors like William Wyler in Wuthering Heights and Alfred Hitchcock in Rebecca who toned down his stage-bound affectations and got him to act more subtly for film (indeed Hitchcock did such a good job at this that producer David O. Selznick sent him memos saying Olivier was being too understated!), Alexander Korda either couldn’t or wouldn’t exert the same control, and as a result Olivier’s performance as Nelson comes off as strong but also way too overwrought for the film medium, the sort of thing that would work if he were acting it this way on stage but is just “too much” for the cameras. Korda reportedly cast Olivier and Leigh because he saw an obvious parallel between the Nelson/Hamilton relationship and the actors’ own: they too had both fallen in love with each other while already married to other people, and had had to go through messy divorces in order to get together. (They had just married when That Hamilton Woman was filmed, and while they would work together again on stage — notably when Olivier directed Leigh in the 1950 British premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, a sort of warm-up for her part in the film a year later — they would never again make a movie together. Their plans to follow up his film of Richard III with a Macbeth with them as the Macbeths fell apart when Korda died in 1956 and no other producer was willing to take up the project.) That Hamilton Woman is a good movie — the behind-the-camera talent includes Rudolph Maté as the cinematographer and Miklós Rósza contributing a musical score overwrought even by his standards — but it falls just short of the greatness at which it was obviously aiming, mainly because the story seems contrived and the junctures between Nelson in love and Nelson at war clash instead of adding to the story’s depth.