When I think of wartime British cinema, I think about stiff upper lips and odes to endurance on the homefront, but Gainsborough Pictures created a very different on screen world in the mid-1940s. It was a world of finishing schools, absurd plot twists, scheming women and their heaving bosoms, mystical (stereotyped) gypsies, dashing cads, fops-a-plenty, doomed love, murder most foul, and transvestite highwaymen. Yes, that’s right, I said it was a world of doomed love, and it was a world in which beleaguered audience members were eager to lose themselves. Gainsborough Pictures became one of the UK’s dominant box office forces of the late war years, and their lurid melodramas rivaled even Hollywood’s star system for a brief period. This new boxed set from the Eclipse Series features three of the studio’s juiciest offerings.

Gainsborough’s run was kicked off in 1943 by “The Man in Grey,” a nineteenth-century period piece about a pure-hearted innocent named Clarissa (Phyllis Calvert) who befriends the sour-tempered new girl at their finishing school. Hesther (Margaret Lockwood) repays Clarissa’s unflinching kindness by betraying her at every possible opportunity, her boundless ambition overriding all other concerns once she sets her eyes on Clarissa’s new husband, the fabulously wealthy and fabulously cruel Lord Rohan (James Mason). Hesther builds a nest of lies so intricate and so shameless that the viewer can’t help but give her a grudging respect if not outright root for her: Hesther’s got chutzpah and Clarissa is ever-so-dull in her simple-minded (and patently misplaced) faith in human kindness.

The film was a smash and made an instant star out of newcomer Mason who didn’t take long to cultivate the aura of infinite bitchiness that would carry him through the rest of his career. Gainsborough used the movie as a template, but even the outrageous plot twists spawned by Lockwood’s pathological villainess paled in comparison to the sheer audacity of the second film in this set.

“Madonna of the Seven Moons” (1945) is … you know, I can’t tell you. You don’t want me to. You want to experience this movie for yourself and you do not want to know what happens ahead of time. Be satisfied with knowing that Calvert returns as a pure-hearted innocent named Maddalena and then… but no, I can say no more. Aside from.. WTF?

The seventeenth-century costume drama “The Wicked Lady” (1945) gave Lockwood a chance to raise her sociopathic game above the net by living up to the title and boy is she ready for the task. As Barbara Worth she once again plays the scheming so-called friend to an innocent dupe (Caroline, played by Patricia Roc). Before the first act is even complete, Barbara not only steals Caroline’s husband days before the wedding but actually convinces Caroline to serve as the maid of honor. That act of humiliation isn’t enough to satisfy Barbara’s raging megalomania, however. Instead of assuming her “proper” domestic duties, she decides it would be fun to pass the time by wearing a mask, faking a deep voice, and robbing passing stagecoaches, not because she needs the money, but just because they’re there. She falls in sort-of love (as much as she is capable) with a true highwayman (James Mason) who eventually learns that he is way, way out of his league with this crazy broad.

Barbara Worth is a character with few screen equivalents and Lockwood has tremendous fun wallowing in her brassy amorality. Whatever Barbara wants, Barbara gets, and she is capable of juggling a dizzying array of lies as well as committing just about any other transgression. Slap the hell out of a woman who dares to look at the man you’re having an affair with? You bet. Poison one of the servants? Of course. Strangle a kitten? If only there had been one available.

None of these films will wind up on a syllabus in a Film Language course. Though they are all competently filmed, the cinematography is mostly point-and-click and get it in the can. But with several game cast members (Lockwood and Mason being the stand-outs in this set) and writers who had no qualms about bidding adieu to old-fashioned British realism as well as narrative plausibility, it’s still very easy to see why these delusional, gloriously ludicrous films were huge hits. They’re still wildly entertaining exercises in bravura indulgence, proud of their excess, proud to be melodramas.

All of the films are presented in 1.33:1 and shot in B&W. AS is the case with Eclipse titles, these are not restored digital transfers, and the source prints vary in quality from mediocre to adequate. “The Man in Grey” has the most damage, with vertical scratches and a few missing frames along the way as well as a general soft quality to the image, but it’s certainly still more than passable. “Madonna” and “The Wicked Lady” are in somewhat better shape, though damage is still visible in both prints. All of the transfers are certainly strong enough to be enjoyed.

The Dolby Digital Mono audio tracks all have their occasional problems, often dropping out in quality at the same time the image evidences problems. But overall the mix is clear enough, if rather thin and reedy throughout. It’s solid enough, but you might need to use the English subtitles from time to time.

None, as is the norm for Criterion. Each of the films is stored separately in its own slim keepcase and all three cases are tucked into a thin cardboard sleeve.  Each case has helpful liner notes by Michael Koresky who clearly gets a kick out of these movies.

Set Value:
Gainsborough’s remarkable box office run would end soon after the war thanks both to a change in management and a shift in audience tastes. But this set provides with three examples of the films that helped British audiences pass the time during the war, and it’s good to know that for at least a few hours out of the week, they were having a blast. And man did Gainsborough ever give some talented actresses a chance to strut their stuff in headlining roles that really packed the house.

I enjoyed this set much, much more than I expected to. All three films are just darned fun to watch, and I was occasionally left slack-jawed by the audacity on display. As a fan of comic books, I couldn’t help but see some striking similarities in the operatic and overwrought narratives, and I love them for it. Don’t dismiss this set because of the word “melodrama.” These are some of the most entertaining movies you’ll see all year.