By the time Gainsborough Pictures released “Fanny by Gaslight” to most of the world in 1945, audiences had already seen at least two movies with “Fanny” in the title and several more with “Gaslight” in them, including the still-popular 1944 picture with Ingrid Bergman and Charles Boyer. Is there any reason to wonder why the studio chose to film Michael Sadleir’s novel of the same name? Yet that still didn’t explain why they released the film in the U.S. several years later under the title “Man of Evil,” except that initially the film wouldn’t pass U.S. film industry censorship because of its lurid, somewhat sensational content, and maybe they were trying to hide the fact. Anyway, despite a good cast that includes Phyllis Calvert, James Mason, and Stewart Granger and a good director, Anthony Asquith (“Pygmalion,” “The Winslow Boy,” “The Browning Version,” “The Importance of Being Earnest”), “Fanny by Gaslight” can become rather a chore to watch due to its slow, lugubrious pace. Still, if it’s Victorian melodrama you’re after, the movie does its best to fulfil your needs.
The story line probably couldn’t do justice to Sadlier’s 1940 novel about Victorian prostitution and such, but given the cinema guidelines of the day, it comes close. The narrative begins in 1870 and concerns the travails of a young woman named Fanny (played as a child by Ann Stephens and as a young adult by Phyllis Calvert), who lives with her parents, the Hopwoods (John Laurie and Nora Swinburne). As the movie opens, young Fanny and her girlfriend Lucy (Gloria Sydney as a child and Jean Kent as a young adult) are playing in the street in front of Fanny’s father’s business, a bawdyhouse or brothel called Hopwood Shades. The establishment’s handyman, Chunks (Wilfrid Lawson), warns her to stay out of the place.
The next thing we know, ten years go by, it’s 1880, and Fanny is nineteen years old. Just after her inquisitive youthful visit to the brothel, her parents sent her away to boarding school to distance her from the wrong kind of environment, and when she returns, poor, sweet, innocent Fanny still doesn’t know what her parents are up to. In any case, a penniless, arrogant, supercilious snake of an English aristocrat, Lord Manderstoke (James Mason), enters the scene, scuffles with Fanny’s father, and accidently knocks him under a passing horse and carriage. Fanny’s father dies, leaving Fanny and her sick mother with nothing because the police decide to close up the family business downstairs.
So, what’s a poor girl to do? Well, the mother sends her off to an acquaintance to take care of her, the “acquaintance” a very rich cabinet minister named Clive Seymour (Stuart Lindsell), who lives in a big house downtown. It turns out, Seymour is actually Fanny’s father, who had the child out of wedlock, needed to avoid the scandal of an illegitimate daughter, and so arranged for the Hopwoods to care for her as their own. Now, Seymour welcomes Fanny back into his life, and the two of them grow closer. In fact, he would like to announce to the world that she’s his daughter, but he knows the ensuing publicity would ruin his political career.
Enter handsome young Harry Somerford (Stewart Granger), Seymour’s private secretary and best friend. Of course, Harry and Fanny fall in love. From there on, and this is only the beginning of the intrigue, we get more complications in the form of Seymour’s wife’s affairs (taking the repellent Lord Manderstoke as her latest lover), then blackmail, suicide, duels, and death. You name it, this movie’s got it.
Now, don’t get me wrong: There’s much to like about the film. The acting is good from top to bottom; I particularly liked James Mason’s malignant Manderstoke, all filled with slithery contempt and disdain. Moreover, the movie’s sets and costumes are first-rate, even more elaborate than you might expect; and the cinematography is always captivating. It’s just that the story itself gets drippier and sudsier as it goes along, and the histrionics never stop, with one disaster following another and English class distinctions at the root of most of the issues.
“Fanny by Gaslight” never knows when to end, and when it does, you hardly notice. For afternoon soap-opera fans who want a bit of Victorian naughtiness thrown in, it might work. For me, it didn’t.
Although VCI digitally restored the original 1.37:1 ratio picture, it still looks as though they might have needed to do a bit more work on it. The black-and-white image is mostly clean, with a minimum of scratches, flecks, and other evidences of age damage. Contrasts, too, are mostly good, with bright whites and deep blacks; and definition is reasonably sharp. Nevertheless, the image is also slightly rough from a little grain and noise, plus occasional specks, lines, and fades. The result is that the PQ looks OK without being in the top echelon of B&W transfers.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 monaural soundtrack is noisier than we’ve heard from other VCI restorations lately. The background hiss, ticks, and pops are not really annoying once you get used to them, but they may be a distraction if one has to turn up the volume too high. Otherwise, we get a fairly crisp midrange, with easily understood dialogue but, naturally, almost no dynamic range or bass or treble extension.
There are virtually no “extras” involved beyond those we have come to expect on most DVD’s. There is an attractive main menu; twelve scene selections; English as the only spoken language; and
English subtitles. Nothing more.
“Fanny by Gaslight” is at once old fashioned yet boldly modern. It adheres to old-time tintype characters, characterizations, and actions while at the same time taking an enlightened stand against Puritanical mores and rigid class distinctions. As a movie, it’s an odd duck. However, it’s main problem is that it just plods along with no real forward impetus. I found it a long slog to finish.