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A partly fictionalized account of history begins with the arrival of slatternly Emma Hart, a cook's daughter, at the home of Charles Greville. Greville takes her as his lover and grooms her until their relationship becomes an inconvenience. Greville then dupes Emma into traveling to Naples to live with his uncle, Lord Hamilton, ambassador to the court at Naples. Realizing that Greville has abandoned her, Emma agrees to marry Lord Hamilton. Soon, however, she meets Admiral Horatio Nelson of the British Navy. Emma plays a crucial role in convincing Naples to open its ports to Nelson during his campaign against Napoleon's French fleet. Soon, Emma and the married Nelson become romantically involved -- a relationship which will have consequences for them both. Written by
Shannon Patrick Sullivan <email@example.com>
The affair between Admiral Nelson and Lady Hamilton was a phenomenal scandal in its day, and one that was inevitably blamed more upon the lady than the gentleman party. A 1941 picture starring Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh, flippantly titled That Hamilton Woman, would portray her as the brazen hussy who later descended into alcoholism. In 1929 however she is The Divine Lady, in a tale of pure love and burning passion. Here we see Lady Hamilton as the tragic heroine trapped by circumstance and loveless marriage, and Nelson remembered not as the philanderer or stately officer but as the bold sea captain with whom a woman could fall perilously in love.
The Divine Lady was directed by Frank Lloyd, a sadly forgotten name, but possibly the foremost filmmaker in Hollywood from the mid-20s to the mid-30s. He gives the movie a gorgeously relaxed pace and conjures up some achingly romantic images, such as Corinne Griffith's hand slipping out of Victor Varconi's as his ship pulls away, or Griffith flicking the flower across her lips in anticipation of Varconi's kiss. Lloyd would often use movement independent from the camera to heighten the emotional impact of a scene, for example Nelson's boat pulling away as the camera, from Hamilton's point of view, remains static. And much of the story is seen from her perspective, something few male directors are bold enough to do. There are a lot of glances cast directly at the camera, putting us in the position of people facing each other. The lovers' tearful farewell however, with Griffith at the harp, sees them both at opposite sides of the room, both facing outwards. We cut between their faces but know they are not looking into each others' eyes, and the sense of separation is palpable.
Corinne Griffith was considered a great beauty and a popular star in the late 1920s. She is not bad here but neither is she exceptional, being rather hammy and childish in her movements. Her whimpering in the first scene is just a little bit Stan Laurel, and in any case she is upstaged by an exuberant Marie Dressler. Griffith is at her best in the slower, more tender moments, showing off such delicate gestures as the little curl of her finger as she kisses Nelson's sword. Opposite her, we have a great opportunity to see Victor Varconi in a positive lead role. With his handsome yet somewhat pointy features he was often cast as a sinister villain, but he had a heroic bearing, and as The Divine Lady proves he can play sensitive as well. He is very much in the mould of a fairytale prince, much better than many of the moustachioed twerps that passed for lead men in the silent era. The Divine Lady is something of a late-silent era character actor bonanza, and as well as the aforementioned Ms Dressler you can also look out for fine appearances by H.B. Warner, Ian Keith and Montagu Love.
For his efforts on this movie, Frank Lloyd was the recipient of the second Academy Award for best director. This has lead to some grumbling among some film scholars both professional and amateur, not because Lloyd won over some supposedly more worthy candidate, but because Lloyd has never been blessed or even really considered by the auteur theorists and perhaps, I think, because some people will bash the Academy whatever it decides. But his work, on The Divine Lady in particular, deserves a closer look. This is a movie that has all the searing romantic beauty of Greta Garbo's greatest silent pictures. Corinne Griffith does not have anything like the acting talent or the alluring mystique of Garbo the effect is all in Mr Lloyd's careful eye, in his captivating images that bring to mind the Emma Hamilton as charmingly painted by George Romney, and sweep us into this tragic love story of a bygone age.
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