King Charles II first meets Nell Gwyn after seeing her do a turn at Drury Lane. They soon become close, the King preferring her feisty irreverent company to that of the aristocratic French ...
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King Charles II first meets Nell Gwyn after seeing her do a turn at Drury Lane. They soon become close, the King preferring her feisty irreverent company to that of the aristocratic French Duchess of Portsmouth. Nell becomes his most loyal subject, while ever-ready to take the Duchess down a peg. But the actress can never hope to be fully accepted by the King's circle despite his constant attentions. Written by
Jeremy Perkins <email@example.com>
In the wake of Alexander Korda's worldwide hit with 'The Private Life of Henry VIII', the hunt was on for rollicking stories about monarchs' love affairs. Herbert Wilcox had filmed King Charles II's dalliance with the orange seller and actress Nell Gwyn ten years before, as a silent starring Dorothy Gish. The tale was an old dramatic chestnut, partly because it was set in London's theatreland, Covent Garden: for instance, Claude Rains's debut as a boy actor had been in 'Nell of Old Drury'. Wilcox rushed his protege Anna Neagle into their fifth collaboration as Ms Gwynn, daughter of a jailbird father and drunken mother who was one of the first women to win fame on the stage-- when such ladies were seen as little better than prostitutes. (The new release 'Stage Beauty' gives the background.)
The future Dame Anna was still gamine and skittish, not yet the stately heroine of Wilcox's post-war 'London' movies. Born into poverty in the East End, she had been a chorine, and Wilcox gives her two long dance sequences. When she sings the song that first attracts the King, she is more like a music hall billtopper such as Marie Lloyd than a Restoration beauty. Nell's 'merry monarch', Cedric Hardwicke, who had won renown as an interpreter of Bernard Shaw, is accordingly stronger on cynical wit than passionate captivation; but he gives as good as he gets in their rollicking exchanges. Newly knighted, barely 40, Hardwicke gives the modest but not tatty production its touch of class.
The core of the narrative is Nell's rivalry with his French mistress, who accuses her of treachery. It unfolds between the Drury Lane Theatre, where Nell is in her performing element, and at the Court, where she is snubbed by disdainful aristos until Charles II ostentatiously bestows his favour on her. They remain together for almost 20 years and we do not see the downbeat end of the story: her slide into poverty, despite the King's deathbed injunction to his brother and successor: 'Let not poor Nelly starve'.
There is no sense of greater events beyond the intrigues, but the film is fairly true to the spirit if not the letter of history. Charles was unique among English kings in having lived an outlaw's and exile's life after his father's execution. He mingled with poor folk and sometimes had to disguise himself as one. None ever betrayed him for a reward. That may well have left him with a jaded view of the upper crust and a taste for rougher company.
Like most early-1930s talkies, the sound is tinny, with a lack of bass resonance in the music and dead spots between dialogue where the director could not be bothered to dub on background noises. Performances seem framed by an invisible proscenium arch-- Wilcox's camera-work was never as fluid as Korda's-- but the theatrical style of the West End cast works better than in most films of the period. After all, half the film is set backstage, and the other half is at a royal court never so ritual and artificial (or as licentious) as in the Restoration period. Charles II was contemporary with Louis XIV of Versailles and had to live life like a play.
Alas, Wilcox could not get wide distribution in the States. America had just set up the Hays Office to purge impurities from movies. 'Nell Gwynn' was suspect because she was not married to her Charles: an ahistorical scene showing a secret wedding had to be inserted. Anna's cleavage caused more trouble, ten years before Margaret Lockwood's in 'The Wicked Lady'. And the dialogue was too bawdy for the censors. Words such as 'trollop' and 'strumpet' and sexual innuendos flow freely. A maid calls the French rival a 'dirty, wicked, shameless, scheming foreign whore' and Nell answers: 'We must be fair to her. She can't help being foreign.'
All this was twenty years before Preminger was forbidden to use the word 'virgin' in 'The Moon is Blue'. It would be 1939 before Wilcox and Neagle got the call to Hollywood.
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