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Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon did two movies together within two
years. One is considered one of the great romantic films of all time,
and the movie that made Olivier a great movie star (and gave Oberon her
best performance role): WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The other is this film, made
in England a year earlier. THE DIVORCE OF LADY X is a romantic comedy
(as WUTHERING HEIGHTS is a romantic tragedy). Olivier is a lawyer,
Everard Logan, who is a dynamic barrister, but is also a total
misogynist. One night he checks into a hotel just ahead of a crowd of
people. It is a very foggy night (the type of pea soup fog that London
was known for up until a notorious "killer" fog in the 1950s), and the
crowd (who'd been attending a party in the hotel) need beds. The
management tries to get Logan to allow one or two socialite ladies to
sleep on a couch and a day bed in his rooms, but he refuses. But he has
not reckoned with Merle Oberon as Leslie Steele. The granddaughter of a
high court judge, she manages to get into Logan's rooms and manipulates
him to not only agree to her sleeping there, but appropriates his bed
(he goes onto the couch - much to his discomfort).
The next day they share a breakfast, and in the smalltalk it is evident that despite his mistrust of women Logan finds Leslie very attractive. But she kittenishly refuses to tell him her name. She is determined to learn more about him, and she finds his attitude toward women infuriating. In the meantime, Logan is approached by a wealthy nobleman (Ralph Richardson as Lord Mere) as a potential client. Mere suspects his wife Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) of having an affair. In fact, he tells Logan her Ladyship was with her lover in the hotel that Logan knows he was in on the night of the fog. Logan (naturally) jumps to the conclusion that Lady Mere was his mysterious roommate that night. I will not go into the plot any further, except to say that Leslie eventually realizes what a mistake Logan has made, and decides to use it to teach him a lesson about women.
The script has the feel of a Wodehouse novel, but is slighter. Still the performances of Olivier, Oberon, Richardson, Barnes, and Morton Selden (as Oberon's grandfather) are all splendid. It shows what a good cast can do with even the slightest of materials. Take a look at some of the minor scenes to see what I mean: Selden's first scene, complaining about his weak coffee to his butler/valet, who tells him off properly (they've been used to each other's personalities for years). Or Olivier dealing with a young clerk in his office, who is certain there were two Lady Meres in the office two minutes before (there were, but Oberon and Barnes left together), and ends up thinking the poor clerk is a simpleton. Or the waiter in the hotel who can't understand why the tenant in Olivier's room is constantly changing from a man to a woman to a man. As I said, a slight charming comedy - but it is very charming.
This short, unique and original screen-play proved no short of brilliant. It
has a simple and entertaining plot of charming but mischevious young Leslie
(known at first as Lady X) imposing herself on a foggy night on irritable
young masoganistic barrister Everard Logan. Logan declares that he is not in
the least bit stirred by her charms, however she finally ends up enjoying
his bed, pyjamas and breakfast whilst he has the mattress next door.
Ofcourse, being the eligible handsome typical thing that he is, he falls in
love with her and vows to arrange her divorce for her, (despite the fact she
has no husband!) Ralph Richardson as Lord Mere (Leslie's supposed husband)
and Binnie Barnes (the REAL Lady Mere)also help to put him in the light at
last. Hurt and irritated, Logan throws his affections for Leslie back in her
face and leaves. She goes after him, and naturally, they agree to the
marriage finally that Logan had always wanted, and Leslie finalises in
curing Logan of his haughtily sexist views.
Some say Laurence Olivier is out of his depth in this sort of a film, since in no way is this Hamlet or Harry V or any great feat of literature such as Wuthering Heights, and in no way is he a born comedian. But he gives it unmatched gusto and IS HE SARCASTIC!! His scenes with Merle Oberon, who plays the sweet little charmer of a Leslie are delightful. Oberon is adorable and could not have been better as Leslie.
It's been said before that Oberon and Olivier had a wonderful chemistry on screen, just as well as Leigh did in fact; however it could be argued so. They were just as contrastingly wonderful in Wuthering Heights, a classic film which I adore.
If you're in the mood of a short but sweet comedy, you couldn't ask for better than this. Fantastic!
Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Ralph Richardson, and Binnie Barnes
star in "The Divorce of Lady X," a 1938 comedy based on a play. Olivier
plays a young barrister, Everard Logan who allows Oberon to spend the
night in his hotel room, when the London fog is too dense for guests at
a costume ball to go home. The next day, a friend of his, Lord Mere
(Richardson), announces that his wife (Barnes) spent the night with
another man at the same hotel, and he wants to divorce her. Believing
the woman to be Oberon, Olivier panics. Oberon, who is single and the
granddaughter of a judge, pretends that she's the lady in question,
Lady Mere, when she's really Leslie Steele.
We've seen this plot or variations thereof dozens of time. With this cast, it's delightful. I mean, Richardson and Olivier? Olivier and Oberon, that great team in Wuthering Heights? Pretty special. Olivier is devastatingly handsome and does a great job with the comedy as he portrays the uptight, nervous barrister. Oberon gives her role the right light touch. She looks extremely young here, fuller in the face, with Jean Harlow eyebrows and a very different hairdo for her. She wears some beautiful street clothes, though her first gown looks like a birthday cake, and in one gown she tries on, with that hair-do, she's ready to play Snow White. Binnie Barnes is delightful as the real Lady Mere.
The color in this is a mess, and as others have mentioned, it could really use a restoration. Definitely worth seeing.
Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson who went on to knighthood as they
entered the primes of their respective career show a comic talent in
this film which in America would have been done by Cary Grant or
William Powell. Later on Rock Hudson, Doris Day, Tony Randall and/or
Gig Young would have played some of those parts in this film. In
America, Carole Lombard would have been in Merle Oberon's part at the
time this was made.
Olivier is one tired divorce attorney who checks into a hotel one night for a little sack time. The hotel is booked to the gills, but Merle Oberson fresh from a party at the establishment also needs a place to sleep. She guiles and charms her way into his room and heart. But Olivier inadvertently mistakes who she is and that's where the fun begins.
Ralph Richardson and Binnie Barnes lend good support as a battling titled Lord and his much married wife. Morton Selten does a nice turn as Oberon's grandfather. He's best known for Fire Over England as Lord Burleigh and Thief of Bagdad as the wise old king that Sabu expropriates the flying carpet from. The beard he sported in those parts is gone here.
Olivier stated many times that he didn't think too much of his film performances before Wuthering Heights. He credited Wiliam Wyler for teaching him the art of cinema as opposed to stage acting. But even second rate Olivier is better than 90% of other players.
This DIVORCE OF LADY X is the sort of film about misunderstandings
among the upper crust of society that American audiences usually
associate with someone like Norman Krasna, who wrote so many romantic
comedies where someone assumed a different identity to keep the
mistaken identity theme afloat for the duration of the plot. If I
hadn't known better, I would have suspected he had a hand in this
Here we have an early comedy from the U.K., courtesy of Alexander Korda, making use of three strip Technicolor--very low-key color apparently, at least judging from the rather poor Public Domain prints I've seen.
LAURENCE OLIVIER plays a barrister whose disdain for women is on a level with Professor Henry Higgins--he tolerates them until he falls in love with them. The joke here is that he is mistaken about the identity of MERLE OBERON, who gets even with him after finding out how rudely he treats women, by pretending to be the wife of RALPH RICHARDSON. He's hoodwinked by her until the very end when she realizes they share a mutual attraction.
It's amusing to watch Olivier and Oberon tackle these lightweight roles only a year before joining forces again for WUTHERING HEIGHTS. He has some very scathing comments to make about the opposite sex and plays his role with gusto. She's a bit more restrained in her role but together they show the kind of chemistry they would also get to display in the William Wyler film the following year.
This would have been more watchable if the color wasn't so badly in need of restoration.
Summing up: Amusing comedy of manners among British aristocracy.
P.S. - This is an update on my review of the film. Saw it today in brightly restored Technicolor which at least adds to the film's entertainment value, though the script is the main trouble. But TCM featured it in pristine condition in color that was extremely washed out and primitive looking before. It's now seen to advantage and adds a great deal of interest to viewing it as it was originally intended.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
English Shakesperean actor (Sir) Laurence Olivier wasn't very fond of
making films, however, his silver screen performances were so
impeccable and professional, you can swear he was born to do it.
THE DIVORCE OF LADY X is a delightful light comedy, elegantly conducted, though notably dated.
Due to a heavy fog, some people who are taking part in a Ball at a hotel are prevented from travelling and advised to spend the night there.
Logan, an irritable, handsome lawyer refuses to share his room with a couple of women, but is persuaded to let Leslie (played by beautiful Merle Oberon), a perky, charming lady, sleep at his room, after she daringly imposes herself on him.
Their first acquaintance is a bit turbulent, but they soon hit it off, although he thinks she is married, which results in a couple of embarrassing, deliciously funny situations.
Watch out for Ralph Richardson playing a small role.
Olivier and Oberon had an incredible chemistry on screen.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS is another marvellous film they did together.
If old-fashioned romantic comedies catch your fancy, don't miss this wonderful film.
My rating: 10 out of 10
I loved the dialogue above all - the sharp and witty banter between British 'icons' Olivier and Oberon, and even the playful back and forth between Morton Selten as Lord Steele and H.B. Hallam as his long-suffering butler, Jeffries. Binnie Barnes was also superb as Lady Mere; her accent might have slipped, but she definitely had the right attitude for her character! The use of colour was also a plus, particularly with the wonderful outfits. I think Merle Oberon would have done better without the continuous close-ups - though she did have a certain magnetism, she doesn't quite hold up to such inspection - and Olivier was definitely better suited to the stage: indeed, that is probably where he thought he was, judging by the delivery of some of his character's lines. The improbability of the story aside, 'The Divorce of Lady X' is a wry 'snapshot' of its era: gender, class, morality - even weather (it's very hard to believe that London had smog so bad that people were unable to travel, but it did happen).
A well-to-do London divorce lawyer thinks he is ruined because he has become
- unwittingly - a litigant in one of his future cases.
Hard to start this review without giving a bit of a history lesson. This old stage chestnut seemed to tickle the pre-war Britain audience and bringing it to the screen - pretty much as-is - was seen as a sure-thing.
You also have to remember that in those days divorce, hotel rooms and gay (in the original sense of the word) women where seen as racy. Indeed getting a divorce was beyond many a pocket as you had to prove adultery (or some other fault) in a court of law. Hence the tiptoeing private detective!
Great to see the triumvirate of Lawrence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and Merle Oberon about their craft. Especially in material that is more comedic than serious. All people worth learning about. Sadly the colour (nitrate) negative seems to have deteriorated (as it does!) and now has the look of a 8 mm home movie. While still watchable - in this form - some showings may revert to black and white.
Olivier was always best with some kind of humorous undercurrent. Here he is not yet at the top of his game - and was never any kind of Carry Grant when he was - but plays the confused lead with some gusto. Richardson remains an enigma - the "best Falstaff of all time" say some - but more personality than actor. He could only be variations on himself, although perfect in roles such as this: An upper-class gentleman's club bore. The mixed race Oberon (they always lit her face with strong light to disguise her Indian skin tint) actually has the nerve to twinkle and scene-steal. Hollywood soon took notice.
This isn't essential stuff unless you are a fan of the three principles or like British cinema-light. Olivier hadn't - at that time - totally mastered screen acting but was about to go in to his best work, which includes Wuthering Heights (which he was not true to the book - but very memorable) and Henry V (which is a breathtaking film).
This is a comedy of manners and maybe some of the comedy comes from the dated aspects of those manners.
An incredible little English film for so many reasons. First it's a rare look a Laurence Olivier in a light comedy. While his performance is not up the standard he would latter set as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, he is perfectly believable as the hoodwinked barrister. Historically this film is of great interest because of both where and when it was shoot. Being English it didn't have the big budget of the Hollywood films of the same era and it often shows, but more interesting is the fact this movie filmed just prior to the war and shows an England that would soon be gone. When we watch it today we think in terms of modern morality and over look the fact that this movie and its closest American counter part `It Happened One Night' were in their day as risqué as `Fatal Instinct' was in our time. But after watching and enjoying this movie the first time I can't help but feel sadness when I watch it today. With half of film shoot before 1950 gone, saving the remaining films means hard choices, and unfortunately films like this are often passed over to save movies that we all consider important. The color shifting, lack of contrast, and generally poor quality of the print most often seen is heartbreaking. This movie along with `It Happened One Night' are perfect to curl up with a love one under a blanket on cool a cool evening and watch, or better yet why not a double feature.
I have become quite fond of Laurence Olivier in the past few weeks, and
thrilled when I discovered this gem. I have always found it wonderful when
run across a film where I do not have to have my finger on the remote
control in case nudity rears its ugly head.
The Divorce of Lady X is charming till the final scene, and must have been a true delight for viewers back in 1938. I only wish people today could accept and love true humor instead of the horrid trash talk people now call funny.
The Divorce of Lady X is well worth anyone's time.
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