When Britain was still in the throes of its fierce battle with Germany, Gainsborough Pictures did its bit for the war effort by making a string of extremely enjoyable costume dramas to divert audiences’ worries. The best were The Man in Grey (1943), The Wicked Lady (1945) and Fanny by Gaslight. The “Gainsborough Foursome” of Margaret Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, James Mason and Stewart Granger appeared in most of these, with only Lockwood missing from this acclaimed dramatisation of Michael Sadleir’s Victorian melodrama.
The director, Anthony Asquith (son of former Liberal Prime Minister Herbert), was affectionately known as “Puffin” and was from the old school of filmmakers. “Anthony Asquith was the most wonderful director,” Margaretta Scott recalls. “He was very gentle; he would ask you to do something and you might say, ‘I don’t think I can do that,’ and he would say ‘I’m so sorry, but I’m afraid you must.’ He was quite firm but with such charm.”
Asquith is in his element with the opulent and stylish Victorian settings utilised in Fanny by Gaslight. The film, set in the 1870s, is a reworking of the Cinderella story, with Fanny (Calvert) the illegitimate daughter of a cabinet minister, Clive Seymour (Stuart Lindsell). When her foster-father is killed by the horse of Lord Manderstoke (Mason) and her mother dies, she is sent to her real father’s home to become a servant. She knows nothing about her family background, but does discover that Manderstoke is having an affair with her father’s wife, Alicia (Scott).
When Alicia asks for a divorce, her husband is devastated and commits suicide. Having lost two fathers, Fanny finally gains something in the shape of her father’s lawyer, Harry Somerford (Granger), and they fall in love. But with Harry’s family opposed to any marriage, Fanny decides to banish herself from his presence. He tracks her down in Paris, but yet again Lord Manderstoke is about to intervene in Fanny’s life.
With James Mason suitably evil in the type of role for which he first made his name, and Phyllis Calvert charming as the misbegotten heroine who must surmount a hill of problems, Fanny by Gaslight is an unashamedly romantic delight. They definitely don’t make ’em like that anymore.
UK / Gainsborough / 1944 black and white
Director: Anthony Asquith
Writers: Doreen Montgomery, Aimée Stuart, based on the novel by Michael Sadleir
Cast: James Mason, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger, Wilfrid Lawson, Margaretta Scott, John Laurie, Jean Kent