Today we reminisce about
Fanny by Gaslight (1944)
Directed by Anthony Asquith
Starring: Phyllis Calvert, James Mason, Stewart Granger
* Published specifically for The Stewart Granger Blogathon hosted by Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films *
London 1870. Two young girls, Fanny and Lucy, are playing in street when their ball falls down the dark flight of stairs in front of an establishment called Hopwood Shades. On a dare, Fanny goes to fetch the ball and also agrees to enter the basement-level dwelling to see what is going on inside. There she meets two fancily dressed women who say that they are actresses. It is not long before Fanny’s father comes and removes his daughter from the premises, not explaining why he was so angry to have found her there. Instead, he gives the girls money for candy and focuses the attention on celebrating Fanny’s 9th birthday. A little later on he tells Fanny’s mother about the incident and they both decide to send their only child away to a boarding school.
London 1880. A grown Fanny Hopwood (Phyllis Calvert) has arrived home just in time to celebrate her 19th birthday, having been away for the last ten years. Just as her celebration is about to start, Mr. Hopwood receives a visit from a friend who has brought with him an acquaintance of “trustworthy quality” who wishes to be admitted downstairs. The men go down the stairs and enter the lively atmosphere of Hopwood Shades which is revealed to be a nightclub/brothel. Everything seems to be going well until Lord Gerry Manderstoke (James Mason) arrives even though he has been banned from the premises for past lewd and drunken behaviour. He is promptly thrown out of the club but then instigates a street fight with Mr. Hopwood who is subsequently trampled to death by a coach. Fanny is witness to the tragic event.
Manderstoke is put on trial for murder and Hopwood Shades is closed down. Religious zealots picket in front of the Hopwood residence, condemning the actions of the Hopwood family and the nature of their business. The court also looks poorly upon Mr. Hopwood and nearly discredits Fanny’s testimony, almost assuring that Manderstoke will be let off with no penalty. It is decided by Fanny’s mother that the girl will go and live someplace where she can distance herself from the scandal and that she will take on her mother’s maiden name of Hooper.
The newly christened Fanny Hooper arrives in Belgrave Square, Belgravia (another district in London). There, she is reunited with politician Mr. Clive Seymore, a man that she had known in her childhood and who gave her a very special trinket for her 9th birthday. Seymore reveals himself to be her natural father, her mother and he having shared a love affair with plans to marry though things did not work out as hoped. He has been married for many years to a woman named Alicia but they have no children together and she is unaware of Fanny’s existence. Fanny will live in the Seymore household under the guise of being the maid’s niece and will aid the servants with the fine sewing. When Fanny meets the mistress of the house, Alicia immediately takes to her though only in a domestic capacity. After Alicia leaves on a trip, Seymore decides to take Fanny on an extended holiday where they can bond as father and daughter. They leave for the country and spend many happy moments together. Fanny even takes up watercolours, a hobby which affords her an impromptu meeting with a young man named Harry Somerford (Stewart Granger), Seymore’s private secretary. The two are interested in one another but Harry backs off after he sees Fanny and Seymore in an embrace, assuming that the two are lovers.
Seymore is called back to London on business while Fanny stays in the country. Alicia calls upon Fanny to act as her personal maid even though she was never meant to do such tasks. Out of respect for her father, Fanny agrees. She has a great deal of admiration for Alicia as her unspoken stepmother, even defending her when the other servants start gossiping about her numerous sexual liaisons, not believing them for a minute. However, she soon learns the truth and that Alicia’s current beau is none other than Manderstoke. Upon Seymore’s return, Alicia catches him and Fanny in what could be considered a compromising position. It is then that he reveals that Fanny is his daughter and that Alicia reveals that she wants him to divorce her with a hefty settlement so that she can marry the penniless Manderstoke. If he does not give in to her exact wishes, she threatens to expose the fact that he has an illegitimate child. The pressure becomes too much and Seymore commits suicide, leaving Fanny once again alone in the world.
What will happen to Fanny now that her parental figures are all deceased and she has seemingly no other family around? Will anything come of a possible romance with Harry Somerford?
Background & Thoughts
The screenplay for Fanny by Gaslight was adapted directly from author Michael Sadleir’s 1940 novel of the same name. Gainsborough Pictures bought the book rights rather quickly and were already in the pre-production casting stages in 1942 although it would take another two years to get the film made. Prostitution as a trade and lifestyle was more heavily detailed in the novel, something which was loosely translated to the screen. Nonetheless, American censors found the film to be distastefully in breach of the Hays Code and so they suppressed 17 minutes of the film upon its release in the United States. Having watched the film in its entirety, it is difficult to see what would have upset the censors back then.
Fanny by Gaslight is an excellent melodramatic film with some very satisfying romantic moments scattered throughout the story. The tone of the film bounces from being hopeful to tragic to inspiring and then back again. It does manage to keep your attention quite well and a large part of this is thanks to the terrific casting and high quality performances. I also found the dialogue to be very smart with the costumes and set designs being wonderfully detailed. An interesting bit of trivia is that Phyllis Calvert was passionate about period costuming so she undoubtedly ensured that everything was up to standard and accurate.
A big frustration I had with the story was the reluctance of Fanny to publicly reveal that Clive Seymore was her father. Harry’s family even had the idea of Fanny being a marked woman, likely due to the false gossip spreading throughout London that she and Clive were lovers. It seemed to me that if she came forward and was honest that she would be considered more favourably instead of having to live like a stowaway. The fact of the matter is that in 19th Century England, illegitimacy was considered one of the worst sins to commit. Even prostitution was better regarded and surprisingly the women selling themselves gained far more social advantages than the women who sired illegitimate children.
Unwed mothers and their infants were an affront to morality. They were spurned and ostracized both by the public relief and charitable institutions. … Even family and friends could not be depended on to offer comfort and aid. If a young woman became pregnant while still living at home, she was forced to leave in disgrace and move to an area where she was not known. She was scorned by family, friends, and employer alike.*
In actuality, the seldom-voiced truth was that in comparison to other occupations, prostitution was a leisured and profitable trade, by which women improved their circumstances, helped to educate siblings and often saved enough to open a shop or lodging house.**
Taking into account the terrible fate that befell countless illegitimate babies and children during the Victorian Era, Fanny was quite lucky all things considered. Her mother was married off to Mr. Hopwood by Clive’s father so Fanny grew up in a decent and loving home instead of being pawned off to a baby farm to die while her mother scraped along to try to make ends meet. After Fanny’s mother and step/adoptive father (whatever you want to call him) passed away, Clive had the notion of taking care of Fanny as best as he could. One of the things he mentioned to her was marrying her off to someone proper. In his heart, she was entitled to no different than a child he would have conceived in wedlock with Alicia. Unfortunately for Clive, he had no idea how damning it would be for Alicia to be publicly recognised as illegitimate and for him to incur a social death by trying to stand up for her rights. In the end, the pressure got too much for him and he took his own life, sparing him humiliation but doing absolutely nothing to improve the situation for Fanny. His paternal link had such a grave stigma that he could not even be honest after his death, mentioning nothing of Fanny in his will and only leaving her some bonds. Had she not had the help of Harry, she might not have been able to put those in a bank and invest them. One can see Clive’s act of suicide a selfish attempt to save his own name though it is clear to see that he did it to spare Fanny from being publicly exposed in a divorce settlement with Alicia.
* Source: Bastardy and Baby Farming in Victorian England by Dorothy L. Haller
I highly recommend that you read the entire article for purposes of enlightenment though I must warn you that several passages are quite disturbing. Another article that goes along with this theme is: The Victorian women forced to give up their babies.
** Source: Sex & Sexuality in the 19th Century by Jan Marsh
Stewart was known as “Jimmy” to family and friends, owing to his birth name James Stewart which he could not take on as a stage name for obvious reasons. He first started out acting on the stage, attaining quite a few important theatre roles as well bit roles in film that went uncredited, working steadily throughout the 1930’s. His participation in the allied efforts of World War II caused him to be absent from the scene for a couple of years but he was discharged in early 1942 due to a serious medical condition, allowing him to once again take up acting (a situation also experienced by his contemporary, Trevor Howard). It is around this time that Stewart was suggested for a role in The Man in Grey (1943) by former co-star Robert Donat. That same year he would also appear in The Lamp Still Burns, a dramatic film that was also used as propaganda for the war effort. When Stewart appeared in Fanny by Gaslight, he was still a relative newcomer in leading roles though his popularity was immediately felt.
His role in Fanny by Gaslight is more of a supporting one though in all honesty every role is just that aside from the title one which is played by Phyllis Calvert who is in nearly every scene. Stewart and Phyllis appeared in three other films together, The Man in Grey, Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) and The Magic Bow (1946), each time playing love interests. They had beautiful chemistry together and made a very convincing, respectable couple. I find that their most ambitious coupling was in Madonna of the Seven Moons as both actors played characters that were very removed from the usual mould of relationships with polite exchanges in period pieces. In fact, they were no less than explosive as hot-blooded lovers in a world of petty criminality. If you would like to explore their joint filmography, I would highly suggest saving Madonna for the last feature because Stewart and Phyllis’ passion in other pairings pale in comparison.
Phyllis & Stewart pictured in The Man in Grey (l) and The Magic Bow (r).
As for Stewart himself, it is easy to see why he proved to be such a beloved leading man. He had attractive, refined facial features that gave him dignified airs yet he still remained ever so slightly boyish, therefore making him both more attainable and more relatable. Oftentimes he ended up playing the good guy who almost took a backseat to the wants and needs of his romantic partner. Some could see this behaviour as boring and predictable but I find it rather charming; his love giving just the right amount of comfort. The role of Harry Somerford was certainly well-played by Stewart though admittedly there are moments when it feels as if he is not showing more emotion, in particular when he faces his family about their obstinate opinions. However, when one incorporates the “back story” details as I have mentioned above in the middle section of this feature, it is easier to understand his somewhat reserved behaviour.
It is interesting to note that Stewart was not appointed as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) like some of his peers including John Mills, Michael Redgrave, Ralph Richardson and Dirk Bogarde. Ironically enough, neither James Mason nor Claude Rains, amongst many others, were never knighted either.