“The anguish of humiliation”: The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Everard: “When you smile at me, you’re as guileless and innocent as a child.”
Leslie: “That’s why I smile at you.”
(Laurence Olivier as Everard and Merle Oberon as Leslie in The Divorce of Lady X)

Lord Steele to Leslie: “What made you play the woman with a past?… The danger is that when the costume falls off, the young man may look at you and wonder what on earth he saw in such an innocent slip of a girl.”
(Morton Selten as Leslie’s grandfather, Lord Steele)


Released on 15 January 1938, Alexander Korda’s production The Divorce of Lady X was based on a play by Gilbert Wakefield, Counsel’s Opinion, which had first been filmed in 1933 under its original title. That film (now believed lost) had starred Binnie Barnes, who was to play the role of Lady Mere in the remake, as the heroine, Leslie; and was directed by the Hollywood pioneer, Allan Dwan, one of three films he made in England in the early 1930s, the first of which, Her First Affair (1932), had featured the screen debut of the fourteen-year-old Ida Lupino. When Korda decided on a remake, he probably calculated that he had three major assets to exploit: a glamorous leading lady who was already a Hollywood star, Merle Oberon (and whom he was to marry in 1939); two of the rising stars of the Old Vic stage, who were also making a career in films, Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson; and Technicolor. At that time, it was more usual to reserve Technicolor for action films, but it justifies its deployment here, at the very least, for the sight of Laurence Olivier’s orange pyjamas and for the startling transition at the beginning when Olivier steps out of a foggy night in London town and into the lobby of the Royal Park Hotel that is positively ablaze with light and colour coming from a Fancy Dress Ball. The film’s cameraman, Harry Stradling, was to become one of Hollywood’s ablest and to win Oscars for his colour cinematography for The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945) and My Fair Lady (1964).

Genteel screwball

When it opened in the USA, the trade magazine Variety greeted it as a “rich smart entertainment”, attributing much of the film’s sparkle to the uncredited contribution of the American screenwriter and playwright, Robert Sherwood, who had added a welcome comedy sting to the material. The magazine’s enthusiasm for the film was possibly enhanced by its recognition of elements of the screwball comedies that were flourishing in Hollywood at that time. Although it hardly possesses the kind of manic zest and panache that directors such as Frank Capra, Howard Hawks and Leo McCarey were bringing to the genre, in its genteel fashion The Divorce of Lady X contained some of the same ingredients of character, setting and situation: high society, divorce, mistaken identity, women giving no quarter in the battle of the sexes, heroes exposed to ridicule, irresolute or ambivalent endings. All these were often observed by a disgruntled array of underlings, ranging from waiters to butlers, receptionists to shop managers. In the Hollywood comedies such roles were taken by the likes of Eric Blore, Franklin Pangborn and Edward Everett Horton. Their equivalents here are the expressive performances of H. B. Hallam as Lord Steele’s butler, so used to his Lordship’s cantankerous temperament that threats of the sack are accepted as morning greetings rather than ominous warnings; and Gus McNaughton as the hotel’s room service waiter, so constantly bewildered by whom he is supposed to be serving breakfast in Everard’s bedroom, that he finally dispenses with the customary courtesies of “Sir” or “Madam” and just announces: “It’s ready”. Coincidentally the humour around the ownership of a pair of pyjamas is also to occur in the opening of Ernst Lubitsch’s film of the same year, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. Although influence is unlikely, Korda’s screenwriter, Lajos Biro, would most probably have known his Lubitsch: he had sold his play The Czarine to Lubitsch back in 1924. Again, although influence is highly unlikely, it is intriguing how Divorce of Lady X anticipates some features of one of the greatest of all screwball comedies, Preston Sturges’ The Lady Eve (1942): the hapless hero still in love with a duplicitous heroine with a scandalous past that is more imaginary than real, but who manipulates, humiliates and deceives him so comprehensively that he resolves to escape not simply from her but from the world. In both, reconciliation of a kind will be achieved aboard an ocean liner.

The performances

At that time under contract to Sam Goldwyn but on loan to Alexander Korda’s London Pictures, Merle Oberon could report back to Goldwyn that Divorce of Lady X was “the real Mccoy” and that “at last the girl had a chance to look ravishing with divine clothes.” Later she was to report that the film “is quite good” and the colour “excellent”. It came after the ill-fated attempt to film Robert Graves’ I Claudius (1937). This had been cancelled after Oberon, who was cast as Claudius’s wife, had been injured in a serious road accident. In Divorce of Lady X, she gives an attractive performance in a relatively undemanding role and is appropriately the subject of the film’s most lingering luminous close-ups, which cleverly add to the irony, for they are mainly directed at Olivier’s divorce lawyer, who prides himself, because of his profession, on being able to know what lies behind “those dear deceiving lips” but is to be complexly dazzled by Leslie’s deceptive appearance and manner.

Olivier was to be bewitched by Oberon the following year, playing Heathcliff to Oberon’s Cathy in William Wyler’s celebrated film of Wuthering Heights (1939), and it is curious that the well-documented feud between the two leading actors on that film seems not to have happened when they were filming Divorce. Perhaps he had not taken much notice of her and was not then so aggrieved that she had secured the role of Cathy over his preferred choice, for obvious reasons, of Vivien Leigh. At this early stage of Olivier’s film career, and particularly through the way he often seems to rattle through his dialogue at breakneck speed as if it were slightly beneath his dignity, one sometimes gets the impression of someone casting pearls before swine. (If this were the case, he was to be subsequently disabused of this notion by the rigorous perfectionism of Wyler, a peerless director of actors whom Olivier was to acknowledge as the man who more than any other taught him how to act for the screen.) In a funny way this pomposity of Olivier towards the screen and his slight awkwardness before the camera fit the character of Everard Logan very well, for he is to find his complacency and composure blown off course by unexpected romantic feelings and farcical consequences. Olivier is very adroit with bits of comic business: pulling out random pieces of paper and documents from a drawer in an endeavour to persuade an unwelcome client that he is very busy; hiding behind a pair of spectacles to persuade a witness that he is not the man she saw coming out of Lady Mere’s hotel room at a compromisingly late hour (he was not and in any case, the person he has fallen for is not the real Lady Mere): even vaulting over a sofa at one point in his eagerness to see Leslie before she leaves. Along with his General Burgoyne in the 1959 film version of George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple (the section directed by Alexander Mackendrick before he was fired), this is perhaps his most enjoyable comedy performance on screen. Yet there is one close-up of him towards the end, when Everard realizes that he has been taken in by Leslie’s masquerade and that Lord and Lady Mere are laughing at him, that is powerful enough to give one pause. It carries the hurt and anger of someone who at that moment feels so keenly the ”anguish of humiliation” (a phrase used earlier by Lord Mere to denote how a deceived husband must feel) that his only course of action, as he sees it, is to depart from the room, and then his office, and then from society altogether.

If the early scenes between Olivier and Merle Oberon tend to drag a little, things perk up when Ralph Richardson’s Lord Mere shows up in Everard’s office, seeking his services so he can divorce Lady Mere for infidelity. As anyone who has seen Richardson’s performances in later films like Carol Reed’s Our Man in Havana (1960) and Richard Lester’s The Bed Sitting Room (1969) will recognize, few actors could excel him in projecting the outer edges of British eccentricity, and his Lord Mere is a step along the road to that inspired lunacy. My favourite section of the film occurs when he has seen Everard in his office to reassure him that his suspicions about his wife have been unfounded, and Everard, still labouring under the misapprehension that Leslie is Lady Mere, says: “Tell her from me that she’s the most awfully clever woman in the world.” Lord Mere is out of the door before the full import of that remark strikes him: why would Everard say a thing like that about his wife? (The implication is that his own perception of his wife is somewhat different.) Simply in his faltering walk from Everard’s office through the front door and out into the street, all the while juggling hat and umbrella, Richardson gives an absolute comedy masterclass in how to convey mental confusion through physical movement. Later thrown out of his living quarters by his wife, he will progress to his gentlemen’s club where he will he spend the entire evening imbibing regularly and audibly musing on Everard’s remark, on woman’s perfidy, and on Eden (not the politician, he tells the club’s puzzled drinks steward, but the Garden, from which all man’s troubles have derived). Later, accompanied over the soundtrack by what composer Miklos Rozsa called a “jolly little tune on the bassoon”, Lord Mere will attempt to walk home, and Richardson will perform a tipsy-turvy lurch along the high street that is a classic mime of comic inebriation. Watching it I was reminded of that priceless incident in Richardson’s own life when, stopped by the police as he was walking in a suspicious manner along the gutter of a street in Oxford, he explained that he was taking his pet mouse for a stroll.

Strength in depth

As well as enjoying the opportunity to compose a jolly bassoon melody for Lord Mere, Rozsa was pleased to compose what he described as “a lilting waltz theme for Merle Oberon.” He was more than a little chagrined when a review by the so-called doyen of English music critics of that time, Ernest Newman, thought his music to the film “largely unnecessary.” In his autobiography, Double Life, Rozsa, obviously wounded by the remark, commented ironically: “Encouraging words for a young composer.” I think Newman was wrong. Rozsa’s music performs a useful function in helping to maintain the film’s narrative impetus. Also (and at home among fellow Hungarians at Korda’s Denham studios), he has composed a nice piece for a night club scene featuring a small musical ensemble whose soloist regales the guests with a solo on the cimbalon, a traditional folk instrument rather like a zither (this is ten years before Cariol Reed’s discovery of Anton Karas’s zither-playing skills for The Third Man) probably most familiar to listeners through its use in Zoltan Kodaly’s Harry Janos Suite. At the outbreak of World War Two, when members of the Korda company moved to Hollywood to complete work on The Thief of Bagdad, Rozsa accompanied them and stayed on to become one of the most accomplished and celebrated of all film composers.

In some ways, one of the most remarkable features of The Divorce of Lady X, viewed in retrospect, is the quality in depth of its personnel, some of whom were destined to go on to make their mark in the industry. The film’s supervising editor William Hornbeck was to become the favoured editor of the great Hollywood director, George Stevens, editing such masterpieces as Shane (1953) and Giant (1956) and winning an Oscar for A Place in the Sun (1951). The camera operator Jack Hildyard developed into one of the most respected cinematographers of the British cinema and won an Oscar for his work on The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). There is a small part for the actor Michael Rennie (described as ‘greeter in club’) who was to have a successful career in Hollywood and is probably best remembered by cinemagoers as the investigator on the trail of James Mason’s spy in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s Five Fingers (1952). Everard’s junior clerk, who is mesmerized by the arrival of two ladies in the office to see Everard and each claiming to be Lady Mere, is humorously played by the then child actor Lewis Gilbert, who, after the war, would become one of the most prolific and successful British directors. The popular British actress Patricia Roc made her screen debut in this film as a beautician. The part is a small one, but the scene is important, for Leslie and Lady Mere are conspiring to pull Everard Logan down from his pompous perch, and the scene closes meaningfully on a close-up of the women’s toenails being painted.

Leslie’s challenge

For Leslie painted toenails are not a fashionable embellishment; she is making a consciously symbolic statement of defiance. She has been in the courtroom when before the judge (Leslie’s grandfather, Lord Steele), Everard has launched his verbal assault on modern womanhood, in which painted toenails are seen by him as evidence of woman’s essential frivolity and triviality. Delivered by Olivier in his most majestic and authoritative vein, the speech is too long (and outrageous) to quote in full, but the following extract will suffice to explain why Leslie is so provoked:

Modern woman has discovered womanhood and refuses man’s obligation. She demands freedom but won’t accept responsibility. She insists upon time to develop her personality and spends it on cogitating on which part of her body to paint next. By independence she means idleness. By equality she means carrying on like Catherine the Great […] Modern woman has no loyalty, decency or justice, no endurance, reticence or self-control. No affection, fine feelings or mercy. In short, she is unprincipled, relentless […]

Everything in the film has led up to, and will follow from, this pronouncement and is the challenge that Leslie, as a modern woman, will face. Her grandfather (endearingly played by Milton Serle, a fine character actor who was rumoured to be the illegitimate son of King Edward VII) might later have sincere concerns for Leslie’s romantic hopes when Everard finds out about her act as a multi-divorced woman: what if he prefers the performance to the truth? But that is an assignment for the future. The immediate priority is to bring this monster of misogyny to his senses. Nothing less than a complete comeuppance will do. She can eat his breakfast in his hotel room. Can she make him eat his words in the courtroom?

Yes, she can.

Neil Sinyard

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