The Divine Lady – 1929
Thanks to TCM’s “Silent Sunday,” every Monday afternoon is like Christmas morning. I fire up Tivo to find an alluring, brightly wrapped package and I tear into it. Sometimes, it’s an awesome toy, the very one I wanted and sometimes it’s a… sweater. Sweaters are just fine, and we all need sweaters, but they don’t make for the sexiest presents. Frank Lloyd’s The Divine Lady from 1929 is a really nice sweater, well constructed, kind of cozy, and not very exciting.
The plot is a basic and, I’m sure, not too accurate rehashing of the romance between the heroic Lord Horatio Nelson and the somewhat dubious Emma Hamilton. But the plot is a bit szhizophrenic. First, we’re introduced to Emma Hart, the low-born daughter of a cook. She’s spunky and sassy and carefree and I think, ah… we’re going to examine the role of the liberated 20’s era woman. But wait… the plot quickly shifts into more tawdry territory when we see Emma making out with the skeavy Honorable Charles Greville in a carriage on the way to Vauxhall. But Greville realizes that marrying will deprive of him of an inheritance from his uncle, Sir William Hamilton, England’s ambassador to Naples. Greville connives to pass Emma for his womanizing uncle’s amusement, on the theory that Emma will distract Sir William but he could never marry such a hussy. This turn of events feels familiar, reminding me D.W. Griffith’s earlier Way Down East, and settle in to watch the tragic downfall (and ultimate redemption) of a naive young woman engineered by a caddish sexual predator. Yet… as soon as Emma understand she’s been bartered and throws a hissy fit, Sir William assures her she brings joy and beauty to his life and he’s merely interested in chaste companionship, she agrees to be his wife. The audience is treated to some scenes of that very chaste domestic bliss and Emma is transformed into a fine lady and ambassadoress. Confused yet? We’ve only hit the halfway mark.
Enter Lord Horatio Nelson. He and Emma dance around falling in love, there’s a naval battle, Emma engages in some heroics, and then there’s a steamy sex scene complete with roses, an elbow kiss, and waves crashing against rocks. Engaged in full fledged adultery, Emma is rejected by royalty, Sir William proves to be not so understanding, and Emma and Horatio flee to the tranquility of the English country side. But, alas, duty calls and Horatio sails off, wins another naval battle, but is fatally wounded. As he shuffles off his mortal coil, he thinks of Emma (and that previously mentioned steamy sex scent). The end. Whew! That’s a lotta plot! I have no idea what kind of story this film is meant to be. A romance? A moral tale? An historical drama?
Despite the basket-case plot, The Divine Lady is well-made. The movie is a model of the craftsmanship of the late silent era, well versed in the vocabulary of visual story telling and deft in lighting, editing, and cinematography. As a matter of fact, the photography approaches the stunning in it’s lusciousness. First National Pictures did invest a small fortune into the visuals, but the box office was ultimately disappointing. The two naval battles are also marvels, shot in a realistic and complicated detail, and this movie may be worth watching for those scenes alone.
The other redeeming feature of this film is lead actress, Corinne Griffith. While the role does not offer much meat for an actress, Griffith plays the part with charm and engaging emotionality. Griffith’s best moments come at the beginning of the film when Emma is still a carefree and socially risqué young woman full of joie de vivre. Much like the technical and craft elements of the movie, she’s a sterling example of a late silent era screen goddess. Her large, luminous eyes and wide, expressive mouth are perfect for the medium, and she can convey with subtle gestures. The Divine Lady is one of her last films, as she’s one of the actresses who didn’t quite make the leap from silence to sound. Don’t fret though, because she’s not a Clara Bow type tragedy. Griffith went on to invest her movie earnings in real estate, marry several times, and live to ripe old age as a millionairess. Griffith may or may not have been nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her role (there’s some confusion in conflicting sources).
For me personally, the most interesting feature of The Divine Lady is the deployment of synchronized sound. The film is silent in that it includes no spoken dialogue, but falls into the category of silent-sound hybrid that becomes more common in these years. There are several musical backgrounds, portions of songs, and the original song “Lady Diving” is sung over the opening credits. T he musical backgrounds are not merely tacked on as afterthoughts, but work in conjunction with the plot. Emma’s singing is pivotal at several points in the plot and is indeed the key charm in her multiple seductions of the male characters. At the time, it was alleged that the singing voice actually belonged to Corinne Griffith, but this claim was met with doubt and is still an unresolved issue. At one point, Griffith is obviously mouthing the words to an entirely different song than the one the audience is hearing.
Perhaps more interesting than the musical interludes (a portent of the path that talkie technology was about to take?) is the use of sound effects to emphasize the action. This is also a common occurrence in films of these years, though it was never fully explored or developed as a technique before full-blown talkies hit the screen. The synchronized sound as sound effect technique is also employed unevenly in The Divine Lady, seeming to occur more often in the earlier parts of the movie and fading away as if everyone got tired of trying. A particular favorite moment of mine happens when Greville takes young Emma to Vauxhall. Leaving her unattended for a few moments, her irrepressible spirit moves her to sing along with the band, making a public spectacle of herself and embarrassing the socially sensitive Greville. Upon returning to the scene, he shouts, “Emma! Emma!” and his dialogue is emphasized with a heavy bow across a string instrument. It’s a delightful and surprising moment.
The director of The Divine Lady, Frank Lloyd, won an Oscar for Best Director for this film. Interesting to note, the movie was not nominated for Best Picture, marking one of the few times in Oscar history a Best Director award is doled out to a movie not even nominated for Best Picture. Llyod went on to wind two other Oscars, including one for Mutiny on the Bounty.
For more information and reviews of The Divine Lady visit the links below. Be warned, this movie was believed “lost” for many years and has only recently been discovered and restored. A lot of misinformation and errors appear in various sources due to the long time lack of information.