Why Stars Stop Being Stars: Margaret Lockwood

January 29, 2020
In the second installment of Stephen Vagg’s series about film stars whose careers were wrecked due to cold streaks, he looks at British star Margaret Lockwood.

“Who?” I hear you ask.

Come on, you know… Margaret Lockwood.

Nope?

British film star? Heyday was in the 1930s and 1940s? Beauty mark on her cheek?

Well, if you haven’t heard of her, you should. She’s got two undoubted classics on her resume – The Lady Vanishes (1938) and The Wicked Lady (1945) – plus a lot of other great movies, like Bank Holiday (1938), Night Train to Munich (1940), The Man in Grey (1943) and Cast a Dark Shadow (1955).

And once upon a time she was a Very Big Deal.

Specifically, in 1946, British film exhibitors voted her the biggest female star in the country – and this was a time when local movies dominated the box office in Britain. Her most recent picture, The Wicked Lady (1945), had been a phenomenon, star vehicles were being constructed specifically for her, Hollywood was waving cheque books, her face was plastered all over fan magazines.

Within ten years her reputation was so bad that those very same exhibitors were hiding her name on movie posters and she was drummed out of features. It wasn’t due to scandal, or illness, or retirement – it was a cold streak of poor films which few other stars have endured.

What happened?

Let’s go back to the beginning…

Lockwood had a fairly quick rise to fame. Born in 1916 (in Karachi – she was a “Raj baby”), she started acting as a twelve-year-old and soon found herself in regular employment. She was spirited and extremely pretty – there  are always gigs going for teen girls who tick those boxes, then and now, even if the parts weren’t much: she usually played the star’s daughter or girlfriend, in films like Lorna Doone (1935), Midshipman Easy (1935) and The Beloved Vagabond (1936).

Here’s a clip from Midshipman Easy, Carol Reed’s first feature as director incidentally: https://www.silversirens.co.uk/film-clips/fortune-telling/

Things changed after Dr Syn (1937), in which Lockwood played a daughter and a girlfriend – leading to Ted Black of Gaumont-British, a leading studio of the day, to offer her a long term contract. Black was a big believer in Lockwood, and her parts rapidly grew in quality and stature. Her speciality was playing a bright young thing who got up to mischief, usually by accident rather than design, and she often got to drive the action (no more common for female leads then than it is now).

Alfred Hitchcock famously cast her in the lead of the The Lady Vanishes (1938) opposite Michael Redgrave and she’s terrific – bright, perky, plucky… a very engaging heroine with an “everyday girl” appeal. The film is magnificently entertaining – Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat wrote one of the best scripts Hitchcock ever used – and a great deal of its appeal is due to Lockwood. It’s a pity Hitchcock never used her again (he went to Hollywood not long after, and besides, she wasn’t blonde).

The whole film is in the public domain (apparently) if you haven’t seen it.

An even more significant professional relationship was with Carol Reed, who used Lockwood in a series of popular movies that helped make both their reputations: Bank Holiday (1938, terrific), Girl Must Live (1939, a delight), The Stars Look Down (1939) (a rare character part, interesting), Girl in the News (1940, not so hot), Night Train to Munich (1940, great fun).

Night Train to Munich is perhaps the best known of the Reed films (from another Launder/Gilliat script)… It’s in public domain, too.

But for me the best is A Girl Must Live.

The Lady Vanishes had attracted Hollywood interest, so Black sent Lockwood out to Los Angeles to appear in two movies, Susannah of the Mounties (1939) with Shirley Temple and Randolph Scott (as a mountie), and Rulers of the Sea (1939) with Douglas Fairbanks Jr. The parts were purely decorative, however (“girl” and “girl/daughter” respectively), and Lockwood returned to London shortly before World War Two broke out. Plans to star her in adaptations of Rob Roy and The Blue Lagoon were postponed, but she was kept busy in ingenue roles: the Reed movies, Quiet Wedding (1941), Alibi (1942), Dear Octopus (1943), etc. She turned down the female lead in Carol Reed’s adaptation of Kipps (1941) – something which seemed to cool the director’s enthusiasm for her: they never worked together again.

By 1943, Lockwood was probably a leading lady and “name” rather than a box office draw, but that all changed when she went to Gainsborough Pictures to make The Man in Grey (1943), the first of what became known as Gainsborough melodramas – bodice-ripping tales of lust, love and revenge, usually set in the Olden Days. The film had four leads – Lockwood (the best known member of the cast at the time), Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and James Mason. Lockwood played the “bad girl” who was friends with “good” Phyllis Calvert who is loved by good Stewart Granger but married to bad James Mason; Lockwood sleeps with Mason and arranges for Calvert to die, but then is beaten to death by Mason.

There were whips, off-screen slave uprisings, lust, duels, horse racing and art auctions – it was all done with intensity, conviction and flair and completely worked on its own trashy, melodramatic level (the director was Leslie Arliss but most give credit to producer Ted Black). Lockwood, a delightful ingenue in comedies and thrillers and competent actor in drama, turned out to be a superb villainess in melodrama, all flaring nostrils, heaving cleavage and intense stares – never one-dimensional (no matter what wickedness she committed, she never lost empathy), and full of energy and life… you can see why Calvert’s character was her friend, she’s simply more alive than any other girl in the movie. The film was a huge success, launching an entire sub-genre and turning its four leads into genuine stars.

Lockwood didn’t want to be typecast, so she continued to appear in other genres such as comedies (Give Us the Moon (1944)), musicals about copyright law (not making that up – it was called I’ll Be Your Sweetheart (1945) and it’s quite fun) and unscary ghost stories (A Place of One’s One (1945) with Mason). She also turned down a role in the second Gainsborough melodrama Fanny By Gaslight (1944, insane, marvellous), being replaced by Jean Kent, who became the studio’s back up Lockwood, playing villainess parts that Lockwood either turned down (or was unavailable to do) in Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945, insane, marvellous), Caravans (1946, insane, marvellous), and The Magic Bow (1946, more sensible, still good). Incidentally, Pat Roc became Gainsborough’s back up Phyllis Calvert, Dennis Price their back up James Mason, and Dermot Walsh and Michael Rennie their back up Stewart Grangers. None ever reached the status of the originals, proving that replacing stars is harder than it looks.

Lockwood returned to Gainsborough melodrama in Love Story (1944), playing a non-villainous terminally ill concert pianist who falls in love with a blind pilot (Granger) and bitch-slaps the pilot’s childhood sweetheart (Pat Roc) who wants to bang him. Like Man in Grey, it was (a) done with intensity, pace and complete conviction, (b) was critically dismissed, even by its stars (c) became a big hit, and (d) holds up surprisingly well today.

The trailer is here: https://www.videodetective.com/movies/love-story/678169

An even more spectacular success was The Wicked Lady (1945), where Lockwood starred as an aristocrat who steals her best friend’s (Pat Roc) fiancee, marries him for money, gets bored, turns to robbing coaches, sleeps with a highwayman (James Mason) who she then betrays when he cheats on her, poisons a housekeeper who discovers her secret, finds true love (Michael Rennie) only for said true love to fatally shoot her mid-robbery. It’s outrageous entertainment, one of the most purely fun British films of all time; there’s a serious subtext too – when Lockwood says “I’ve got brains and looks and personality. I want to use them instead of rotting inside this dull hole” it spoke to large segments of the female audience. If you only see one Gainsborough melodrama, this is the one to check out. Lockwood flares her nostrils, glares her eyes and dominates the screen – she truly took on a new dimension in these sorts of parts.

Over the next few years, Mason, Calvert and Granger would all go to Hollywood, as would Pat Roc, and the major studios were definitely interested in Lockwood – for instance she was a front runner for the big screen adaptation of Forever Amber (1947), among others. But she decided to stay in London: she had disliked her first stint in Los Angeles and was involved in a bitter custody dispute with her ex-husband (her mother, who sounds like a piece of work, testified against Lockwood in court, saying she wasn’t a suitable mother). In hindsight, it was a disastrous decision because Lockwood then hit one of the most depressing cold streaks of all time.

First cab off the rank was Bedelia (1946), which Lockwood turned down The Magic Bow to make. The film would have seemed a sure thing – Lockwood cast as a woman with a tendency to murder her husbands, based on a best seller by Vera Caspary, who had written Laura. And such was Lockwood’s popularity at home, the British public did turn up in decent numbers (she was never anywhere near as popular in America). But the movie was a creative disappointment, hurt by odd scripting decisions, minimal atmosphere and lack of firepower among the support cast – Ian Hunter and Billy Barnes (perhaps the wettest leading man in British cinema) were no Stewart Granger or James Mason… something that could be said for pretty much every male actor Lockwood co-starred with over the next decade.

Here’s the complete film. They should totally remake this, the basic idea is strong.

Lockwood signed a six year contract with the Rank Organisation who put her in Hungry Hill (1947), an expensive adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s best seller. This was clearly Rank’s attempt at making a Gainsborough melodrama, only classy. It should have been a hit; all the ingredients are there – costumes, rivalries, feuding brothers – but the filmmakers stuff it. They don’t center on any one character or relationship or theme but keep focusing on characters who die, giving the narrative a “choppy” feel. They put too much emphasis on the men, a problem in most melodramas made in post-war British cinema, which had a big fat misogynist strand running through it (as if the fellers came back from the front and went “right-o, love, thanks for the munitions, now go have babies while we take back our jobs and position as the protagonist in narrative”). They should have entered the movie entirely around Lockwood, and been more definite about her character. And Dermot Walsh and Dennis Price are – you guessed it – no  Stewart Granger or James Mason.

Here’s a clip from the film.

Jassy (1947) was the first Gainsborough melodrama in colour, with Lockwood as a gypsy woman who goes to work for a once-rich family that’s impoverished. Like Hungry Hill the film has all these elements that make it sound like it’s going to be fun – suicide, cheating at cards, poison, second sight, someone being struck dumb, not one but two whippings – but it isn’t, mostly because, just like Hungry Hill, the film has no focus. The dramatic lines of the characters in Man in Grey, Love Story and Wicked Lady were all clear but here they are muddy – Lockwood is out for revenge but not really, she loves Dermot Walsh but not really, Pat Roc loves Walsh too but not really.

Jassy feels like it was originally envisioned as a vehicle for Lockwood to play a baddy but she complained and wanted to be more sympathetic and ended up with this half and half character. That may be an unfair assumption on my part – wishy-washy protagonists, neither all-good or all-bad, are a feature of many post-war Gainsborough melodramas eg. The Root of All Evil (1947), Bad Lord Byron (1949). After the war ended, key people from Gainsborough left the company to go elsewhere (executives like Maurice Ostrer, producers like Ted Black and RJ Minney) and the team that replaced them clearly didn’t understand how melodrama worked. Far too often, the leads are a bit bad but not really and a bit good but not really which may be truer to life but makes for muddy storytelling. Jassy, like Hungry Hill, should have been all about Lockwood’s character, who they should have made either a definite goodie or baddie, and adjusted other characters accordingly. Sometimes when filmmakers say they’re trying to be more complex and clever, it’s just incompetence.

A clip of the movie is here: https://www.silversirens.co.uk/film-clips/gypsy-girl/

The public turned up to Jassy in decent numbers… but no one seemed to like the movie, then or now. I think audiences went because they’d liked Lockwood’s earlier films and were disappointed when they got to the cinema – sometimes hits can damage careers.

Certainly, box office was well down for Lockwood’s next two vehicles – both melodramas produced by Harold Huth. The White Unicorn (1947) starred Lockwood as a warden who swaps sob stories with juvenile delinquent Joan Greenwood. In Look Before You Love (1948) she fell in love with a ne’er-do-well (Griffith Jones) and has a hard time of it. I’ve got to be honest – I haven’t seen either of these movies (they’re hard to source) but reviews were poor, the stories sound dull and public enthusiasm was muted.

Possibly panicking now, Lockwood decided to return to comedy, a genre in which she’d had some success early on, but chose badly… playing Nell Gwynne in Cardboard Cavalier (1949). This probably seemed like a sure bet – star Sid Field was a very popular stage performer and the concept (a cowardly spy running riot in the time of Charles II) sounded like the sort of fun romp Bob Hope made so successfully in the 1940s. But those Hope vehicles were made by people who knew what they were doing… the makers of Cardboard Cavalier seem hopelessly out of their depth, including (it must be admitted) Lockwood who isn’t very good, mostly because she tries to be funny – forgetting that in her earlier comedies she was more the straight person.

Here’s a clip: https://www.silversirens.co.uk/film-clips/nell-goes-to-market/

Lockwood returned to melodrama with Madness of the Heart (1949), which actually isn’t a bad film – it’s a Jane Eyre/Rebecca-esque tale with some decent twists, a wonky ending and (once again) inadequate male leads. It was a minor hit at the box office and Lockwood was still considered one of the biggest stars in Britain – although her position as the biggest had been taken by Anna Neagle. By now, she was sick of the roles she’d been playing and decided to take 18 months away from the screen and return to the stage. In hindsight, this would be a mistake – it cost her career momentum and if she was unhappy with her roles, she should have tried Hollywood. But she probably needed a break for her sanity.

Lockwood returned to features in Highly Dangerous (1950), a Lady Vanishes-type thriller written by Eric Ambler with an American co-star (Dane Clarke). At least it should have been Lady Vanishes-like but the film never gets its tone right. It starts off straight then goes a bit wacky and is just not fun – it lacks comic relief, and Lockwood seems old and tired. The film was a box office disappointment.

Here’s the trailer: https://www.videodetective.com/movies/highly-dangerous/511846

To make things worse, Lockwood turned down a role in a movie that was a hit, an adaptation of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version (1951). She was offered the part of Michael Redgrave’s shrewish wife, and would have been ideal, but did not want to play it; once more, Jean Kent stepped in.

Lockwood took another break from movies to focus on the stage, then signed a three-picture deal with producer-director Herbert Wilcox. Wilcox was coming off a series of highly successful vehicles he had created for his wife, Anna Neagle, and Lockwood hoped he would work the same magic on her. It was not to be. There were some customers for their first collaboration, Trent’s Last Case (1952), a Third Man style mystery complete with Orson Welles playing an enigmatic character, but the other two were flops: Laughing Anne (1953), a soggy South Seas tale where she seemed uncomfortable as a Marlene Dietrich type, and Trouble in the Glenn (1953), a Quiet Man knock off set in Scotland.

Lockwood then stumbled upon her best movie since Wicked LadyCast a Dark Shadow (1955) where she was superb (and nearly unrecognisable) as a cockney who is seduced by murderous conman Dirk Bogarde. It’s a great little thriller, directed with verve by Lewis Gilbert, and should have marked a comeback – but by now Lockwood’s reputation had sunk so much in the eyes of the public that exhibitors hid her name on the posters. The public did not come in the numbers that the film deserved, and she did not appear in another feature until The Slipper and the Rose (1976).

Here’s a clip from Cast a Dark Shadow: https://www.silversirens.co.uk/film-clips/proposition/

It wasn’t all bad news – there was plenty of other work available on stage, radio and television, and Lockwood never stopped working until she retired. Agatha Christie wrote a play especially for her, Spider Web, which was a hit on stage (though for some reason it’s Glynis Johns who starred in the 1960 film version), and she had a successful TV show, Justice (1971-74). She died in 1990 of cirrhosis of the liver.

Here’s a late in life interview.

The remarkable thing about Margaret Lockwood’s career, to me at any rate, is how the biggest star in Britain appeared in a decade’s worth of dud movies at a time when the British industry was quite strong. In particular, the years from 1946-48 was a golden age… and the subsequent decade was pretty good too. British filmmakers were consistently turning out strong work, even masterpieces – why did Lockwood miss out after doing so well from 1938-45?

Part of it was the quality of filmmakers – during her cold streak she never worked with the top directors in Britain; there was no reunion with Reed or Hitchcock or Launder and Gilliat or Anthony Asquith, no David Lean, no Alexander Mackendrick or Powell and Pressburger. She did not work with the top producers either – no Alex Korda, or Michael Balcon, or the Woolf Brothers, or even Ted Black (who died in 1948).

Directors aren’t everything – Lockwood’s three big Gainsborough hits were directed by otherwise-journeyman Leslie Arliss. But those films were made by a Gainsborough team in full flower – writers, producers, art department, etc; the key players went their separate ways after the war, and Lockwood found herself in too many movies made by people who didn’t know what they were doing – at least, not on the films that Lockwood made. The frustrating thing about so many of Lockwood’s pictures is that most of them had the potential to be good – especially Bedelia, Hungry Hill, Jassy, and Highly Dangerous – but they all went wonky somehow.

She should have played villains more – no one likes to be typecast, or booed at, but Lockwood was simply better at being a villain than anything else.

On a baser level, she clearly needed to work with bigger stars. After 1945, for whatever reason, she never worked with Redgrave, Granger, Mason, Roc or Calvert again; in particular, she was constantly saddled with second-tier leading men, like Ian Hunter, Griffith Jones, and Dermot Walsh. Even when they came over from Hollywood, they were second-rate (Dane Clark, Forrest Tucker, Wendell Corey). (And in case any relatives of these men read this and write in upset that I’ve defamed their grandad or whoever, I want to stress I’m not talking about their ability as actors, but as stars – from 1945 onwards she never worked with a star who was her match in terms of popularity, until Dirk Bogarde in Cast a Giant Shadow, and it hurt her.)

I also feel Lockwood didn’t realise her limitations – she was effective in comedy as the straight person, but wasn’t good at carrying off a joke, and too often was simply miscast eg. Laughing Anne.

And she should have tried Hollywood. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked out for her – it didn’t for Calvert and Roc – but it did for Granger, and Mason… it would have been worth a shot. At the very least, she would have been a better lead in Forever Amber than Linda Darnell.

My take outs from Margaret Lockwood’s career (for any aspiring movie stars who happen to be reading this piece):

* work with the best directors and producers you can – no one can guarantee a decent film but you simply have more of a shot the more talented the filmmakers you collaborate with;

* if you’re going to appear in a star vehicle, make sure it’s a star vehicle, and not something that shunts you off to the side;

* if you make a great villain, make sure you play lots of great villain parts;

* try to make movies where the filmmakers know what sort of movie they’re making;

* if there’s an opportunity to go to Hollywood take it because it won’t always be there;

* try to be matched by a co-star who is as big, if not bigger, than you.

Cold streaks can strike down even the biggest stars. They struck down Margaret Lockwood.

But still, see The Wicked Lady if you haven’t. It’s bonkers fun.

Read our Ryan O’Neal ‘Why Stars Stop Being Stars’ installement

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