The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Heathcliff and Cathy’s Other Film

The Divorce of Lady X stands out from other screwball comedies for several reasons. Firstly it’s one of the few screwball comedies filmed in Technicolor which is complemented by the complimented by the luscious set design and brightly coloured ladies costume design. I do love that night club with its dreamlike painted backdrops as well as the miniature work of Trafalgar Square for the film’s opening shots (even if there are a bunch of empty buses driving). Second, it’s the only British screwball comedy I’ve come across to date, putting a British spin on this distinctly American genre. It’s fun watching typical screwball situations with an entirely British cast, set in Britain and with very British lines of dialogue (“You got marmalade all over your newspaper”).

Third and by far most importantly in what has to rank as one of the most bizarre of pre-stardom roles, it stars Laurence Oliver. Yes, the master of Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps the most respected and dignified actor of the 20th century as a stuffy gent who at first is delightedly full of himself but soon gets into all sorts of crazy shenanigans at the mercy of a screwy dame.  Merle Oberon plays one of the most ruthlessly manipulative characters I’ve seen in any film as she is able to weasel her way to get anything out of this man – the type of dame who destroys civilisations. Thus it doesn’t come as a surprise that Oliver goes head over heels for her despite all the anguish she causes him, likewise her previously having four husbands doesn’t help matters (also, that improvised cape made from a bedsheet she wears is such a brilliant touch). The chemistry between the performers works seamlessly and is aided by the sexual tension and undertones.

The first act of The Divorce of Lady X is one big farcical sequence centered around the sexual politics of the time; the fact that an unmarried man and woman sleeping in the same room was considered scandalous, even if there are two separate beds. This ties in nicely with how film critic Andrew Sarris defines the screwball comedy genre, “a sex comedy without the sex”.

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