Victoria the Great & Sixty Glorious Years
Director: Herbert Wilcox / Screenplay: Miles Malleson, Charles de Grandcourt, Robert Vansittart / Editing: Jill Irving / DP: William Skall & Freddie Young / Music: Anthony Collins
Cast: Anna Neagle / Anton Walbrook / Walter Rilla / H. B. Warner / Mary Morris / James Dale / Felix Aylmer / Charles Carson / Gordon McLeod / Arthur Young / Greta Schröder / Derrick De Marney / C. Aubrey Smith / Charles Carson / Malcolm Keen
Year: 1937 + 1938
‘Avvaganda’ at These Old Vic’s…
A prolific and far-sighted Producer within the early British cinema, Herbert Wilcox is perhaps best-known today, as ‘the man who built Elstree Studios’. With an active career spanning some forty years, Wilcox also pioneered the use of sound on British productions and later, colour.
He also directed, beginning with a run of silents and moving into the Thirties with a string of ‘Quota-Quickies’; cheap & cheerful flicks produced to fulfil a law intended to nurture a domestic film industry besieged by Hollywood. By 1934, Wilcox had found both his muse and future wife in the form of Anna Neagle, when he directed her in a ‘loose’ biopic of Nell Gwyn. As Neagle’s stock as an actress rose, more collaborations followed, until we come to Victoria the Great (1937) and its full-colour remake, Sixty Glorious Years (1938).
Looking at both films now, it’s easy to see why Wilcox thought them worth pursuing at the time. For a start, the country had suffered since Victoria’s death in 1901. ‘The Great War’, and its legacy, had come to dominate much of national life, to which we might add the effects of economic depression and, in the mid-Thirties, the constitutional crisis over the King’s abdication and the unexpected accession of George VI. In mainland Europe, the drums of war were sounding once again as Fascism gained ground. The country needed to cling-on to something of ‘the Good Old Days’ and, luckily for Wilcox, he found it in memories of Queen Victoria.
To that point, cinema hadn’t really touched the ‘modern’ British royal family except tangentially, i.e. as passing figures in wider historical dramas. The public-at-large remained doggedly reverential of its Royal Family, who remained largely distant, if not remote figures. All that changed with the abdication of Edward VIII. Suddenly, the country’s moral & spiritual figurehead was seen as mortal and from that moment, it was as if Britain’s royals became ‘fair game’ for more pointed scrutiny. If, by today’s standards, this pair of films still appear hilariously deferential & ‘quaint’, we should remember the times in which they were made. Wilcox was breaking new ground here and meeting a latent demand from the masses across the Dominions and elsewhere, to glimpse what might’ve gone-on ‘behind the scenes’; with characters & events simply not given mass-media attention beforehand. Viewed in that context then, Wilcox’s pair of films represent a shrewd business decision.
Victoria the Great was first to emerge in 1937. For all the interest in its subject, the film that emerged is about as stately and reverential as it got back in the Thirties; don’t look here for any salacious rumours or scandal. The screenplay by Malleson & de Grandcourt, rattles through key moments in Victoria’s long reign like a deck of flash-cards, beginning with her accession in 1837: exactly one-hundred years earlier.
From Victoria’s befriending of sycophantic Lord Melbourne (H. B. Warner), her first and most trusted PM, the film trundles along in humdrum fashion. Neagle’s all-but invisible in these early stages; she’s given little to do, which I attribute to a starched screenplay as much as Wilcox’s stiff direction. Remember, Dear Reader, that with so much riding on its reception (not least a sizeable personal investment) Wilcox might be forgiven for playing it this straight, even if the film plays-out like a series of dull vignettes, that give its star little room to manoeuvre.
After her coronation (a low-budget spectacle reliant on matte-paintings to evoke scale), Victoria reviews her troops from horseback, in defiance of a crusty Duke of Marlborough (James Dale) and visits a theatre in the company of Melbourne, who raises the thorny issue of marriage, to a cousin – Prince Albert of Coburg (a fine turn from Anton Walbrook as Albert; an Austrian actor who’d find work in the UK during WW2, most notably for Powell & Pressburger). Marriage ensues, along with a bevy of nine (!) children and the long haul through the famines of the 1840s, wars in the 1850s then a sustained period of economic growth that proved the British Empire’s last hurrah.
Wilcox plays his trump card in the final reel: Technicolor and with it, re-creations of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee parade and her funeral at the last. As God Save the Queen plays us out, it’s not hard to imagine loyal, sentimental patrons the world over, suddenly retrieving hankies and lamenting for what’d been lost. Many will have been around to witness both events, so any doubts Wilcox might’ve harboured at the outset were soon unfounded.
An inevitable smash-hit on release, it quickly dawned on Wilcox that there remained as-yet untapped potential in Victoria’s story. With finance now readily available, he re-assembled most of the cast and shot a loose-limbed remake for release the following year; this time in-colour throughout. I’m calling Sixty Glorious Years a ‘remake’, though it wasn’t a shot-for-shot copy. Instead, Wilcox hired writer Robert Vansittart to punch-up the dialogue and got original screenwriter Miles Malleson, to trim scenes that added little to the original’s momentum. In ‘Years, Victoria’s story only begins with her engagement to Albert: a decision that lends space for other topics to breathe, such as her wedding (along with, later, that of her eldest daughter) and Albert’s involvement with The Great Exhibition of 1851 to name just two.
The overall effect, is a bouncier film than the original. Where that was fusty, here Vicky’s feisty. Scenes are now quick, quick, instead of slow, slow. Wilcox has by no means struggled free of deference with the second film, but he HAS remembered how to make a movie as opposed to a hagiographic work obsessed with its own sycophancy. However, in neither film does Neagle seem relaxed throughout; it’s as if she’s all-too aware of the expectations & responsibilities on her shoulders (both in terms of the sheer cost of the thing, as much as her cultural obligation). The result? Where Walbrook IS Albert, Neagle is only interpreting Victoria. I’ve struggled to put my finger on anything more specific, but it’s there alright.
The case for ‘Years, is also helped by the access now granted the production, to shoot in and around key locations, e.g. Windsor & Balmoral castles; the new King, George VI, supportive of any attempt at ‘rehabilitating’ the monarchy after recent turmoil. Such authenticity is also boosted by Wilcox’s decision to shoot in Technicolor throughout. Whilst then still an intrusive (and expensive) innovation, his faith was repaid at the sight of so many rich gowns (modelled on actual examples held at the V&A Museum), opulent interiors and lavish pageantry. Kudos to Wilcox, for retaining a youthful Freddie Young as sole DP second-time around. If the name isn’t immediately familiar to you, Young ended-up as one of the most revered of all British cinematographers, with a string of credits to his name, of which Lawrence of Arabia for David Lean, is just one of many.
A word here too, on the technical limitations both Wilcox and Young would’ve faced. The original three-strip Technicolour cameras were as big as a VW Beetle, needed a multitude of [hot] lights and were NOISY, which meant microphones would’ve had to be strategically hidden, in order to capture dialogue instead of the camera-motors; my guess is that Wilcox would’ve used ‘ADR’ to capture dialogue after recording.
‘ADR’ or ‘Automated Dialogue Replacement’ has the actor in a soundproofed booth, watching their performance. As required, they repeat their dialogue as close to their original ‘performance’ as possible; this new ‘take’ is then layered-in over the top of the images, to create the desired effect, in a technique that’s still widely used today.
What that means for ‘Years, is that my initial thought – that they used authentic interior locations as well as exteriors – is probably wrong. I can’t imagine the Royal Household would’ve permitted such an intrusion indoors. Of course, I might be wrong, but in any case, it makes Wilcox’s recreation of key areas such as Windsor’s The Green Room even more impressive.
On top of all that, he merely recycled the colour footage shot the year before, for a similar last reel, thus saving needless expense through its re-staging. Once again, Wilcox’s intuition was proved accurate, as ‘Years proved every bit as successful at the box-office as the original film.
Alas, World War Two would stifle Wilcox’s ultimate move into the big-leagues as a Producer. He and Neagle would move to Hollywood for the duration, getting a few pictures off the ground, but never flourishing. Neagle herself, would return to the UK for occasional gigs (i.e. the Amy Johnson biopic They Flew Alone (1942)). Post-war, she re-built her career back in the UK with a few pictures that rehabilitated her bland, ‘cosy’ reputation, most notably Odette (1950); a hard-edged take on a wartime resistance figure, that would set the bar for later ventures into similar territory, such as Virginia McKenna’s Carve Her Name With Pride (1958). Later still, as Wilcox’s ventures foundered and he slipped into bankruptcy, Neagle took herself to the London stage, where she found an enduring home.
And what of Victoria herself on the big screen? Untouched really, until John Madden’s much-admired Mrs Brown (1997) starring Billy Connolly as Brown and Judi Dench as an elderly Victoria. Emily Blunt’s spirited take – Young Victoria (2009) – tackled the difficulties faced by Victoria as she took-on the Establishment, supported by Albert. Both are worth a look.
Which leaves me to ponder why such a gap – and why so few pictures, compared to someone like Henry VIII or Elizabeth I? Might it be, that we’ve had more than enough entertainment living through our own ‘Elizabethan Age’? We can barely keep up with it all, as it is…
She’s as obstinate as a wagonload of monkeys!