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Desperate Yearnings: Victor Saville and Gainsborough (1997) by Charles Barr




Desperate Yearnings: Victor Saville and Gainsborough

Charles Barr

Lovers are parted; years go by; the absent one returns. It is one of the most potent of romance plots, forming the basis of tales as diverse in time and culture as The Odyssey, The Winter's Tale, Ibsen's Terje Vigen, and Tennyson's Enoch Arden. As cinema developed, after the polymorphous early years, into a predominantly, and systematically, storytelling medium, it began to make fertile use of this structural archetype. Griffith worked many poignant variations on his initial two-reel version of Enoch Arden (1910), Victor Sjostrom's 1916 adaptation of Terje Vigen was an important work in the development and international marketing of Swedish cinema, and three of the most successful of Gainsborough's early sound films use this basic framework.

Lovers are parted, years go by, the absent one returns. Always, there are children. In Woman to Woman (1929), an English officer, on leave from the trenches, falls in love with a French dancer, but is called back to the front before they can marry. Shellshocked in the next attack, he loses his memory, and goes home to acquire an English wife. Years later, the dancer turns up with their son. In Michael and Mary (1931), the young woman finds herself alone and destitute when her caddish husband decamps abroad with her jewels; Michael befriends her, and they go on to risk a bigamous marriage. A quarter of a century later, on the day their son becomes engaged, their prosperous family life is threatened by the first husband's return. In The Faithful Heart (1932), a young sailor promises his lover that he will come back to her, but twenty years go by in the space of another fade-out and fade-in, and he has become a distinguished soldier preparing, at the end of the Great War, to make a marriage appropriate to his status. A young woman then comes to see him and identifies herself as his daughter, whose mother died in childbirth.

These three films have the same director, Victor Saville. All of them are based on successful West End melodramas: modern ones, in that they were written, and are also set (at least in their 'present-day' scenes), in the period since the end of the war. Michael and Mary was filmed shortly after the play came off in June 1930, with the five leading actors repeating their stage roles; both Woman to Woman and The Faithful Heart were first staged in 1921, and they too had quickly been filmed (though with fresh casting), for release in 1923. Those silent versions, unlike the early sound remakes, do not seem to have survived, which is especially regrettable in the case of Woman to Woman, given its status as, surely, the main prototype of the Gainsborough film. The first feature to have Michael Balcon's name on it, it brought together five individuals who would be key players in the new company: Balcon and Victor Saville as producers, Graham Cutts as director, Alma Reville as editor, and, as writer and art director, the...

[ to view the rest of the chapter, please see the book ]


  1. Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood. Six-part series made by Photoplay Productions and transmitted on Channel Four, 1995. The material on Kitty, and on other early British sound films including Blackmail, is in the final programme, 'The End of an Era'.
  2. For an account of the greater complexity of the 'hybrid' Hitchcock film, see Barr (1983).
  3. From unpublished memoirs by Saville, Shadows on the Screen, held in the British Film Institute's library.
  4. Variety, 13 November 1929.
  5. Bioscope, 6 January and 13 January 1932.
  6. This comparison, casually made, turns out to have some foundation. In a BBC television production of The Faithful Heart, transmitted live on 2 July 1950, Waverly was played by none other than Ballard Berkeley, who a quarter of a century later - familiar timespan! - would create the part of the major in the television comedy series Fawlty Towers.
  7. See Barr (1989), where I discuss Ian Dalrymple's relatively unsung contribution to wartime documentary.
  8. John Grierson, The Clarion, October 1930, reprinted in Hardy (1981).