The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Heathcliff and Cathy’s Other Film

The Divorce of Lady X stands out above other screwball comedies for three reasons. Firstly it’s one of the few screwball comedies filmed in Technicolor which also helps the superb miniature work at the beginning of Trafalgar Square, even if there are a bunch of empty buses driving. Second, it’s the only British screwball comedy I’ve come across to date. Its fun watching typical screwball situations with an entirely British cast, set in Britain with very British lines of dialogue (“You got marmalade all over your newspaper”). All in all, it’s a very British affair.

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 manipulative characters I’ve seen in any film (and just for the record, that improvised cape made from a bed sheet she wears is such a brilliant touch) and yep, Oliver goes head over heels for her despite all the anguish she causes him, plus her telling him she previously has had four husbands. Of course all this is made believable, both by the abilities of these two actors but also because of the film’s sexual tension and undertones.

In fact the film’s first act is just 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. Of course as film critic Andrew Sarris defines the screwball comedy genre, “a sex comedy without the sex”.

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