Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen
Margaret Lockwood was one of Britain’s topmost box-office stars during the 1940s. In a career spanning quite a few decades, she was remarkable in Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece The Lady Vanishes (1938) and in the 1943 film The Man in Grey opposite James Mason. Her biggest success however was in The Wicked Lady (1945) which catapulted her to the highest echelons of stardom. 2016 marks the birth centenary of the legendary star. Lyndsy Spence, the author of Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen pays a tribute.
Born a century ago in Karachi, the little girl known as Margaret Mary Lockwood would leave her semi-privileged lifestyle on the edge of the Sind desert to settle in a colder part of the Empire. London, she wrote in her 1955 autobiography, Lucky Star, ‘[was] a city unknown to the Lockwoods from India as the Lockwoods were to London’. But despite her Anglo surname, Margaret’s background was entirely influenced by India – it is interesting to note that her distant cousin was no other than Rudyard Kipling. Her mother, Margaret Evelyn Waugh, the daughter of a Scots-born serving soldier, grew up in the ancient city of Ferozepur on the banks of the Sutlej River, and as a young woman she trained with Queen Alexandra’s Military Nursing Service. Her father, Henry Lockwood, went to India as a young man and secured work as a superintendent with the Southern Mahratta Railway, and by 1905 he was sufficiently established to be registered in the official directories of the Raj. By the time Margaret was born in 1916, the Lockwoods had travelled thousands of miles to Karachi, where Henry had advanced to an administrative role with the railways. Prior to marrying Margaret Evelyn, Henry had been married to an Anglo Indian woman who bore him two children – Margaret’s half siblings.
In 1920, at the age of four, Margaret left Karachi with her mother and brother. They settled in Upper Norwood, a London suburb in the shadow of the old Crystal Palace, where she was enrolled in the local school. Her father remained in Karachi, working with the state railways until his retirement, and records show that he was living in England during the Second World War. Perhaps the uprising that would lead to the partition of India prompted him to leave. Margaret’s maternal relatives, however, would remain, and so there were visits from her cousins from India and although she would never return to her birthplace, she would have a connection to it. Certainly her way of life in London, as a child, was reminiscent of her mother’s childhood in Calcutta. She was raised on Indian cuisine, and in her autobiography she spoke fondly of her presents sent from ‘home’ – beautiful sarees, silks, and Kantha quilts.
From this exotic childhood, set against the industrial backdrop of London and British sensibilities, Margaret would grow up to become the most famous film star in Britain. A course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, followed by a lucky break in the 1934 production of Lorna Doone, paved the way for her star turn in Carol Reed’s Bank Holiday, immediately followed by The Lady Vanishes – the film which took Alfred Hitchcock to Hollywood and cemented Margaret’s fame. (Read the retrospective of The Lady Vanishes by Lyndsy Spence).
But a brief spell in Hollywood in the winter of 1938-1939 would seal Margaret’s fate and change the course of her career. She had crossed the Atlantic at the request of Twentieth Century Fox, who had cast her opposite Shirley Temple in the mediocre Susannah of the Mounties. Homesick, and frustrated by the studio’s willingness to team her with their fading child star, Margaret took a dim view of tinsel town. After a stint at Paramount, starring in Rulers of the Sea with Douglas Fairbanks Jnr., she rejected a seven year contract with Fox and returned to Britain on the eve of the Second World War.
Although the world was facing an uncertain future with Britain at war with Germany, it was in this austere atmosphere that Margaret shone. In 1939, she starred in The Stars Look Down with Michael Redgrave, her co-star from The Lady Vanishes, and it set the tone for her future roles. Playing the ‘bad girl’ onscreen gave her a certain clout with wartime audiences, and the film, when released, held the wartime record at the Odeon on Leicester Square when, in one week, over twenty-seven thousand people viewed it. What followed was a mixture of sentimental dramas, Gothic melodramas, a musical biopic, and a supernatural thriller. Maintaining her momentum at the box office, her second foray into playing a villain came in the guise of The Man in Grey, a regency drama in which she opted to play the second lead. Cast alongside James Mason, Stewart Granger and Phyllis Calvert, Margaret carried off the part of a murderess with aplomb. With receipts soaring at the box office and the film being given two London openings (then unheard of), it set the tone for the genre known as the Gainsborough Gothics. The good fortune continued when Love Story, released in 1944, became the second high grossest film during the war years. Despite this success, it would be The Wicked Lady, filmed in 1945, that would propel Margaret to the upper echelons of stardom.
Perhaps her most famous film, The Wicked Lady, and for what she is best remembered caused a sensation when released in 1946. A treat for postwar audiences, the themes of cross-dressing, infidelity, rape and murder, were a hedonistic display and, to quote a disapproving critic, never had there been so much sex and sadism peddled onscreen. Despite newspapers warning the British public to avoid the film, for their morality was at stake, they turned out in droves and it became the first British film to gross £1-million at the box office. American audiences, however, were given a more subdued version of the film when, after it was reviewed by the Breen Office and dismissed as ‘indecently provocative’, the most offending element was not the wickedness but the revealing costumes, and thus retakes with Margaret in a higher neckline were demanded.
Capitalising on this success, the studio sent Margaret on numerous publicity tours across the country. At each stop she would be inundated by thousands of fans, and this proof of her popularity saw her endorse everything from Dreen shampoo, Clarks shoes, and Pringle knitwear. But with disenchantment setting in with her parent studio, Gainsborough, and the lack of quality scripts being presented to her, she transferred her contract to the Rank Organisation. Under Rank, it was a promising start, with her accepting a serious part in the sweeping family saga, Hungry Hill. Based on Daphne du Maurier’s book, focusing on several generations of a wealthy Irish family, the box office reception was only lukewarm. And, like Gainsborough following the success of The Wicked Lady, Rank began to misuse their star by casting her in ‘pulp fiction for the masses’. Unsatisfied, she rebelled and was put under suspension. However, this did little to diminish her popularity and the film which she made upon her return to the studio was Madness of the Heart. Unpopular with Margaret herself, it would go on to financially surpass Laurence Olivier’s Oscar winning production of Hamlet. Regardless of the proof of her popularity and, having won three Daily Mail Film Awards (then known as the British Oscars), the public’s tastes were changing and television was beginning to replace the demand for feature films.
Not one to rest on her laurels, Margaret adapted to the changing times and accepted the role of Eliza Doolittle in the BBC’s production of George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion. Following its first broadcast, on 8 February 1948, the play was given a second live performance two nights later, with both receiving high ratings. Realising that performing in front of a live audience had surpassed her ambition as a screen actress, Margaret would pursue a theatrical career. Touring with Noel Coward’s Private Lives gave her a taste of the live theatre and, although a success both critically and financially, Coward himself requested the play not open in the West End. Although bitterly disappointed, Margaret made records at the box office during her star turn as Peter Pan in the Scala Theatre’s Christmas production of the play.
The commodity of having a film star headline a play was a successful venture, and Agatha Christie wrote Spider’s Web especially for Margaret. A hit when it opened at the Savoy Theatre, the play would have a lengthy run on the West End. Television offers followed, and she found time to star in television plays and a series, The Royalty. But as with postwar audiences and their expectations for films, a revival was taking place in the theatre. The 1950s saw the uprising of the Angry Young Men, and Margaret’s style of plays – drawing room dramas – were suddenly deemed unfashionable. Regardless she pressed on, and continued to dabble with theatre, television and radio. She would retire from the screen, in 1955, having starred in Cast a Dark Shadow with Dirk Bogarde.
Three decades after she had reached the height of her fame, Margaret’s career experienced a revival when she took on the lead part in the legal drama, Justice. A hit television series, now considered iconic, she found the time to make a one-off return to the cinema screen when she accepted the part of the Stepmother in Bryan Forbes’s The Slipper and the Rose. Although she continued to receive offers for films and, as enticing as they were, she refused. In 1980, she retired from acting.
Far from forgotten, she was invested as a Commander of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. And, in 2015, twenty-five years after her death at the age of seventy-three, the Heritage Foundation erected a prestigious blue plaque at her former residence in Kingston upon Thames. With the publication of Queen of the Silver Screen, written and released to coincide with her centenary, not only have we been offered a fresh perspective on Margaret’s life, but we are reminded that she can still command an audience.
Lyndsy Spence is the author of The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life, Mrs Guinness: The Rise and Fall of Diana Mitford, Margaret Lockwood: Queen of the Silver Screen, and the forthcoming The Mistress of Mayfair: Men. Money and the Marriage of Doris Delevingne.
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