By 1940, Margaret Lockwood had become one of the most popular British actresses in film, having made a splash two years prior in The Lady Vanishes for director Alfred Hitchcock. She had tried to follow in the footsteps of fellow India-born Brit Vivien Leigh by moving to Hollywood, with the intent of solidifying her newfound popularity with an American audience, but Lockwood quickly returned to England after completing only two (somewhat disappointing) films: 1939’s Susannah of the Mounties with Shirley Temple and Rulers of the Sea with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.
In Lady, Lockwood had starred opposite fellow English actor Michael Redgrave, and their romantic pairing had helped make the movie a smash hit at the box office. In the wake of that film’s success, it was only natural that filmmakers sought to pair the actors once more … and so they were cast as husband and wife in director Carol Reed’s adaptation of A.J. Cronin’s 1935 novel The Stars Look Down (this movie was one of seven that Lockwood would make with Reed throughout her career). Both lead actors were loaned out to Grand National Pictures, which produced Stars, by Gainsborough Pictures, the British studio for which Lockwood would make a number of films.
Stars tells the story of Davey Fenwick (Redgrave), the idealistic and intelligent son of a coal miner in northern England. He goes off to college with the hope that one day he will be able to go into politics to help stop the exploitation of the mine workers, who face constant danger (and the disregard of the mines’ owners) in their work. Davey is attracted to Jenny Sunley (Lockwood), a low-class girl with high aspirations, and is eventually coerced into marrying her (note: the film differs greatly from the book in that it takes the relationship between Davey and Jenny and makes it one of the main storylines; while Jenny is a minor character in the novel, her role is greatly expanded for the screen). The sudden marriage forces Davey to leave college and find work as a teacher in order to support his new family. Their union is anything but blissful, however; Jenny is a selfish, demanding, and overly critical wife, and to compound their issues, she just so happens to still be in love with her ambitious, self-serving ex-boyfriend, Davey’s childhood friend Joe Gowlan (Emlyn Williams). When Joe comes back to town, the troubles between husband and wife increase, as does the rivalry between the two men. In the meantime, Davey has his hands full dealing with his suspicions about the unsafe mining conditions in which the workers, including his father, have been forced to work, and he determines to do what he can to help them … until disaster strikes.
The Stars Look Down marked a turning point in Lockwood’s career. Not only did it represent her triumphant return to the British screen–the movie was a great success–but it also opened up new possibilities for the types of roles the beautiful young actress could play. Previously, most of her film roles had been of the “good girl” variety–she was generally the heroine, the romantic interest of the dashing leading man. Stars, however, showed everyone that Lockwood had much more range than many had previously assumed. The role of the self-centered Jenny, which Lockwood plays with obvious relish, is only the first in a series of manipulative, shrewd, and downright evil female characters whom the actress would embody throughout the 1940s. Her career arguably peaked with the release of 1945’s The Wicked Lady, though Lockwood would continue acting in film, on stage, and on television up until 1980.
While Jenny is not the outright villain of the piece, she is crafted to be an almost entirely unpleasant character. It’s to Lockwood’s credit, however, that Jenny is not completely insufferable. There’s a certain vulnerability that the actress brings to the role, borne from Jenny’s rejection at the hands of Joe Gowlan. Her reactions to Joe’s manipulation of her are those of a child, not a woman, and in portraying Jenny as belligerent and spoiled rather than simply mean, Lockwood allows the viewer to feel a modicum of sympathy for the girl (but, admittedly, only a smidgen). Jenny is a precursor to the “femme fatale” roles that would mark many of Lockwood’s subsequent films: she’s lovely, but dangerous–not in a murderous sense, like a typical noir dame, but in the sense that a man (like Davey) would willingly–and foolishly–give up his dreams only to make her happy. And ultimately, Lockwood thrives in the role of the “bad girl.” The only thing lacking in her performance, really, is her accent, which (despite Lockwood’s efforts to the contrary) is a bit too refined for a girl of less-than-ample means.
If you’ve never seen The Stars Look Down–which has been listed by The New York Times as one of the 1000 best films ever made–you can download it for free at the Internet Archive. I saw the movie for the first time earlier this week, and I was thoroughly entertained and impressed by the realism Reed strives to project on screen. I’ll warn you, though–this movie does not have a happy ending, so if you’re expecting butterflies and rainbows, you may want to look elsewhere. Of course, since American film audiences seemingly can’t handle gritty scenes of hardship and strife, and (according to TPTB at the time), need said butterflies and rainbows in order to enjoy such a movie as this, a voice-over narration–delivered by Lionel Barrymore–was added to the beginning and the end in order to lend a religious undertone to the entire affair. But the film doesn’t need the coda of Barrymore’s soothing, paternalistic patter assuring us of the “reality” of Heaven after a lifetime of struggle. It only serves to undermine what I believe Reed was trying to do, which is to present an unrelieved portrait of the futility of life itself. When Davey’s political “mentor,” Harry Nugent (Milton Rosmer), tells him, “The world’s like a wheel. Your turn will come,” it emphasizes the utter randomness of existence. Not a pleasant thought, surely, but an honest one, and one of the reasons this movie resonated with me.
Incidentally, Cronin’s novel would also provide part of the inspiration for the 2000 film Billy Elliot, which borrows the theme of striking coal miners in the same area of England. The opening number of the stage musical based on Billy Elliot, penned by Elton John and that movie’s screenwriter, Lee Hall, is titled “The Stars Look Down” as an homage to the novel and earlier film.
This post is my submission for the Margaret Lockwood birthday blogathon, hosted by A Shroud of Thoughts. Make sure to head over there today to check out the other entries!