Not particularly amusing remake of a remake. Warner Bros.' Archive Collection of hard-to-find library and cult titles has released The Law and the Lady, the 1951 romantic comedy from Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, based on Frederick Lonsdale's perennial, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and starring Greer Garson, Michael Wilding, Fernando Lamas, Marjorie Main, and Hayden Rorke. Twice-before filmed by MGM under that name (first with Norma Shearer, then Joan Crawford), this final Metro version ditches Lonsdale's famous title, adds a backstory, and moves the characters all around the world...but still only manages a few well-mannered chuckles here and there, despite the pro cast. A prime example of why M-G-M was fading fast at this point in its history. A trailer is included for this nice-looking black and white fullscreen transfer.
Turn of the century London. Impoverished aristocrat Nigel Duxbury (Michael Wilding) creeps into older (by five minutes) twin brother Lord Minden's (Michael Wilding again) palatial home, and steals a pair of diamond earrings from Lady Sybil Minden's (Phyllis Stanley)'s night table. When Lady Sybil finds ladies maid Jane Hoskins (Greer Garson) in the room, she accuses her of the theft, an insult not remedied by Nigel's reappearance and confession. Aiding proud Jane in politely blackmailing 200 pounds out of the Mindens for their disloyalty, Nigel soon convinces a luxury-hungry Jane to team up with him as "Lady Loverly" to swindle rich swells for a living. Soon, the pair are kicked out of every glamorous casino in the world, before lighting in San Francisco, where Nigel and Jane set up blousy, unpretentious society dame Mrs. Julia Wortin (Marjorie Main) for the theft of her fabulous jeweled necklace. Complications arise, however, when Jane becomes friends with the straight-shooter widow Julia...and when Jane falls in love with Juan Dinas (Fernando Lamas), Julia's South American aristocratic neighbor. This causes trouble for Nigel--posing as Julia's smart-assed butler--because he wants the necklace...and Jane.
I haven't seen the Norma Shearer version of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, and it's been a while since I caught Crawford's 1937 remake (featuring the better male cast of William Powell and Robert Montgomery), so I won't bother to compare them to this later effort--something I try not to do with sequels, anyway (apparently there's enough differences in the scripts here to treat them more or less as largely separate outings). From what I've read in books I have on Garson, Mayer and M-G-M, The Law and the Lady was a rather half thought-out (and in hindsight foolish) attempt on Mayer's part to cheaply kill a few birds with the same stone. Garson, the epitome of the beautiful, classy, coolly romantic British lady of quality Mayer idealized in so many movies (Garson's Mrs. Miniver being the most obvious example), was by 1951 long out of the ranks of the top box office stars in Hollywood. M-G-M's desperate bid the year before to rebrand some of that Garson Oscar magic with The Miniver Story had failed miserably, and yet Mayer was loathe to cancel Garson's expensive contract. With M-G-M losing more and more market share as the postwar movie scene continued to skew away from Metro's and Mayer's increasingly old-fashioned, glossy, unrealistic worldview, Mayer's decision, instead of finding something new and exciting for the star, to wring one more version of Lonsdale's outdated play before Metro lost rights to it--while keeping expensive Garson working instead of sitting around, collecting a paycheck--indicated yet another cost-cutting measure at M-G-M that should have been a big warning sign to Garson. That anyone would think the public wanted a small, black and white version of this slight English comedy of manners one more time, with aging, increasingly marginalized Garson at the helm, is indicative of the calcification of Metro's production decisions at the time, and how out of step they were with current viewers' tastes. Add to that the even lesser star power of newcomers Fernando Lamas (just starting out at M-G-M, and subsequently never an overall top box office attraction), Michael Wilding (huge in Britain, to be sure, but he never caught on here like other contemporaries in his ranks), or even stalwart Metro contract player Marjorie Main (she was making millions at the box office for Universal's Ma and Pa Kettle series, but her loyal mainstream audience would have sniffed at the snooty The Law and the Lady), and it's no wonder The Law and the Lady wound up losing almost a half a million dollars for Metro, just against the bottom line (ironically, a few weeks after The Law and the Lady debuted to weak box office in July, 1951, the unthinkable happened: Nicholas Schenck fired mogul Mayer off the studio lot).
Seen outside of that context today (the permutations of which, frankly, are far more interesting than the movie itself), and away from comparisons to the other versions, The Law and the Lady comes over as small and precious and frightfully unambitious, and fatally, not all that amusing. Adapted by Leonard Spigelgass and Karl Tunberg, the movie's mild, stiff tone is set from that opening title card joke about turn of the century London ("If they had known what was ahead, they never would have turned it,"), and it doesn't get any looser from there (someone help me: why is The 12 Days of Christmas playing as the theme music? It's not a Christmas movie...). Yes, there are some funny one-liners sprinkled throughout the next hour and a half, well-delivered by the pro cast (Main, as expected, steals whatever scene she's in; when Garson calls out Lamas for his unwelcome midnight trip to her bedroom, Main foghorns, "Same thing happens to me every time I go down to San Diego,"). However, the storyline is far too predictable (of course we know which man Garson is going to choose)--not an unexpected problem in this kind of movie, but one that can only be overcome by a genuine bit of style and wit, which The Law and the Lady substitutes with surface archness. Once the con is set in motion, some of the plot complications are a little hard to take, as well, with the third act getting particularly gummy as Greer is romanced by Lamas, as Wilding passively sits by and watches (the biggest stumbling block to the viewer accepting the denouement's resolution is understanding how on earth Garson could cover for and forgive Lamas after that surprisingly uncomfortable bedroom scene, where it's made perfectly clear an increasingly menacing Lamas that once genteel sexual blackmail on his part fails...stronger methods would have been utilized?).
Contrary to accepted wisdom about a script being the first and last element in a successful movie, The Law and the Lady might have generated a little more interest, despite its timid script, had the director and performers lent some life to the proceedings (I'll take a fast-moving but poorly written movie with zippy performers over a "perfect" script and DOA actors any day). Helmer Edwin H. Knopf's direction, however, is as chilly and distant as the comedy here, with an aloof, detached stance that only further keeps the viewer at arms' length. Knopf, better known as a producer/writer, hadn't helmed anything for almost twenty years before he hired himself for The Law and the Lady. He should have looked around harder for someone else to sit behind the camera: his blocking and staging are unmemorable and distressingly flat, particularly the botched final "reveal," which is treated like a stage play finale, deflating any long waited-for payoff for the patient-no-more viewer. As for the performers...only a supremely disinterested (and just slightly contemptuous) Wilding, Britain's fourth-most popular matinee star working in Hollywood for the first time, has the sense to treat The Law and the Lady as an inconsequential lark not worth sweating over. Lamas is smooth and polished when he's with Garson (and yet as always...somehow absent as a credible romantic lead), and quite funny and nimble when working with Wilding (a small scene together outside Garson's bedroom door is a gem, where they both uncomfortably wait for the other to leave).
Garson's problem in The Law and the Lady is the problem she always tiresomely had: she clearly intimates that there is some kind of smoldering passion and perhaps even--shock!--carnal delights beneath that glacial ladylike correctness...but it's frustratingly held in check (and the more I see of her constricted performances, the more I suspect that it was her decision to do this, time and again, rather than the oft-repeated narrative that Mayer and others possessively wouldn't "let her loose,"). Technically, she's flawless; little moments, little looks aside and discreet double-takes indicate she knows how fun this could be...but the evolution of her character never takes place because Garson simply can't make the transition from common servant to thief to "lady." She immediately starts out high at "lady"...and then never deviates, thus eliminating any potential tension or conflict for the character (the script aides in this by making sure she's never really a crook, anyway: she's always shown feeling slightly guilty, before Wilding promises--to her delight--to pay back everyone they swindled). Looking older than her 47 years here (surprisingly shoddy glamour photography by George J. Folsey, not helped by an unflattering black hairstyle), Garson had to know, starring in such a trivial, underfunded, undercast black and white project like this, that her days at Metro were numbered (contrast that with, say, how Metro's Deborah Kerr--Garson's younger rival--must have felt on the set of Quo Vadis that same year). Maybe that explains a certain tense, anxious quality to her performance, riding below the surface of her usual poised coyness. That subliminal strain, coupled with the movie's more overt stodginess and dull humor, makes for surprisingly heavy going for the featherweight The Law and the Lady.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for The Law and the Lady looks pretty nice, with a sharp, nicely contrasted image, relatively stable blacks, and just a few imperfections here and there.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is fine, with almost no hiss.
There's a pretty funny trailer that features Debbie Reynolds introducing Fernando Lamas to audiences--a trailer that, if seen by her, had to have made Garson nervous, seeing Metro using young, popular Reynolds shilling for Lamas, not the movie. Or her.
A cold, slightly humorous comedy of manners. A detached visual style matches the distant wisecracks, while the performers engage in various disappearing acts (Wilding wins--he almost appears to be standing on the sidelines, commenting on the action, rather than actively partaking in it). Garson in full, steep decline at the equally faltering Metro. A rental for The Law and the Lady...and that's only if you're into the stars.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.