20 August 2005 | F Gwynplaine MacIntyre
Directed without a Hitch.
'Lord Camber's Ladies' is notable as the only film ever produced by Alfred Hitchcock which he did not also direct. There are no end of stories about Hitchcock's ongoing battles with the various producers of his own films, most notably David O Selznick. Hitchcock absolutely refused to allow his producers any creative input into his films: whenever a producer came onto the set of a Hitchcock movie, the camera would mysteriously have a breakdown, or some other instantaneous disaster would occur, preventing any footage from being shot until the producer took the hint and left. I'm extremely curious to know anything about Hitchcock's behaviour during the production schedule of 'Lord Camber's Ladies': did he give director Benn Levy a free hand to direct this movie with no interference? Or did Hitchcock -- as controller of the purse-strings -- inflict upon Levy the same scrutiny which Hitchcock resented from Selznick and other producers? Hitchcock does not make his customary walk-on appearance in 'Lord Camber's Ladies', but at this early point in his career (1932) the Hitchcock cameo was not the entrenched tradition it would later become.
Gertrude Lawrence -- a major stage star with very few film roles -- gives a standout performance in a role that might have been tailor-made for her. Lady Camber, now married to a peer, is a former star of the variety halls, a famed beauty whose stage turn showcased her talents for mimicry. Now her beauty has faded, and she's in a loveless marriage to Lord Camber, a philanderer. Lady Camber has heart trouble, and she now requires a full-time nurse attendant, under the guidance of Dr Harley Napier. I found that forename somewhat contrived: *Harley* Street is where London's most prestigious physicians have their surgeries, so it seemed needlessly gimmicky that the medico in this movie should be cried Harley.
Lady Camber's maid was her dresser in her music-hall days. They were formerly devoted to each other, but now Lady Camber's affections have transferred to her nurse. Spitefully, the maid tells her that the nurse is Lord Camber's latest lover. Lady Camber scoffs at this. But later, she rings her husband and, using her talents for mimicry down the 'phone line, pretends to be the nurse. Lord Camber is fooled entirely, and he responds with a statement that incriminates himself and the supposedly loyal nurse. Lady Camber faints, lapses into a coma, then soon dies.
Is it possible that she was murdered? And if so, by whom? At this point, the movie veers onto science-fiction's turf. It turns out that Dr Napier has recently isolated talcin, a deadly poison that causes precisely the symptoms which Lady Camber exhibited just before she died. With gobsmacking convenience, talcin is odourless, colourless, tasteless (no comment) and utterly undetectable at post-mortem. (I find this unbelievable: any compound that's toxic enough to kill someone will surely traumatise the victim's body sufficiently for a pathologist to detect its presence.) Gertrude Lawrence and Benita Hume give excellent performances here, and I was equally impressed with Nigel Bruce's portrayal of the unsympathetic Lord Camber. Bruce is best known for portraying bumbling asses, even playing Dr Watson in that mode. Here he gives a very different performance, and is entirely believable.
I was also impressed with Gerald du Maurier's portrayal of Dr Napier. Here, a few comments are in order. Gerald du Maurier had a long distinguished stage career: he was the first actor to play Captain Hook in 'Peter Pan'. His father George du Maurier was a distinguished novelist, illustrator and cartoonist (creator of Svengali, Trilby and Peter Ibbetson), and Gerald's daughter Dame Daphne du Maurier was a best-selling novelist. As devotees of Hitchcock will know, three of his films -- 'Jamaica Inn', 'Rebecca' and 'The Birds' -- are based on works by Daphne du Maurier, whereas no other author's work served as the basis for more than one of Hitchcock's films.
A couple of decades ago, when I spotted a copy of Daphne du Maurier's autobiography in a bookstall in the Charing Cross Road, I bought it for the specific reason of finding out what Dame Daphne had to say about Sir Alfred Hitchcock. I was astonished that her long memoir doesn't mention him at *all*. Several years later, I learnt the reason. While 'Lord Camber's Ladies' was in production, Hitchcock played a very cruel joke on Gerald du Maurier. He invited du Maurier to a costume party, urging du Maurier to wear the most ridiculous outfit he could assemble. When du Maurier arrived at Hitchcock's London residence -- wearing a red nose, mutton-chop whiskers, a kilt, spats, and other accoutrements -- he discovered that it was a formal dinner party, with everyone else in evening dress. Apparently, decades afterwards, Daphne du Maurier still despised Hitchcock for having humiliated her father. Yet that never prevented her from selling him the film rights to two of her novels and her story 'The Birds'.
I'll rate 'Lord Camber's Ladies' 8 out of 10.