The Other “Gaslight” (British, 1940)

Most folks interested in classic Hollywood films know Gaslight, the 1944 melodrama that gave Ingrid Bergman her first Oscar. Also the winner of the Oscar for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration, Black-and-White, it was a well-regarded, deftly crafted film that received nominations for Best Picture, Actor, Supporting Actress, Screenplay and Cinematography. (No nomination, however, for director George Cukor.)

Fewer know the British version of the play, made four years earlier, and which might have disappeared from film history if M-G-M had been successful in destroying all the copies. In our win-lose culture, the temptation might be to compare so as to decide which was “better, “ or which aspects of each film were “better” than its film companion. (Actually, there is a 1939 “telefilm” version of the West End production filmed before the BBC cameras, so this 1940 film version is the second version.)

There are no easy comparisons between the 1940 and 1944 films, though there are clear differences. The Hollywood version has higher production values—no surprise—and could be considered slicker both negatively and positively. The British version, though released in 1940, feels more like a mid-‘30s film. That may be because director Thorold Dickinson cut his teeth in the silent era, which may also account for the lovely camerawork that favored set and image over the admittedly strong performances.

Perhaps enjoying the differences between the plots, actors, and lead and supporting actresses is most fun. The earlier film quickly jumps into the story, and reveals what’s going on early. The second gives more backstory, and is more gradual in its revelations, adding suspense of a more Hitchcockian king. To say more would be to spoil the fun.

The male lead in the 1944 version is “swoon-worthy” idol Charles Boyer playing against type. The British lead is Austrian actor Anton Walbrook. Walbrook is best known as the lead/villain of the Powell-Pressburger classic The Red Shoes, but he was also featured in a much more sympathetic role in that directorial pair’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. (He’s also well known for La Ronde, Lola Montès, and 49th Parallel.) Unlike these later performances, Walbrook here is nothing like the romantic Boyer, but is effete, cruel from the start, clipped, impatient, and nearly mustache-twirling. Boyer brings his charm to his version, which adds another level of complexity and enjoyment to the American version.

The female leads, of course, are where most comparisons might be made, and perhaps unfairly. Ingrid Bergman, after Casablanca and For Whom the Bell Tolls, was an international star, and was the most radiant and beautiful screen sufferer since Falconetti in Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). Winning the Oscar over Barbara Stanwyck’s classic performance in Double Indemnity demonstrated the respect for and interest in Bergman’s work here. In contrast to her almost florid exhibition of confusion and pain is the earlier work of her British counterpart Diana Wynyard, known as a star of the West End stage and the winner of a Best Actress nomination for 1933’s Cavalcade. Wynyard’s Bella is a smaller and perhaps more fragile character, but the performance is a marvel of small gestures and internalized disappointments and confusions.

Worthy of other enjoyed comparisons are the two housemaids. The British version takes a longer time to display the character of the pretty blonde, but (spoiler alert) the relationship she has with her boss becomes more blatant and adulterous (though modern audiences might have a hard time understanding her attraction to such a harsh and forbidding character, in spite of his money.) The American version is the young (17 years when she started the film) British actress Angela Lansbury, making her film debut. She won the first of her three Oscar nominations for her work here, and if viewers only know her from “Murder, She Wrote” or as the original singer of the song “Beauty and the Beast,” then find a way to see the 1944 film, followed by the original Manchurian Candidate. That should erase the memory of Jessica Fletcher or Mrs. Potts, or at least make room for a broader view of this woman’s great talent.

If you’ve seen and enjoyed the Hollywood version of Gaslight, you may have to work a little to just sit back and enjoy the British version. But if you see it as a companion piece rather than a film offering elements of competition, you’ll likely enjoy the experience. It’s not less or more, it’s just…different.

About Mark DuPré

Retired (associate) pastor at a Christian church. Retired film professor at Rochester Institute of Technology. Husband for 48+ years to the lovely and talented Diane. Father to three children and father-in-law to three more amazing people. I continue some ministry duties even though retired from the pastoral position. Right now I'm co-writing a book, working on a documentary (screenwriter and assistant director), and creating a serious musical drama (I am writing the book and lyrics).
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