Lady Godiva (Vitagraph, 1911)
Like The Victoria Cross (1912), which I’ve written about before, Lady Godiva (1911) is another example of that short-lived genre known at Vitagraph as the Quality Film. Elsewhere, they were termed variously De-Luxe Films or High-Art Films, but we might allow Vitagraph naming rights as they were the chief producers of the genre. Also like The Victoria Cross, Lady Godiva is based on two culturally revered subjects: history (or at least legend) and poetry (Tennyson in both films).
Lady Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon) is the wife of Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard), who has imposed a ruinous new tax on his townspeople that threatens to drive them to starvation. She begs he lift the tax, but the Earl’s heart is “as rough as Esau’s hand” and he’ll only agree to do so on the condition that she ride naked through town.
Warned by a herald of her approach, all the townspeople go inside and shut their windows, except for “one low churl” (Harold Wilson) who watches through a peephole. As she passes, he’s blinded by the sight — “his eyes were shrivell’d into darkness”.
The task complete, she returns to the Earl, who repeals the tax, and so Lady Godiva’s fame becomes “everlasting”.
All of the titles are “quotes” from Tennyson’s poem Godiva. I scare-quote the word because, while the text is presented as direct excerpts, it’s awfully mangled. That’s not at all unexpected. The target audience for Quality Films was not well educated and probably didn’t have a firm grasp of English. They may know of Shakespeare or Tennyson, but it’s highly unlikely that they ever read either. Their familiarity with the great English poets came mostly from places like postcards illustrating famous lines, which were often condensed for space and modified to be both more stand-alone and also to be more marketable — to be able to serve as an advertisement for some product or other. For the Quality Film producers, when the choice came down to a quote that’s right or a quote that’s familiar, one always erred on the side of familiarity. There are some common misquotes persisting today that, while they didn’t originate in early film, early film helped to cement in popular culture — lines like “Alas, poor Yorick, I knew him well”.
The set is the same Ye Olde England lot that can be seen in several Vitagraph films from this period, consisting of three half-timbered building façades and a painted backdrop. They vary the angles and move around the set dressing from scene to scene to make it appear larger than it is. There’s attention to detail shown in matching the painted shadows to the actual ones, and in keeping the actors from casting shadows on the backdrop. I don’t recognize the castle (or the gate of the castle, rather — that’s all we see). It may have been built specially. I count about sixteen extras, which reasonably fills out the crowd scenes. One of them is Kate Price, who’s pretty easy to spot. Clara Kimball Young is apparently in there, too, but I couldn’t pinpoint her.
The nude ride is as absolutely sexless as can be, and not only because of the bodystocking and strategically placed hair. Julia Swayne Gordon plays Godiva as you might a saint. But the moral of the story is to not be a Peeping Tom — indeed, the Lady Godiva legend is the origin of the term Peeping Tom. You might recognize Tom — or Harold Wilson — as Silverstein from The Awakening of Bianca (1912). His performance here is kind of the same, only now his handwringing is meant to suggest lasciviousness, and in Bianca, it was meant to look Jewish.
Quality Films are interesting in an abstract, film history kind of way, but can often be on the dull side. The Victoria Cross had the saving grace of an exciting battle scene and the novel conceit of the binoculars, which served the practical purpose of masking the small number of extras, but also looked cool and gave Edith Storey some welcome screentime. In comparison, Lady Godiva doesn’t have much going for it. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s just sort there and it feels all its length.
My rating: Meh.