Hollywood loved the story of a maid turned thief turned heiress in disguise enough they made the movie three separate times. The first and second incarnations were both titled, The Last of Mrs. Cheyney with Norma Shearer originating the role in 1929 and Joan Crawford in 1937. Eventually, MGM took another stab with their Queen, Mrs. Miniver herself, Greer Garson in 1951. The 1937 version is entertaining, but inserting an English rose like Garson changes the entire tone of the movie for the better, creating a frothy drawing room comedy. Jane Hoskins (Garson) is a working girl recently fired from her last position for stealing. Determined to have life’s luxuries for herself, she takes on the mantle of Lady Loverly who, along with her partner-in-crime/valet, Nigel (Michael Wilding) decide to steal from a wealthy woman (Marjorie Main).
The Law and the Lady is considered a remake of The Last of Mrs. Cheyney, but it hews closer to Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. The first introduction is to Wilding’s Nigel who robs a member of the wealthy family he and Jane are working for, and from there the audience understands their relationship and the romantic element crime plays. Of course, with the Hollywood Production Code in full force by 1951, Jane must learn crime doesn’t pay and forsake her true love in order to seek redemption. Compared to the previous version – the 1937 interpretation – the romance is more pronounced between Garson and Wilding. The chemistry isn’t sizzling, but the way Wilding nuzzles Garson presents a more overt flirtation between the two characters.
Garson became synonymous with wealth, playing characters staunchly identified with English upper/middle class. When she broke out of those roles, playing domestics or lower-class ladies, it was deemed “inauthentic.” Garson plays diamond-encrusted domestic turned widowed heiress, Lady Loverly in a far different way than Crawford did in the 1937 version. Where Crawford played the hardscrabble, “poor little shop girl,” Garson plays a bitter woman who “all my life I’ve seen other people enjoying luxuries” and wants some for herself. It may be hard to believe the beautiful and regal Garson as a maid, but there’s no denying her carriage when she plays the “Lady” of the title. Her English pomposity lends an air of credence to the character lacking from Crawford’s version. There’s a bit of snide humor in her character, Lady Loverly. Is screenwriter, Leonard Spigelgass intentionally poking fun at My Fair Lady?
Jane’s also rather progressive in the ways of love. The 1950s was about ma and pa and apple pie, but Jane is against marriage of any kind after watching her parents try and fail. This is not simply rare for the 1950s, it’s rare for the movie’s time period of the turn of the century! Of course, the movie wouldn’t be a romantic comedy without our leading lady realizing the folly of her ways and marrying, but boy, does she get a choice. Wilding is the milquetoast “right” guy who’s been with Jane since the beginning. He knows who she is deep down. They both realize they’ve hit a turning point when they understand they’ve deceived everyone else, “but never each other.”
But does Wilding have a shot when placed against Fernando “Red Hot” Lamas? Lamas has Disney prince written on him from the moment he introduces himself to Jane, riding a white horse, no less! There’s a discernible chemistry between Lamas and Garson (although, it’s possible Lamas would have chemistry with a table), and because the audience is rooting for the good-looking guy to win the Lady Garson’s hand…they have to create a conflict fairly despicable to turn audiences away. Lamas’ Juan Dinas is a bit of a grandma’s boy, and upon discovering Jane’s history tries to blackmail her through some very unsavory means. Thankfully, all’s well that end’s well but Dinas still has the gall to ask for Jane’s hand in marriage! Sorry, Juan, but no matter how smooth you are, you can’t come back from blackmailing a woman into giving up her “charms.”
And last, but certainly not least, we can’t forget Marjorie Main. Main is the comic relief of this romance playing the widowed Julia Wortin. Main’s brash American style is sharply juxtaposed with the dignified formalism of Jane and Nigel, and yet Wortin gets the funniest lines. There’s a maternal relationship between Jane and Wortin culminating in the older woman dispensing advice about marriage. When Jane sees a picture of Wortin’s deceased husband, commenting that he’s “very commanding,” Wortin agrees: “He was at first, but I took it out of him.” Jane proves Wortin wrong by story’s end, but this is a woman who won’t struggle without a man’s attention.
Being attached to The Last of Mrs. Cheyney gives The Law and the Lady brand recognition, but it’s an individual film all its own. There’s a heightened romantic element to this one, as well as a pronounced contrast between Americans and the British. Greer Garson shines in the role and even though audiences may not immediately believe she’s struggled a day in her life, one “the lady” takes over, it’s smooth sailing.
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