Aug. 11, 2008
The Divine Lady (1929)
Grade: 51/100

Director: Frank Lloyd
Stars: Corinne Griffith, Victor Varconi, H.B. Warner

What it's about. Based on a true story, and set between 1786 and 1805. Brunette hottie Emma (Corinne Griffith) falls for English gentleman Greville (Ian Keith). Seeking to win the favor (and remain the heir) of his aging wealthy uncle, Sir William Hamilton (H.B. Warner), Greville gives Emma to Hamilton. He becomes the British ambassador to Naples, a critical post once France under Napoleon is at war with England.

Surprisingly, Hamilton marries Emma despite her scandalous past. One day, legendary British captain Horatio Nelson brings his fleet to the port of Naples. The sickly crew are sheltered by Naples, due to court intervention by Emma. Nelson begins an affair with Emma, which continues in England after he receives acclaim there for his naval victories over France.

Despite losing an arm and an eye in previous battles, Nelson is recalled to duty, and his ultimate heroism at Trafalgar. Poor Emma is left behind in England to pine for him.

How others will see it. The Divine Lady has a split personality. It is chiefly a romance, with Emma wearing her heart on her sleeve first for Greville, then for Nelson. Halfway through, however, the film begins to include stirring naval scenes of Nelson and the derring-do of the British sailors. There are also several impressive scenes of street parades and court ceremonies. For this film, Frank Lloyd won an Oscar for Best Director, presumably given for the film's diversity.

Classic movie buffs will delight in seeing comedienne Marie Dressler in early scenes. Dressler would soon become a top box office draw, but here she (unfortunately) has only a small part.

How I felt about it. As one might expect, many liberties were taken with the historical record. Most of these had the effect of making Emma more respectable than she actually was. According to Wikipedia, Emma had been a prostitute and had an illegitimate child with a different English nobleman before she became Greville's mistress. She had two additional illegitimate children, both with Nelson. Upon Nelson's death, she was given a small estate, which he lost through gambling and lavish spending. She was sent to debtor's prison, then drank herself to death by age 50.

Emma first met Nelson in Naples. She did nurse him back to health after a debilitating sea tour, but she had nothing to do with Nelson's crew receiving shelter at Naples. The militarily weak Naples had little choice but to accede to the demands of the British fleet. Apparently, Sir Lord Hamilton encouraged Emma's affair with Nelson. The three lived together in England prior to Nelson's martyrdom in Trafalgar. Hamilton preceded Nelson in death in 1803.

In the film, of course, Emma is considerably more chaste, and her early wildness consists of innocent crowd-pleasing flirtations. Her behavior becomes decorous upon marrying Hamilton, who (in this film) barely gets to touch her. The film goes too far in making Emma sympathetic, when her character would have been more fun (and accurate) if she had been portrayed as a manipulator of men.

The Divine Lady was released at the end of the silent era, and is one of the few silent films from the 1920s to have an original score. (Other 1920s films, such as Charles Chaplin's The Circus, have a score created years afterward).