A Warm-Up For Lear? That Lady (1955)

King Philip II of Spain is running scared. His evil, ambitious little brother, Prince John, is after his throne and his life. Only the loyalty of his people can save him now and Philip is not popular. He turns for help to an old flame, Ana de Mendoza, the Princess of Eboli. The widow of Spain's foremost statesman, she belongs to the most powerful noble family in Spain and nobles and commoners alike love her. Her devotion to the king is beyond question, for in her swashbuckling, sword-swinging adolescence she lost an eye in a duel to defend Philip's honor. For reasons of state, Philip jilted her to marry England's "Bloody" Mary and then hurriedly married Ana off to his most loyal, most elderly and — he hoped — most likely to be impotent—advisor. Now an older Philip, seething with sexual frustration and regret, depends on her good will.

The 1955 film, That Lady is pretty much forgotten. Prints exist in archives and are only available to film historians. It is unlikely that it will ever be transferred to DVD because most of the film is mediocre. However, about 15-minutes of this 100-minute costume drama are pure cinematic gold. The great English actor Paul Scofield (A Man For All Seasons, King Lear) made his film debut playing King Philip of Spain.

Scofield explodes on the screen, giving a striking performance as Philip of Spain—a difficult task, since the script describes Philip as "a treacherous, complicated good man." Scofield portrays him as brooding, intense and smoldering on the edge of hysteria—a king who can obtain anything he wants except what truly matters: the loyalty of his subjects and the love of the princess of Eboli (played by Olivia de Havilland). Scofield seems to have wandered in from a far, far better movie and the screen seems quite barren when he's not around. His scenes give a sense of urgency to an otherwise plodding production.

In his biography of Paul Scofield, Gerry Connor writes that though Scofield originally had only a bit part in the film, 20th Century Fox's studio head, Darryl Zanuck, was so impressed by Scofield's performance that he ordered more scenes to be written for him saying Scofield was the "best [actor] since John Barrymore." When the film was released, critics hailed Scofield's Philip II as "one of the small gallery of classic screen portraits." For once, Scofield's amazing voice was trumped by the sheer physical power of his performance. Film critic and screenwriter Paul Dehn said he appeared "like eroded marble. The eyes seem to need de-scaling, the voice itself is dusted over, and he walks with the gingerly foreboding of the acutely arthritic. Yet he remains every twisted inch a king." Scofield later won a British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) Award as "Most Promising Newcomer to Film" for this role.

That Lady documents a transitional period in screen acting. Most of the cast is using a somewhat artificial "declamatory" style of acting, while Scofield's performance reflects the concern with a character's internal motivation that was the hallmark of the acting of the late 1950s and early 1960s. His King Philip is unromanticized and sometimes ugly; a characterization that seems like a warm-up for his iconoclastic King Lear. As a result, his performance and that of leading lady, Olivia de Havilland never seem to intersect. The hottest scene in the film involves frustrated Philip's assault on his writing desk.

De Havilland plays a Spanish version of the Melanie Hamilton character she made famous in Gone With the Wind. She is such a monster of serenity that it made me wonder if her character had a secret source of Paxil hidden behind an arras. She got dumped and married off to an old man but she has no hard feelings or seemingly no memory of it. Forgiving and moving on is great for real life, but makes for dull cinema. (Frustratingly, major plot points such as why the Princess fought a duel for Philip's honor are not explained in the script). In the final reel, she emerges from Philip's deepest dungeon — her soul undaunted, her lipstick unsmeared — just in time to play a 1940's-style beautiful death scene complete with miraculous church bells and artfully placed shafts of sunlight.

The rest of the cast seem to be angling for a place on "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Some of them speak with pseudo-Spanish accents and some do not. Antonio Perez (Gilbert Roland), the lowborn but honest love interest, speaks with a Mexican accent. The romantic dialog that he and de Havilland speak is often hokey in the grand style of 1940s films: "I'm still a widow but I'm also a woman," and -"Are you mad?" -"Worse than that, I am in love."

Shot in England and on location in Spain, the film features gorgeous Cinemascope footage of the Spanish countryside and actual renaissance castles. That Lady is also of interest because was an early directorial effort by Terence Young who went on to direct three classic James Bond films: Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball, and because Christopher Lee plays a bit part as Captain of the Guard. Trivia addicts will enjoy the odd coincidence that King Philip, like Sir Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, has an opportunistic steward, only his is named "Matteo" while More's was named "Matthew."

Does it make sense to sit through almost 90 minutes of tedium for about 15 minutes of truly inspired acting? Though Scofield was rated as one of the greatest actors of the 20th century, only a handful of his film performances are available to the public. If only the 15 or so minutes that Scofield was on screen could be digitized and posted to youtube!

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Author's Note: A thousand thanks to Josie Walters-Johnston, Jennifer, and the other wonderful, intrepid film librarians at the Library of Congress, Motion Picture and Television Reading Room, who helped me thread my way through 11 reels of That Lady.

To view a still from the film, go to the Getty Images Web Site , www.gettyimages.com editorial image #79036951, Bar Code: 1954-435-21. Caption: Cinema. 1954. British actor Paul Schofield [sic] is pictured on the set of the film "That Lady".

Special Thanks to Lynne for making me aware that That Lady is now available on DVD at www.lovingtheclassics.com