A Daring Directorial Debut: Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944)

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS, from left: Peter Glenville, Stewart Granger, 1944

To view Madonna of the Seven Moons click here.

Arthur Crabtree is chiefly remembered for helming two imaginative science fiction and horror thrillers in the late 1950s, Fiend Without a Face (1958) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959). But before he became associated with these cult favorites, Crabtree worked extensively with Gainsborough Pictures where he photographed some of the studio’s biggest hits including The Man in Grey (1943) and Fanny by Gaslight (1944), which helped make Stewart Granger a star. At Gainsborough, Crabtree built a reputation as an efficient and economical cinematographer who was responsible for giving these modestly budgeted costume dramas the polish and sophistication that they desperately needed so it’s not surprising that the British studio eventually gave him the opportunity to direct. Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) is Crabtree’s first feature film and it is a strange, inventive and daring directorial debut that you can currently catch on FilmStruck as part of their “Early Stewart Granger” theme.

Madonna of the Seven Moons includes many of the elements that made Gainsborough films so popular at the time, particularly among female filmgoers (for more information about the history of Gainsborough Pictures please see my previous piece on The Wicked Lady [1945]). First and foremost, it features unusually brash and bold female leads (Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc) and although it’s set in the 1930s, it bears all the hallmarks of a Gothic melodrama including several baroque settings and an affinity for fashion and extravagant costumes.

The labyrinth plot centers around the lovely and pious Maddalena Labardi (Phyllis Calvert), daughter of an affluent Italian family. We first meet young Maddalena while she’s attending a private Catholic school for girls. One day while picking flowers in the nearby woods she’s savagely attacked by an older man. The assault takes place off camera but it’s suggested that she is the victim of a violent rape. Visibly shaken and suffering from severe trauma, Maddalena declines to seek help and devotes herself to her religious studies. Soon afterward she’s forced to leave the school after being informed that her father has arranged for her to marry. When we meet Maddalena again she’s a wife and mother to a rambunctious daughter (Patricia Roc) who has just graduated from college and has returned home wearing a revealing pair of shorts while being accompanied by a young man (Alan Haines). Maddalena is shocked by her daughter’s modern morality and scant wardrobe, which propels her into a fugue state. The situation becomes increasingly bizarre after Maddalena’s daughter gives her a pair of elaborate hoop earrings adorned with seven moons. After trying them on, she sheds her prim and proper personality and transforms into a lusty and larcenous gypsy named Rosanna. After this sudden metamorphosis, Maddalena/Rosanna flees her stalwart husband (John Stuart) and heads to Florence where she falls into the waiting arms of her hot-blooded Latin lover Nino (Stewart Granger). Their adulterous affair can only end in tears (the Motion Picture Production Code was firmly in place by 1945 after all) but the film ventures into some surprisingly mature territory before the credits roll.

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN MOONS,  from left, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger, 1945

This brazenly feminine reimagining of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is based on a story by British writer Margery Lawrence. Lawrence was a popular purveyor of weird fiction during her lifetime but she’s been largely forgotten and overshadowed by her male contemporaries, which included August Derelth, Robert E. Howard and Dennis Wheatley. The Italian setting, religious themes and romanticism found in Lawrence’s unusual tale suggest she was inspired by Gothic literature such as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Ann Radcliff’s The Italian, which must have appealed to the producers at Gainsborough looking for new interpretations of classic material.

Unlike other Gainsborough films set in Britain, Madonna of the Seven Moons takes place in a highly romanticized version of 1930s Italy where there are no signs of fascism or economic strife. The fictional Florence is populated by British actors speaking perfect English who don’t bother to feign Italian accents, which unintentionally contributes to the film’s uncanny atmosphere. The production is also awash in religious symbols and contains several evocative scenes of devotion. Maddalena’s name hints at her Catholic upbringing and her dueling personalities suggest that a Virgin Mary/Mary Magdalen dichotomy is the source of her undiagnosed psychosis.

Unfortunately, the wide-eyed and breathless Phyllis Calvert is not a great actress by any stretch of the imagination and she struggles to convey her character’s inner conflict. Despite her limitations, Crabtree shoots her in such a dramatic way that he manages to enliven her performance and give it some much-needed vim and vigor. In contrast, Stewart Granger does excellent work as her perplexed and passionate lover. Unlike my fellow Streamline blogger Jill Blake who recently wrote a great piece about Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), I’ve always liked Granger but I prefer him when he plays a brooding Byronic anti-hero or dangerous scoundrel as in films such as Blanche Fury (1948) and Footsteps in the Fog (1955). His temperamental Nino displays the menacing edge that made him such an interesting actor. It’s a shame that he never got to play Heathcliff or Rochester. Granger would have been a magnificent Brontë protagonist.

Despite the film’s melodramatic moorings, there are moments of genuine eeriness and disquiet in Madonna of the Seven Moons that hint at the types of movies director Arthur Crabtree would eventually be recognized for. Like Fiend Without a Face, it includes an ominous wilderness scene implying that nature harbors hidden monsters. And Maddalena’s abrupt personality shifts accompanied by sinister music recall young Rick’s disturbing transformation in Horrors of the Black Museum. The film is also a fascinating example of an early psychological thriller about a deeply disturbed woman in crisis. Its descendants include Don’t Bother to Knock (1952), Marnie (1964), Repulsion (1965), Images (1972) and The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976) but Madonna of the Seven Moons skirts around the psychosexual nature of Maddalena’s predicament and her manifestations of madness are relatively benign.

Viewers expecting a serious study of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder) should look elsewhere. The film is not interested in presenting a realistic portrait of Italy much less mental illness. Madonna of the Seven Moons romanticizes its subject to a fault but this is a world of fantasy born from Margery Lawrence’s imagination and in that regard, the film is a surprising success.

Kimberly Lindbergs

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