The war is raging in England, and filmmakers rally to do their bit for the war effort. The results of one of those endeavors is That Hamilton Woman (1941), starring Vivien Leigh as Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton and Laurence Olivier as Horatio Nelson. The film was recently shown as part of AFI 100th Anniversary tribute to Vivien Leigh. Leigh, still basking in her post-Gone With the Wind fame gets top billing here, in this story of passion and devotion to country. Clearly, the love affair between Nelson and Lady Hamilton becomes an example of England's strength in the face of attack, with tyrant Napoleon standing in for dictator Hitler, and the lovers representing England giving up everything to preserve the nation.
The story sticks pretty close to history - and juicy history it was. Told in flashback, this is the story of Emma Hart, the lover of Charles Francis Greville, who arrives in Naples to visit Greville's uncle, the wealthy Sir William Hamilton (Alan Mowbray). Hamilton is a lover of beauty, in music, in art - and in women. Unbeknownst to Emma, Hamilton has literally purchased her from his nephew. Within a few years, Emma, already the darling the English art circle, becomes the wife of Hamilton, as well as his hostess, and a major player in the Naples diplomatic circles. Enter Horatio Nelson, a young Captain of the fleet. Emma helps him approach the Queen of Naples for military assistance; afterwhich he departs. Five years later, he returns; this time, they find themselves deeply in love. Only problem is, both are married: Nelson's wife, Frances (Gladys Cooper) is at home in England. and quite naturally, she is none too pleased about her husband's involvement with the now notorious Lady Hamilton.
That the film is attempting to put the past into the context of the present conflict facing England is quite apparent. As mentioned above, the use of the term "dictator" in connection with Napoleon is a clear pointer to Adolf Hitler. Nelson, of course, stands in for all the men who would give their lives for the nation. while Emma stands in the for the women who will lose all they love in the fighting. The film even brings in some of the pictures done of Emma Hamilton: the picture on the left is used as an emblem in the film. Next to it is the original George Romney painting of the real Lady Emma.
This was the only film that the always wonderful (and so spectacularly beautiful) Vivien Leigh, and her equally talented spouse, Laurence Olivier did together during the period of their marriage. The film is also filled with splendid supporting actors. Gladys Cooper is excellent as Frances Nelson. The scene in which she sits down to knit as she is forced to converse with her rival, Emma, is great. Obviously, Ms. Cooper was a knitter - and her needles do as much of the talking as does her voice. Also good are Sara Allgood as Emma's lower-class mother, Mrs Cadogan-Lyon and Henry Wilcoxon as Captain Hardy.
As a knitter myself, I was interested to see the use of crafts to further our understanding of the main female characters. As mentioned before, Frances knits. Knitting, in the era, would have been a middle-class craft, used to create usable clothing for the members of the family. Knitting was no hobby here; it was a necessary skill to keep the family warm. Emma however, embroiders. Embroidery was an upper-class craft, used to create pieces of art. It was a hobby - an occupation for a woman who had no real work. The lower-class Emma has risen to the position of having no need to work, while Frances remains the middle-class housewife, despite her husband's rise in status.
I close with a trailer for the film: