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11 June 2021

The Divorce of Lady X (1938)

Directed by Tim Whelan
Starring: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier,
Ralph Richardson, Morton Selten,
Binnie Barnes

I have only seen Laurence Olivier declaiming Shakespeare or in serious, dramatic roles. I would never have imagined he would be part of a screwball comedy.

Everard Logan (Laurence Olivier) has a bright future – he has a promising career as a successful divorce lawyer, he doesn’t lack feminine attention, and when his cab cannot move because of the sudden fog that envelops London, he finds a room in the up-market hotel beside which his car has parked.

Yes, he’s extremely lucky – because the hotel was holding a masquerade ball and the revellers, now stranded, are begging for rooms to stay the night. The hotel manager tries to find comfortable lodgings for the ladies, at least. Perhaps some of the gentlemen would consider giving up their rooms and snuggle down on billiard tables or the chairs in the lounge.

Well, certain gentlemen may, but not Everard, who’s had a long, tiring day behind him, a long, tiring day ahead of him, and is looking forward to a warm, comfortable bed. Besides, he tells the manager, he knows women! Give them a chance to come into his room, and “…they’d have me out of here in five minutes!”

As the manager and the group of ladies troop off to find other, more accommodating gentlemen, one lady remains behind.

She is Leslie, she tells Everard, and she hopes that he will let her stay in the sitting room. After all, there are two single beds in the bedroom, and he can’t be sleeping on both. By dint of sheer perseverance and turning on the charm-on-spigot (at least, I assume she was meant to be sweet and charming; both S and I decided she was outright annoying), she manages to persuade Everard. Alas, his fears come true – five minutes later, the devious minx has not only taken his bed, but also his pyjamas and his book. A frustrated Everard is forced to sleep on the mattress in the sitting room.

The next morning, she not only orders breakfast but eats his, and succeeds in annoying him so much, he vows he knows he will see her in the divorce court. Because, of course, he thinks she is married, and Leslie, who hasn’t given him her last name, doesn’t bother to correct the misunderstanding. In fact, she leaves when he’s still in the shower, with a ‘thank you’ scribbled in lipstick on the mirror, she signs herself ‘Lady X’.

Meanwhile, Leslie, who has returned home, is facing her grandfather’s version of the inquisition – no well-brought up young lady goes out at night, returns in the morning, wearing a man’s pyjamas! Leslie soon sweet talks him into acceptance, and during the conversation learns that Everard is a barrister and is due to argue a case in front of her grandfather, Lord Steele (Morton Selten). “I think he will marry me,” she says, much to her grandfather’s dismay. Has he proposed, he asks her. “No, he doesn’t know it yet,” she quips.

But she decides to attend the court proceedings to see him again and is appalled at the merciless way in which Everard shreds a woman who’s been accused of adultery.

When Everard returns to his chambers, he’s accosted by an old college friend, Lord Mere (Ralph Richardson). His wife, the much-married Claire, Lady Mere (Binnie Barnes) had attended a masquerade at the Royal Park Hotel the previous night. He knows that she spent the night in another man’s room! And so, he wants a divorce, and he wants Everard to fight it for him.

Poor Everard. Charmed by Leslie despite himself, he tries to defend her honour, but Lord Mere interrupts – what innocence? She’s been married four times (before him), says Lord Mere, and then there were two ‘episodes’.

When he leaves, Everard is trying to wrap his head around the much-married Lady Mere, when in waltzes Leslie, ostensibly to return his pyjamas. As they talk at cross-purposes, Leslie is quick to realize that Everard thinks she’s Lady Mere. She decides to play along and Everard, frazzled and upset, somehow finds himself with Leslie in his arms. “What am I doing kissing you?” he wails but can’t seem to stop himself.

Subsequent meetings just seem to muddy the waters even more. Everard is now deeply in love and is all set to help the divorce along, when Lord Mere – having had a fight with his wife about her whereabouts that fateful night and discovered the truth – returns to tell Everard that the divorce is off. He and Lady Mere are going off on a second honeymoon!

The Divorce of Lady X is absurd, engaging and laugh-out loud humorous. Apart from watching Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon cut loose and have some fun (both are well-known for their intense roles), both Morton Selten and Ralph Richardson play wonderfully to the gallery.

And Oberon became far less annoying after the first meet-cute, sparkling in the role of a woman who knows exactly what she wants but is determined that the man she loves loses his arrogance before she lets him know the truth. Knowing that things will end happily-ever-after makes her deviousness funny rather than serious. Not to mention that her grandfather calls out her tactics, warning her that she’s playing with fire, and will reap the consequences.

Sir Laurence Olivier is always a fantastic actor. But here, he was a revelation as the madly-in-love young man who doesn’t know whether he is coming or going. As the once-suave, self-assured lawyer who turns into a bumbling mess every time his lady love is in the vicinity, he did a fantastic job. (I spent half the movie telling S, “Oh, this role was perfect for Shammi Kapoor!” And “Doesn’t he look exactly like Shammi here?” till S was ready to stuff the cushions into my mouth.)

Adapted from Gilbert Wakefield’s play, ‘Counsel’s Opinion’ (made into a movie by the same name in 1933) and lavishly mounted by Alexander Korda, The Divorce of Lady X is a light-weight British comedy that manages to be witty and charming at the same time.

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