As unlikely as it might seem 'Fanny by Gaslight' is the title of a genuine British film released in 1944, described as "a polite version" (by Doreen Montgomery) of the original 1940 novel of the same name by one Michael Sadleir. Perhaps understandably it was released in the United States under the title of 'Man of Evil' but for those of you Americans who are still sniggering please remember that in modern British slang 'fanny' now means something quite different, and therefore is even funnier.
Set in London of the 1870's the central character is Fanny (played by Phyllis Calvert) who lives with her parents William and Mary Hopwood. Just to make things interesting her father owns the brothel next door (although this isn't exactly spelled out in the film) which leads him into a brawl with one of its patrons, the dastardly Lord Manderstoke (James Mason) during which William is killed. Fanny's mother then reveals that she had an affair with a certain Clive Seymore, now a cabinet minister, who is her true father.
Fanny then gets a job as a servant in her real father's house, during which she falls in love with her father's secretary Harry Somerford (Stewart Granger) and learns that her father's wife, Alicia is having an affair with the same dastardly Lord Manderstoke. Alicia wants a divorce, threatens her husband with the exposure of his illegitimate daughter which results in Clive Seymore's suicide. Fanny and Harry runaway together, Harry fights a duel with Lord Manderstoke resulting in the death of the wicked aristocrat, they all live happily ever after.
Yes it's a melodrama, quite 'racy' by the standards of the time, even if the sexual content had been toned down for the cinema. I remember seeing it many years ago and apart from noting the title can't really say that it made much impression on me. But it apparently displays a "sophisticated understanding of the social context underlining both the drama itself and the demands of the 1944 audience" and "both shies away from and celebrates the liberating power of living dangerously in an environment where the slightest transgression could bring about social catastrophe." According to one Michael Brooke who undoubtedly knows more film theory than I do.
At the time of its release the British Film Institute praised the film for its "meticulous period work" and considered the director's work to be "clean cut, sure and sensitively evocative of his period atmosphere" although I'm not so sure the same judgements would be expressed today. Nevertheless it was a very successful film at the time and still stands at number 40 in the BFI's Ultimate Film Chart as it pulled in almost 12 million punters in wartime Britain.
Those interested may view a selection of clips from the firm at the
www.screenonline.org.uk source noted below.
Director: Anthony Asquith
Producer: Edward Black
Screenplay: Doreen Montgomery
Photography: Arthur Crabtree
Music: Cedric Mallabey
Phyllis Calvert as Fanny
James Mason as Lord Manderstoke
Stewart Granger as Harry Somerford
Stuart Lindsell as Clive Seymore
Margaretta Scott as Alicia Seymore
John Laurie as William Hopwood