To BFI Southbank last night for a showing of a rarely-screened British film from 1947 that I’d never even heard of. The White Unicorn (known in the States as Bad Sister) is almost entirely absent from the literature about post-war cinema – apart that is from a valuable discussion of Margaret Lockwood’s persona by Sarah Street in the academic collection Heroines without Heroes: Reconstructing Female and National Identities in European Cinema, 1945-51. I’m not at all going to do justice here to the film’s richness – and its occasional absurdities – but I do want to record a few immediate thoughts. To give you something of a taste of the film’s attractions, here is the original trailer:
The White Unicorn is a lavish Rank-produced drama told mostly in two parallel streams of flashbacks. One is related by Lottie (Joan Greenwood) who has been brought to a girls’ remand home awaiting trail for attempted infanticide. During the scenes from her past we learn she grew up in desperate poverty, tried to establish herself as an independent young woman, fell in love with a man, and was then abandoned when she became pregnant. She slipped back into poverty and despair and one night attempted to gas both herself and her baby.
This strand is very much the subsidiary part of the tale, and the scenes of her upbringing have a picturesque, Dickensian quality, especially as Joan Greenwood remains immaculately made-up and coiffeured throughout. There’s no broader social dimension to her story – and no recognition of the emerging welfare state being put in place at the time of the film’s production.
The director of The White Unicorn was Bernard Knowles, cinematographer on many of Alfred Hitchcock’s British films of the 1930s, and who much later, and seemingly as his last credit, made The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour film in 1967. John Corfield was the producer, and much like Knowles I know nothing about him, while IMDb has this to say:
British producer who began in the industry in 1929. He co-founded (in 1934) British National Films in conjunction with Lady Yule and J. Arthur Rank, turning out mostly modest low-budget films. Rank sold his shares in the company to Yule, who left Corfield in charge of the company. He remained in that position until 1948.
In The White Unicorn Margaret Lockwood, playing Lucy, runs the remand home and it is her sensitivity towards Lottie that elicits the girl’s reminiscences. And she replies with a far more detailed account of the tribulations of her charmed life, which include an unconsummated marriage to a uptight barrister, Philip (Ian Hunter), a near-fatal road accident involving their infant daughter and eventual divorce.
Then follows a profoundly happy second life with a man, Richard (Dennis Price), who Lucy meets fulfilling her romantic fantasy at a fancy dress party. But during a honeymoon in Finland Richard dies in a tragic accident and Lucy, in an attempt to give something back to the world after having taken from it for so long, ends up running the remand home.
Finally, there’s a cleverly plotted courtroom encounter between Lucy and Ian, who is now the judge who has to decide the fate of Lottie and her child. And in a sort of coda, Lucy and her daughter (played by Lockwood’s own child), from whom she has become estranged, are reconciled in an embrace. As for the unicorn of the title – that’s a porcelain figure symbolising happiness that Richard had as a boy, then lost and which is then restored when he marries Lucy. But it’s fragile, and the metaphor breaks as he is sucked down an ice hole in a freezing torrent.
There’s not a whole lot in the character of Lottie, but Lucy embodies a clutch of contradictory impulses about duty and love and desire. The film is based on the novel The Milk-White Unicorn by Flora Sandstrom (who remarkably seems not even to have a Wikipedia page devoted to her writing). Sandstrom’s book was published only the year before the film’s release in 1947. Lucy’s tale is clearly an aspirational, upper middle-class fantasy, and this is even acknowledged by the inclusion of the elaborate fancy dress party at which everyone comes in 18th century costume. But beneath a genteel surface and Lucy’s accommodating character there’s an effective – and truly affecting – yearning for something more than the life that the men around her try to impose.
One of the strangest aspects of the film is the trip to Finland, which cues up not only a naked Margaret Lockwood enjoying being beaten with twigs in a sauna, but also an extended folk dancing scene complete with twirling scandinavians and a throaty song from the well-known Russian-born soprano Kyra Vayne. Apart from underlining the blissful happiness of Lucy and Richard, it’s hard to see what on earth all of this adds to the film. Apart perhaps from an exotic sense of a Europe that would still have seemed distant in the immediate aftermath of the war – which itself is never so much as nodded at.
Among the other pleasures of the film are the opulent costumes for Margaret Lockwood, created by Mattli, a Swiss-born, London-based fashion designer who Wikipedia says was ‘a key player in shaping London’s post-war couture industry’. To my eye, many of the outfits – and especially the night attire – looked extraordinarily over-the-top, but apparently the pressbook for the film claimed that, ‘It is predicted that the dresses… will be eagerly copied and worn proudly by women of discriminating taste.’
All of which underlines that The White Unicorn is a film as much about class and its discontents as it is about sexuality and its. Over the past two decades and more post-war British films pitched at predominantly female audiences have been much discussed and, albeit with reservations, celebrated. The White Unicorn deserves a much more central place in that discourse than it currently has – and ideally a DVD or online release for others to enjoy its attractions.