Scandalous Women on Film: That Hamilton Woman

Cast & Crew

Alexander Korda...... Director
Vivien Leigh as Emma Hart, Lady Hamilton
Laurence Olivier as Horatio Nelson
Alan Mowbray as Sir William Hamilton
Sara Allgood as Mrs. Cadogan-Lyon
Gladys Cooper as Lady Frances Nelson
Henry Wilcoxon as Captain Hardy
Heather Angel as Mary Smith
Halliwell Hobbes as Reverend Nelson
Gilbert Emery as Lord Spencer
Miles Mander as Lord Keith
Ronald Sinclair as Josiah

Backstory:  In 1940, Britian had been at war with Germany for a year. That Hamilton Woman was conceived by British/Hungarian producer Alexander Korda as propaganda, equating the British fiight against Napoleon with the fight against Hitler. It was his idea to team Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier, real-life lovers, as their historical counterparts Emma Hamilton and Lord Nelson. Vivien still owed Korda one more film under her contract. This would be the last film that Vivien and Oliver would make together. The script was written quickly by RC Sheriff (with help from Walter Reisch), who was known for his play Journey's End, about World War I, although there is a rumor that Winston Churchill had a hand in writing Nelson's speech in the House of Lords. Whether or not that is true, the film was one of his favorites, he owned a copy and showed it to friends at house parties.

Because of the production code at the time in Hollywood, the film was framed with scenes of Emma being thrown in debtors prison (cheaters couldn't be shown to prosper). In Europe, these scenes were excised, persumably because they were used to the idea of Great Men having love affairs. The film was shot in six weeks, and production was so rushed that no one was quite sure which arm and which eye Nelson lost. The script wasn't even finished when they started filming and rumor has it that it was constantly being rewritten during the shooting.Korda's brother Vincent was the production designer on the film and although the film was shot in Hollywood, he manages to recreate 18th century Naples and England.

According to Vivien Leigh's biographer Hugo Vickers, during the filming, Korda kept asking Vivien to play Emma coarser (at the time that Emma met Lord Nelson she was in her 30's and no longer the slyph she was when she posed for Romney and Reynolds. all that good food and wine in Naples!), Leigh replied that Korda wouldn't have put her under contract if she were coarse.

Plot (from Wikipedia): "The film tells the story of the rise and fall of Emma Hamilton, who became mistress to Admiral Horatio Nelson. Her early life as the mistress of the charming but unreliable Charles Francis Greville leads to her meeting with Sir William Hamilton, British ambassador to Naples. Greville gives Emma to Sir William in exchange for relief on his debts. Despite her shock at his betrayal, Emma comes to respect Sir William, who marries her and explains the reasons for Britain's war against Napoleon. When Horatio Nelson arrives in Naples, Emma is soon deeply attracted to him and is impressed by his passionate insistance on resisting Napoleon's dictatorial rule. She leaves Sir William to live with Nelson. Their idyllic life together is threatened by the continuing war. Nelson leaves to confront Napoleon's navy in the decisive Battle of Trafalgar. After his death in the battle, she says that nothing remained in her life."

My thoughts: When I discovered that TNT was going to be running this film during their '31 Days of Oscar' Month, I knew I had to tape it. I love this film and the reason that I love it is Vivien Leigh's performance as Emma. If the real Emma Hamilton was half as radiant and vibrant as Leigh is in this film, it's no wonder that so many men were in thrall to her. The film is a worthy follow-up to her performance in Gone with the Wind, Emma is required to age from 18 to 50, and Leigh gives the performance her all. Perhaps the film is so poignant because it seems to echo Olivier and Leigh's situation prior to making the film. Both were married to others, when they fell in love during the filming of Fire over England. Unlike Emma and Lord Nelson, their story had a happy ending, at least for awhile.

There are so many wonderful scenes in this film, it would take a much longer blog post than this to mention them all. One of the most amazing scenes in the film is the scene where Emma runs what appears to be the entire length of the villa straight into Nelson's arms and a passionate kiss, when she discovers that he's about to leave to fight the French. And the prior scene where Emma has compared herself to the antiquities that her husband has collected, and he tells her that at least his statues will never grow old. The final scenes where she collapses after hearing that Nelson has been killed and the scene in the jail at Calais are heartbreaking.

Olivier has a few good scenes as Nelson but he's hampered by having to play the character as a hero. He seems awkward and stiff in his scenes, except for those with Leigh, it's as if he knows that she's walking away with the picture and he's not happy about it. And she does. The film is called That Hamilton Woman (or Lady Hamilton) for a reason. She's the main focus of the film.

The film does a fairly good job of following the historical record, particularly in regards to Emma's friendship with the Queen of Naples, Maria Carolina (Marie Antoinette's sister). There is a scene early on in the film where Emma is able to get Lord Nelson the men that he requires by taking him to see the Queen while Lord Hamilton ineffectually writes a letter to the King. Because of the production code, there are endless scenes of the two lovers lamenting their situation and talking about how wrong their feelings are. Nelson's father is given a rather ham-fisted speech later on in the film as well.

All of the supporting performances are fabulous including Alan Mowbry as Sir William, sophisticated and jaded, and Sarah Allgood, who plays Emma's mother Mrs. Cadogan as slightly embarrassing but full of good sense. Gladys Cooper manages to give a fully realized performance in the few scenes that she is given as Lady Nelson, lecturing Nelson on how Emma is only using him for fame, and constantly criticizing every little thing that he does. No wonder he didn't miss her during the 7 years that he spent at sea! Of course to create conflict both Nelson's step-son Josiash as well as his father are shown to be against the relationship, although in real life, Emma went out of her way to flatter and charm Nelson's family. In fact, after Nelson's death, she helped to support them.

Horatia, Emma and Nelson's child, is kept off camera and we never see Emma pregnant. Lady Nelson mentions it and how Emma created the fashion of high-waisted gowns to hide her pregnancy. There is also no mention of Emma's older daughter. The film doesn't shy away from Emma's past, in the beginning of the film, Sir William tells the French ambassador all about Emma's relationship with Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, and her stint working for James Graham and his Temple of Celestial Beauty. Emma herself mentions the time when she worked as a kitchen maid.

Everytime I watch the film, I find new things in it. This time I noticed that Emma, in her scene with Lord Hamilton where they discuss her affair with Nelson, is wearing a diamond necklace with a large 'N' dangling from it. There are some flaws in the film. The viewer never finds out just how Emma ended up in Calais, stealing wine, after Nelson's death, and some of the dialogue is unintentionally laughable, but that just maybe because the production was forced by the Production Code to spend endless seasons sermonizing about how wrong the relationship is.

Unforunately the film is still only available on VHS in the US. I have absolutely no idea why it hasn't been released on DVD.


We must have a psychic link. I just watched That Lady Hamilton this weekend. I own it and love it. I also finished reading Elizabeth Vigee LeBrun: The Odysessy of a Painter by Gita May. Lady Hamilton is mentioned in the book as Vigee Lebrun painted her portrait. She wrote in her memoirs that Lady Hamilton was a brilliant mimic and grew very portly and sad toward the end of her life...
That's one of the things I loved about the film, that they incorporated Emma's ability to mimic. Apparently at the time she'd met Nelson, she'd already grown slightly portly.
Kendra said…
I just stumbled upon your blog--it's wonderful!

That Hamilton Woman is one of my favorite Vivien leigh films, and I love her and Olivier together in it--well, I just love them together, period.

It is actually on DVD in the US. Criterion restored and released it a few months ago. Worth the purchase, I think!


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