Bad Boy

I couldn’t resist watching a movie called The Bad Lord Byron. If Badness is a great subject for drama, it’s also one for comedy; and Bad Lord B sounds like a name the Carry On Gang would have cooked up. I can see it now: Sid James as a leering, winking Byron, reciting poetry to bed the oh-so-willing ladies; Kenneth Williams as a prisspot Shelley, all pursed lips and rebuking sighs; and Barbara Windsor as a lusty-busty Caroline Lamb, bursting out of low necklines and tight laces. No doubt there’d be lots of chamber-pot humor, and I’d love to see the divine Charles Hawtrey as Dr. Polidori, prancing in and out of scenes as he scatters pages from The Vampyre in his wake. It’s silly, I know, but part of the fun of movie-going is matching real actors to imagined plots behind titles, like a game of Rotisserie Casting.

Rest assured, however, that BLB is not a comedy but a thoroughly respectable film, quite solemn in its view of one of England’s greatest poets, and I hope all of you reading this know who Lord Byron is, else there’ll be much tedious exposition in what I hope to be a short essay…

Of all the major poets, Byron seems perfect film fodder. His life was dramatic, violent, varied, and short; he engaged in tempestuous love affairs with both women and men, and even his half-sister, if rumors are to be believed; he roved restlessly across Europe; fought in wars of independence; drank, gambled, and got himself in and out of debt; knew all the fashionable greats of his day; and through it all wrote great poetry. Surely a subject for film biography, as opposed to, say, the great 20th-century American poet Wallace Stevens, who supported himself by selling insurance and seems to have lived a life of unending placidity. However, this 1949 Byron biopic, despite its spicy title, is awfully tame. Our badly behaved lord indulges in a few moony love affairs, recites a few short poems, and declares himself on the side of Grecian independence. Isn’t everyone? It’s nice and safe and makes Wallace Stevens’ life look torrid in contrast.

The print I saw, a bad YouTube upload, was so dark, its scenes might have been filmed at the River Styx, especially if the Styx ran with ink. So I can’t comment on the film AS a film, as I couldn’t quite see it.  The plot configures Byron’s life as a flashback examination during a trial in the Afterlife, judgment to be made as to how the Heavenly Court should dispose of Byron’s misbehaving soul. That device was already old: a few years earlier A Matter of Life and Death did a variant of it; and a few years before that Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait did the same and did it much more wittily. Despite BLB’s solemnity, I wish it had kept Lubitsch’s gag of the trap door that drops testifying witnesses to the lower regions of the Styx (from where, as mentioned, this print may have originated). I think Byron himself would have smiled at that.

BLB does have a few witty moments, such as Byron summoning a servant by firing a gun (nothing so mild as a bell). There’s also the bit depicting the publication of his early masterwork Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, about which the real-life Byron wryly noted, “I awoke one morning to find myself famous.” The film illustrates his quote literally, with a grouchy Bryon pulled out of sleep by a noisy mob rumbling on the soundtrack. “Wherever you look. there’s people!” cries his valet. “How abominably true,” Byron mutters.

Otherwise we get the Classics Illustrated version of Byron’s life, bouncing through the better-known events and slowing down in its last third when Byron travels to Venice to run guns for the Italian Carbonari and entangle himself in a love affair with a countess. The film eventually gets to Freudthis IS the 1940s, after all, when Freud swooped down on cinema like an eagle upon a lambso Augusta Leigh must excuse Byron’s badness by claiming he was hurt by his mom. it’s a cheap (and ahistorical) analysis of Byron’s quirks (hasn’t everyone been hurt by Mom at some time?), inserted into the film as a lazy explain-it-all. But how would that explain the man’s poetry? Genius does not easily yield its secrets; and that’s one mystery that stays safely with Bryon.

As Byron himself, Dennis Price also has a few good moments. He gives a line like “Oh Annabella, your British sense of fair play is implacable” the rhythmic stress of poetry, his voice rising on “Annabella” then dropping onto “implacable,” so as to render the implacable sense of that word. Otherwise Price is cold. His speech is musical and perfectly pronounced but without passion. His acting is in a minor key; he doesn’t roar, he enunciates. As an actor Price was exact and composed, his emotions neatly folded and wrapped in tissue; even his drunk scenes are restrained. Price’s was a precise, small-scaled talent, one which suited him superbly for the calculating murderer in Kind Hearts and Coronets; but it can’t measure up to the vast, poetic mythos of Byron, a man famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”; and who, through his extraordinary life, work, and antics, almost single-handedly created the persona of the Romantic anti-hero, an image that reverberates down to the present day. Compare Price to Gavin Gordon, whose Byron in The Bride of Frankenstein gestures to the heavens and trills his R’s through fleshy lips. It’s Byron played for camp, but if I had to choose, I’d take Gordon and his winking frolics over Price’s mild bleats. It’s how we imagine wicked poets: roaring like tipsy lions and declaiming their vices as if expecting a medal for living them for us.

BLB neglects the less glamorous aspects of Byron’s life, such as his ballooning weight at the end of his life. It also skips, entirely, what for today’s audiences is probably the best-known incident of Byron’s career: the gathering of Byron, Polidori, and Percy and Mary Shelley at the Villa Diodati in the summer of 1816 (indeed, Polidori and the Shelleys are never mentioned in the film), when boredom and bad weather resulted in an exchange of ghost stories. Surely Byron should be remembered for more than a summer interlude? Still, I’d love to have seen what the Carry On troupe would have done with that.

BONUS CLIP: You can view (sort of) the complete The Bad Lord Byron on A Bad YouTube print here. Otherwise, click below to watch Gavin Gordon ham it up as “England’s greatest sinner” with Elsa Lanchester (“Mary darling”) and Douglas Walton (“Shelley darling”):

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