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The Mudlark

The Mudlark(1950)

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teaser The Mudlark (1950)

"At last it's here! The story of the kid who wanted to sit on the Queen's throne!" proclaimed the posters for The Mudlark (1950). Based on Thomas Bonnet's 1949 novel, the film told the tale of an orphaned boy, Wheeler (Andrew Ray), who survives by scavenging through the mud on the banks of the River Thames. The boy's life changes forever when he finds a cameo of a woman amongst the belongings of a dead man, later learning that the woman depicted is the widowed Queen Victoria (Irene Dunne), who has secluded herself in Windsor Castle after the death of her husband, Prince Albert, fifteen years before. Wheeler decides to travel to Windsor to see the queen, whose prime minister, Benjamin Disraeli (Alec Guinness), worries that her reputation will be damaged because of her continued absence from public life. Wheeler sneaks into the castle and after falling asleep, is discovered and accused of being part of an Irish plot to assassinate the queen, whose life has already been threatened. Also in the cast were Finlay Currie, Beatrice Campbell and Anthony Steel.

Twentieth Century-Fox first optioned the film rights to the book for $5,000 in September 1949, and the following month purchased total rights for $75,000 with an additional $2,500 in consideration of sales of the book for 1949-1950. Bonnet's novel was adapted for the screen by producer Nunnally Johnson with uncredited alterations by Fox chief Darryl Zanuck, who, like Johnson, had begun his career in films as a screenwriter. Zanuck's changes to the script were due to his fear that heavy British accents would not be acceptable to American audiences. In a memo to Johnson and director Jean Negulesco, written in January of 1950, Zanuck complained, "Nothing has done more to kill English pictures in America than pronounced British accents. A British picture has got to be simply sensational to get by in this country and overcome the absolute hatred of American audiences for British accents. [...] If we load this picture with pronounced accents we are going to be in serious trouble."

This may explain why the American actress Irene Dunne was cast as Queen Victoria, which caused some criticism when it was announced in the United Kingdom in March 1950. Dunne managed to avoid most of the controversy due to her long vacation in Europe with her husband and fifteen-year-old daughter. When she arrived in England in May, Dunne held a press conference in which she acknowledged the criticism, but said that she had been working hard to cultivate a British accent and had done extensive reading about Victoria in order to portray her properly, adding, "Queen Victoria would turn over in her grave if I portrayed her with an American accent." The press was mollified, and Dunne went to work. The Mudlark was shot at Shepperton Studios in England because Fox, like many American film studios, still had money tied up in the United Kingdom from before the war. Unable to move the money back to the United States, Fox chose to spend it on production of The Mudlark and other films.

In order to be believable as the aged Queen Victoria, Dunne, then only forty-nine, was forced to undergo an hour-and-a-half daily sessions in the makeup chair with David Aylott, who worked in conjunction with famed makeup artist Gordon Bau. Dunne would later tell journalists, "They covered my face with strips of plastic latex so I doubt whether my own daughter would recognize me." Although Irene Dunne had been a star in films since the 1930s, she would share equal billing with her co-star Alec Guinness in prints that were shown in the United Kingdom, Ireland and Northern Ireland. Guinness had made his name in the theater, both in London and the United States before World War II in performances like Hamlet. After the war, Guinness showcased his astonishing ability to play a variety of characters in films like David Lean's Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948), and most notably in Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). Guinness was so popular by 1950 that his contract could demand this billing, even though The Mudlark was only his sixth film. In prints struck for the American market, however, Dunne's name was the only one above the title and Guinness' name appeared after. Andrew Ray had just celebrated his tenth birthday when he began filming the role of Wheeler. He won the part when his older brother Robin, who had been originally cast by former silent film star Ben Lyons, had grown too tall for the part.

The initial criticism of the choice of Irene Dunne to play Victoria did not prevent the film from screening at the Royal Film Performance on October 30, 1950, for King George VI and the Royal Family to raise money for the Cinematograph Trade Benevolent Fund. Dunne would take a page from the Royal Family's book when the film premiered in Los Angeles at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on January 30, 1951, requesting that Twentieth Century-Fox use it as a benefit for the St. John's Hospital Guild of Santa Monica, of which she was chairwoman.

In 1952 The Mudlark received an Academy Award for Costume Design (Black and White) for Edward Stevenson and Margaret Furse, who lost to Edith Head for A Place in the Sun (1951).

By Lorraine LoBianco

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