TBT: Lady Caroline Lamb

34

Lady Caroline Lamb (1972) — a biopic about the Regency novelist and mistress of Lord Byron — was one of the highest grossing films in Britain that year, and nominated for three BAFTAs. So why hasn’t it stood the test of time? Probably because it’s slow and fuzzy in that late 1960s/early 1970s way, where most scenes look like they have Vaseline on the lens?

The real Lady Caroline Lamb — née Ponsonby and niece of Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire — lived from 1785 to 1828. She married the Hon. William Lamb in 1805, had two children, then in 1812 famously had a chaotic affair with the poet Lord Byron. She later wrote a Gothic novel, Glenarvon (1816). I admit to only learning about Lamb when I recently watched the biopic Byron (2003) — what can I say, I’m not one for the Romantics or the Gothics. She was such an over-the-top character that I was intrigued to learn that there was a biopic about her, and you know I loves me my biopics!

Lady Caroline Lamb by John Hoppner, Althorp

Lady Caroline Lamb by John Hoppner, Althorp

In the end, the movie isn’t BAD, but it’s slow and definitely a product of its era. You know, very “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke”/Godspell (but with less singing). Lamb is played by Sarah Miles (Hope and Glory, White Mischief), who was apparently quite the darling of the 1960s, and it shows. With the help of an overzealous makeup artist, she looks like she stepped out of a Margaret Keane “big eyes” painting, and there’s a lot of trembling and shrieking.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

The movie omits Lamb’s writing, which is kind of bullshit, reducing her to Byron’s mistress. Byron is of course played by Richard Chamberlain, and guys, I’ve never gotten Chamberlain. I always thought he was cheesy AF, and was planning to do a Man Ick Monday on him but was surprised by Sarah’s Man Candy Monday. But now I get it! I think my problem is I only ever knew 1980s Chamberlain. I didn’t much like Byron as a character, but Chamberlain was pretty and played him well.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

American actor Richard Chamberlain as Lord Byron in the film ‘Lady Caroline Lamb’, 1972. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

I’ve gotta say, the main crux of the film — and sure, the most dramatic part of Lamb’s life — is her meltdown when she meets/falls in love with/gets dumped by Byron. And it honestly made me sick to my stomach. You know how you meet that great person, the one who suddenly makes you feel like YOU are all sparkly and fabulous because you think THEY are sparkly and fabulous, and you’re thinking “Wow, finally someone amazing understands my genius!” And then they dump you, and you are crushed, and start thinking “Oh god, maybe I am a loser.” And you could beg them to take you back, because of how sparkly and fabulous they made you feel, but if nothing else, you have your pride, and goddammit you walk away with your head held high? Yeah, Caroline Lamb (at least according to this characterization) was not that. She was more of the “PLEASE TAKE ME BACK IF NOT I WILL KILL MYSELF PUBLICLY” type, which I just have a REALLY hard time with. Because, you know, you were and are sparkly and fabulous all along, even if some chump can’t see it, and even if it takes you a while to recover.

LADY CAROLINE LAMB 1972

Trying to kill herself (unsuccessfully) | Courtesy Everett Collection

I'm sorry, that's fucking bullshit GIF

Me watching this

The costumes were designed by David Walker (The Charge of the Light Brigade, Eagle in a Cage, The Great Waltz, Will Shakespeare, The Corn Is Green), and they’re decent if not spectacular. Sometimes they’re a bit too pared down to be 1810s, but there’s some good hats and touches of the Renaissance revival elements that were fashionable in the era (and obviously suit such literary characters).

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

We first meet Caroline wearing men’s clothing — and learn she’s a historical manic pixie dream girl in the process.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

This evening gown has a standing ruff that’s part of the Renaissance revival trend.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb
Auguste Amalie de Baviere by Stieler, c. 1816 Château de Malmaison

For comparison: Auguste Amalie de Baviere by Stieler, c. 1816, Château de Malmaison

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

This menswear-styled day ensemble was cute.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

However, I felt like this solid black evening gown was waaaaaay 1960s, and something I’d expect to see Julie Andrews or Liza Minelli rocking.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

Possibly the standout outfit for me was this evening number (THE HEADPIECE) on Margaret Leighton (Bonnie Prince Charlie, The Madwoman of Chaillot, The Go-Between, The Nelson Affair) as Lamb’s mother-in-law.

Richard Chamberlain in Lady Caroline Lamb (1972)

Byron looked great, all high collars and cravats.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

Probably the standout moment, but costume- and plot-wise, was when Byron is getting sick of Caroline and shows up with her at a fancy dress ball. He’s in a version of his Albanian outfit…

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb
1813 portrait of Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips, from Wikimedia Commons.

1813 portrait of Byron in Albanian dress by Thomas Phillips, from Wikimedia Commons.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

But Caroline is in not just blackface but black-body-makeup, and it’s fucking tragic.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

The paint has a grey tinge to it, so it looks awful, and she’s played for a fool who follows around Byron like a puppy dog and fumbles with her feather pole, which worsens the racism.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

SO OFFENSIVE

cringe gif I Love Lucy
1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

I liked this outfit — the scallops are again very Renaissance revival, and the hat! And the bow!

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb 1972 Lady Caroline Lamb
1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

She’s very down with getting the nips out.

The makeup, on both Lamb and Byron (and everyone else), was VERY 1960s and helped to create that “big eyes” look:

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

That’s a lot of smokey eyeshadow for the 1810s.

They also made Lamb unflatteringly pale in a way that just Looked Like Bad Makeup:

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

Supporting characters went heavy on the eyes too:

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

That’s Pamela Brown as Lamb’s mother.

And even Byron got in on the action:

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

The hair. Okay, so yes, Lamb sported a crop, as seen in the portrait of her above. But what they came up with felt VERY 1960s Twiggy-esque.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

I think my mother-in-law had this hair at one point.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

It got VERY wiggy at times.

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

Byron had good tousled curls and excellent sideburns!

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

But mother-in-law Leighton went full Mrs. Slocombe from Are You Being Served?

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb 1972 Lady Caroline Lamb
mrs-slocombe-Are you being served

This kind of thing, minus the fun color.

Oh and there was an EXCELLENT example of shitty historical art:

1972 Lady Caroline Lamb

Is this the cover of a Victoria Holt novel?

Have you seen Lady Caroline Lamb? What’s your take?

34 Responses

  1. Gray

    A lot of older films seem slow these days because we’ve had decades of manic, shoot-‘em-up, things-go-boom film in recent decades. Also… some film are, well slow.
    Since films are mostly about pictures, I don’t mind a slow film if there’s something to look at. Y’know, like “Barry Lyndon”, “The Leopard” or “Days of Heaven”.

    Reply
  2. mmcquown

    As pathetic as the character. Byron was well described as “sad, bad, mad, and dangerous to know. I much preferred “Mary Shelley.”

    Reply
  3. hsc

    This is one of those films that I could never bring myself to track down and watch, despite thinking Richard Chamberlain looked really good done up as Byron.

    So thanks for taking one for the team and writing this rundown, because it pretty much established I haven’t missed anything.

    Screenwriter Robert Bolt (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, DOCTOR ZHIVAGO, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS) was married to Sarah Miles, and this was his only film as director. Bolt said he wanted to do a film about Lamb because her story “was funny, touching and entertaining.” (Yikes.)

    One thing, though: is the costume she wears supposed to represent an actual Black slave, or a blackamoor figure?

    Given the “grey-tinged” paint color and the facial marks, plus the rest of the costuming and props, I had always assumed that was what she was supposed to represent, rather than simple “blackface” in an exotic getup.

    The figures were frequently life-size and were quite popular as decor during the period, which makes it even worse– because in addition to the overall racism involved, she’s being reduced from a person to an object, a thing, completely dehumanizing her in the same way Blacks were dehumanized by the figures.

    And one other weird note to add: I ran across a quote from Sarah Miles in a book that was citing strange things celebs had said in interviews. According to this account, an interviewer once asked Miles about a pair of boots she was wearing that were topped with unusual fur cuffs.

    She responded that they were made from Gladys, her Skye terrier who had died and she couldn’t bear to part with!

    Reply
  4. Alexander

    I had totally forgotten that I had seen this film till reminded here, which speaks volumes on the impression that it left on me. I simply remember that it seemed to be dragged out till eternity and had little to redeem it. Not a single costume left it’s mark and the masquerade costume, feathered pole and all, would be hysterical if it were not so utterly horrifying. Bah! I am a little unsure if Caroline Lamb is indeed sporting a cropped hair style or if she has, in fact, had her curled hair tightly styled up nearer the crown of the head – as I would have thought more typical for English Regency women; I would have expected the crop, as demonstrated in the film, far more in Parisian post war society.

    Reply
    • Melody N.

      Cropped hair was in among the very fast set of the British aristocracy, in which circle Caroline Lamb (and Bryon) moved, so the short hair doesn’t surprise me. The rest of the costuming is…well, it’s very 1960s.

      Reply
      • Alexander

        Well, colour me pink; I had a further look into portraiture of Ms Lamb and I see that you are totally correct and she did indeed sport a curled crop and looks to lean into wearing men’s styled outfits on occasion. I totally agree on the 1960’s does Regency, regarding the costuming – the whole thing SCREAMS the period!

        Reply
  5. MsNomi

    One watches Chamberlain for one reason…eye candy. Like Elvis, he is so pretty he should have been a female. None of his roles are memorable (with the possible exception of Father Ralph in Thorn Birds), but he is so very beautiful to look at. Definitely more gorgeous than the leading lady in this film.

    Reply
  6. Fran in NYC

    Never saw the movie, only stills. Lady Caroline was married to William Lamb who became Lord Melbourne later. This Lord Melbourne was Victoria’s first Prime Minister we know from “Victoria”. In the movie, he’s played by Jon Finch who was a looker!

    Reply
    • SmallCatharine

      Fun fact about Lady Caroline’s Mother in Law Lady Melbourne, the one with the outrageous headdress: The Devonshire set used to tell a joke about her marriage: “Who is the father of Lady Melbourne’s children? Well, certainly not Lord Melbourne”.
      Still, all of her affairs increased the family’s influence, so Lord Melbourne didn’t mind too much – after all, he was fucking around too.

      Reply
      • Roxana

        The convention in aristocratic circles was for a wife to produce an heir of indisputable paternity before playing the field. Her husband was expected to accept any little accidents as his own and generally did so without complaint.

        Reply
        • Aleko

          One of Caro Lamb’s friends was Jane, Countess of Oxford (who was also one of Byron’s lovers, BTW). The family name of the Earls of Oxford was Harley; an earlier Earl had assembled a famous collection of rare historic manuscripts and printed documents known as the “Harleian Miscellany”. The paternity of Jane’s eight children was notoriously so various and so doubtful that they too were referred to as the “Harleian Miscellany” in Regency high society.

          Reply
  7. Kaite Fink

    There’s enough here for its own snark week! Wow… and not in a good way.

    Reply
  8. Diane

    I saw this in college with a film school class. Our very chatty, analytical group filed out in silence afterwards. Seeing it again would probably feel like a time warp.

    Reply
  9. Lynne Connolly

    Chamberlain made a magnificent Aramis in Richard Lester’s Musketeers series (in my opinion, the best version of the story on film, with Michael York as d’Artagnon, Frank Finlay as Athos and Oliver Reed on top form as Porthos.
    The first time swordplay was shown as more than fencing, I think. I love those movies, at least the first three, before they started milking the franchise.
    Anyway, I did think he made a good Byron. And the blackface thing? Happened in reality. Byron dumped her because he couldn’t cope with her any more, and she started to follow him around, and make scenes everywhere. At a time when Byron was dealing with a ton of problems, he couldn’t add one more. Her husband took her away, and had her cared for, but she eventually killed herself. Lady Caroline had some kind of mental illness – probably bipolar, but without modern diagnosis it’s not certain. It followed her all her life and eventually led to her suicide. Her husband, Lord Melbourne, became Queen Victoria’s first Prime Minister.

    Reply
  10. SarahV

    Lady Caroline shall ever earn eternal props for the fact that she was never ‘Carrie” and her preferred sobriquet is ‘Caro’ which is so goddam awesome that I want to name a daughter Caroline so we can call her that.

    Reply
  11. Aleko

    The black body makeup may be fucking tragic, but copies of that movie are gold dust for full-body-makeup fetishists (yes, it’s quite a common kink) just for that one scene.

    It’s not about blackface as such, though – they would be just as happy if Miles were crimson or ultramarine. A friend of mine took one look at the infamous photo of Justin Trudeau at an Arabian Nights party and instantly pegged him as a fellow body-painting kinkster, who had seized on the excuse of the party theme to have the rare chance to spend an entire social evening just covered in greasepaint.

    Reply
    • hsc

      “The black body makeup may be fucking tragic, but copies of that movie are gold dust for full-body-makeup fetishists (yes, it’s quite a common kink) just for that one scene.”

      Heh. I’d think Shirley Eaton in GOLDFINGER would be “gold dust” for that crowd… ;-)

      “A friend of mine took one look at the infamous photo of Justin Trudeau at an Arabian Nights party and instantly pegged him as a fellow body-painting kinkster…”

      Justin Trudeau was shown to have done “blackface” on at least two earlier occasions (once performing in a school show as “Harry Belafonte,” once running around campus in an incredibly racist “Black man” caricature)– and couldn’t say for certain, when asked, that there were no other incidents that might come to light.

      Yeah, I think your friend might have been on to something.

      (Fellow “blackface” politicians Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring of VA should’ve used “body makeup fetishism” as an excuse back in 2019– instead of “I was just performing in a lookalike contest. In shoe polish.”)

      Reply
      • Aleko

        Or not. Sad to say, I suspect that if my friend was right about Trudeau having a body-paint fetish, Trudeau may well have judged that the accusation of racism was something he could ride out by pretty-much-ignoring-it, whereas confessing to a harmless kink would damn his political career permanently.

        Reply
  12. Tui Hill

    I read a biography of Caroline Lamb & while I felt sorry for her – she clearly had a serious mental illness – I had so much sympathy for all the people who had to deal with her mess. I particularly admired Annabella Milbanke Byron, who despite having to deal with Caro insisting on sharing the details of her affair with Annabella’s husband acted with sympathy & I think even housed Caro at one stage. Lady Byron gets a hard time from (male) historians for being pious, prissy, & rigid but TBH a woman who provided care for her husband’s mentally unstable half-sister & possible lover, as well as his dumped mistress gets a stack of gold stars from me. BTW, I think you can read Caro Lamb’s novel free online.

    Reply
    • Roxana

      Lady Caroline was badly in need of modern psychiatric treatment, poor thing. Byron was a cad but he didn’t make her insane and you can’t blame him for being scared off by the crazy. Caroline’s long suffering and incredibly patient husband was of course Queen Victoria’s beloved Lord Melbourne.

      Reply
  13. kt

    Her novel Glenarvon was also scandalous because the characters were apparently thinly-disguised versions of her contemporaries in society.

    Reply
  14. GinaP

    Because of the Thorn Birds mini series. my Catholic school friends and I were mad about Richard Chamberlain.

    Reply
  15. Karen K.

    Today I learned that Richard Chamberlain is American and not British! How embarrassing, but in my defense I only knew him from the Musketeers series, The Man in the Iron Mask, and The Thorn Birds. I watched them when I was a teenager and I may be falsely remembering a British accent? He’s really rocking the sideburns and the eyeliner.

    Some of those looks are SO late 1960s/early 1970s, in that top photo I thought this was a candid shot of her before she’d changed into her period costume. She could have easily walked off the set and down the street to a Hollywood dinner party or awards ceremony in that outfit and hair.

    Reply

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