Lady Godiva (1911) A Silent Film Review

The almost-certainly-not-true tale of a medieval lady who is dared to ride naked through the streets by her husband. I think marriage counseling would have been a smarter idea but what do I know? The Vitagraph production goes for tasteful presentation with one notable exception…

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and via streaming.

She rode naked through the streets and all she got was a lousy chocolate company.

Lady Godiva is known for one thing: riding naked through the streets of (mumble) in order to accomplish (mumble). IT’S AN EXCUSE TO PAINT A NAKED LADY ON A HORSE, OKAY? WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM THE PRE-RAPHAELITES, HUH?

In all seriousness, Lady Godiva was indeed an Anglo-Saxon aristocrat but the tale of her riding naked through the streets of Coventry covered only by her hair cropped up a couple of centuries after her death and is not considered to be factual by medieval scholars.

As Alfred, Lord Tennyson would put it, facts, schmacts and it is his poem that forms the basis for this 1911 Vitagraph production of Lady Godiva’s ride.

Has she considered hemlock in the wine?

Briefly, Earl Leofric (Robert Gaillard) has an appetite for cash and a toxic relationship with his wife, Godiva (Julia Swayne Gordon). When he levies yet another tax on his people, his wife takes the side of the peasantry and asks him to rescind it. He refuses and sarcastically states that he will lift the tax if she will ride through the streets naked. He seems nice.

Godiva takes him at his word and sends out a proclamation that details what she will be doing and asks that the people of Coventry stay indoors and not peek at her as she rides by. Naturally, there’s one guy (there’s always one guy) who disobeys. Tom (Hal Wilson) bores a hole in his shutters and sees Godiva but is immediately struck blind, the scoundrel.

Ye olde medieval voyeur.

Obviously, it’s not really possible to spoil a story that is at least seven centuries old, so suffice to say that Godiva succeeded and the tax was lifted, at least according to legend. And just about every source seems to agree that this tall tale was also the origin of the phrase “peeping Tom” so well done there. If it’s any consolation, the real Lady Godiva outlived her husband by a decent number of years.

This version of the story goes for class and taste rather than a more lascivious tone. It’s not too obvious in the footage (at least not to me) but you can see in stills that Julia Swayne Gordon was wearing a body suit for her ride, which certainly would have been more sanitary. (I still am a bit disturbed about Alanis Morisette sitting on a train seat in her birthday suit all those years ago.)

The saintly Lady G.

Gordon went into mom roles pretty soon after this and you might recognize her from her role in Scaramouche. As Godiva, she’s pretty bland. I realize that censors had to be considered and all that but the part is pretty lifeless, especially considering the colorful events surrounding the character.

Hal Wilson is considerably more fun as Peeping Tom. He leaves no scrap of scenery unchewed as he leers and ogles and rubs his hands together lustily. It’s pretty amusing. Surprisingly, the critic of Moviing Picture World describes his performance as “a stroke of genius and art.” Um, if you say so. I mean, I found it incredibly amusing but not for any of the right reasons.

“Art”

The Coventry of the picture is a slightly sanitized, homogenized, Victorianized view of the Middle Ages, which isn’t surprising considering that Tennyson’s poem was the main source material. There’s none of the grit of a real medieval setting but the images are not without their charms and if a Tennyson poem come to life is your thing, you’ve come to the right place.

That being said, I do find it interesting and a little humorous that Peeping Tom was blinded by divine intervention or something for trying to sneak a glimpse of Godiva through a hole and film audiences are shown nearly the whole enchilada (well, hair and body suit) in what was originally 35mm on the big screen. I realize that the image is iconic and all that but it seems a little unfair to blind a voyeur and then merrily splash the nude lady across the silver screen for audiences to enjoy from multiple angles.

Management is not responsible for any sudden cases of blindness.

(I read about the idea that Tom was not blinded by heavenly forces but by vengeful villagers, which is a much more interesting explanation but alas…)

As I said, this film goes for taste and all that but this is why the story of Lady Godiva as we know it is better as a poem than as a motion picture. I have not seen the 1955 Maureen O’Hara vehicle Lady Godiva of Coventry but I would down for a film version that took a more assertive approach and incorporated some genuine medieval history, as well as perhaps an eye gouging or two.

Out of the saddle, back in a gown.

This Vitagraph Lady Godiva has amusing bits, especially the over-the-top Peeping Tom, but it plays things pretty simple and doesn’t explore its premise quite as deeply as I would have liked. (And if you think that movies of the period couldn’t challenge convention or source material, do check out From the Manger to the Cross because there’s a lot of meat on those bones.) It accomplishes what it sets out to do: a faithful adaptation of Tennyson not likely to be banned in Ohio and Pennsylvania but it lacks oomph.

This picture is worth seeing for any fans of classic poetry curious about silent film adaptations, anyone who likes a medieval picture and anyone interested in the history of Vitagraph. While it’s not a masterpiece, it was a critical success and seems to have done a decent business at the box off, so it represents the kind of pictures Americans of 1911 wanted to see. And it’s only ten minutes long, so what do you have to lose? (Except, perhaps, your frocks?)

Where can I see it?

Available for solo rental or purchase from Harpodeon. It’s also included as an extra on Grapevine’s release of Salambo.

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6 Replies to “Lady Godiva (1911) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Hi Fritzi. Excellent use of the ellipse. “The Vitagraph production goes for tasteful presentation with one notable exception…”

  2. She may or may not have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry, but Godiva made generous charitable gifts to the Church, and was mentioned in the Domesday Book as a woman of considerable standing.
    The legend of Peeping Tom appears about two hundred years after the main story.

  3. And, of course, nowadays if you are “sent to Coventry” you have become a social outcast among your peer group, though how the saying came about is a mystery.

  4. I have just taken delivery of the Harpodeon dvd of Salambo, so now I’ll be able to see Lady Godiva for myself! Quel plaisir, as we say in the West Midlands.

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