Nell Gwyn (1934)





Director:    Herbert Wilcox. 

Starring:     Anna Neagle (Nell Gwyn),  Cedric Hardwicke (Charles II),  Jeanne De Casalis (Duchess of Portsmouth),  Muriel George (Meg),  Helena Pickard (Mrs. Pepys),  Dorothy Robinson (Mrs. Knipp),  Esme Percy (Samuel Pepys),  Miles Malleson (Chiffinch),  Moore Marriott (Robin),  Craighall Sherry (Ben),  Lawrence Anderson (Duke Of York). 

Charles II loves her irreverent sense of humor



Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Comedic actress Nell Gwyn is pretty, witty and a favorite of the audience.  The Duchess of Portsmouth, mistress to King Charles II, is from France and Londoners do not like her.  Chiffinch is the keeper of the King's household.  James, Duke of York (and the future King James II), is the King's brother.  then there is Charles II, who is ceaseless in affairs of state and love.  The year is 1668 and there is an air of hope in the whole land.  The national debt is some 2 million pounds and the treasury has very little money. 

Charles II is going to the theater with the Duchess of Portsmouth.  Nell Gwyn is performing at the Drury Lane Theater.  Gwyn fights with a Mrs. Knipp.  Samuel Pepys, the famous diarist, comes back stage to see the women preparing for the performance.  He tells the actresses that the King is here.  He then kisses Mrs. Knipp.  Nell can't resist asking Samuel how his wife is doing as he is kissing Mrs. Knipp. 

On stage Nell sings while she is making eyes at the King.  She even winks at him.  Back stage the young women tease Nell about her catching the attentions of Charles. But they all get a surprise when the manager sends everyone out of the room, except Nell, because she has a visitor:  the King.  Charles comes in to talk with Nell.  He asks her to dine with him and Nell accepts.  They go to a place called The King's Arm.  Nell goes past a couple of heavy drinkers that she knows well and likes.  She even introduces the two characters to the King.

After dinner in private Nell sits close by the King.  She puts out the candle lights and the king asks for his kiss in the dark. 

The next day while walking down the street, Nell sees a large crowd gathered outside a clock store.  King Charles is in the shop picking out a clock.  Nell goes into the shop to say hello to Charles.  He asks her which of two clocks would she choose.  Nell choose the clock that is a little more showy than the other.  She figures Charles is going to buy it for her.  But then walks in the Duchess of Portsmouth.  The King introduces her to Nell.  The King asks the Duchess to chose between the two clocks.  She picks the one that Nell rejected, saying Nell's choice is too gaudy.  Nell gets a shock when the King buys the clock for the Duchess and does not buy the clock that Nell liked for Ms. Gwyn. 

Nell is with Charles.  The Duchess of Portsmouth arrives and Nell must go, but after Nell's performance the King visits with her.  Nell's maid tells her to watch out for that Duchess of Portsmouth for she says the most scandalous things about Nell to the King.   Nell asks what kind of things and the maid reluctantly tells her, the Duchess tells the King things like her mother was a big boozer and her father cleared out when Nell was still very young.  Nell just laughs it off, saying those things about her are true. 

Nell attends a big royal ball.  The Duchess is there along with the Archbishop of Canterbury.  When Nell comes in everyone in the room suddenly stops talking.  The music also stops.  It looks like Nell is being snubbed in accordance with the wishes of the Duchess.  Nell feels a bit uncomfortable.  But when King Charles II arrives, he goes right to Nell passing by everyone else.  After a very short while, everyone goes over to be near the King and Nell, leaving the Duchess all alone on the other side of the room. 

Charles goes into dinner escorting Nell.  Nell sits on his right side and the Duchess sits on his left side at the table.  After dinner the King has Nell do a dance for everyone.   Nell dances in a full length evening gown that touches the floor along with a bunch of petticoats.  It's not an easy thing to do, but she does give an interesting dance performance.   

The Duchess plans to upstage Nell at the theater by wearing the latest craze in hats from Paris.  She will wear a really big hat.  The maid of the Duchess brags about this to the other maids and Nell's maid then tells Nell.  At the theater with the King, the Duchess wears her really big hat and the audience really takes notice of her and the hat.  Nell's act starts.  The curtain opens to see just a humongous hat on the stage.  After a brief pause Nell stands up with the hat on her head.  The hat is bigger than Nell herself.  Everyone gets a laugh out of it, except the Duchess.  The audience definitely takes notice of the rivalry between Nell and the Duchess. 

Nell sees her two favorite drinkers again.  While talking, they laugh at Nell because she thinks, as former servicemen, the two fellow have pensions.  They tell her that neither of them have any pension.  Nell then uses her influence with Charles to establish The Royal Chelsea Hospital for Soldiers and Sailors (which is still in existence). 

To alienate Charles from Nell the Duchess tells the King that Nell is deeply involved with the French Ambassador. Knowing that the King will be visiting Nell, she has her maid take over one of the Duchess's most expensive necklaces in a beautiful case to give it to Nell saying it is from the French Ambassador.  The King does talk with Nell and he is a bit put-off by his jealousy stemming from the gossip spread by the Duchess.  And then in the middle of the conversation, the necklace is delivered.  When Charles hears that it is from the French Ambassador, he tells Nell in an unpleasant tone:  Then what they say is all true.  Nell doesn't know what he's talking about.  Charles says she is a traitor to him and to her country.  When he starts accusing her of  being unfaithful, Nell goes to her maid to find out what happened.  She learns that the necklace was brought by the maid of the Duchess.  Now Nell gets upset and very mad, turns around and marches right up to her bedroom leaving Charles alone by himself. 

Charles leans the true nature of what happened and has to go up to Nell's room to apologize.  When he enters she tells him to get out of her.  It takes him a bit of effort, but he reconciles with Nell.  The Duchess arrives at the home of Nell and Charles asks Nell not to make a scene.  Nell goes to receive the Duchess.  The Duchess says she will be very frank with Nell.  The King, she says, has tired of Nell.  And the court too has tired of Nell and her lower class manners.  Nell gets very angry and tells the Duchess that she will be very frank with her.  Nell tells her that everyone hates her guts from one corner of the country to the other. 

Narration in the form of a written statement says that Nell was very faithful to Charles.  Indeed, so much so that His Majesty was actually surprised by such love and constancy. 

Charles speaks with Nell and reminisces a bit about their relationship.  Nell was only eighteen years and one month old when she first met Charles.  The King tells her that he is going to make her the Duchess of Greenwich. 

Friday, February 5, 1685.  The King is on his death bed.  The Duchess of Portsmouth, who keeps the French King abreast of the activities at the English court, has to flee hurriedly to France at once.  Nell goes to court to see Charles, but she is not allowed to see him.  She has to wait behind a gate composed of bars looking like a jail gate.   Someone tells her that the King is dying and her eyes fill will tears.  Charles asks if there has been any word from Nell.  His brother says no, but the fellow dealing with Nell's presence says yes.  Before he dies the King tells brother James:  "Let not poor Nell starve."  King Charles dies.  The chant starts:  "The King is dead!  Long live the King!" as power is transferred to the now King James II. 

Short movie but very enjoyable.  Nell is presented as an extremely lively and irreverent, young lady/actress.  She always seems to be happy in spite of some of the nasty gossip at court.  Nell may not be royalty, but she sure handles herself well with some of her more stuck-up rivals for the attention of King Charles II.  I particularly liked her first dance performance.  My wife liked the "cat-fighting" scenes between the Duchess and Nell.   And the script fairly successfully keeps to the real history! 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D.


Historical Background:

1650 – birth of Eleanor "Nell" Gwyn. Little is known of her mother, but her father was probably Captain Thomas Gwyn of the Cavalier Army during the English Civil War.

The father soon left her mother. Nell grew up in a low situation. Her mother became very heavy and an alcoholic who ran a brothel. (Some say Nell may have even been a child prostitute.)

around 1662 – Nell is thought have had a lover named Duncan or Dungan for about two years. He may have gotten Nell a job at the nearby theater.

1660 – Charles II restored to the English throne. Under the Cromwellians theater and other diversions had been banned.

1663 – the King's Company, led by Thomas Killigrew, opens a new playhouse, the Theatre in Bridges Street that was later named the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. Nell had a friend Mary Meggs who sold things to eat in the theater. She hired Nell and her older sister Rose as sellers of small oranges. (These girls were called "orange-girls.") Charles II frequently attended the performances at the theater.

1664 – Nell began acting at the theater at age 14. (Acting was made harder for her because she was illiterate.) She was a lover of actor Charles Hart.

1665 (March) – Gwyn’s first recorded appearance on-stage. But what made her a star in England was her comedic abilities. With her lover Hart, she play part of the "gay couple".

1665 (summer) to 1666 (autumn) -- most of London shut down by what became known as the Great Plague of London.

1666 – Nell returned to the stage in comedies. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys praised Nell highly.

1667 – Gwyn becomes the mistress of Charles Sackville, Lord Buckhurst. The affair did not last long.

1667 (late) – George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham, chose Gwyn to move aside the King’s mistress Barbara Palmer. Gwyn, however, asked for too much money to be kept and the deal fell through. Buckingham matched the King with actress Moll Davis.

1668 (April) – Gwyn begins a romantic relationship with the King. Because of her relationships with two previous men named Charles she called the King her "Charles the Third". Her notoriety gets her even more roles.

As she began spending more time with the King, she acted less.

1669 (January to June) – Nell has no recorded parts.

1670 – birth of her son Charles Beauclerk (d. 1726).

1670 (late) – Gwyn returns to the stage.

1671 – Gwyn’s last season in the theater. (She was only 21 years old.)

1671 – birth of her son James Beauclerk (d. 1681).

From France Louise de Kιrouaille becomes one of the many mistresses of the King. Nell and Louise, polar opposites, became fierce rivals for many years.

1671 (February) – Nell moves into a crown-owned townhouse which was her main residence for the rest of her life.

1676 – Gwyn is awarded the townhouse property by an Act of Parliament.

1681 – death of Nell’s son James at age six in Paris.

1684 – following the death of the 1st Earl of St Albans, the King names Nell’s surviving son the Duke of St Albans with an allowance of £1,000 pounds a year.

1685 (February) – death of King Charles II. On his death bed he told his successor, his brother King James II: "Let not poor Nelly starve." He gave Gwyn a pension of 1500 pounds a year.

1687 (March) – Gwyn suffers a stroke leaving her paralyzed on one side.

1687 (May) – a second stroke forces her to be confined to bed.

1687 (November) – Gwyn dies. She was only 37 years old.


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