The Scarlet Woman was begun in July 1924, when Evelyn Waugh was wondering what to do with himself having come to the end of his wonderful time at Oxford. Terence Greenidge was a friend from these halcyon days, and Evelyn, having written pieces for Oxford magazines, came up with a storyline for his friend's film. There isn’t a script as such for The Scarlet Woman, none that has survived anyway. It’s a silent film and we don’t know to what extent the actors extemporised. The film is punctuated by captions which Waugh wrote.
Evelyn Waugh plays two parts in the film. Firstly, the Dean of Balliol College, Oxford, who is described in a caption as a leading Catholic layman of England. Waugh went to Hertford, a more obscure Oxford college. While there, he and Terence Greenidge, the film’s director, both took against their Dean. According to Waugh in his autobiography, A Little Learning, Greenidge formed the conceit that the Dean of Hertford was sexually attracted to dogs and would bark seductively in the quadrangle below the Dean’s rooms. As for the Dean of Balliol, in real life this man closed down the Hypocrites Club, of which Evelyn was a member, and stole from Waugh his first boyfriend, Richard Pares. This background might explain why Waugh plays the role with such mocking relish.
This film still shows Evelyn sitting at the back porch of Underhill, the house that his father had built and moved the family into when Evelyn was aged three. Yes, here sits twenty-year-old Evelyn, under an Andy Warholesque wig, though of course Warhol and Pop Art were still to come. Here also sits twenty-year old Evelyn, minus Degree. Waugh, having done more carousing than working, had earned a Third Class Degree in History which his father thought wasn’t worth formally receiving by going back to Oxford to satisfy the university’s residency requirements. Far better, thought Evelyn’s father, that his son get a job and do something about discharging the debts that he’d acquired while living high on the Oxford hog.
Evelyn was very concerned about money in the summer of 1924, though that didn’t stop him continuing to spend it. Far from having positioned himself to achieve a smooth transition from student life to an independent adult existence, he had no job prospects and very expensive tastes picked up from the upper class company he’d been keeping.
The second part Waugh plays in the film is Lord Borrowington, ‘a penniless peer’. For this role, Waugh replaces his wig with a top hat, eye shadow, lip-enhancing facial hair and an air of sophistication. Oh la la! Lord Borrowington will use you or abuse you, so watch out ladies!
So in The Scarlet Woman, Waugh acts two roles, both of which, I will attempt to show, relate intriguingly to the roles he plays in his own life in the years immediately preceding - and those following - the making of the film.
Waugh wrote a short story called ‘The Balance’ in 1925 (between the two shoots of The Scarlet Woman). In this largely autobiographical story, Waugh again splits himself between two roles, the lovelorn Adam Doure and the debauched Ernest Vaughan. Moreover, the story is ostensibly a film being watched by two working class women in a cinema, the action being pushed along by captions that are supposed to be what the women are reading on screen. “Isn’t life wonderful?” one reads. Occasionally, life may have seemed wonderful to young Evelyn Waugh circa 1924-25. But Adam Doure feels suicidal throughout much of ‘The Balance’ and I’ll be bearing in mind both joy and despair as I proceed with this investigation of Evelyn Waugh, this playful deconstruction of his Scarlet Woman.