Thanks to YouTube, I was able to watch the 1936 film Lloyd's of London, which might perhaps be known to film buffs as the film that made Tyrone Power a star. Most people, however, would probably say, "Lloyd's? The insurance company that insured J. Lo's butt?" And yes, you'd be right. That Lloyd's.
The film is about how an insurance company saved England. No, really. Boyhood friends Jonathan Blake (a fictional character) and Horatio Nelson part at the age of 12, one to go work for Lloyd's and one to go to sea and become Lord Nelson, the naval hero. Though they never see each other again, their bromance lasts forever, even as Blake revitalizes Lloyd's, Nelson revitalizes the navy, and both fall hopelessly in love with married women. During the Napoleonic wars, insurance rates for English shipping start soaring out of sight, threatening to cut off commerce altogether. Lloyd's plans to go to the admiralty to get military escort for the commercial ships. Knowing that this will hopelessly cripple his friend Nelson in his fight against the French, Blake steadily keeps insuring the ships at the old rate, risking everything he owns and his lover's entire fortune as well. Just as he can't last any longer, he gets a letter from Nelson thanking him and begging him for anything more he can do -- and he gets the idea to go send a false semaphore message of Nelson's victory. (This actually did happen inexplicably, historically.) He's discovered, and his lover's awful husband threatens to expose him but can't because he doesn't want his wife's fortune all to be lost -- instead he shoots Blake, at the moment that Nelson has finally forced the battle at Trafalgar and gets shot himself. Nelson dies; Blake lives, waking just in time to see his friend's funeral parade.
That's a long summary, but I have to say it was fairly gripping, and considering I was watching it in 10-minute snippets on YouTube, that's pretty impressive. It was the best kind of historical fiction, where the history gives it importance, but the film is fictional enough that you actually don't know what will happen at any given moment. I mean, Lloyd's could practically have failed for all I knew. It's a lovely old-fashioned black and white film, with plenty of amusing historical characters thrown in -- Ben Franklin wandering through Lloyd's, for one. Plenty of now-forgotten old character actors, but first billing went to child star Freddie Bartholemew, which amused me a bit. Power, who went on to be a big star but arguably didn't make any really legendary films, is impossibly young and pretty here, that kind of '30s matinee-idol look that suits oddly with my battered and bloody modern action-hero sensibilities, but works well enough for the role of aspiring gentleman.
A film that will make you adore your insurance companies! If it had come out a couple of years later, it might be remembered as a weird kind of business-oriented Mrs. Miniver, one of those patriotic wartime films. I hope it makes it to DVD. It has a lot of interest both on the cinematic-historical front and for its content.