Betsy Bigley, a vivacious fortune seeker, was one of the most notorious Canadian women at the turn of the century. After growing up in obscurity on a farm near Woodstock, Ont., she used her considerable charm and a talent for forgery to amass a huge fortune in the United States. Although the authorities sent her to jail several times during her much-publicized career, she always rebounded into new positions of wealth. Indeed, her life was the stuff of melodrama—a fact not lost on the makers of Love and Larceny, a captivating, three-hour CBC special. Love and Larceny turns Bigley (Jennifer Dale) into a female Robin Hood who is unfailingly sympathetic because her schemes are as daring as they are illegal —and because the businessmen she cheats seem to be crooks themselves.
Love and Larceny romanticizes Bigley’s checkered life, but only a pedant could resist Dale’s performance as a scatterbrained dreamer with a heart of
only slightly tarnished gold. Early in the film the character wins the audience’s sympathy when she is seduced and abandoned by a rich British army officer (Brent Carver). After that disaster Bigley is prepared to escape pious, dull Woodstock in any way she can. She forges a cheque in order to buy new clothes and, when caught, fakes insanity to escape conviction. Making her way to Montreal, she parlays a $500 loan into a prosperous gambling establishment. But temptation soon knocks again. In trying to raise money to save her father’s mortgaged farm, Bigley forges more cheques—and goes to prison, although not for long. A few years later she is in New York, rich once again and trying to get richer by posing as the illegitimate daughter of millionaire industrialist Andrew Carnegie.
Dale responds to Bigley’s astonishing career with a storm of overacting —which is exactly what the largerthan-life role demands. Batting her eyes, preening, dropping in and out of foreign accents, the beautiful actress achieves just the right balance of wile, charm, greed and stupidity. But Dale is most skilful at showing how Bigley turns slowly into a coldly calculating woman who uses sex as a weapon and whose only friends are family.
Amazingly, Bigley remains appealing through that change, because her antagonists are mostly rich bankers whose pomposity invites their undoing. Ross Petty brings just the right touch of cold, faintly sneering lasciviousness to the role of Vandecar, the Woodstock financier bent on acquiring the Bigley farm. And Chris Wiggins gives the most solidly convincing cameo in the production as Newton, the dour New York bank executive who suspects the young woman’s claim on Andrew Carnegie. But not all the supporting cast in Love and Larceny is so villainous. Betsy’s guardian angel is a soft-hearted Montreal lawyer, Ashton Fletcher, played with courtly charm by the veteran Douglas Rain.
Such characters bring an irresistible panache to Love and Larceny, making it a rollick that exaggerates the outlines of real life. Still, such an approach runs a constant risk of foundering on clichés. With Bigley’s father, Dan (Kenneth Pogue), scriptwriter Douglas Bowie (Empire, Inc.) has created yet another heavy-handed version of the bullying, 19th-century Calvinist patriarch who haunts innumerable CBC scripts. And Bowie’s dialogue is sometimes both hackneyed and gratingly modern. But the sheer energy of the production—and its sumptuous period sets and costumes —help it to override its shortcomings. Love and Larceny is a lark whose song is endlessly entertaining.
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