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Gentle Sex, The (1943)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Gentle Sex, The (1943)
35mm, black and white, 89 mins
Directed byLeslie Howard
Production CompaniesConcanen Productions, Two Cities Films
Produced byDerrick de Marney
ScreenplayMoie Charles
Additional DialogueAimee Stuart
PhotographyRobert Krasker
MusicJohn Greenwood

Cast: Joan Gates (Gwen Hayden); Jean Gillie (Dot Hopkins); Joan Greenwood (Betty Miller); Joyce Howard (Anne Lawrence); Rosamund John (Maggie Fraser); Lilli Palmer (Erna Debruski); Barbara Waring (Joan Simpson)

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The experiences of seven new recruits to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) as they undergo basic training and receive their first assignments.

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"Women... women all over the place... They think they're helping, I suppose..." So begins director Leslie Howard's narration, but like much else in the film (especially the credits, picked out in needlepoint) it is clearly ironic. In fact, the film both announces and welcomes the changing social status of Britain's womanhood.

Howard had returned to England from Hollywood when war broke out to make propaganda films. With the exception of The Lamp Still Burns (d. Maurice Elvey, 1943), a similar effort about wartime nurses for which Howard is credited as producer, this film (in which he takes no acting role) was to be his last before his plane was shot down in 1943.

Though direction was completed (without credit) by Maurice Elvey, after Howard's mistress suddenly died during production, Howard's is the film's controlling voice. This is instantly established by the opening sequence, in which we glimpse him from behind on a balcony overlooking a railway station, choosing, like a Greek God, the women whose destiny he is to control (or rather, whose progress the film is to follow). Thus as narrator he is selecting the characters just as he must have chosen the actresses as director. (The viewer must decide which of the two provides the accompanying voice-overs: "Oh, we must have her... We might keep an eye on this one, she looks worth following.")

This omniscient tone, both an irony and a comfort in the uncertain times in which the film was first received, is countered by moments of unexpected realism, as when a central character is reported missing, presumed dead. It is the uncertainty of the communication that surprises today (we never receive definite information), but it would have struck a recognisable, and of course harrowing, chord at the time. Our knowledge of Howard's own death so shortly after intensifies the effect of such moments still further.

In order to salute the real-life equivalents of its subjects, the film affects a semi-documentary style, casts character actresses rather than stars in the leads, and uses genuine military personnel as walk-ons. It also contains much discussion of how a post-war future should be constructed. (Present-day audiences may find the simple optimism of these sequences among the saddest parts of the film.) As such, it resembles Powell and Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944), another film that drew a distinction between why we fight and what we are fighting for.

Matthew Coniam

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Video Clips
1. The magnificent seven (4:06)
2. Lights out (3:40)
3. Afternoon tea (3:33)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Brunel, Adrian (1892-1958)
De Marney, Derrick (1906-1978)
Elvey, Maurice (1887-1967)
Greenwood, Joan (1921-1987)
Hanley, Jimmy (1918-1970)
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)
Krasker, Robert (1913-1981)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Malleson, Miles (1888-1969)
Two Cities Films