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Lamp Still Burns, The (1943)

Courtesy of ITV Global Entertainment Ltd

Main image of Lamp Still Burns, The (1943)
35mm, black and white, 90 mins
DirectorMaurice Elvey
Production CompanyTwo Cities Films
ProducerLeslie Howard
Screenplay byElizabeth Baron
From a novel byMonica Dickens
CinematographyRobert Krasker
MusicJohn Greenwood

Rosamund John (Hilary Clarke); Stewart Granger (Laurence Rains); Godfrey Tearle (Sir Marshall Freyne); Sophie Stewart (Christine Morris); Cathleen Nesbitt (The Matron); Margaret Vyner (Pamela Siddell)

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Successful architect Hilary Clarke decides to become a nurse, but during the course of her training she discovers just how hard the profession is - especially when she falls in love with one of her patients and has to choose between marriage and her career.

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The Lamp Still Burns (d. Maurice Elvey, 1943) opens with an announcement that the film is 'A tribute to all those who nurse, made with the assistance and collaboration of the Ministry of Health' - neatly summing up its purpose as a propaganda piece aimed both at encouraging women to enter the nursing profession and at informing the rest of the nation about the sacrifices they make in doing so.

Although it doesn't come anywhere near the Ministry of Information-supported Millions Like Us (d. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, 1943) for depth of characterisation, breadth of observation and overall wit (here, the propaganda is clumsily shoehorned into the drama and the joins are all too clear), The Lamp Still Burns is nonetheless a genuinely fascinating portrait of nursing conditions just before the creation of the National Health Service.

Apart from a scene in which an operation is carried out during an air raid, the war hardly features, as the film emphasises that the problems of British healthcare are inextricably linked to fundamental flaws in the system, where hospitals dedicated to the poor are entirely reliant on charitable donations, and nurses cannot combine a career and a fulfilling home life. Even Cathleen Nesbitt's fearsome Matron has a framed photograph to remind her of what she's had to give up.

What keeps them going is their passionate belief that they're carrying on a noble tradition (the opening credits play over dissolves linking a 1943 nurse to her illustrious forebears Edith Cavell and Florence Nightingale, the film's title referring to the latter) and their hope that things might improve. Tellingly, at one point the hospital's governors discuss the impact of specific real-life reforms, as if to emphasise that the filmmakers weren't just being blithely optimistic.

Given the government backing, it's both surprising and commendable that the film is so brutally honest about the drawbacks of going into nursing. The crunchingly unsubtle script can be accused of many things, but it certainly doesn't suger-coat the issues.

It's also boosted by a strong cast - Rosamund John and Stewart Granger (in his first major screen role) are supported by the reassuringly familiar Godfrey Tearle, John Laurie, Ernest Thesiger and Wylie Watson, and the sharp-eyed might spot Joyce Grenfell (credited as 'Greenfell') in her disappointingly straight-faced screen debut as a female doctor. Director Maurice Elvey took over from Leslie Howard after the latter's untimely death.

Michael Brooke

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Video Clips
1. Hilary's first day (4:02)
2. Regrets (3:27)
3. The hearing (4:29)
Monthly Film Bulletin review
Elvey, Maurice (1887-1967)
Granger, Stewart (1913-1993)
Grenfell, Joyce (1910-1979)
Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)
Laurie, John (1897-1980)
Two Cities Films