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Women in Wartime by Michael Brooke
Introduction WWI WWII: Propaganda WWII: Newsreels WWII: Food Features: 1939-42
Features: 1943 Features: 1944-45 Gainsborough Women Filmmakers    
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Women Filmmakers
Still from The Seventh Veil

Ann Todd and James Mason in
The Seventh Veil (1945),
co-written by Muriel Box

Looking through the credits of the films cited thus far, it is all too obvious that for all the industry's desire to promote the cause of women in almost every war-related industry, the filmmaking profession itself was overwhelmingly male-dominated, especially behind the camera, where the only professions with significant female involvement were scriptwriting, editing, continuity and costume design.

However, there were a small number of female film directors active during World War II, nearly all in the field of documentary. Indeed, Ruby (1904-40) and Marion (1907-99) Grierson had an automatic association with the genre thanks to being the younger sisters of John Grierson, founder of the 1930s British Documentary Movement. Marion was the first to enter the industry, though Ruby, a former teacher, seemed to be the more promising talent, especially for her ability to draw memorable material from her interviewees (she had a particular affinity with working-class women). When war broke out, she started making 'home front' propaganda for the Ministry of Food, which led to the outstanding MoI-sponsored They Also Serve (1940), which showed how an ordinary British housewife could help support the war effort throughout a typical day. She died when travelling to Canada to work on a film about children being evacuated there – her ship was torpedoed en route.

Margaret Thomson (1910-) also began making documentaries in the 1930s, specialising in the field of natural history (she had a zoology degree), and during the 1940s she adapted her interest in this material to cover war-related subjects: the titles Making A Compost Heap (1942), Clean Milk (1943) and The Signs and Stages of Anaesthesia (1944) being self-explanatory. After the war, she made films about children in postwar London in a pioneering cinema-verite style.

Kay Mander (1915-) began her documentary career in the 1930s, before directing the instructional short How To File in 1941. During the war years she made MoI-sponsored information films such as Mobilising Procedure (1942, about London's fire service), Debris Tunnelling (1943, about rescue procedures for casualties trapped in bombed-out buildings) and New Builders (1944, a recruitment film calling for people to help rebuild Britain), though her best-known film at this time was Highland Doctor (1943), a study of the Highlands and Islands medical service that was a thinly-veiled call for a nationalised health service.

Muriel Box (1905-91) was possibly the most influential woman working in mainstream fiction features thanks to her marriage to writer-producer Sydney Box in 1935. She made a film for the British Council, The English Inn (1941), before co-writing and winning an Oscar for The Seventh Veil (1945), whose success secured Sydney the job of running Gainsborough Films and Muriel the head of the scenario department, though she also had a co-director credit on The Lost People (co-d. Bernard Knowles, 1949), a study of the plight of postwar European refugees.

Jill Craigie (1911-99) also had a background in documentary, but first came to attention when she wrote the script for the war adventure The Flemish Farm (1943), directed by her then husband Jeffrey Dell. Her own directorial debut, Out of Chaos (1944) examined the role of the War Artists Committee and recent work by Graham Sutherland, Stanley Spencer, Henry Moore and Paul Nash, and after the war she took a keen interest in postwar reconstruction in such films as The Way We Live (1946, about Plymouth's plans for rebuilding the bomb-damaged city) and Children of the Ruins (1948, about UNESCO's concern for the plight of children in areas devastated by war).

Finally, Joy Batchelor (1914-91) was half of the husband-and-wife team that founded the pioneering animation company Halas and Batchelor. Filling the Gap (1942) has already been mentioned in the section on Food, but it was just one of dozens of animated shorts that they made for the Ministry of Information during the war years – others include Dustbin Parade (1941), about recycling household waste for use as munitions, and Garden Pests And How To Deal With Them (1944), which used conventional war imagery to provide witty parallels for gardeners' constant battles with infestation.