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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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Features: 1939-42
Still from Went The Day Well?

Nora Ashton (Valerie Taylor)
prepares to shoot the Nazi
collaborator in Went The Day

The Ministry of Information's remit also extended to the mainstream film industry, and many fiction features from the early part of the war were just as much vehicles for propaganda as the more direct examples discussed earlier. Film production in Britain fell drastically after war broke out, and there was much debate about whether British companies had any business making entertainment when it could easily be imported from abroad and there were far more important things to do. Alexander Korda, the most successful British producer, went to Hollywood with government encouragement to produce films designed to help put Britain's point of view across to then-neutral American audiences.

Most features in the early part of the war were made by production companies like Ealing, Gainsborough and British National, and, for obvious reasons, tended to be unashamedly patriotic flag-wavers with an emphasis on military activity, despite the romantic subplot in a film like Ships With Wings (d. Sergei Nolbandov, 1941). However, a few titles offered more intriguing female characters. In Cottage To Let (d. Anthony Asquith, 1941), Jeanne de Casalis almost steals the film - no mean feat given a cast boasting Alastair Sim, John Mills and George Cole - as her scatty upper-class Mrs Barrington, only too happy to help the war effort by taking in all and sundry, her cheerful lack of discrimination producing an implausible but dramatically compelling guest register comprising heroic RAF pilots, Nazi spies, British double agents and a Cockney teenager.

Perhaps the strongest female roles being offered in British films during this period were those portraying various direct forms of anti-Nazi resistance. Contraband (d. Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1940) features Valerie Hobson as a glamorous secret agent, while the two Dutchwomen played by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers are crucial to the survival of the protagonists of One Of Our Aircraft Is Missing (d. Powell & Pressburger, 1942). The dangers of undercover activity are rammed home in two Ealing war films: in The Next of Kin (1942), Beppie (Nova Pilbeam) accidentally discovers that her boss is a Nazi agent, while in Went The Day Well? (1942), the heroism of a postmistress (Muriel George) in unmasking and killing a German is undermined by gossiping switchboard operators who fatally delay the connection of a vital call. Thankfully, the local vicar's daughter Nora (Valerie Taylor) is more successful when it comes to a final-act showdown with the evil Leslie Banks.

And although, she was another supporting character, Deborah Kerr deserves mention for her triple role in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) in which she portrays three examples of women in war situations: a governess, a nurse and an army driver.

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