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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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Still from They Were Sisters

Dulcie Gray is terrorised by
James Mason in They Were

At first sight, it may seem strange to champion the lurid and often ludicrous costume melodramas produced by Gainsborough Pictures between 1943 and 1947 in a study of women during wartime, since the Gainsborough melodramas generally avoided all mention of the war – aside from the framing device of The Man In Grey (1943), only Love Story (1944) was explicitly set in the present day, and even then the war was only referred to in passing.

But they nonetheless shed a great deal of light upon the audiences of the time. Whether by luck or design, Gainsborough tapped into a market made up of women who, through a combination of absent menfolk and having to work for a living, were financially and sexually independent to an unprecedented degree, living for the moment lest they lose everything tomorrow - an all too convincing threat.

By any sensible yardstick, the films were escapist tosh, but there was a genuinely subversive undercurrent running through many of them: Fanny By Gaslight (1944) has a lot to say about sex and class; They Were Sisters (1945) deconstructs a number of traditional families and builds an 'ideal' model from the wreckage, while the bizarre Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) portrays a woman whose personality is split between that of a middle-class Italian housewife and the mistress of a sinister Florentine bandit.

Though almost everyone who played a lead role in the melodramas became a major box office attraction in their own right, it is well worth noting that it was the likes of Margaret Lockwood and James Mason who significantly outpolled Stewart Granger, Phyllis Calvert and Patricia Roc in popularity contests. This is fascinating because Lockwood and Mason almost invariably played villainous roles from the start, with Lockwood graduating from the wicked Hesther in The Man in Grey, whose future is so horrific that a gypsy fortune-teller refuses to tell it to her, culminating in the career-defining The Wicked Lady (1945), a character who goes out of her way to challenge convention at every turn, even to the point of criminality and murder.

If it's easy to understand the vicarious appeal offered by Lockwood's roles, the case of James Mason is more intriguing, since every single character he played in the Gainsborough melodramas, without exception, was a cold-hearted misogynist brute with no redeeming features aside from a certain chilly surface charm. Did wartime audiences really fantasise about being swept off their feet by a man who regarded them as "brood mares" (The Man In Grey), was a regular and enthusiastic patron of brothels (Fanny By Gaslight) or who displayed a decidedly unhealthy interest in his oldest daughter while bullying her mother into alcoholism and suicide (They Were Sisters)? All the evidence suggests that they did.

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