Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema

Blackout: Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema

by Antonia Caroline Lant

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The most universal civilian privation in World War II Britain, the blackout possessed many symbolic meanings. Among its complicated implications for filmmakers was a stigmatization of film spectacle--including the display of "Hollywood women," whose extravagant appearance connoted at best unpatriotic wastefulness and at worst collaboration with the enemy. Exploring…  See more details below


The most universal civilian privation in World War II Britain, the blackout possessed many symbolic meanings. Among its complicated implications for filmmakers was a stigmatization of film spectacle--including the display of "Hollywood women," whose extravagant appearance connoted at best unpatriotic wastefulness and at worst collaboration with the enemy. Exploring the wartime breakdown of conventional gender roles on the screen and in the audience, Antonia Lant demonstrates that many British films of the period signaled their national cinematic identity by diverging from the notion of the Hollywood star, the mainstay of commercial American motion pictures, replacing her with a deglamourized, mobilized heroine. Nevertheless, the war machine demanded that British films continue to celebrate stable and reassuring gender roles. Contradictions abounded, both within film narratives and between narrative and "real life." Analyzing films of all the major wartime studios, the author scrutinizes the efforts of realist and melodramatic texts to confront women's wartime experiences, including conscription. By combining study of contemporary posters, advertisements, propaganda notices, and cartoons with consideration of recent feminist theoretical work on the cinema, spectatorship, and history, she has produced the first book to examine the relationships among gender, cinema, and nationality as they are affected by the stresses of war.

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Princeton University Press
Publication date:
Princeton Legacy Library Series
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6.90(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Reinventing Women for Wartime British Cinema

By Antonia Lant


Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05540-4


Projecting National Identity

* * *

We lack a unifying belief, a new purpose for a society devoted to peace. It is easy to have a belief, if we have an enemy.

J. P. Mayer, 1948

Looking back in 1939, neither government, filmmakers, nor audiences could remember a time when British cinema had lived beyond the shadow of Hollywood. This cinema was seen as a victim of not only economic but also cultural subjection. Hollywood's tentacles had apparently wrapped themselves around British life itself, bringing with them the contraptions of modem domesticity: "The refrigerator [had] penetrated the fastness of the English home largely as a result of it appearing as a standard fixture in American kitchens as shown in the films." At least since World War I, the American film industry had determined the scale of economic support for most films seen in Britain, and often their content. "So far as films go, we are now a colonial people," Grierson's World Film News was able to pronounce in 1937. Repeated counter attempts by British studios to recolonize British screens, or claim a reciprocal slice of the American exhibition pie, had failed. By 1939, eighty percent of films shown in Britain were American, and British producers had secured no more than four to five percent of the United States's domestic market.

The outbreak of World War II put the whole matter of American domination in a new light. The crisis forced the question of nationality into every crevice of public and private life, contaminating everything from leisure to labor, sifting every object into its national category: alien, enemy, neutral, naturalized, Allied. Cinema was caught in this mesh of designations, conscripted for its own bout of National Service. It was the most powerful medium for building national identity in that it reached a wider public than any other. Its audience included more women, more younger people, and more of "the lower economic groups and those with elementary education" than those of radio, magazines, or newspapers. As Lord Stragboli reminded the House a month into the war, cinema had a unique "importance for entertainment and in molding the public opinion, and, to speak bluntly, as a means of propaganda, disguised or open." It was a news channel, a source of leisure, and a powerful vehicle for shaping an audience in support of war.

All cinemas address matters of national identity in wartime—we could cite Italian, Soviet, French, and Japanese cinemas as other examples. The question of a British national cinema had been on the agenda since its birth in 1896, but the war gave the project new impetus, reviving debates over the reasons for the industry's precarious past, and stimulating proposals for a healthier future. Patriotism mandated that a British screen identity could be produced only in Britain, and by British studios: only a British-made film could represent native culture, and for a film to be British it could not look, nor be, of any other nation born.

The ideology of nationality wears thin when one nation constructs another's screen identity, as would have been the case if America had been the sole provider of filmic images of Britain at war. This threat was well recognized on the eve of war: "Of all people they [Americans] are closest to ourselves in mind and spirit. But to allow these cousins of ours to put a stranglehold on this fundamental power of national expression, which is the British cinema, is carrying blood-relationship a trifle too far." Such an arrangement would have laid bare the absence of any necessary connection between a manufacturer's citizenship and the brand of national identity produced. In addition, handing over the task of representing wartime Britain to a foreign cinema, even one that was soon to be an ally, would immediately have been an admission of the inadequacy of the native film industry and, by extension, of the nation itself. To avoid this erosion of identity, it was imperative that British films be defended, economically and aesthetically, against Hollywood imperialism: there could be no national cinema without a product. Paradoxically, only then could they participate in the battle against Germany.

Government, exhibitors, producers, filmmakers, technicians, critics, and audiences all shaped cinema's wartime fortunes, wielding their preferences with differentiated power and with little consensus. Film technicians fought first of all to preserve their jobs and sustain at least a skeleton force until the postwar period, a goal that was often in jeopardy. Exhibitors were tom between the patriotism of showing homegrown films and the better returns Hollywood pictures promised. For producer Michael Balcon the dire straits of British cinema were the direct result of cross-cultural—and more specifically, American—contamination. He, along with Ralph Bond, Roger Manvell, and others, welcomed the war's new nationalist pressures because they seemed to provide the economic and artistic foundation for a healthier home-based cinema. He urged producers to remember the domestic audience in the crisis: "For far too long, the American market has been a mirage.... The British producer can make no greater mistake than to have the American market in mind when planning and costing a picture. Not in that way will the British film ever become representative of British culture." Other producers, and above all J. Arthur Rank and Alexander Korda, looked to America and the lucrative prospect of a larger American audience when planning and selling their wares. Throughout the war Rank financed Del Guidice's Two Cities production company, whose logo was not a collage of Paris and London, as in Dickens's Tale of Two Cities, but of Los Angeles skyscrapers with Tower Bridge opening in front of them, a neat condensation of British cinema's ancestry of impure breeding.

Domestic wartime filmgoers, rapidly swelled by thousands of G.I.'s and European refugees, voted with their feet, bringing British films more success at the box office than ever before, but not necessarily those that critics championed. George Formby's Northern comedies were always among the biggest winners from 1938 to 1943, and an American representation of the British crisis, Mrs. Miniver, was the top box office success of 1942. The critically derided Gainsborough costume melodramas also did a roaring trade. Last but by no means least, the government became openly embroiled in the question of wartime cinema. Official guidelines were issued to studios, advocating certain subject matters and forbidding others. Recommended themes were "what Britain is fighting for," "how Britain fights," and "the need for sacrifices if the fight is to be won." Films were to be submitted for security censorship at the Ministry of Information Films Division, and cinemas were warned that they were liable for prosecution if they showed films containing any material that might be useful to the enemy.

However, government decisions over cinema were always inflected by a more pressing desire to maintain the United States's goodwill, especially after Pearl Harbor, resulting in contradictory film policies, which led, overall, to a low but regular output of films from British studios during the war. Wartime filmmakers strove, under the official instruction, to present narratives and images culturally marked as "British," and commentators struggled to isolate and describe these properties in their reviews. Everywhere was the conscious effort to read cinema style as a calibration of national characteristics. For example, when reviewing German cinema in 1938, Vesselo made the connection in the following way: "If it is normally true that the films of a country will in some way reflect that country's national characteristics, it is at least equally true that films produced under an authoritarian regime will in some way reflect that regime's ideology." Further, under conditions in which the definition of nationality was of such pressing importance, the central cultural and political significance of films was understood to be inextricably linked to their economic birth, to the marketplace that permitted their production. Nationalism functioned at two entwined levels—the economic and the aesthetic. In the case of British wartime cinema, the attempt to establish a British national screen identity took place via a battle with the economic and stylistic dominant—Hollywood. The wartime battle with Hollywood had both commercial and cultural dimensions: the content of a film, its ideological presentation, was embrangled with its economic makeup.

The first wartime emergency measure to hit the film industry was the forcible closure of all cinemas and sports stadia for fear of excessive casualties during air raids. This now seems an extraordinary initial misassessment of film's socio-political power in annexing spectators for the national cause, but it also suggests, besides the extreme threat of war to British life, the relative unimportance of the film industry in the constitution of Britain's national identity. Granted, the United States was not under the same physical threat as Britain, but her government ordered baseball games to continue as usual precisely as a sign of normality and fortitude. Further, the enormous success of the American film industry at home, but especially abroad, meant that it too had become intimately tied to ideas of national strength and domination, and was therefore more immediately obvious as a weapon of war. Given British cinema's rocky past (outlined in Appendix I), the connection between cinema and national identity had never seemed natural in Britain.

The compulsory blackout drew vociferous protests from exhibitors, critics, and producers. Buchanan, a Sight and Sound critic, stressed (in an argument reminiscent of Balazs's) the cinema's diplomatic superiority to print and broadcasting. He was convinced that the "celluloid ambassador" was the "surest way of bringing one country before another," making him one of many wartime film personnel who used the adjective "ambassadorial" to cement cinema's relation to national politics. W. R. Fuller, general secretary of the Cinema Exhibitors' Association, claimed that having no cinemas meant "the disappearance of the chief recreation of about thirteen million people a day, the loss to the exchequer of some £200,000 a week, and the danger of unemployment for about 75,000 men and women." He added that industrialists all over the country had been experiencing the bad effects on workers of "no play," and that the cinema's "gigantic contribution to national morale ... [was] unobtainable through any other medium."

Several (particularly) wartime assets of cinema are being claimed here: that it embodies national identity in the encounter with a foreign cinema; that it makes money for the national coffers; and that it recharges the labor force. Spectators in a mid-1940s poll tended to support the latter point. A thirty-year-old self-described housewife and mother stated, "I definitely go to the cinema to be taken out of myself, and to forget the cares of housework, rationing, and washing babies' nappies. Carry me into the past with Laurence Olivier, Nelson Eddy, Greta Garbo and the others and I'm happy." Another woman concurred: "I've just seen Bette Davis's film Now Voyager, and what enjoyment, what relief—no war. I have worked in a large office with other women in whose homes the war is ever present by the absence of husbands and sons on service, and who, like myself, snatch their bit of break in a couple of hours each week at the cinema." We can note in passing that for these two women it is not simply the act of going to the cinema that provides relief, but the viewing of a fictional story removed from war. A seventeen-year-old female filmgoer makes it quite clear that to her even the quality of that escapist plot is unimportant: "I will go and see any musical in Technicolor, even though it has a poor story; any well-acted film, provided it does not concern the war; and any costume films, for which I have a tremendous weakness." One begins to understand the overwhelming success of the Gainsborough costume melodramas during the war.

When no bombs fell on the home front during the first two weeks of war, the Home Office reversed its premature decision and permitted the reopening of auditoria, at first in outlying areas and eventually in cities, provided that blackout regulations were observed and that managers ran Air Raid Patrols and fire-watches during the shows so that spectating citizens could be warned of impending attacks. Neon lights outside cinemas were in fact not turned on again until 1949. Restrictions on transportation and the difficulties of nighttime darkness obviously affected exhibition staff and audiences alike, but audience size gradually increased. Attendances climbed from nineteen million per week in 1940 to an all-time peak of thirty million per week in 1945, an increase roughly proportional to that in the United States.

There were many reasons for cinema's increased popularity, and the increased popularity of British films in particular. For one thing, higher wartime employment freed up spending money, while competing middleclass entertainments such as pleasure motoring and dining out were curtailed by rationing. Secondly, cinema fed the desire for news and information about the war for a wider selection of the population than any other medium. Thirdly, the combination of communal gatherings and spectacular entertainment, promoted through the institution of cinema, mitigated against the fear, exhaustion, and deprivations of war, as the two women quoted above recount. In particular, the cinema's flamboyant light displays provided an intensified experience of pleasure, given the surroundings of Stygian darkness, an issue discussed in Chapter Three.

One can also detect a brand of patriotism in the personal policies of some film goers who now claimed to prefer British-made films over American ones. A nineteen-year-old female clerk despised Hollywood's "futile attempts to portray life so showily, gaudily, and synthetically. But in the last few wartime years I have encountered with delight good British films.... British films about Britain are now, in my opinion, the best films to see." Another female viewer writes, "I have never liked to see war pictures, especially the American type, which usually are too far from reality, with too many heroics and too much bombast. I don't mind a decent war film of the British In Which We Serve type." Another woman, a twenty-year-old civil servant with the Inland Revenue, admits that "although I used to avoid British films, it is now my aim to see every one I can that comes to the local cinemas." This last opinion might include a preference for Gainsborough costume films on the basis that they were British made, as much as because they took one "into the past."

Government vacillations over the home industry, including making distribution concessions to American studios, did little to boost the confidence of domestic producers in the future of British filmmaking, despite the boom in attendance. Proportionally, studios lost far more labor power to the Services than did movie theaters. In all, two thirds of the film technicians were eventually drafted. George Elvin, general secretary of the recently formed Association of Ciné-Technicians, harangued that what remained of the industry survived only because film trade unions had three times managed to reverse a government decision to "de-reservation" (or make liable for conscription) all film production labor of military age. To maintain production, studios were forced to "dilute" the remaining nucleus of technicians with women, who now worked as sound camera operators and laboratory printers, two jobs hitherto held exclusively by men. They continued to work as editors, in continuity, and also as projectionists, although it was decided that this form of employment for women "should end immediately at the termination of the war." The role of director remained a male preserve; Jessie Matthews with Victory Wedding and Rosie Newman with Britain at War (1945) were rare exceptions. Jill Craigie and Muriel Box were the only women who worked more consistently as film directors in Britain in the 1940s, and neither of them until after the war. As in the United States, women's main contributions to the film industry were as actresses and audience members.


Excerpted from Blackout by Antonia Lant. Copyright © 1991 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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