Running from Friday 14 April – Wednesday 31 May BFI Southbank’s Girls Like Us season will be an opportunity for audiences to see some of the great British gems of WWII cinema as well as unique wartime propaganda shorts.
WWII Britain gave fertile inspiration to emergent women writers, producers and stars, and resulted in some astonishing propaganda movies which merged stark reality with fiction and fantasy, many with a female bias.
Titles screening in the season will include Millions Like Us (Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder, 1943), Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942) and In Which We Serve (Noël Coward, David Lean, 1942).
The season coincides with the release of Lone Scherfig’s Their Finest (2016), playing on extended run at BFI Southbank and going on UK-wide release from Friday 21 April and starring Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy and Sam Clafin. Their Finest is set in the world of WWII propaganda filmmaking.
The selection of distinguished wartime shorts and features screening in this season embrace the everyday reality of a besieged and battered Britain and have been universally acclaimed as, cinematically, Britain’s finest hour.
Filmmakers such as Carol Reed, Powell and Pressburger, Anthony Asquith and David Lean created works that embraced a conflicted society where the class system was in flux and the male-female divide was increasingly blurred by women shouldering the burden of what was once perceived as a man’s world.
Films screening in part one of the season in April include Went the Day Well? (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1942), a unique WWII Ealing film which shows women taking on a German invasion and co-written by Diana Morgan.
An unlikely UK box-office smash in 1943, The Gentle Sex (Leslie Howard, Maurice Elvey) celebrates the joys of the ATS and was inspired by the need to reassure the public that the organisation was a suitable environment for women of all backgrounds, and not a hotbed of sexual promiscuity.
Diana Morgan was an uncredited co-writer on The Foreman Went to France (Charles Frend, 1942), a prime example of Ealing’s dramatisation of the ‘people’s war’ and the strength of ordinary folk; it will play alongside Channel Incident (Anthony Asquith, 1940) in which a woman decides to join the flotilla of boats rescuing soldiers in Dunkirk, one of the inspirations behind Lissa Evans’ Their Finest Hour and a Half.
Based on a play by Clemence Dane (who also co-wrote the screenplay), Alexanda Korda’s Perfect Strangers (1945), made towards the end of the war with victory in sight, reveals the transformative powers of conscription.
Playing alongside Perfect Strangers will be A Letter from Home (Carol Reed, 1941) featuring the first screen role by Celia Johnson; made exclusively for a US (female) audience, Johnson dramatises London life in the Blitz in a letter to her estranged children in NY.
Millions Like Us (Sidney Gilliat, Frank Launder, 1943) is the story of a young Londoner sent to an arms factory in the Midlands, where she encounters a supportive world of women from across the class system; a brilliantly heart-warming and heart-breaking film, which points out the absurdities and hilarities of wartime austerity.
Millions Like Us will be preceded by a short documentary about a shift of all-female munitions factory workers Night Shift (Jack Chambers, 1942), as well as A Call For Arms! (Brian Desmond Hurst, 1940), a MOI short that disastrously mis-portrays the factory floor and features in the film Their Finest.
Piccadilly Incident (Herbert Wilcox, 1946) starts as a light-hearted comedy about a couple who meet during a blackout in London’s (then) notorious Piccadilly, but evolves into melodramatic Douglas Sirk territory.
Unpublished Story (Harold French, 1942) is an unusual mix of screwball comedy, conspiracy thriller and battle-of-the-sexes, which boasts an excellent depiction of life in the London blitz and blackout regime.
Writer-director Frank Launder originally sent the idea for Two Thousand Women (1944) – based on the true story of a female internment camp at Vittel, France – to Hitchcock, but then decided to make a more comedic version himself, resulting in sections of the film playing like a precursor to the director’s later St Trinian’s satires.
Completing the first part of the season in April will be Demi Paradise (Anthony Asquith, 1943), a thinly disguised propaganda film to promote better relations with the Soviets, that is also a genuinely funny romantic comedy, and In Which We Serve (1942) in which directors Noël Coward, and David Lean reinforce the status quo in a celebration of the British class starring Celia Johnson in her feature debut.