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WWII in the Movies: The Homefront
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,Millions Like Us

Millions Like Us

Throughout its history, the British cinema has produced several notable filmmaking teams, including Powell and Pressburger, the Korda Brothers, the Boulting Brothers, and Launder and Gilliat. Yet, despite nearly 40 films to their joint credit and three decades of contributing to the British film industry, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat do not have the name recognition and reputation of those other teams.

Launder and Gilliat began as screenwriters during the 1930s, working separately until they joined forces in mid-decade. Their third script together-The Lady Vanishes (1938) for Alfred Hitchcock-announced Launder and Gilliat as a writing team with considerable talent. Though patterned after Hollywood thrillers, the film benefitted from the British witticisms and eccentricities that would become a Launder and Gilliat trademark. A perfect example is the pair of minor characters named Charters and Caldicott, two fine gents who remain unflappable no matter the circumstance. Charters and Caldicott were so popular that they pop up in later Launder and Gilliat films to add a touch of British humor.

Launder and Gilliat are often faulted for lacking a distinctive visual style, which may have contributed to their critical neglect, but they were versatile writers and solid craftsmen, and their work featured consistent narrative characteristics. Launder and Gilliat had a gift for comedy; the former was adept at light, farcical humor while the latter excelled at dry social comedy. Even their dramas were punctuated with telltale bits of British wit. The pair had a penchant for the details and quirks of British life, which gave their films the common touch as did their stories of the working class. Launder gravitated toward stories that focused on female characters, and the films that he directed offer strong performances by female cast members.

Millions Like Us (1943), the team's first directorial effort, represents a solid example of their work from the World War II era. And, it is the only time they shared the director's credit. The partners felt it was not a good idea to codirect again because it confused the actors to have two directors on the set. Thereafter, whichever partner was better suited to the material determined who would take on directorial duties. In the late 1950s, Launder and Gilliat became executives at British Lion Film Corp., which severely curtailed their filmmaking activities. They made the occasional film afterward, before resigning and retiring in 1972.

Millions Like Us is a moving drama about the war effort on the home front in Britain. An ensemble piece, the film focuses on a group of women from various social classes who work together in an aircraft engineering factory. Jennifer, played by Anne Crawford, is a middle-class city girl who is cynical and wise in the ways of the world. A clotheshorse who is never without makeup, she rooms with a tomboy whose thick accent and unfeminine behavior suggest a country girl from the lower classes. Gwen, played by Megs Jenkins, is a smart, mature girl who was a university student before the war, and she rooms with Celia, a working-class girl from the city.

Star Patricia Roc offers a natural and sincere performance as Celia, and Millions Like Us helped establish Roc's screen persona as the nice ordinary British girl who is attractive in her earnest sincerity. Celia falls in love with and marries RAF flier Fred Blake, and their gentle romance provides the drama for the narrative. A youthful Gordon Jackson costars as Fred, one of several roles during the war years in which Jackson played a young soldier. Another British star, Eric Portman, rounded out the cast as the straight-talking factory foreman who falls for Jennifer. But the two are smart enough to know that marriage is not for them. Their skepticism and sarcasm make a deliberate contrast to the innocence and faith of Celia and Fred.

If Celia and Fred provide the melodrama, then Charters and Caldicott drop by for a couple of scenes to add a bit of Launder-and-Gilliat-style humor. Now soldiers, the pair are seen casually burying dangerous land mines in the sand at what was once a popular beach resort. Trying to recall exactly how many they did bury, one of them remarks dryly, "Must remember not to bathe here after the war."

Millions Like Us remains one of Launder and Gilliat's most distinctive films because it was shot in the semi-documentary style indicative of British cinema during the war years. The style, which combines documentary techniques with the structure and plotting of narrative features, gives the film an authenticity that elevates the standard plot.

Britain's contribution to world cinema had been the documentary film as developed by John Grierson and his GPO film unit during the Depression. When war broke out, the GPO was placed under the supervision of the Ministry of Information, which renamed it the Crown Film Unit. Crown directors such as Harry Watt, Alberto Cavalcanti, and Humphrey Jennings bolstered the courage and stirred the emotions of audiences in such documentaries as Squadron 992 (1939) and Fires Were Started (1943) by detailing the wartime duties of ordinary soldiers, firemen, or seamen. The Ministry of Information began to envision feature filmmaking as a means to instruct and inform the public and called on British film studios to serve their country, resulting in a surge of creativity and an explosion of talent. Thus, the semi-documentary style was fueled by the drama of war but grew out of Britain's impressive documentary tradition.

Part fiction and part fact, part acted and part real, the semi-documentary film took authentic wartime events as its subject matter. Common characteristics of the films included documentary footage of wartime operations, snippets of everyday life in Britain, and scenes illustrating the hardships brought on by war, including air raids, bombings, fires, and shortages.

Millions Like Us opens with a montage of shots showing life before the war, with ordinary people attending amusement parks, watching bicycle races, leaving train stations, and a host of other commonplace activities. The tone is light to avoid a sense of wallowing in the past. A voiceover takes viewers back to a time when they could still "taste the hops in beer" and "slip on an orange peel." An onscreen title pops up to offer a definition of an orange-a humorous reminder that the fruit is now in such short supply that audience members may have forgotten what an orange is. The narrator contrasts these idyllic times with shots of blackouts, air raids, evacuations of children to the countryside, and the removal of most road signs so that the enemy would be lost if an invasion should occur. The comparison of past and present reinforces what Britain is fighting for-the return to normalcy. Later, several documentary shots of an actual aircraft factory are used to represent the place where Celia and the others work. These shots reveal a flurry of activity: The factory is at full operation; workers scurry about; machines clatter and clank. The viewer witnesses the process of production from the molten steel boiling in vats to the finished airplanes rolling away. Music gives way to the roar of the factory. The extended sequence isn't necessary to the storyline, but it is necessary to the war effort to prove that everything is operating at full capacity to defeat the enemy.

Celia Crowson's working-class family is introduced by detailing their daily routines in their humble but comfortable house. As Mr. Crowson, a member of the Home Guard, comes home for dinner, dutifully prepared by his second wife Elsie and his daughter Celia, the conversation revolves around the war. A brother, who is never shown, is away in the service; older sister Phyllis announces she is joining the WAAFs; Elsie has been asked to return to her job as a switchboard operator because they are short-staffed; and Celia receives her notice from the labor exchange to report for duty at the factory. Later, a second dinner for Mr. Crowson is shown, which provides an intentional contrast to the earlier scene. With the family members scattered around the world because of the war, Mr. Crowson comes home to an empty house, cluttered with dirty dishes and scattered trash. He brings his dinner with him in a greasy paper bag and sits alone to eat it. The effect of war on families is clearly evident. Not only could audiences relate to the details of working class life, they could empathize with what the Crowsons were experiencing. Likewise when Celia bristles at the sound of aircraft flying overhead, or one of the other girls acts out during an air raid, the film encapsulates what wartime audiences were going through everyday.

Tapping into the shared experience of the audience was one of the main directives of British films during the war. Reassurance that everyone was suffering through the same shortages, heartbreaks, and sacrifices brought the people together and strengthened the collective resolve to work toward the common goal of winning the war. The Ministry of Information referred to WWII as "the people's war" to stress the need for cooperation and comradeship among all the classes. And, from its title to its main characters, Millions Like Us reflected that spirit. In using documentary techniques to convey a sense of cooperation and solidarity, the film authentically depicts the sacrifice, hardships, and heartbreak that were part of people's lives every minute of every day. Like the other semi-documentaries from this period, Millions Like Us remains compelling because it is a snapshot of the British people in their finest hour.

Producers: Edward Black for Gainsborough Pictures
Director: Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat
Screenplay: Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat
Cinematography: Jack Cox and Roy Fogwell
Music: Hubert Bath (uncredited)
Editor: R.E. Dearing
Art Director: John Bryan
Cast: Celia Crowson (Patricia Roc), Jennifer Knowles (Anne Crawford), Gwen Price (Megs Jenkins), Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), Charlie Forbes (Eric Portman), Jim Crowson (Moore Marriott), Elsie Crowson (Valentine Dunn), Phyllis Crowson (Joy Shelton), Charters (Basil Radford), Caldicott (Naunton Wayne). B&W-102m.

by Susan Doll

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