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WWII in the Movies: The Homefront
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,Gentle Sex, The

The Gentle Sex

Actors don't always make the best film directors: Sometimes, even when they have an affinity for other performers, they're not quite as graceful at shaping a story as a more experienced filmmaker might be. But in the case of Leslie Howard, it's hard to know what kind of filmmaker he might have become: Howard directed his first movie (with Anthony Asquith), Pygmalion, in 1938; his fourth film, The Gentle Sex, made in 1943, was his last. The picture, even though it's slightly clumsy in places - particularly in its voice-over narrative, provided by Howard himself - has a charm and quiet boldness that's distinctive. The Gentle Sex follows the adventures of seven young women as they leave civilian life to join the Auxiliary Territorial Service, or ATF, the women's branch of the British Army during World War II. The group includes Joyce Howard as an idealistic young miss from a military family; Rosamund John as a cheerful Scotswoman who bolsters the spirits of the girls both with her quips and also with a seemingly ever-present tin of sweets; Lilli Palmer as a Czech citizen who has lost both her homeland and her family and strives to avenge her loss; and, perhaps most winning of all, Joan Greenwood as a spirited little mite (and sheltered only child) who has enlisted to be around big guns and excitement, though she at first fears she's going to be stuck "peeling potatoes."

The Gentle Sex opens with Howard's voice-over narration: He speaks in the voice of an omniscient observer, surveying the women as they gather at the train station to embark on their adventure. He suggests that they're just helpless, adorable little things - "They think they're helping, I suppose" - but his condescension is intentional, setting up the picture's gentle yet ironclad sense of irony. The Gentle Sex follows the women as they adjust to mess-hall food, receive their uniforms (the tiny Greenwood is swimming in hers) and learn - comically at first -- to march in formation. Before long, though, some are driving through the night to deliver trucks full of crucial electrical components, others are helping to man heavy artillery, and two of them have even fallen in love.

There's no doubt The Gentle Sex is a patriotic film. But it's a propaganda film only in the broadest sense, designed less to force an agenda than to simply bolster morale in Howard's home country, a cause that was very dear to him. By the time Howard made the picture, he was already a huge star both at home and in the United States (the explosive popularity of Gone with the Wind in 1939 certainly didn't hurt), but he was more concerned with using his considerable talents to bolster the war effort. (At the time, Howard may even have been using his acting skills in unusual ways, as a member of Allied or British Intelligence, though there's no definitive evidence of it.) The Gentle Sex was Howard's final film as a director: He was killed in June of 1943 when the airliner in which he was traveling was shot down by German fighter planes. What's more, in the last stages of making of the film he'd been emotionally devastated over the death of his mistress, an actress named Violette Cunningham who also served as his secretary; British director Maurice Elvey stepped in to finish the film. Howard directed only four films - preceding The Gentle Sex were Pygmalion, Pimpernel Smith (1941), and Spitfire (1942, originally titled The First of the Few in the UK) - all of which carry a great deal of the dignity and quiet wit that Howard brought to so many of his acting roles, and The Gentle Sex is no exception. Howard himself had said, in a 1930 article he wrote for the Saturday Evening Post, that "what the actor is in private life, he is to a large extent on the stage, because he cannot conceal himself and his true personality from his audience." His character as a director may have blossomed as fully as his acting career had, had he lived long enough.

The Gentle Sex is a potent document of the stubborn cheerfulness exhibited by Britons during World War II. Its hopefulness is especially poignant: No one could have predicted the long, rocky postwar climb the country would face. But the picture also casts light on the changing roles of women in the mid 20th century - and that includes the changes and challenges that actresses themselves might face. Rosamund John credited Howard with giving her her big break: He cast her in a leading role in the extremely successful Spitfire and was happy to use her again in The Gentle Sex. In later years, John reflected, "In those days we were much more ladylike than they are now. We used to admire ladies in French films because in them actresses were allowed to be real: but English films made us unreal because the audience liked being taken out of the reality of the war."

John had wanted to play a cockney girl in The Gentle Sex, but, she claims, she was told she "looked all wrong," even though she had been brought up in cockney London. So the role of Scotswoman Maggie fell to her. John went on to appear in other notable English films of the 1940s, among them the 1946 thriller Green for Danger, and became an extremely popular star during that decade. Later in her life - the actress died in 1998 -- she spoke highly of Howard as a director and as a man: "Howard taught me everything I knew about filmmaking," John said. "He made me realize that the only thing that matters when you are filming is what you are thinking and feeling, because it will show in your eyes." Howard never ascended the heights he might have, but his legacy was lasting.

Producer: Derrick de Marney
Director: Leslie Howard; Maurice Elvey (uncredited)
Screenplay: Moie Charles (original story and screenplay); Doris Langley Moore (writer); Aimee Stuart (additional dialogue); Elizabeth Baron, Roland Pertwee (both uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert Krasker
Art Direction: Paul Sheriff
Music: John Greenwood
Film Editing: Charles Saunders
Cast: Joan Gates (Gwen Hayden), Jean Gillie (Dot Hopkins), Joan Greenwood (Betty Miller), Joyce Howard (Anne Lawrence), Rosamund John (Maggie Fraser), Lilli Palmer (Erna Debruski), Barbara Waring (Joan Simpson), John Justin (Flying Officer David Sheridan), Elliot Mason (Mrs. Fraser), Anthony Bazell (Ted).
BW-92m.

by Stephanie Zacharek

SOURCES:
BFI Screen Online, http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/485114/index.html
"Leslie Howard," International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers, 2001, Encyclopedia.com. .
The Independent, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/obituary-rosamund-john-1182234.html
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