Les’s Girls

We’d enjoyed the documentary LESLIE HOWARD: THE MAN WHO GAVE A DAMN on Talking Pictures TV, and this led us to record THE GENTLE SEX, a propaganda film about women in WWII that Howard directed. It’s a little overextended and lacking in plot, but it has some really striking things that make one suspect that, had he lived, Howard could have made some great films.

The pattern of this one is similar to Carol Reed’s THE WAY AHEAD (aka IMMORTAL BATTALION) which did the same thing only with men, and where it differs is where it’s weaker. Rather than showing a disparate group of draftees from all walks of society being shaped into a fighting unit, putting aside their petty differences, it shows a group of volunteers being divided up into different units, performing different tasks and not really overcoming any particular difficulties. One woman is snooty and learns to get over herself, but that’s about it for character arcs. And the tasks performed are things like driving some trucks overnight, which could in theory have been rendered dramatic, but a fair bit of invention would have been required… instead, it’s just a very long sequence of driving.

The film really starts off well, though — Les himself narrates, and is glimpsed from the back as a shadowy figure looking down condescendingly at a bustling railway station, speculating on the movements of the women he sees — “They think they’re helping, I suppose, rushing about. What good can it do, for us? Well let’s swoop down [cue crane shot] and take a closer look at them.”

Les then selects a group for his camera to follow invisibly during the ensuing action. It’s fanciful, almost supernatural, and Howard seems already a kind of ghost of the war. Over the course of the film, his condescension will evaporate as he sees the brave efforts and important accomplishments of the women — HE’S the one with the character arc.

The cast is enjoyable, though most of them are given only one or two characteristics (always a risk in these ensemble pieces the Brits were addicted to) — Rosamund John is (unconvincingly) Scottish and dispenses sweeties; Joan Greenwood is small (but sexy); Barbara Waring is bitchy.

But Lilli Palmer is the whole show — a Polish refugee whose family were killed by the Nazis, she’s motivated by revenge, and has an astonishing speech when her tragic secret finally emerges after much teasing by the script. The scene plays out in the baggage car of an overcrowded train where the women have been forced to camp, and the cattle-car vibe adds a resonance that nobody at the time could have intended.

Even stronger is her reaction when she sees her comrades shoot down an enemy plane. Fiona was wide-eyed at this bit of performance —


There’s excitement — anxiety (that the plane might escape) — then a kind of orgasmic ecstasy — a tenderness like she’s looking at a lover — triumph — this is all pretty unsettling, better dissolve to another scene…

Extraordinary. The script is by multiple hands, two men and three women, and something must have been indicated on the page. But kudos to Palmer for coming up with such an extraordinary detailed range of unexpected reactions, and to Howard for recognizing what he had and privileging it in the edit.


6 Responses to “Les’s Girls”

  1. Penfold Says:

    She too, of course, was a Jewish refugee from Berlin; that is an informed as well as inspired performance…..now, that sequence chills. And brings home the psychological damage of War….whether that was the intention at the time is a matter for debate. Possibly one of the greatest of a slew of great female actresses – many of them in The Gentle Sex – who had their peaks in the home front films of the war era; responsible for superb performances in many of the Golden Age that British film enjoyed; and yet, come peacetime, they all rather got lost, as if the industry didn’t know what to do with such strong female characters and characterisations any more.

  2. “Millions Like Us”, made by Gilliat and Launder, has a similar pattern, except that it does have “a disparate group of draftees from all walks of society being shaped into a fighting [or working] unit, putting aside their petty differences”, with the bonus of Charters and Caldicott doing their bit to defend England.

  3. It was a very popular format, and was still in play when they made Carry on Sergeant after the war…

    A number of the stars of this film had tragically short careers and lives, but fortunately for us Palmer (and Greenwood) enjoyed enormous success for many years to come. The film is quite explicit — via the VO as well as dialogue and performance — that Palmer has been psychologically damaged, but still holds out hope for a post-war recovery and a new love.

  4. Gary Hyland Says:

    ‘Ack Ack’ – and there was me expecting a a retrospective of Mars Attacks!

  5. chris schneider Says:

    Lilli Palmer is an axiom of the cinema. So’s Greenwood, of course, but that’s a different conversation. I was mentioning, the other day, how dull I found the bit of OPERATION CROSSBOW that I saw. Palmer was one of the few things that caught me up, offering her empty cigarette case to George Peppard like a zen puzzle. And I do remember Palmer and Lee Remick together in the problematic, quasi-Mankiewiczian HARD CONTRACT. So sunny! So articulate! So odd!

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