Thursday, 1 November 2012

Revisiting Ealing's women


In connection with the publication of a new book Ealing Revisited, it seems like a good moment to look back at this most famous and - dread word but accurate in this instance - iconic of British film studios, and to think about Ealing's women (for more on this, see my chapter in the aforementioned collection). Ealing was not noted for its 'feminine touch'; the critic Kenneth Tynan summarised its output as focussing on 'men at work, men engrossed in a crisis, men who communicate with their women mostly by postcard'. It had Audrey Hepburn at its disposal for a while but failed to recognise the star potential in her which would soon be so triumphantly realised by Hollywood. But its head, Michael Balcon, was slightly touchy about the accusation that his company didn't 'know how to handle women', a criticism he deemed 'a little unjust'. He had a point: after all, it was at Ealing that Googie Withers had carved out a highly distinctive niche  playing passionate, strong-willed heroines who might be flawed but who were also the most dominant figures in the narratives in which they were featured, from the femme fatale of Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945) to the feminist farmer of The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) and the tight-lipped Bethnal Green housewife with a dark secret in It Always Rains on Sundays (1947). The director Robert Hamer had a hand in all three of those films, and for Diana Morgan (pictured above), the only female contract scriptwriter at the studio, Hamer was one of the few men working at Ealing whose films 'give such parts to women. He was the only one who liked women, really.' Morgan enjoyed working at Ealing a great deal but described it as 'a very male studio', a place where her colleagues' distinctly unchivalrous nickname for her was 'the Welsh bitch'. The final film she worked on at Ealing, Dance Hall (1950), is one of the studio's most interesting 'women's pictures', centred on the intertwined lives of four female friends (Natasha Parry, Jane Hylton, Diana Dors, Petula Clark) who work at the same factory and frequent the same Palais de Danse in their time off.
Although Balcon was a great encourager and nurturer of new talent, this didn't extend to aspiring women directors who Balcon seems to have thought lacked the necessary authority to control a crew. Kay Mander tried and failed to get in and later Jill Craigie was similarly rebuffed. She wrote to Balcon in 1958 about trying to replicate the 'fantastic circulation' of women's magazines by making films appealing to the same demographic: 'young girls at work before they're married... our films are made as though we're completely unaware of this new generation.' But her offer was not taken up. Balcon's response to Craigie's letter ('there seems to be no immediate possibility of our working together on a picture. I mean, of course, in your capacity as a director') has been read by film historian Sue Harper as 'testament to his deafness to the female voice', and this sadly rings true, as well as ironically echoing Ealing's supremely moving drama about deafness and a female finding her voice, Mandy (1952). But there's also the question of bad timing. By 1958, when Craigie wrote to Balcon, Ealing was on its last legs anyway. Even back in 1956 one critic had suggested that the studio's film about student nurses, The Feminine Touch, represented Ealing's 'dying gasp'. But in its postwar heyday, it had offered some more interesting and diverse representations of women than its reputation sometimes suggests. And some of them even had the 'feminine touch' of their sole woman writer Diana Morgan.


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