England’s Women in Film

While Ida Lupino was the lone woman filmmaker working in Hollywood during the 1950s, at least three women were active within the industry during the same period in Great Britain. Muriel Box (born Violet Baker in 1905) worked her way into filmmaking through the ranks as a typist, “continuity girl,” and finally screenwriter. After a great deal of success writing scripts for other directors, she finally directed The Happy Family in 1952, from a script co-authored with her husband, producer Sydney Box, based on a play by Michael Clayton Hutton. Released under the title Mr. Lord Says No in the United States, The Happy Family is a quietly amusing comedy that derives its humor from the class conflicts inherent in British society. Street Corner (1953) is one of Box’s best efforts, a sort of forerunner of Kathryn Bigelow’s police melodrama Blue Steel (1990); Box’s version is a narrative about the lives of women in the police force, made as a response to Basil Dearden’s The Blue Lamp

(1950), a popular British policier that completely ignored the contributions of women police officers.

A Passionate Stranger (1957) is an innovative comedy filmed in a mixture of color and black-and-white, while The Truth About Women (1957) is told in flashback, as Box presents the relationships between the sexes in a remarkably sophisticated light, atypical for its time period. Too Young to Love (1960), her most controversial film, an adaptation of Elsa Shelley’s play Pick-Up Girl, deals frankly with pregnancy, societal views toward women, venereal disease, prostitution, and abortion. Box was thus able to infuse political statements into films that were billed as simple entertainment.

Wendy Toye began her career as a dancer and made her professional debut at the age of three at the Albert Hall in London. By the age of nine, she was choreographing a dance extravaganza at the London Palladium. In her teens, she danced at the Café de Paris in London and watched Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes rehearse when the company was working with Jean Cocteau. In 1932, she appeared in a bit part as a dancer

in Anthony Asquith’s Dance Pretty Lady, which led to other film work as a dancer. In 1935, she worked as a choreographer on Paul Merzbach’s Invitation to the Waltz, picking up valuable technical information along the way. From the 1930s to the 1950s she found regular work as a dancer, choreographer, and director, most notably with the Broadway production of Peter Pan in 1950-51, starring Boris Karloff and Jean Arthur, which put her firmly in the public eye.

Her break as a film director came when producer George Arthur asked her to direct the short The Stranger Left No Card (1952). Toye had originally been slated to do the choreography only, but she agreed to direct at the last minute when David Lean backed out of the project. Working with a budget of £3,000 and shooting without sync sound (using gramophone records to cue the actors), Toye finished on time and under budget. Cocteau, who was by this time chairman of the jury at the Cannes Film Festival, saw it and enthusiastically endorsed it. He awarded The Stranger Left No Card the prize for Best Short Film of the 1953 Cannes Festival, and Toye’s career was off and running. Put under contract to Alexander Korda’s London Films, she was next assigned to direct The Teckman Mystery (1954), then shifted to comedy with Raising a Riot (1955) and suddenly found herself with a substantial commercial hit on her hands. Her segment “The Picture” in the suspense omnibus Three Cases of Murder (1955) is a genuinely disturbing fantasy tale, while All for Mary (1955) and True as a Turtle (1956) followed in the light comedy vein. By her own admission, Toye was interested more in fantasy and suspense material, but up to and including her last feature, We Joined the Navy (1962), she was unable to break the stereotypical image that both the public and producers had of her as a comedy director.

Jill Craigie began her career as a journalist and then worked as a scriptwriter of documentaries for the British Council during World War II. Later she moved on to Two Cities Films, where she was offered the chance to write and direct documentaries, such as Out of Chaos (1944) and The Way We Live (1946). In 1948, Craigie formed her own production company, Outlook Films, and began planning to make Blue Scar (1949). The film is her only work that is not a documentary, instead a highly critical story about the life of a working-class Welsh mining family, set in the years of the nationalization of the coal industry. Blue Scar was censored and initially denied exhibition. A nationwide groundswell of public opinion, however, called for the release of Blue Scar, and it was finally shown to excellent reviews and enthusiastic audience response. Craigie returned to nonfiction with the 1951 documentary To Be a Woman, which argues for equal pay for equal work.

Also in Britain in the 1950s, the pioneer animator Joy Batchelor was refining the art of the cartoon in new and unexpected directions. Born in 1914 in Watford, England, Batchelor studied art and began a career as a commercial artist for cartoons. She worked on British cartoons such as Music Man (1938) and then met and married animator John Halas. In 1940 the partners formed their own production company, Halas & Batchelor Cartoon Films. During the war, Batchelor and Halas made public information and propaganda cartoons for the government, such as Dustbin Parade (1942), which stressed the importance of wartime recycling. Batchelor worked as a co-producer, co-director, and co-writer, and shared in all technical and aesthetic processes in their efforts, which included the first British full-length feature cartoon, Animal Farm (1954), adapted from the George Orwell novel. The production of Animal Farm during the Cold War era was a decided risk, as Orwell’s pessimistic story of a group of farm animals ultimately dominated by the Fascist pig, Napoleon, was hardly standard children’s fare. But Batchelor and Halas believed in the project intensely and spent nearly three years bringing it to life. By the mid-1950s, Halas-Batchelor was England’s largest animation house, and the team continued making short cartoons and industrials until the early 1970s. They were also among the first to use computer-assisted animation in their work, starting in the late 1960s.

Other important British films of the period were Laurence Olivier’s adaptations of Shakespeare, Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955), which he directed and starred in to great acclaim. Richard III is especially interesting, employing heavily stylized color and an extensive use of interior sets to give the entire production an intentionally theatrical appearance, as if it is an illuminated manuscript come to life. For many, Olivier’s films as a director came to epitomize the entire British cinema, although these high-profile films counted for just a fraction of the industry’s total output. The equally irrepressible stylists Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger continued their predilection for lavish spectacle with Black Narcissus (1947), a dazzling Technicolor film centering on a group of sexually repressed Anglican nuns attempting to start a school for the poor in an abandoned bordello in the Himalayan Mountains, and The Red Shoes (1948), the ultimate ballet film, which suggested that it was entirely worthwhile to sacrifice one’s life in devotion to artistic endeavor. Powell and Pressburger continued making deeply individualistic films as the decade progressed.

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England’s Women in Film