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Women and 1950s British Popular Cinema


Melanie Bell


Cinema and Society Series

London: I.B. Tauris, 2010

Paperback. xii+226 p. ISBN 9781848851597. £16.99


Reviewed by Christine Etherington-Wright

University of Portsmouth


There has, of course, been some solid academic work on British cinema of this period, notably Sue Harper and Vincent Porter’s British Cinema of the 1950s : The Decline of Deference (2003). The issue of women in this period has been studied in Christine Geraghty’s British Cinema in the Fifties : Gender, Genre and the New Look (2000) and in Sue Harper’s Women in British Cinema : Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (2000). Bell’s book is an interesting contribution to this body of work. It does more detailed textual analysis, and makes a very thorough engagement with the historical period. Moreover she deals in an interesting way with the work of female film critics, which has not been done before. Her work departs significantly from the others in that it concentrates on women who are on the periphery of society in various ways (automata, femmes fatales, prostitutes, female-identified women), and who challenge traditional ways of being female.

Sometimes Bell is not really explicit about her methodology. What we need to know is how and why spaces were opened up in the industry for representations of this kind. It would also be nice to know what proportion of film output was given over to these exceptional women, and what proportion was allocated to their more conventional sisters. It seems to me that the book would have been improved by a more systematic engagement with the issue of female creativity in the industry.

The first chapter analyses a range of films in which females play aliens or automata. Bell argues that these reflect the anxieties of the male population, who were wrestling with post-war insecurities. It would have been useful to know how many films of this type were made, and so establish whether films such as The Perfect Woman (1949) were typical or exceptional. It is culturally significant that films about artificial women or female aliens were being made at this time and not before, and perhaps Bell might have pushed this argument a little further.

The second chapter examines femme fatales (a more populous group in the cinema of the period). Bell suggests the “murderous/duplicitous women” in late 1940s film culture provide further evidence of male anxiety, and she gives a very comprehensive account of the range and complexity of the phenomenon. The analyses of Daybreak (1946), Madeleine (1949) and Daughter of Darkness (1948) are insightful and scholarly, but would have benefited from some reference to production histories and authorial intentions.

Comedy was the most important genre at the box-office of the 1950s, with war films running a close second. In Chapter Three, Bell looks at the way a range of comedies deal with the issue of rebellious or absent wives. Again, the accounts of the films are very thorough, and useful insights are provided on Raising a Riot (1955), To Dorothy a Son (1954) and Young Wives’ Tale (1951); all the films provide a lively twist on contemporary roles for women within marriage, and are different from those comedies which position women more conservatively within the family. But surely more should have been made of the fact that the first two films were directed by women (Wendy Toye and Muriel Box respectively) and the third was scripted by a woman, Ann Burnaby. The points about the social function of a popular genre could then have been clinched more convincingly.

Bell is interested in the representation of female groups, and in Chapter Four asks why these appear so infrequently in 1950s British cinema. She argues that the idea of companionate marriage, so powerfully endorsed by social and ideological forces in the period, was profoundly antipathetic to the idea of women working sympathetically and co-operatively in groups. She argues that the very rarity of the film such as A Town Like Alice (1956) is proof of the marginality of the female group. The point could have been pushed a little further though, and questions asked about the creativities which did make those rare films possible, and the reasons why some film-makers managed to sail against the prevailing wind.

Female groups are threatening to patriarchal structures. But far more ambiguous positions are held by prostitutes and “loose women”, who are objects of both fear and desire. Bell analyses this group in Chapter Five, and looks at films such as The Flesh is Weak (1957) and Passport to Shame (1959), which were first analysed by Viv Chadder in 1999 in her chapter “The Higher Heel: Women and Post-War British Crime Film”. Bell undertakes a detailed visual analysis of these films, and argues that they shed light on the dominant discourses surrounding femininity and female sexuality in the period. She uses the ideas of Mary Douglas and David Trotter as a way of categorising such films, as, of course, Sue Harper has done earlier. The models work very well in this case, and it would have been interesting to ask exactly how social discourses are interiorised or interrogated in films about those outside official realities.

The final chapter in the book is of a different type. It deals with female film critics, and is a qualitatively new field, full of potential. Bell provides much new material here, and chooses less well known critics such as E.A. Robertson, Freda Bruce Lockhart and Catherine de la Roche, rather than the better-known Dilys Powell and C.A. LeJeune. She argues that the former group was more likely to influence female taste since they published primarily in magazines like Good Housekeeping and Woman. She then goes on to examine female critical response to four films, and demonstrates that there was a specifically female spin. The problem with this excellent last chapter is that it is not really integrated into the rest of the book, and it might almost have been better if it had been placed first, where it could have given quite a different spin to the issues of representation and power.

Femininity in the Frame throws up a lot of issues. There are some methodological problems that could have been more thoroughly aired, and the issues of typicality and popularity should have been dealt with more firmly. But the book makes a welcome contribution to a very important field, offers some incisive readings of little-known films, and introduces the reader to issues of gendered critical taste in a very valuable way.


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