The Gentle Sex (1943)

I’ve watched quite a few 1930s and 40s films giving down-to-earth portraits of men’s working lives, including a number about the armed services – but haven’t come across all that many older movies about women at work, or at war.

thegentlesex1However, thanks to the UK TV station Film 4, now I’ve seen this British wartime propaganda film about the ATS (Auxiliary Territorial Service), directed and narrated by Leslie Howard, which was quite an eye-opener to me. It isn’t a masterpiece, but I  think it has worn pretty well, despite the patronising title and an occasionally heavy-handed commentary from Howard, for instance, quoting lines from poems about women’s traditional role as they are seen carrying out military tasks. He is only briefly glimpsed from the rear – in what sadly turned out to be his last film appearance before his own death in the war.

After Howard opens the film by picking out seven women in a crowd at a railway station to be his heroines, the rest of the movie gives  what looks to be a realistic portrayal of life for these characters, all from different backgrounds. I was impressed that there is no attempt to make any of them look particularly glamorous, and the real hard work is not glossed over. The meals and dormitories seem very realistic.

At times it is hard to keep track of all the individuals, especially as I thought one or two of the actresses looked rather similar. Maybe there are just too many of them for any one to get enough screen time. Joyce Howard (no relation to Leslie) plays Anne, who is from a service family and quickly gets into the routine, with Rosamond John as cheery Scottish Maggie, who quotes Robert Burns to herself to count her stitches when knitting. Jean Gillie plays Dot and Joan Gates is Gwen, two modern working women who I kept mixing up with one another.

A very young Joan Greenwood plays the baby of the group, Betty, who has never been away from home and “Mummy”, and is at first overwhelmed by the thought of doing ordinary household tasks for herself – but quickly finds that she can cope.   The least sympathetic member of the group is bossy, upper-crust Joan (Barbara Waring), who gets her stripe as a corporal – but although there is occasional friction between her and the others they manage to work alongside one another and eventually it is revealed that much of her snappiness is really down to shyness. It was nice to see a film where the focus is on the women helping and supporting one another rather than on any rivalry.

I thought Lilli Palmer gives the most moving performance, as an exiled “foreigner” – probably Polish, as her character’s name is Erna Debruski, but I believe her country is never stated, probably deliberately, so that her plight can represent that of all the exiles who had signed up to fight in the British forces. Most of the time she stays silent about what she has been through, with just her burning eyes telling her story – but there is one powerful scene where, in response to another character, Joan, thoughtlessly remarking “At least the Nazis are efficient”, she tells them exactly what that efficiency means in terms of death and suffering.

A scene from the movie featured on the sleeve of a Spanish DVD

A scene from the movie featured on the sleeve of a Spanish DVD

Apparently the movie was made with the co-operation of the ATS and some of the extras were real servicewomen. The film shows them training and carrying out tasks such as driving lorries through the night and, in the most dramatic scene towards the end of the movie, operating anti-aircraft guns under fire. A male soldier expresses surprise at the lorry-driving, commenting: “Women, working through the night?” and is told: “Yes, this is a woman’s war.”

I was surprised to see how little romance there is in the film – Leslie Howard actually comments as narrator that the women are too busy to have much time for love. Anne has a brief whirlwind romance with soldier David, played by John Justin, who is later lost in action, “missing believed killed”. But she only has a couple of scenes with him and then one with his mother, Mrs Sheridan (Mary Jerrold). During tea with Mrs Sheridan, Anne starts to declaim about how women are now serving alongside men for the first time and predicts that the role of women will change after the war. Mrs Sheridan quietly reveals in response that she herself was an ambulance driver at Ypres in the First World War, and was wounded in action – but gives the impression she wants to see women’s social position change too.

Maggie does dance once with a middle-aged Scottish soldier in full Highland dress, Alexander, played by Dad’s Army favourite John Laurie, and we are told in voiceover at the end that they will marry – but, apart from that, love is very much secondary to work throughout the film, and the women are shown working alongside men in matter-of-fact style.

I especially liked the ending of the film, where the women are seen queuing for mugs of tea in the open air, and Leslie Howard bids each one goodbye in turn, giving a brief suggestion of what the future may hold for them, but with no certainty, either for them or for the viewers.

Oddly enough, the movie appears to be only available on DVD in Spain – but it seems to be shown on TV in the UK quite often. After enjoying this film, I’m hoping to track down another one which Howard produced about wartime nurses, The Lamp Still Burns.


25 thoughts on “The Gentle Sex (1943)

  1. A fine review Judy on a little known film, at least on these shores, that shed’s some light on women and their roles during the war. Howard died an unfortunately early death when the German’s shot down his plane during the war. It seems Howard’s manager resembled Churchill and the Germans may have mistakenly thought he was on the plane.

    Out of curiosity, I checked IMDB to see if it listed a U.S. release date, which it did not. On Goggle, I noticed, the New York Times has a review, which if it was a true review means it opened in New York City. Alas, the N.Y. Times review was just a plot summary lifted from the All Movie Guide and the film was never reviewed by the paper. So, while I cannot say for sure, it looks like this film did not make it to these shores. Great job as always.


    • Thanks very much for looking into whether this film had a US release, John – sounds from what you say as if the answer is probably no. I suspect quite a few British wartime propaganda films might not have seen the light of day on your side of the Atlantic. I knew Howard’s plane was shot down but hadn’t heard of the possible Churchill link. Thanks for the kind words.


  2. John, I meant to add, do you happen to know of any US movies which show women in the armed forces, or working as nurses, in factories etc? I’d be interested to see more such films. Thanks!


    • Judy,
      I know of a movie called “So, Proudly We Hail” with Claudette Colbert. It is about Navy Nurses in the Pacific during the war. I also know of another film called “Paradise Road” with Glenn Close, Cate Blanchett and Frances McDormand about nurses in a Japanese POW camp. Also if you go to the link attached there is a short called “Women in Defense” a short doc. narrated by Kate Hepburn , written by Eleanor Roosevelt and directed by John Ford. The link actually runs a series short U.S. Gov’t defense films starting with “You John Jones” starring James Cagney.


  3. Many thanks, John – those movies sound like just the sort of thing I’d be interested to see, and I will check out the short later today. I’ve got ‘You John Jones’ as an extra feature on a DVD of ‘Something to Sing About’ – I think it is a powerful short film, so will be interested to see if the others are equally so. Again, thank you!


  4. I’ve now watched these – very interesting, thanks again, John. I liked short about the women, which gives a good glimpse of work on the factory production line and in other areas. I’m also quite struck by the one with Frank Sinatra, where he performs two great songs – the film itself is quite preachy, but good to hear its message for greater religious/racial tolerance. Also liked the Hollywood Canteen short which has a woman giving a fine performance of ‘Night and Day’ -I’m not sure who she is, though.


  5. I love reading reviews of movies like these, Judy, because like John said, this is stuff that I probably would never even knew existed if not for sites like these. Very interesting stuff.


    • Thanks, Dave – I also like finding out about movies I might not have known about otherwise through blogs and film sites, but this means the list of stuff I need to watch just gets ever longer!


  6. Again Judy you have brightened the cinematic landscape with a review of a film that few of us have seen, and have penned an insightfully comprehensive review. I will certainly make inquiries to our British friend Allan Fish about this one, as he has an excellent track record for having managed a number of rare Film 4 offerings. Certainly Judy, whenever I see the name “Joan Greenwood” I am always excited, but I was surprised to read here that Lili Palmer gave the best performance. (although you did clarify “most moving”) And was even more startled to learn that there is little romance in the film, but considering what the main thrust is its more understandable. That ending with Leslie Howard bidding each one goodbye sounds compelling, so all in all I will make inquiries here. Once again you have dug up a chestnut that just may be worth a viewing.


    • Many thanks, Sam. I wouldn’t say it is a masterpiece, but for anyone interested in wartime propaganda films and in particular one putting a greater focus on women, then I’d say it is worth a look. Joan Greenwood is very young in it and doesn’t have all that big a part, but of course it is interesting to see her so early in her career. I’m afraid I haven’t kept a copy of the movie, or I would have gladly sent it to you – but it may well turn up on Film 4 again.


  7. It is an interesting film I can see — especially showing that the women haven’t the time for romances — well very much, or of the type movies usually invent. The citation of Paradise Road (very recent) makes me think there must be very few of this kind of movie. It is a real shame it’s not available in the US even now.

    That it’s a propaganda film for the war is revealing somehow. To reach the subjects (women) and stir them perhaps it was necessary to be realer? In Which We Serve also shows glimpses of real lives.

    Lucky to have such a good TV channel available :)



    • Thank you for commenting, Ellen – it is an interesting film and I’d still like to see the other one Leslie Howard made about nurses, though I think that one may be harder to track down. I did have the feeling that the film aimed to reach women by making the reality portrayed nearer to their lives than in many movies, as you say. Film Four is a good channel, though the problem is finding time to watch all the goodies on offer there!:)


  8. Pingback: Land Girls (2009) « Costume drama reviews

  9. If a film would ever encourage me to join up this would be it.
    I remember seeing it years ago, funny enough a week later it was followed by Two Thousand Women, another period film that really deserves more credit than it does.
    When Film 4 showed The Gentle Sex a couple of years ago my opinion hadn’t changed either of the film itself or it’s impact on getting a girl off her cinema seat and walking down to the recruitment office before the credits ended.
    A superior piece of filming and wish more films were like this!


    • Hi ClipperGirl, and many thanks for commenting. I suspect you are right that this might have worked well in getting women to sign up. I haven’t seen ‘Two Thousand Women’, but will watch out for it, as I would like to see more movies in this vein.


  10. Hi Judy
    A friend of mine was telling me about the movie called the Gentle Sex that she had been watching on the T V in England and that she enjoyed it very much, having been in the Army my self I would like to see this movie could you please tell me were I could purchase the movie called the Gentle Sex Regards Barbara


  11. This is one of my most loved films as it showed a glimpse of the future which we now live in and it’s now free to down load as it a public domain film.


  12. Hello! thank you for your fabulous review of this film. I’m looking it up now as my grandmother was an extra in this film. She was the one who turned the radio down! She passed away tonight at the age of 90. A film star of her time! bless her!


    • Sorry to hear of your loss, Suzanne, and thanks very much for the comment. How great that your grandmother was in this film!


  13. Pingback: British Film Classics on UK TV, January 31 to February 6 2015 | British Film Classics

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s