‘The Yellow Canary’ (1943) stars Anna Neagle and Richard Greene, with show-stealing support from Margaret Rutherford. Neagle plays the upper class socialite Sally Maitland, and the action is set in 1940. At the beginning of the film we see her being shunned, insulted and berated over her pro-Nazi sympathies. We learn that she has spent time in
with the upper echelons of the Nazi party and that she makes no secret of her
admiration for them. Berlin
Through this early plot line I was immediately reminded of those controversial 1930s socialites the Mitford sisters. These women continue to hold a fascination for us even today and I have to admit that I am among those who devour their diaries, letters and memoirs. This is not, I hasten to add, out of any sense of admiration. I think I speak for a lot of Mitford-ites when I say that their appeal is like that of a diamond-encrusted car crash. To anyone with an interest in inter-war society and politics they are unavoidable. Diana, Unity and Jessica – the politically active half of the set – represent the extremes of everything about that time. And to add to the spice they were all three of them as mad as a fruitcake inside a box of frogs.
I was first made aware of the Mitfords when I studied 1930s British history. As part of my coursework I was sent off to examine why British politics did not succumb to extremism, unlike other European countries during those restless years. From Oswald Moseley and his Fascist Blackshirts it is an easy step to take to Diana (Moseley’s lover, then wife) and Unity Mitford and their pro-Hitler antics. I concluded that one relevant factor in the British retention of democracy is simply the national personality and our collective sense of humour. Our determination to prick the bubbles of pomposity is a national sport. Moseley and his Blackshirts were deliciously sent up by P.G. Wodehouse with his Roderick Spode character. Even his sister-in-law Nancy Mitford (the marginally sane one) wrote a satirical novel starring Captain Jack and the Union Jackshirts called “Wigs on the Green” (1935).
was so patently having a pop at Diana’s
beloved that it opened up a long standing rift between the sisters. If this is what was happening in the higher
echelons, I find it very easy to imagine that variety theatres in Blackshirt
stamping grounds would have had a few turns who poked fun at the local lads who
liked to play at dressing up and go mincing about the streets. There is also a Mass Observation report of a
Blackshirt meeting in the Nancy East End being
broken up by a group of people doing the Lambeth Walk through the middle of it.
Where some countries stood in thrall to
enigmatic extremists, we found that whole speeching/marching thing slightly
embarrassing and giggled at it.
To return to ‘The Yellow Canary’, the storyline of this film gave me a new dimension to the story of
and of the fascist
Mitfords. That Sally Maitland is meant
to represent a Mitford is obvious. But
the outcome of her story is vastly different to that of Diana and Unity. Sally
turns out to be on our side after all, and has merely cultivated a pro-Nazi
cover for her spying activities. At the
end of the film she saves half of Britain from being blown up and is
publicly exonerated. Neither Diana nor
Unity ever renounced Fascism or Hitler, the former spending the war in Holloway
Prison; the latter attempting suicide on the outbreak of hostilities and never
recovering from her gunshot wound. This
demonstrates how war temporarily changed our national personality in a way that
we tend to forget, or gloss over. During
the 1930s, people followed the Mitfords’ antics with a raised eyebrow, they
took up space in the gossip columns, causing minor sensations. In wartime, this amusement was replaced by
fear. No matter how we are portrayed as
smiling through the worst of it, fear permeated society. The possibility that people at the top, those
with connections and power, were against democracy was too much to
countenance. All we had was hope. Hope that there was some good in these people
somewhere, and that there might be a reasonable explanation behind their
Over time we have been fed images of Churchill, of the Battle of Britain and of blitzed cities battling on. We have been fed a belief that the British bloody-minded attitude, a refusal to give in is what got us through. Amid all the glorification, which grows with each passing year, we must remember that war means fear, it means subjugation of other facets of our personality. And the source of that fear could be anywhere amongst us.
Please visit my Amazon page for more film fun
Please visit my Amazon page for more film fun