To transport people away from the misery of the present day, they need to be taken to an unfamiliar location. This location can be based on fantasy, or it can be based on history. The historical film was very popular during World War Two. The opportunity to cocoon oneself at the cinema in a world far removed from the bomb damaged and chaotic one outside was all too tempting. Possibly the most famous example is Olivier’s Henry V (1944) – a pageant of patriotism delivered as a deliberate morale booster for the war weary. But there were many other films that set out to provide a light slice of escapism via ripped bodices and glossy galloping steeds.
You can always pick out a popular genre in film, because sooner or later somebody will come along and satirise it. The wartime historical escapism film got its satirical version in a film that outstrips them all for sheer entertainment value. ‘On Approval’ (1944) stars Clive Brook, Googie Withers, Beatrice Lillie and Roland Culver. The story is set in 1890, and concerns two impoverished aristocratic gentlemen exploring the possibility of marriage to two wealthy widows. There are shades of Oscar Wilde in some of the witty one-liners, while Withers and Lillie are hilariously sharp as two women with modern values living in an old fashioned world.
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I can honestly say that this is one of the funniest films that I have ever seen, and I have to thank @MissElvey on Twitter for recommending this to me. The opening scenes, which serve to introduce the film, are both achingly funny and informative. These scenes are voiced over by E.V.H. Emmett, that familiar voice from newsreels and Carry on Cleo. We begin with scenes of war, of guns being fired from ships. Emmett suggests that we leave these behind and go back to 1939, when everyone was enjoying themselves. Scenes then follow of noisy motorbike races, watersports and a countryside littered by hikers. No so peaceful in 1939 either then was it? Emmett then suggests that we go back even further, to Grandmamma’s day, the 1890s. A time when ladies dressed demurely and knew their place; a time when entertainment consisted of sing- songs at the piano, needlework and cricket. And so the story begins, with Brook’s Duke of Bristol being invited to a party at his own London townhouse, which he has had to rent out to Withers’ American heiress due to chronic lack of funds.
Why begin the film with this direct comparison between life in the 1940s and the 1890s? This is where it sets its stall out as a satire. With brilliant use of facial expression and knowing exaggeration, it reminds the audience – who was perhaps only the week before spellbound by Phyllis Calvert in ‘Fanny By Gaslight’ – that the past wasn’t all melodrama. On the whole, we are told, to be a woman in the 1890s was terribly dull. All the strict social conventions kept everyone trapped in a boring and repetitive life. The story shows that only the monied people (irrespective of class) had any kind of freedom; but even then they could be held to ransom by servants who morally disapproved of their actions.
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Despite its sending up all of the morale boosting historical themed films, there is a hint of it in ‘On Approval’. I found it to be something of a feminist film, patently demonstrating to women just how far they had progressed over the previous 50 years. There seems to be an underlying message to women in the audience that despite war, they now had more control over their lives and more freedom – to express themselves through their leisure and their dress. “Let us keep moving forward” it hints “away from forces that would stamp on our ability to choose.”
The film was released as preparations were being made for D Day. Surely it must have given viewers a breath of that second wind that they now needed to secure freedom and a better future; to remove the need to look for a past that probably never existed anyway.