by Linda Pike
This blog is to commemorate two female stalwarts of British wartime cinema who have largely been forgotten.
Between 1943-1946 Gainsborough Pictures adapted their film production of comedies starring Will Hay, Arthur Askey and George Formby to take advantage of the social and cultural shifts which saw women’s financial responsibility, independence and sexual freedom expand, when men went to war and female conscription came into force. The Studio now made films which saw women as the chief protagonist, often as corseted and costumed heroines with lusty, sometimes sadistic, aristocratic males, and were adapted from ‘bodice ripper’ novels by female authors. Although critically dismissed, they were extremely popular at the box office and appealed to this predominantly working-class female audience. Patricia Roc and Phyllis Calvert rose to prominence in the hey-day of these films with other, more familiar, names such as Margaret Lockwood, James Mason and Stewart Granger.
Patricia Roc was born Felicia Miriam Ursula Herold in London on 7 June 1915 and was adopted by a Dutch-Belgian stockbroker, Andre Riese, and a half-French mother. From this well-to-do background she attended private schools, where she was head girl, and a Paris finishing school before enrolling, as Patricia Roc, in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. Uncredited film appearances soon led to bigger roles with her forte being playing ordinary women in patriotic films such as Let the People Sing (1941) and Vera Lynn’s friend in We’ll Meet Again (1942). Yet it was her role as the naïve middle-class dreamer, Celia, in Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat’s Millions like Us (1943), which catapulted her into stardom. Filmed in an authentic Castle Bromwich aircraft factory, it was amongst the first films that showed the anxieties of how the war affected conscripted women, with its underlying depiction of all classes ‘pulling together’ towards the common goal of winning the war. She was aware of her acting limitations and, because of her natural charm, she tended to play the ‘nice girl’ who was honest and redoubtable and a counter to the more sexually-independent Margaret Lockwood, her love rival in Love Story (1944), The Wicked Lady (1944) and Jassy (1946).
Patricia married three times: a Canadian osteopath, Murray Laing; French cameraman, Andre Thomas; and businessman Walter Reif. Yet, despite her demure screen presence as the girl-next-door, she was a passionate femme fatale and cited in divorce proceedings with Ralph Michael in Johnny Frenchman (1945), and was romantically linked to Ronald Reagan whilst filming Desert Passage (1946) during an unsuccessful venture to Hollywood. A liaison with Anthony Steel, whilst filming Something Money Can’t Buy (1952), resulted in her only child – which Andre acknowledged as his own.
Following later unsuccessful films, Patricia retired to Switzerland, in 1964, to concentrate on bringing up her son and was largely forgotten, until she was fined £25 for absentmindedly shoplifting in Marks and Spencer in Oxford Street. She died in Switzerland on December 30th 2003.
Phyllis Hannah Bickle was born in London on 18 February 1915. Having trained initially as a dancer, she began acting following an injury. Her first role, as Phyllis Calvert, was in the silent film The Arcadians (1927) before signing with Gainsborough Pictures as George Formby’s girlfriend in Let George Do It! (1940). Despite becoming established in films with notable directors like Carol Reed’s Kipps (1941), and respected actors like Robert Donat in The Young Mr Pitt (1942), Phyllis did not achieve stardom until The Man in Grey (1943), with Stewart Grainger, James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. Fanny by Gaslight (1944), again with Stewart and Mason, increased her fame. Phyllis and Patricia both appeared in Two Thousand Women (1944), a drama set in Nazi-occupied France where strong-willed and independent women from various social groups were again championed.
However, to avoid being typecast as perpetually brave and loyal, in Madonna of the Seven Moons (1945) she portrayed a girl with a split personality, with Granger. Patricia played her daughter, despite being the same age! All four Gainsborough films were box office hits – which continued when Phyllis and Mason were reunited in They Were Sisters (1945). With its unusual pre-war setting, it portrayed recognisable Gainsborough themes, in varying degrees, of female empowerment through the sisters’ lives: sexually active Vera (Anne Crawford), housewife Charlotte (Dulcie Gray) and their mediator Lucy (Calvert). It resonated with women who were wondering how their lives would change after their wartime independence and was extremely popular in 1945. Hollywood beckoned; although Patricia’s films were largely disappointing until her BAFTA nomination for Mandy (1953) as the mother of the deaf and mute girl of the title.
Phyllis married actor, and antiquarian bookseller, Peter Murray-Hill in 1941, and often appeared together. After his death, in 1958, she never remarried and reduced her acting commitments to bring up their children. She later carved a niche for herself in television character roles and guest appearances, such as D.I. Barnaby’s Aunt Alice in Midsomer Murders, and fronted her own television show, Kate, in the early 1970s. Her professional career received the ultimate accolade of being the subject in This Is Your Life in 1972 and she died in London on October 8 2002.
Both women were firm friends in Gainsborough’s ‘repertory company’ and embodied the epitome of style and elegance. They often vied for being the most popular actress of the 1940s and were identified as role models for wartime women for honesty, loyalty and independence. Enhanced by attractive and stylish villains, usually Mason and Grainger, Gainsborough’s films with these actresses highlighted important roles for women and were viewed as visual feasts and a romantic escape from the drabness of wartime austerity.
Harper, Sue, Picturing the Past. The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film (The British Film Institute, 1994).
Hodgson, Michael, Patricia Roc: The Goddess of the Odeon (Author House, London, 2010).
http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/446920/index.html for Phyllis Calvert
http://www.screenonline.org.uk/people/id/447017/index.html for Patricia Roc
About the Author:
My name is Linda Pike and I am a part time PhD Candidate at the University of Worcester. My thesis concerns cinema-going in the Midlands during the Second World War. From seeing Pinocchio as a four year old in the Clifton, Coseley, I have been in love with film, especially Anthony Mann westerns with James Stewart, although my favourite film is Gone With the Wind. To complement my fascination with the moving image, I have been a film projectionist since 1985!