In the current re-evaluation of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, what to make of the portrayal of women in their key films, that striking tribe of Isolts with brown hair and passionate natures?
Powell (1905-90), a Kent man whose love for his actors seemed to have no bounds, could have been a dictatorial director who, by his own admission, used shock tactics on set to get what he wanted. While Pressburger (1902-88) was a conservative Hungarian who preferred women to be silent partners: Powell called him an “anti-feminist”.
However, given the upheavals of the era and the actors they chose, they created a new generation of screen heroines during the period 1943–48.
The weakening of social bonds during this period gave rise to new versions of femininity, as Powell and Pressburger quickly realized. However, in January 2015, when the BFI compiled a list of the 10 best wartime films about women, none of the duo’s films made the cut. BFI members asked to comment on the list also had nothing to offer. So, these Archer characters are not seen as modern warriors now. But neither did they belong to the other two types of leading ladies popular at the time: the naughty high-society ladies or the vivacious housewives who knew their place. Perhaps idealized women in romantic films are not considered militant enough by the BFI.
But for Pressburger’s grandson and biographer, Oscar-winner Kevin MacDonald, 1943. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp It is, he says, “dominated by women,” much as Emerica was for his wife Wendy, who worked as an ambulance driver during the war. Macdonald also sees the film as a love letter to his refugee grandfather to Britain. I would say it was the same for the ideal British woman.
Pressburger admitted that Deborah Kerr could embody such an ideal woman when he dined with her in 1942, desperately trying to replace Archers’ first choice to play the three women in Clive Candy’s life in Airship – Wendy Hiller when she became pregnant. (N.B. Powell, in his first memoir, also calls Kerr’s choice his own.) As for Pressburger, Kerr had the whole package: with skillfully chosen makeup, she could demonstrate the intellectual and moral strength of the suffragette Edith, and the gentle army wife Barbara’s sense of domestic duty and the colorful glamor of the ATC driver Angela. Powell seemed to fall in love with her during filming and created a new shining star. (In the photo aboveStars: Kerr as Edith, Roger Livesey as Clive Candy)
The women in The Archers films between 1943 and 1948 are pretty indomitable opponents, using their powers to get what they want, whether that’s the life of the pilot they’ve fallen in love with or beating up their cocky boyfriend in a war game. They are energetic, sometimes capricious – like Joan (Hiller) in I know where I’m going! (1945), dicing death during a storm to satisfy an obsessive fantasy of what her happiness requires before true love destroys it. Sometimes their passion ruins them, as it happens overheated sister Ruth (Kathleen Byron) Black Narcissus or came into conflict with Vicky Page (Moira Shearer) in Red shoes (1948).
Of course, Pressburger killed two wives in Airship, also, without much fanfare or fuss, deftly allowing the focus to return to the bromance between its two male leads, Clive (Roger Livesey) and Theo (Anton Walbrook). The everyday bustle of married life had no place in his novels. But then, in the third act, she’s that ideal type again: cheerful and strong-willed but kind and efficient, named Angela but preferring to be called Johnny.
There Kerr is still in another form as Sister Clodagh (in the photo on the left) in 1947 Black Narcissus, slowly moving toward maturity without compromising her position as Sister Superior. Kerr’s energetic personality shines through her headscarf, with a sudden sparkle in her eyes and a quiver in her smile despite the character’s wavering self-confidence.
In Powell and Pressburger’s scripts, it was already clear that women’s career choices had become a major issue. Vicky is forced to give up love, and then life itself, because of her complete devotion to dance; Ruth is forced to give up her vows and then her feelings when she experiences physical lust. These are exaggerated, melodramatic results, but the pain these characters experience is surprisingly still authentic.
The actresses who played these women even learned to outflank Powell. if Kathleen Byron’s oft-quoted conversation with Kerr on set Black Narcissus worth believing. Byron complained that she did not agree with Powell’s edicts about how she should play the deranged Sister Ruth, but Kerr advised her to simply tell him, “Yes, yes, you’re right,” and then do exactly what she wanted.
This conversation is all the more poignant because the two women had to work together for a man with whom both were closely involved, Kerr, three years earlier; Byron was still confused. Kerr refused to give up her contract with MGM, which would have seen her move to Hollywood, so Powell immediately ended their relationship, married his longtime lover Frankie, a former model, just days later, and the next day met Kerr to tell her , what did he do.
It is disturbing to read in his memoirs the account of this meeting with Kerr (to whom he was preparing to move and marry). “I have never heard such a groan from a human being, and I was the cause of it,” he wrote in Life in cinema. He claimed he was just as heartbroken as Kerr. But there is an emotional sadism here that finds echoes in Mark Lewis’s MO in Powell’s 1960 solo film: Peeping Tomswho uses his filmmaking to inflict maximum suffering on his victims as they die.
Does Powell need Pressburger to temper his filmmaking? When his “love friendship” with Pamela Brown (the photo is correct with Powell on the set) prompted him to shoot a lot of non-standard shots with her participation. IKVIG The character of Catriona, a plump, exotic, Laird Livesey’s longtime childhood sweetheart, Pressburger stood firm, feeling that this intensifying plot suggested a deep love between the characters that would upset the balance of his main story.
It would be absurd to call Powell and Pressburger’s protagonists “modern women”, and yet they are – in short – on par with the male characters, while maintaining qualities that were considered essential femininity at the time. (Interestingly, Kerr cost Archers the same amount as Anton Walbrook did at Airship.) These women have responsibilities and moral obligations that guide them, both feminine and war-related, but they also have a vibrant spirit that matches their essential integrity.
After this heyday, Powell and Pressburger’s films became more “masculine” again, women became less visible, as in British society, and their work was returned to returning soldiers. Where they had central roles, they became more exotic and erotic, as in Red shoes And Tales of Hoffmann (1951), the couple’s most artistic creations. However, as I watched, I couldn’t help thinking that the Archers would be overjoyed to rediscover the saucy yet fragrant qualities of their wartime women living in British actors like Tilda Swinton, Hayley Atwell , Claire Foy and Carey Mulligan, to name just a few.