Films of 50s Show Women's Struggle; DAVID WHETSTONE Talks to Author Melanie Bell Who Reckons the Popular Cinema of the 1950s Confounds a Few Stock Ideas about the Women of the Time

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THE release of the new St Trinian's film (see review opposite) makes a consideration of 1950s cinema timely, although Melanie Bell has been thinking about it for quite some time.

The Newcastle University film lecturer has a book out in January called Femininity in the Frame: Women in 1950s Popular Cinema.

"I was intrigued by the question of what happened to women after the war," she explains.

"They have come through this transformative event, when they were working in factories and heavy industry, but what happened then? "The stock answer is that they went back into the homes and became housewives and nannies, and that they were quite happy to do so.

"The 1950s is often seen as a time of conformity in relation to gender roles, particularly with regard to women.

"That was the spur for me - to see to what extent that is borne out by the evidence."

As film is her specialist field, Dr Bell looked first to the evidence of the cinema of the time. What were people rushing out to see - and how did it portray women? She duly found plenty of evidence to undermine the stereotypical image of women as dutiful housewives prepared to immerse themselves in domestic toil.

What of St Trinian's, for one thing? Inspired by the cartoons of Ronald Searle, the first film, The Belles of St Trinian's , came out in 1951 and the second, Blue Murder at St Trinian's, in 1957.

"The thing about St Trinian's is that these are comedy films - mainstream films, hugely popular with audiences - and they are all about women behaving badly," says Melanie.

"All the authority figures are women and the young girls are just nightmares.

"They tear around terrorising the boys and everyone is scared of them. They are sexually aggressive so this is girl power of 50 years ago.

"You don't tend to have that in mind when you think of the 1950s."

The two 50s St Trinian's films did bow to masculinity in the sense that comedy actor Alastair Sim donned drag to play the headmistress Miss Fritton, and also doubled up to play her brother.

The same task has fallen in the most recent St Trinian's releases to Rupert Everett.

Other authors recently have focused on the 1950s, suggesting that it wasn't just a grey period between wartime austerity and the Swinging Sixties.

Melanie says a lot of women were urged back into the home. Wartime nurseries funded by the Government so mothers could work were closed down quickly.

"They weren't seen as a priority any more," says Melanie.

The return of the male workforce meant women lost factory jobs but at the same time they were directed into the so-called caring professions.

There was the new National Health Service to staff and social work also emerged in the post-war years.

The birthrate peaked in 1945-6 and smaller families started to become the norm, giving women more time to do other things.

In the cinema in the 1950s, war films started to get major billing and square-jawed heroes played by the likes of Kenneth More were popular.

He portrayed flying ace Douglas Bader in Reach for the Sky (1956).

"You get David and Goliath-type stories in the early 1950s, focusing on a heroic elite," says Melanie.

"But then (in 1956) there's the Suez crisis, this scar on the national consciousness, when Britain realises it's not this major player on the world stage any more.

"Then you get films like The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and Ice-Cold in Alex (1958) which focus on failure and have very flawed heroes.

"The war films continue but the type of war film changes."

But where were the women in the war films? The answer, as Melanie confirms, is that there weren't many.

However, they came to the fore in other genres of popular film, such as the "social problem films" including the likes of The Flesh Is Weak (1957) and Passport To Shame (1958). …


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