Friday, 4 November 2011

The Great Ealing Film Challenge 18: The Feminine Touch (1956)

Director Pat Jackson made this, his only Ealing film, as the studio faced uncertain economic and creative straits, having sold their Ealing base to the BBC in 1955 (moving to Borehamwood instead), and with a new distribution agreement through MGM (not the more traditional Rank deal that had sustained them through the 1940s and early 50s). Ealing had also lost many of its established creative personnel, with Basil Dearden, Michael Relph, Charles Crichton and Alexander Mackendrick moving on to other projects, in British cinema and beyond. Jackson, a refugee documentarian who had flirted with Hollywood, had already explored similar health topics in White Corridors (1951), but this film differs from that earlier treatment by being more focused on the female experience of nursing. Yet despite its credentials as one of the few Ealing films to deal directly with a range of contemporary female issues (or, at least, those that relate to women in nursing and related work) the film arguably suffers from conflicting ideological positions around women, the workplace, and domestic responsibilities.

[As with Nicolas Nickleby, some of the following points and criticism may come from the source material, Sheila Mackay Russell’s book A Lamp is Heavy]

The film follows five student nurses from their arrival at St. Augustine’s Hospital (filmed at the real life Guy’s Hospital), through training, to their experiences in the first year of nursing. The film opens strongly, with Susan (Belinda Lee), Pat (Delphi Lawrence), Maureen (Adrienne Corri), Ann (Henryetta Edwards) and Liz (Barbara Archer) all thrown together in a dormitory. This section of the film has echoes back to British wartime films such as The Way Ahead (1944) and Millions Like Us (1943), with people from all walks of life (and class) forced to work together and find common ground. There is a strong scene of them arriving that defines their central characteristics: Susan is reliable and sensible, Pat is flighty and open, Maureen is Irish and loud, Ann is public school, Liz is working class. Watching them meet, unpack, unselfconsciously undress and put on their drab nurses’ outfits, demonstrates a solid core of burgeoning comradeship that the film will return to, albeit with less effect, throughout the plot.

The film is most interested in Susan, and her role within this group of women. She is often presented as a leader, but the film never offers any reason for this (beyond her being the main character). At times, she is visually isolated from the others, most notably in a scene where Ann and Pat threaten to resign: among a room of nurses, all bathed in the strong red-orange light of sunset, Susan is alone, sitting in a window, while the rest are gathered together on chairs and sofas in the centre of the room; the same scene shows she is uncertain about quitting, while the rest are aggrieved, protesting. However, she can also be shown within the group: a scene of the five women sitting on the edge of a bathtub, soaking their feet after another busy day on the ward, reemphasises how they draw on each other for support (the visuals are also strong here, with the camera occupying a point at the end of the bath that suggests the viewer is a sixth member of this group, part of the gang rather than an outsider).

The film has an obvious need to pair the female characters up with good-looking male doctors. The three male figures shown here (bar patients) are Dr. Jim Alcott (George Baker, from The Ship That Died of Shame), Dr. Ted Robinson (Christopher Rhodes), and the older hospital porter (Newton Blick) – whose role is largely to be a father figure who’ll help the girls and turn a blind eye to them going out partying beyond curfew. In many ways it seems churlish to complain about the romantic sub-plots, given the nurse-doctor romance narrative was hardly new in 1956, and has echoes in later hospital drama from er to Casualty. But here it actually takes away from any sense of the film dealing with the experience of female workers – rather than being a female version of, for example, Nine Men or The Cruel Sea, the central group is interesting less because of their interest in being strong and resourceful at their jobs and more about finding a man to marry, thus allowing them to quit their jobs.

And this isn’t my reading too much into the film: the final scenes of the film feature the Matron (Dian Wynyard), a character whose role throughout has largely been to give firm but understanding lectures, offering a homily to Susan and Pat that states they should leave nursing and abandon their qualifications, because finding love (particularly with a doctor) is a better option than finishing training and having a fulfilling career. After seventy minutes showing these young women struggling to overcome their obstacles at work, it feels glib to offer the solution that love trumps work. The film roots this denouement in nursing policy: married nurses are presumed to neglect their duty ‘because of a divided loyalty’ – although Susan does question the merit of nurses being allowed to have as many affairs as they want just so long as they are discreet and don’t get caught – but it does mean the film ends with Matron advising these two nurses (whom the film has asked us to invest in) to quit and – quite literally in the case of the final scene – end up in the arms of the doctor they love.

The film’s uncertainty over the place of romance is most plainly seen through Susan’s experience. Her relationship with Alcott moves in traditional romantic-comedy fits and starts: the victim of apparent competition with more experienced nurses, a missed date due to work, misunderstandings when Alcott is seen with another woman, disagreements over his treatment of patients, before eventual realisation and declaration of their feelings. This realisation pivots around two extended sequences: the first occurs in the children’s ward, where Alcott and Susan are looking after Jessie, a young girl with chronic heart disease. The debate here is around religion, notably Susan accusing Alcott of destroying Jessie’s faith in God because she knows ‘Uncle Jim’ (Jessie’s name for Alcott) doesn’t believe. Alcott initially rejects Susan’s concerns, but her intervention (and frankness) changes his mind, leading to a talk with Jessie on God and religion that suggests he does actually believe in something (which thus also paints him as suitable husband material): ‘we don’t understand radio and television, but they exist too... they only work if we let them, by turning on the sets.’ Yet this is also a scene that pulls its punches – Alcott’s lack of belief is never truly explored – and Susan is sidelined in the serious conversation, reduced to handing out orange juice to the kids while Alcott chats to Jessie. Susan is more central to the second pivotal scene, set during a nightshift, where she recognises a patient in trouble and calls Alcott to help him. Here, Susan and Alcott are presented in a more equal relationship, by her having proved her medical abilities: from this scene on, they are a couple, and Susan is planning to leave the service.

Yet the film has one last, curious, ‘romantic’ note to strike: Susan, writing her resignation letter on nightshift (this is a beautifully lit scene: a darkened ward of deep blue shadows, Belinda Lee sitting in a pool of light cast largely by a blue-shaded desk lamp), is called to an emergency case. The patient – bluntly described in the credits as ‘The Suicide’ (Dorothy Alison) – tells Susan her story of being in love with another man, running away from her husband (who gave her money when she left), and then being betrayed by her lover, who left her penniless. This long scene – largely shot in one take, with occasional cut-aways to close-ups of Susan – presents the moral, conservative, point of view (Susan states that going back to the husband is the only choice, not suicide), helps convince Susan to stay in nursing (for a few scenes at least, until Matron’s intervention), but also suggests the film’s larger theme that love or death are the only options open to women in the mid-1950s (with career a distant third).

Susan and Alcott are usefully contrasted with Pat and Dr Rhodes, where the emphasis appears to be on fun and sex, rather than medicine and romance: Pat (who notes early on that you can’t learn anatomy from books) regularly returns home late from dates, she is the most glamorous and outspoken of the girls (particularly in relation to men and sex), and on the one occasion when we see Pat and Rhodes out of the hospital, it is at a hectic and busy nightclub, with black musicians playing in the background, and native tribal designs painted on the walls. The broad strokes of the film show their relationship as unconventional and physical, while Susan and Alcott are all about unrequited glances and picnics on the riverbank: yet both women end up in the Matron’s office, giving up careers for their men.

Away from narrative and thematic concerns, The Feminine Touch does demonstrate some interesting (if subdued) uses of Technicolor. As with The Love Lottery, the quality of the print doesn’t really allow a comparison with how it might have looked in 1956, and often reduces rooms, costumes and ambience to brown-beige tones, with occasional colour highlights (notably red tones, or the blue uniforms of the nurses) breaking through. Yet there strong colour elements are still visible: bright red towels covering the trolley taking a sick boy to theatre, the blue tones of the night-time ward scenes, the red stripes on the sister’s uniforms. The film is also visually striking, using the kind of shadows the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe had previously identified as a strength of Technicolor. One scene in particular stands out here, when Susan is on nightshift and a patient is in trouble: the images of the ward are bathed in dark shadows, with only occasional highlights in lighter blues. Susan and Alcott walk to and from the bed in these shadows, only illuminated when the patient’s bedside lamp is switched on – and even then, they are half-lit, faces half or three-quarters in shadow.

The Feminine Touch, coming at a crossroads for Ealing Studios, may not have opened up a new successful strain of dramas, but it stands as one of the few Ealing films that engaged with female experience outside of supportive wife/daughter roles (we shall see some of the others in later blog posts). While that representation may be problematic in places, it shouldn’t take away from the fact that the film is dominated by strong, confident women in positions of authority, who are able to rely on each other, are seen as independent, and demonstrate skill at their profession.

[UPDATED April 2014: The Feminine Touch is now available as part of The Ealing Studios Rarities Collection, Volume 8, from Network]

Next time: more colourful action in The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953)...

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