World War II seems to be in the air here, not only has our perusal of the 1001 Movies you must see before you die been reviewing the war years, as reflected by our last post in the series, but we are also planning a large series on the final days of the Bismarck, mixing our passion for history with our love of literature. Nevertheless, so much war makes one wonder what it must have been like to actually have to live through WWII itself.
I imagine that one would want to have some kind of distraction from the ever-present war, and if going to the movies, one would probably only be able to stomach a certain amount of propaganda film. But, at the same time, I also imagine that film audiences were nowhere near as convinced of the general expectation that people should respect and be nice to one another as we have today. Gainsborough Pictures, a British movie studio, seems to have reached the same conclusion, and filmed the subject of today’s review, The Man in Grey, in 1943 (and again, I invite you to think about that for a second).
It is most emphatically not a war movie, as it is essentially a romance set in regency times, despite the fact that it begins with two servicepeople – a man and a woman, at an auction of the goods of an heirless notable killed at Dunkirk. After that, however, it moves back in time to two ancestors of the man and woman, played by the same actors who are involved in a reasonably cynical love quadrangle. Basically it’s the story of a man and women who get married and then fall in love with other people. SPOILER ALERT IN THE NEXT SENTENCE: Happiness is averted at the last moment, and then the women die.
Even if you do read the previous sentence, it doesn’t give much away that you can’t guess from the opening scene, so you can still watch the film.
But of more value, in my opinion, is to wonder why this film with only a partially happy ending (no, I won’t spoil that for you) became the foundation of a successful series of melodramas. Wouldn’t it have been much more logical, with the Luftwaffe potentially delivering death at night, to go out and watch a screwball comedy? Or just a cartoon?
Perhaps not. People of the time do see to have been a little less delicate than we are today. Entertainment–even escapist entertainment–was not obliged to leave one feeling good or even sad but uplifted. It was permissible to tell a story of bad people being bad, just because that’s the way life is, and there’s no such thing as karma. Life isn’t fair, and the attitude of the times reflected that, and, looking around at modern social movements which seem to be trying to change that (next: watch idealists attempt to repeal the law of gravity!), I must say that I find the attitude amazingly refreshing.
Movies, of course, weren’t the only place where this kind of thinking abounded. After the war, auto racing became much more popular, as cars became more ubiquitous. Trees and houses were considered perfectly acceptable things to have on a roadside… and crowds stood as close as they could. There was no real public outcry, because “B-24s are dangerous, MGs are fun” explained away the danger of the activity. And if someone died, it was their choice – after all, no one on the planet is forced to race cars, and only adults were doing it. That wouldn’t fly today, where the Nanny State has invaded even these areas which should be between an adult and his conscience (do NOT get me started on helmets on ski slopes, because I am kind of a broken record on that).
I find it fascinating how seemingly unrelated issues such as movies and health and safety aren’t that unrelated after all. I wonder if the pendulum will swing back to sanity, or if that only comes with the clarity given by a big, unpleasant war?
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