Went The Day Well ? (1942)

For the film group this month I chose Went The Day Well? I had seen the film, probably at the NFT, a long time ago. At the time I had just started to research the subject. The film impressed me because of the way women were represented.  Three images remained imprinted in my memory: The postmistress hacking the German to death and the defiant face of the little girl protesting that the boy did not include her in his plot to escape and warn the outside world. I found out when I watched the film again that the third image was a false memory.  I remembered Nora shooting Oliver Wilsford as she descends the manor’s staircase. In fact she shoots him inside the room with the French windows.*

For a war film the preponderance of women is unusual. Also unusual is the way the ruthlessness of war is mainly expressed through women characters. (see below for analysis) Penelope Houston’s book for the BFI CLASSICS series examines the film in all its aspects. I quote from her concluding pages:” … it is every man for himself, and just as much, and most unusually for an Ealing war film, every woman for herself…the villagers have no choice but  to discover brutality in themselves which some do more readily than others.” 

The Women : What I would like to point out is the unmistakable signature  of Diana Morgan, one of the scriptwriters. She was coopted in the last stages of production to make the characters ‘playable’: “Ealing didn’t greatly care for actors” she says to Houston and sentimentality had to be avoided at all costs. The studios’ atmosphere was one of the boys’ school.  The 14 women in this collection of villagers are ‘types’. Some have non speaking parts but are  named: the maid, the house keeper, the seaman’s mother, the mother and baby and others. But the dry humour in the dialogue of the main characters provides a contrast of mood and a distanciation device for the audience. It is difficult to estimate the age of the characters but for a guideline we can  take the actor’s ages: Mrs. Collins the postmistress (Muriel George 59),  Cousin Maud (Hilda Bailey 54), Mrs. Fraser (Mari Lohr 48), Nora (Valerie Taylor 40),  Peggy one of the land girls (Elizabeth Allan 32), Ivy –  land girl (Thora Hird 31), Daisy (Patricia Hayes 33), the feminist little girl  evacuee (Josie Welford – no information found), the baby (Janette Scott 4 ).**

By writing for the actors, Morgan certainly achieved this lack of sentimentality that  permits some detachment and dry humour

The brutality of war:  “the villagers have no choice but to discover brutality in themselves which some do more readily than others.” This in contrast to the  written script is conveyed by the cinematography.  Although both sides are ruthless, it is interesting to note that the two sequences most generally quoted are also the ones described in detail and illustrated in the BFI publication. They are the sequences where Mrs Collins blinds and ruthlessly hacks the German soldier to death and the one where Nora determinedly comes down the stairs, enters the room where Wilsford is dismantling the barricaded window and shoots him. A less extreme event shows the younger Peggy upset at having killed a soldier at long-range. She is quickly reassured by Ivy the other land girl who makes it a kind of game. But in the case of  Mrs Collins and Nora, both break down in distress tears and even sobs at what they have just done.  The two extremely emotional sequences are filmed so that one empathized with the women. I see no evidence in the film that the same impact affects any of the men. The treatment of executions, and battles are in the conventional war style where there are ”goodies and  ‘baddies’ and we are moved to identify with the ‘goodies’. A set piece of war heroism is the self sacrifice of Mrs. Fraser who grabs a grenade and runs out before its explodes in the children’s room.

With the irrelevance of the threat of invasion today I find that Cavalcanti’s film can be seen as he said himself  ‘deeply pacifist in nature’ because ‘people of the kindest character, such as the people in that small English village, as soon as war touches them become absolute monsters.’

*it seems that false memories of film scenes are not uncommon. I have detected a few during discussions in the film group. Please let me know if you know of any instances. .

** It is the young teenage to 30 age group that is not represented and in shots of the crowds some older women are present.

2 Brutal sequences: both seem to have the same powerful structure that relies on a change of rhythm and edited closeups to convey violence and shock.

Mrs. Collins: The continuous shot of Mrs. Collins serving sausages to the German soldier and pouring his tea while chatting and smiling lasts 1min 38.  This is followed by a series of 8 very brief shots lasting around 14sec.in total: Mrs Collins throws the pepper in the soldier’s eyes, close-up of his face in pain, he falls, shot of leg, lower part of dress, logs of wood and part of an axe, soldier trying to get up, Mrs. Collins brandishes the axe above her head and downs it with strength, shot of floor with broken crockery, a gun and the hand of the soldier. Then back to close up of Mrs. Collins’ face distressed crying.

Nora:  Nora gets on the landing and realises that Wilsford is at the manor, she takes a gun, makes sure it is loaded and walks slowly but surely to the stairs. She descends the stairs first slowly looking at the gun and then more determined, the gun held at her side. This tracking shot lasts 1 minute with only one cut. She opens the door to a room shedding light on strewn furniture and Wilsford high up dismantling the windows barricade,  ‘Hello Nora!,  she accuses him and points the gun, closeup of Nora’s terrified face, closeup of Wilsford’s frightened face in a slanted frame, she shoots him once, he falls, Nora’s horrified distorted face, she shoots him twice more and put her hand on her face traumatised. This edit lasts 22sec.

Group members first reactions : (these are expressed in writing just after the end of viewing)

  • Much more exciting than I expected at the beginning. On the edge of my seat because I felt the film was unsentimental and that the children might be killed. I didn’t get much about the representation of older women except that women in general were as brave as the men and everyone pulled together.
  • I enjoyed the portrayal Mrs. Collins as a feisty vital individual whose age was not the dominating feature of her character.
  • Fairly limited parts of older women, matriarchal, surface “dissy” but part  of war heroism underneath e.g. postmistress and paper attack . Traditional role organising women.
  • Wartime propaganda to make the population feel they have something to do in defending the country at home and make them them feel ‘5th column really existed. That is probably why it was OK for women to have leading roles.
  • Surprisingly amount of overt violence. By 1942 threat of violence over but underlined the expectation of heroism required form people.
  • Killing appeared the answer to everything  – women played role almost equal to the men.
  • Interesting contradictions-stereotypes of dependent and less resourceful women vs who took action and didn’t triumph or did  (operator, final scene of woman who shot local betrayer) and self sacrifice (grenade).The good died too.
  • good set piece moments but a weak narrative structure. The framing device allowed for  some moments of irony but reduced potential for tension. Made to appeal to a deep seam of fear of 5th column and covert invasion – a year too late.
  • Unrealistic, unbelievable, gripping photography, idyllic setting, clean and easy deaths, women depicted as stereotypes at firs, then transformed into brave and brutal.
  • I have seen this film previously at least three times as well as its disastrous remake. I was intensely moved and found it as exciting as the first time. I particularly like the raw violence of the pepper and axe attack wich is a scene with which one can identify if placed in such a situation. There is a warmth and homeliness in these older women this is rarely seen on film. The individuality of the women is deftly drawn. It is interesting that a woman is given the role of discovering the villain and also shooting him. Role modes for women on the home front. I thought the final battle scenes needed some good editing as it was too long drawn  out. I liked the idyllic countryside which was there to stimulate patriotic feelings for an idealised rural England
  • enjoyable . Carried tension very well. Excellent photography . Good ending.
  • Enjoyable . Carried tension very well. Excellent photography
  • Difficulty in hearing the dialogue exacerbated the confusion of the early (flashback) scenes. Situation so far-fetched that usual suspension of disbelief strained beyond acceptability. Absurd aspects of story especially included the community retaining its able-bodied men under occupation including one in uniform. Women of all ages however took an enjoyably positive role even though  it seemed too much that hair of more attractive ones stayed so beautifully coiffured through considerable action . When German started being picked off one by one it got uninteresting. Yes group solidarity  good but result predictable so no tension.

About rinaross

Born in 1935. MA in Film and Television Studies at the University of Westminster 1998. Studying the representation of older women in film since then.
This entry was posted in Ageing, Film Analysis, FILM RECEPTION and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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