1940's Girl Power

The Gentle Sex (1943) - Joan Gates, Jean Gillie, Joan Greenwood, Joyce Howard, Rosamund John, Lilli Palmer, Barbara Waring

I'm sure that when "The Gentle Sex" was made it was done so with three intentions; that of showing what being part of the ATS was like, making it feel like a friendly place where there is great camaraderie and at the same time highlighting the importance of women in the war effort. And I hope those who watched "The Gentle Sex" back in 1943 did feel like they could contribute, that they would learn skills in the ATS as well as make friends. But most importantly I hope those who watched it then and since have come to see the great support that women provided during the war. Having said that it also has to be said that "The Gentle Sex" is a bit of a mismatch, there are good parts, bad parts, parts which don't seem to work and some which now feel quite corny.

To put it simply "The Gentle Sex" doesn't really have a storyline as such but rather a collective glimpse at what the women did in the ATS during WWII. And it sets out its intentions early as we have a narration from Leslie Howard playing devil's advocates as he sexistly mocks young women, calling them dears and having an eye for a pretty girl. You know that come the end of the movie the narration from Howard, who also directs the movie, will have changed as he realises the contribution which the women made doing jobs previously done by men whilst they were away fighting.

Rosamund John and Joyce Howard in The Gentle Sex (1943)

As such we have a collective of 7 very different women, the well off to the poor, the English to the Scottish, the pretty to the, well not so pretty. Basically we have this diverse group who end up going through training together, learning how to march whilst also going through selection for various positions. Now to be honest all you see is basic training and you wonder how some of them are chosen to help man the anti aircraft gun but what you do understand is the bond which forms. We watch as these very different women become close, there to comfort each other when the going gets tough whilst geeing each other along. We also see how romances form as they meet service men at a dance and how whilst it can lead to happiness it can also lead to heart break.

Having established the bond which forms as they go through basic training "The Gentle Sex" then shows us the actual contribution as the women basically get split into two groups. We have four of them who become part of the driving fleet and are ordered to drive a series of vehicles 400 miles to a boat yard, driving all night through heavy rain and darkness. We also see the other group who help man the anti aircraft guns, putting themselves close to danger as successful hits bring planes crashing down nearby whilst also dealing with bombings. It does make you realise that whilst we often see in movies women helping in the factories or helping on the farms during the war there were those who signed up and did the job in the military that men had been doing.

Now for the most this is good because it gives "The Gentle Sex" a mixed tone, you have the humour of the way the women get on with some getting on better with others. You have the emotion of romance and heartbreak and you also have the danger and drama as these women put themselves in dangerous situations. And you also have something else when watching "The Gentle Sex" now and this is the humour of how ignorant the high ranking men sound with their sexist remarks, such as when they reckon the women driving the vans will stop off to do their hair on the way. The thing is that whilst there are quite a lot of sexist remarks through out the movie every one then gets almost a put down as the women prove themselves not to be the stereotypes depicted by the men. Having said that a passionate speech about feminism does feel cheesy and forced even if the intention to highlight women's contribution is right.

As for the acting well there is neither a bad performance nor a stand out performance in the entire movie. Joyce Howard as Anne ends up making the most impact and that is because she is the most striking and the camera lingers regularly on her beautiful face. But that doesn't mean she is better than anyone else because all of the women deliver equally interesting characters.

What this all boils down to is that "The Gentle Sex" is an entertaining and interesting movie which looks at the contribution of women to the war effort. If feels like it was made to encourage other women to join the ATS but at the same time highlight how important their contribution to the war effort was. And it is that side of "The Gentle Sex" which still works today as we see the part women played during WWII.

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