(Thanks to the ex-bfi person who sent me this film, which is available free at: https://player.bfi.org.uk/free/film/watch-life-in-her-hands-1951-online)
A training film that lasts 55 minutes and has as its lead an actress who 2 years earlier was capable of far better stuff. Which isn’t to say this is devoid of interest. Far from it (tho I’ll leave the analysis to someone else…).
It stars Kathleen Byron, dramatically less pale and interesting than she was in Black Narcissus and The Small Back Room. For starters, she has – like all the most attractive women in Britain (including Deborah Kerr and Kathleen Byron and my mum) – that ‘national health’ short hairdo, seemingly done by a blind old lady, and permed to within an inch of its life… (The 80s was arguably even worse in terms of female AND moreover male haircuts, mine included…)
What was it about the 50s in Britain? The Red Shoes gave way to – in P&P terms – The Battle Of The River Plate. Rationing went on and on, after the celebrations for the Festival Of Britain (also 1951) ceased. There were such glorious American movies and male fashions – and such TERRIBLE female ones.
KB was actually 30, tho playing a 24-year-old. Her dead husband (called, as my father is, Dick) is (or looks to be) at least 50, and smokes (in the photo by her bedside) A PIPE! And, while we’re on the subject, why on earth is she driving when her husband is sitting in the passenger seat? Is he disabled? Is he radically modern, for 1951, just letting his wife drive? Surely a better movie (one less concerned with establishing ‘guilt for husband’s death’ – ✔️) would make something of this?
The film was the directorial debut was Philip Leacock, whole films look too boring even to see (in my 40 years’ viewing), but who did have a younger brother, Richard, who was big in documentary.
It has a lot to say (inadvertently) about women in the 50s. They’re all so goddamned CAREFUL. It was as if the last 3 decades (since 1918) had been about liberation. It was time to put the lid back on. The doctors are ALL MEN (and one Christmas kissing scene with the nurses shows what to us is pretty vile sexual harassment). It’s basically on the level of a Harry Enfield Mr Cholmondeley-Walker sketch. (The scenes with KB’s brother directing plays at the Watfield Playhouse are particularly grotesque.) And why on earth is no mention made of the NHS, then only 3 years old, and surely a matter of great pride? SO MANY QUESTIONS…
But the cast is great, despite everything.
Jenny Laird (Sister Honey in Black Narcissus) is the matron.
Joan Maude (the Chief Recorder in Black Narcissus) is STILL KB’s boss, as the Sister Tutor.
And KB still looks dangerous in her close-ups, tho the film overall marks the beginning of a long, slow ‘declivity’ (to borrow Albert Goldman’s phrase) – which something like the Janet McTeer/Vita Sackville West BBC miniseries Portrait Of A Marriage (1990) eventually did something to reverse.
My mum was 13 when this came out; my dad, 21, had ‘done’ National Service for 18 months (as an officer in the Black Watch!) and was just about to go ‘up’ to Cambridge… Hmmmm.