Canadians sometimes have an inferiority complex when it comes to their military history. Recent developments notwithstanding, we seem to be ignored in pictures regarding the Second World War; likely because it is simply we were seen as being under the British. It actually may be surprising to learn that we were under our own command and did our own slogging in Italy, Sicily and Europe. The home front back in Canada was different in that we were not close to the fighting. We didn’t do film of our experiences, yet other countries did. This British picture MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) is a lesser known work that attempts to articulate the home front during the Battle of Britain from the English working class point of view with distinct style.
MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) was made by GAINSBOROUGH STUDIOS with Eric Portman and Patricia Roc on the poster. The bulk of the story takes place between Celia Crowson (Patricia Roc) and Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson), which leads one to think that Portman’s name was put on the poster for box office appeal and as per his contract. The character he plays, shop supervisor and later love interest Charlie Forbes, is large. Portman almost made a career playing military personnel with his most famous role that of Tom Earnshaw in ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING (1942).
MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) has a verisimilitude style as directors Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder give us a mix of staged moments and newsreel footage to begin. The story is of a working class family, The Crowsons, whose lives change due to conscription into service. Celia Crowson (Patricia Roc) is the quintessential cheery, smiling girl that dreams of perhaps meeting a man. Her older and more confident sister Phylis Crowson (Joy Shelton) goes to parties, dances, and smooches soldiers, even bringing them home to the parlor in the dark. Their widower father Jim Crowson is a hard working man who, in the custom of the time, comes home wanting his food ready and his paper out. He also enjoys going down to the pub. He borrows money from Celia to do in one scene.
Phyllis and Celia receive their call up notices, causing much distress for their father who is doing his bit as a Air Raid Warden. Celia is hoping to be selected to go to the Women’s Auxiliary Air force, but receives a posting to a factory making aircraft parts. Phyllis gets selected for the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps. Celia has to report to the factory, and her father begrudgingly has to face this, yet pleads with her to tell them that she has to stay home and take care of her father, who will have no one to make his meals. Celia’s adventure begins when she goes to the factory sleeping quarters and meets her roommates. There she meets slightly loony Welsh girl Gwen Price (Megs Jenkins), who likes to sleep in her underwear as “it only gets put back on in the morning.” Celia’s other roommate is the vain, rich, Jennifer Knowles (Anne Crawford), who has the clothes, the glamour and the attitude of a person working below their station.
Knowles dislikes the work that they are given in the factory to do; so much that she vocalizes it to manager Charlie Forbes, causing friction and bickering. While some airmen from a nearby base are touring the factory, Celia notices an airman named Fred Blake (Gordon Jackson). Shy eye contact is made but there is no chit chat. At a dance the two of them connect in a shy, tender way by dancing, talking, smiling: a romance begins to blossom. Fred Blake is a wireless operator who has only been training so far and is scared for what may come. They have some warm moments of two people that seem desperately wanting companionship but not sure how the other will react.
Jennifer Knowles, with style in clothes, hair and makeup begins a less tender courtship with her supervisor Forbes. Their dislike for each other is shown when Forbes deliberately snubs Knowles for a dance as she is walking towards him expecting it. The two converse with hint of affection covered by a mutual dislike for each other.
The work life is drudgery. Long hours are interspersed with the inevitable air raid warning. Knowles shows her contempt for the alarm as she works her machine during a bombing, making Forbes come and drag her away from it during the blackout.
Changes happen in wartime life, hence I have heard many people do not make many friends as they may not have them long. The reverse is also possible as people cling to those that they love or persevere due to loneliness or fear. MILLIONS LIKE US( 1942) follows those developments in Celia always with an inkling of British resolve through the tears and strife.
Patrica Roc strikes the right notes at Celia. She has a bright smile despite what is happening. Her wardrobe is that of a working class person with various house dresses and the head scarfed look of a factory worker immortalized in the image of Rosie The Riveter. Roc does well with her lines, showing controlled emotion. She was known as ‘the archetypal British beauty’ and was at her height in these escapist dramas.
Gordon Jackson is perfectly cast as the shy airman Fred Blake. Jackson has a wholesome appearance, and not over the top tough. This combines for the right mix of Blake and Celia being ordinary people thrust together in difficult circumstances that find life and love. Jackson had a long career in film and television and is perhaps remembered most for his role in THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963).
The rest of the people fill their roles well as we see actors Naunton Wayne (Caldicott) and Basil Radford (Charters) playing two buddies, exchanging rapid dialogue and adding color in characterization as they both did in similar roles. The roles they play are continuations of those in NIGHT TRAIN TO MUNICH (1940), minus the worrying about lost golf clubs.
MRS. MINIVER (1942) is the film many know in this type of ‘bolstering the people back home’ style, along with TENDER COMRADE (1943), SINCE YOU’VE BEEN AWAY (1944), and THE HUMAN COMEDY (1943) . MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) is not necessarily like that in many ways. The picture features real airmen, policemen, firemen and factory workers in the large dance hall sequences interspersed with actual footage of air raids and factory life that do not look out of place.
MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) has been called a propaganda film. This is unfair as it attempts to show a slightly unvarnished side of heroic Britain. The Canadian army in the Second World War was dubbed ‘Cinderella on the left’ after Normandy as it protected the British flank during the march to Berlin. MILLIONS LIKE US (1943) could be thought of as that as it is still worth a look. See if you can hear the film’s title in the picture.
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