The Demi-Paradise (UK, 1943)

Stranger times

The Demi-Paradise was one of the propaganda films produced during World War II to ensure the ‘imagined community’ of Britain both knew what they were fighting for and that they would win. It’s particularly interesting as part of the film’s project was to emphasise that the Soviet Union was our friend and ally. Laurence Olivier plays a Russian engineer designing a revolutionary (‘geddit?’) propellor being built in England. I say ‘England’ because we are in the ‘jolly hockey sticks’ land of the middle class south; Joyce Grenfell even makes an appearance.

Being British isn’t anything to be proud of at the moment because of our humiliating government and the right-wing isolationism of Brexit. Indeed the tosspots who want us out even state that because we survived the war we can survive being outside the EU. Self harm won’t matter, it seems, as long as Johnny Foreigner keeps his distance. They might do well to watch this film as, even though it’s full of middle class paternalism, there is a real sense that ‘we are all in it together’ (a phrase recycled by George Osborne as he proceeded to screw to poor for the benefit of the rich). Felix Aylmer’s patriarch, and owner of the shipyard, rails against income tax, complaining that ’10 shillings in the pound’ (50%) should be higher! The Russians are praised of course, in stark contrast into the Russophobe propaganda we are fed these days (no I do not like Putin).

Another striking moment is when the workers insist they’ll deliver what’s required. The first to speak out is on old woman who’s later seen soldering. A bloke follows stating that ‘where women go we won’t be far behind’. That would be a pretty amazing statement of female empowerment even nowadays.

The film was produced and scripted by Anatole de Grunwald whose parents had fled the Soviet Union and he very effectively brings an outsider’s view on some of the absurdities of upper middle class life; most particularly the pageants that seemed to have been popular at the time. I’m not sure if it is a British trait that we can laugh at ourselves, a very healthy aptitude, but de Grunwald seems to think so and his satire is affectionate.

Olivier’s ‘love interest’ is played by Penelope Dudley-Ward, daughter of a socialite and so is well cast in the depths of the plummy accents that surround her. Despite my antipathy she is engaging in the role; she retired from acting after marrying director Carol Reed. There are several character actors, that run through British cinema like writing in rock, dotted about the movie including George Cole, John Laurie, Margaret Rutherford and Wilfred Hyde-White (who even manages his trademark sardonic smirk in the role of a waiter with 10 seconds of screen time).

The Demi-Paradise is nowhere near being a great film; it is a competent one. However, as a taste of fraternity between nations who are only enemies because it suits the establishments of both nations to be so, it is well worth seeing. The title’s a quote form Richard II (Shakespeare) by the way.

Aventure Malgache and Bon Voyage (UK, 1944)

Jolly japes for the spies

Jolly japes for the spies

World War noir

World War noir

It’s not likely anybody, other than historians, would be interested in these short propaganda films if they hadn’t been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But they are interesting from a historical-cultural perspective, the representation of the colonised Malgache (ie virtually non existent),  as propaganda and as Hitchcock movies.

As propaganda they, as this excellent piece suggests, are too ambiguous; there’s no totally one-sided jingoism and that may one of the reasons they were never shown when they were made. Both are aimed at a French audience, they’re wholly in French, and show in Aventure Malgache colonial resistance to Vichy; the colonials being the French. African faces are strictly, and understandably for the time, in the background. Bon Voyage is more obvious Hitchcockian territory with an escape from France by British soldiers aided by the Resistance. However, the former film is infused with Hitch’s mordant wit and the latter includes a harrowing shot where a female member of the Resistance is forced at gun point to convey a phone message and is then shot dead: all filmed in close up on her face.

Maybe the films were simply Churchill’s way of giving the French in England something useful to do where they couldn’t get in the way. As the characters in Aventure say, their choice is to be German or Japanese slaves, or to bend their knee to the British: Hobson’s choice.