Monday, January 5, 2015

Reeling Backward: "Two Thousand Women" (1944)

"Two Thousand Women" is one of those movies that was destined to be bad right from the point of conception. The notion of making a prisoner of war picture about a bunch of British women interred in France during World War II is a strong start. But when you set out deliberately to make it a comedy, and a mawkish romance to boot, you've pretty much doomed yourself from the start.

According to the film's Wikipedia page, writer/director Frank Launder later acknowledged this himself, lamenting that it "would have been a bigger film" if he had concentrated more on the drama and not the laughs. He was referring to its box office performance, or lack thereof, but here we're more concerned with the movie's legacy (or lack thereof).

It's too bad, because I really liked the cast of British actresses. Some fall into predictable stereotypes, but for the most part the characters seem actively thought-out and authentic. Phyllis Calvert is especially good as the ringleader, Freda Thompson, a strong and independent-minded woman who manages to outsmart the Germans and keep the rabble of female prisoners in check with their competing thoughts, desires and idiosyncrasies.

The set-up is that English women living in Europe at the outbreak of the war are rounded up to be interred in France. Their "camp" is actually a luxury hotel the Germans have commandeered, so the prisoners all have gigantic rooms, comfy beds, a lounge for mixers and even a grand ballroom in which to stage musical productions and whatnot.

There are a few downsides, such as a lack of running water in the rooms -- it must be trucked upstairs by hand in pails, heated by the boiler in the basement, with the women taking turns in the bath a dozen in a row. Curtains must be kept closed during air raids (the light from the ground helps the Allied bombers fix their altitude), the food's pretty awful, and the lovely vistas are spoiled by barbed wire and guard towers strung up around the hotel's perimeter.

Still, as POW accommodations go, this is the life of luxury. The German guards don't even go upstairs to the women's rooms much, largely granting them their own zone of privacy.

This doesn't go for the hotel proprietor, Guy Le Feuvre, who barges in unannounced to check on any damages so the Germans can be properly billed. An elderly, unctuous man, he thinks nothing of walking right in while the women are in a state of undress.

That's another thing notable about "Two Thousand Women": it's a rather fleshy film for its era. Many of the women are shown in their nighties or underwear, or even topless (from behind). There's a fight scene between two women in short skirts, and as their legs went akimbo up in the air while they battled, I briefly though we had wandered into Russ Meyer territory.

Things grow complicated when three British airmen crash-land nearby and make their way to the hotel, climb up the fire escape and drop into windows. It's a little unclear why soldiers on the run would choose a structure that's clearly being guarded to break into, but what have you.

Predictably, one of the men (James McKechnie) falls for one of the women (Patricia Roc), and literally within a few minutes' time spent together he's declaring his protestations of love and talking about honeymooning in a small cottage on the British coast.

Her name is Rosemary Brown, and she has the most interesting history of the lot, as she was a nun who was arrested by the Germans for being a "fifth columnist," or spy for the British. She really was a nun, who entered the order after a romantic scandal, but of course the gallant airman doesn't care about all that.

"Two Thousand Women" wasn't released in the U.S. until 1951, when it was cut down and renamed, "House of 1,000 Women." Among the things they lopped out was Rosemary Brown's backstory.

Other notable figures include Flora Robson as a haughty-but-stout upper crust woman; Muriel Aked as her prim spinster companion; Renée Houston as a brassy type who gets to have a big song number during the inevitable pageant to distract the Germans while an escape plan is in the works; and Anne Crawford as a stalwart type.

Betty Jardine plays Teresa, a tomboyish floor leader who turns out to be a Nazi agent. In the film's most (unintentionally) laughable moment, she is discovered when one of the gals rifles through Teresa's purse in order to retrieve her keys, and finds her identification papers and photo showing her to be a member of the Nazi party. Not a particularly smart thing to have around when you're deep undercover.

Other than the likeable cast of actresses, there's really nothing to recommend about "Two Thousand Women." It takes the greatest conflict in the history of mankind and renders it into a slamming-doors farce with gushy romance and cartoon villains.

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