Sunday 19 November 2023

Wrens at sea, movie style! Yellow Canary,1943.

On YouTube I’ve just spotted a film about a member of the Women’s Royal Naval Service (WRNS) who sailed to Canada. Yellow Canary was directed by Herbert Wilcox in 1943. 

I’m delighted because I hadn’t got this movie on my (yes, very brief) list of WRNS films. See below. And it's the only one where a Wren is lethal toughie.

In WW2 Sally Maitland (played by Anna Neagle) wasn’t working on a warship as an RN person. No woman did.  Nor was she doing signalling and coding, as Wrens did on troop ships. 

Instead Sally was a deep-cover spy for British intelligence on a passenger ship. Her work was to act as a pro-Nazi but charming British civilian, including on the voyage from England to Halifax NS. 

She infiltrates, she plots, she nearly marries the dreadful Nazi. Only at the very end does she tie her deceitfully platinum waves back, tuck her hair under her uniform HMS cap and share family tea at home in an unimpeachable Home Counties sort of way.

Dear reader, yes, she marries the co-spy (Richard Greene). He turns out to have been trying to protect her all along.

Goodness, the blonde dame in the fur suddenly turns out to need a rescuer with a cocked gun. Didn't she have her own? Wasn't she in command of him a minute ago?

(At that point in the war, with all the labour shortages, real Wrens were allowed to carry on Wrenning after marriage. Neagle was actually married to the director, Herbert Wilcox.)

Box office takings revealed that the film didn’t do well because people were confused by the complex plot. Also Neagle, though the main star, never convincingly became a sympathetic character here.

In fact, if you don’t watch carefully you can easily end up not knowing that Sally truly was a nice Wren after all. She was not a double or treble agent just masquerading as a female member of the unimpeachable Senior Service.  

Basis? Mitford nazi and maybe a US cowboy fan. 

This film is based a little on aristocratic British nazi Unity Mitford. (Pictured with Hitler).  But Unity never was a Wren or spy – that we know of. Nor did she repent her fascism.

A story by one of the three screenwriters, PM Bower, is credited as the basis. PM Bower is untraceable. But literary sleuths know that if you scratch a set of initials (say CB: Charlotte Bronte) you may well find a woman underneath. 

There was, actually, a BM Bower (1871-1940).  A woman. Is she the originator? Bertha Muzzy Sinclair, formerly Bower, was a prolific US pulp novelist and scriptwriter, specialising in women in men’s worlds, such as the Wild West. Could an earlier BM Bower story have inspired the chaps’ screenplay?  

“Her work was unusual for its time … featuring female characters that were as developed as their male counterparts” says Britannica

The Yellow Canary's female characters are indeed developed. The ruthless leader of the Nova Scotia Nzi spy ring turns out to be the ‘poor old lady in the wheelchair’. The ‘carer’ pushing her invalid carriage is actually her evil henchwoman.

Bower’s The Flying U Strikes, and The Quirt are about spying, but  certainly not in Halifax NS in WW2. Yet the identity fits, just.  What’s your bet?

WRNS feature films 1940-1960. (* = my rating)

1943 Bell-Bottom George. Cheeky chappie waiter rejected by navy befriends Wren Pat (Anne Firth). He foils a spy ring, is allowed into the navy and Pat accepts him. Comedy
1944 Fiddlers Three.  Comedy about two sailors and Nora, a Wren (Elizabeth Welch). They are transported back to ancient Rome and treated as seers
*1945 Perfect Strangers. Poignant drama about married couple who join naval services. Cathy Wilson (Deborah Kerr) becomes a  boats crew Wren despite his objections. Wartime separation and other relationships then broaden their horizons and reignite their marriage
1946 Piccadilly Incident. Weepie about a briefly married Wren (Anna Neagle) who is soon torpedoed off Singapore, and presumed dead. Returns from three years on South Sea island (with sailors) to find husband has new wife and child
*1953 The Cruel Sea.  Classic drama battle of Atlantic action film, especially focusing on Hostilities Only sailors. WRNS Second Officer Julie Hallam (Virginia Mckenna) initially abjured by the Compass Rose’s second hero ,who puts war first 
1958 The Silent Enemy features naval frogmen in 1940s Gibraltar. Third Officer Jill Masters (Dawn Addams) is the minor love interest.
1960 Sink the Bismarck! Naval war film in which WRNS Second Officer Anne Davis (Dana Wynter) is the calm and very competent assistant of the Admiralty’s Chief of Operations. He turns their relationship towards romances the moment Germany’s iconic battleship is sunk. 
1961 Petticoat Pirates. This is the only film to tackle female-male relationships within naval services, excruciatingly. A comedy vehicle for Charlie Drake, it features many Wrens who, angered at being turned down for sea service, capture frigate HMS Huntress. They take it to sea in a NATO exercise, but then sunbathe and hang undies on the halyard. Finally the happy commander tells Admiralty that Wrens should be seagoing. Starring Anne Heywood as Chief Officer Anne Stevens

No comments: