…Tries and fails to eat her dinner in the munitions canteen during the final minutes of MILLIONS LIKE US, the British Home Front propaganda drama of 1943. Roc made a speciality of playing superficially drippy but loveable girls with unsuspected reserves of resilience and spirit. Here she’s the newly widowed Celia Blake whose RAF husband¤ has been shot down over Germany. She takes her place at table in a vast hanger (filmed on location in the Midlands: there’s a joke about Market Harborough and another about The Marquis of Granby) clasping her cutlery and a plate of stew. On stage, singer Bertha Wilmot (Northampton girl) entertains the workers with throbbing music hall standards and lovely twiddly hand gestures. As Wilmot switches from “Just Like The Ivy On The Old Garden Wall” to “There was I, Waiting At The Church” Celia’s throat closes up and she has to be coaxed by best friend Megs Jenkins to join in the chorus for one of cinema’s great tear-jerking cinematic finales. Planes roar overhead across the night sky as the bombardment of the enemy continues, and Celia even breaks into a triumphant smile, tossing her head on the line “My Wife Won’t Let Me!” Written down it sounds too corny and ghastly for words, but it’s not: it’s wonderful and powerful & to see it is to weep or at any rate to feel a shiver through the flesh on every single viewing.
Superficially it’s similar to the climax of the biggest grossing German film of the war “DIE GROSSE LIEBE” (1942) which has Zarah Leander• handing back her wounded Luftwaffe husband to active service as the two marmoreal beauties (Swedish + Hungarian) gaze upwards at the winged Axis squadrons soaring over the Alps. Men must fight and women must weep: but MILLIONS LIKE US has a modesty, humour, heart and charm that had little place in Goebbels’ cinematic remit. Exotic Zarah’s idealised sacrifice is chilly and remote; she and co-star Viktor Staal, bathed in mountain light, seem fascistically impermeable to mere death. Whereas Pat Roc is simply the sweet dull girl from next door whose husband is suddenly wiped out.
MILLIONS LIKE US has a lengthy cast of unrivalled & charismatic character actors¤¤. A certain roistering amateurishness adds to the invigorating atmosphere; as does the adroit use of unlimited factory workers & members of the armed forces as extras*, many of them endearingly self-conscious as they peer, giggling and entranced, at the camera and the stars among them. The very ordinary and rather mardy Roc (known around the studios as ‘Bed Roc’: now, why?) is a British working class Everywoman who makes life in munitions look such fun that the viewer feels he’s been cheated of the experience of a lifetime. Tactfully, no mention is made of war nerves, hideous industrial accidents or ground-down exhaustion. Nor of the reek of swarf, grease, oil, cordite and B.O. (six inches in the bath and clothing on the ration) that engrained these heroic workers for the duration and “without complaint”. Of the girls, only stuck-up blonde Jennifer Knowles (Ann Crawford) smokes – and from an egregiously long holder at that. Wartime cinemas and their audiences smelled pungently. (LW well recalls watching films – and much later than this – through a thick mist of cigarette smoke and disinfectant). When a bomb hit the Bourjois factory in Croydon the smell of Evening In Paris hung for weeks over South London.
As in another contemporary Roc vehicle 2,000 WOMEN (in which the sharp-eyed viewer will spot Pat’s dress from MILLIONS LIKE US, thriftily recycled) females en masse are exploited to provide a certain titillation. The contemporary male audience no doubt enjoyed the frissons of references to “repression”, discussions of honeymoon lingerie, and girls being discovered in their hostel rooms in various stages of undress. Get an eyeful of pretty Terry Randall hopping into bed in her vest and knickers much to Ann Crawford’s distaste:
“Aren’t you going to take off your underclothes?”
“They’ve only got to go on again in’t morning….y’are fussy!”
Then there’s the Wednesday night dance (the mad stampede of the Palais Glide; the silk stockings won in the Prize Spot Waltz) and the over- eagerness of the salacious hostel doctor:
” …I enjoy these hops….Overcrowded, sweaty + remarkably unhygienic but as I say unprofessionally: what the hell, what the hell!…I’m always being misunderstood..”
As LW hits 60 he identifies more and more with the scene which has Celia’s dad staggering in from Home Guard duty and painfully prising his swollen achey feet out of his boots. His women have all gone off to war and he’s alone in a filthy kitchen with a stacked sink of food-encrusted plates and a fat studio cat named Pickles who steals the old boy’s fish and chips. Dad knocks Pickles off the table and fills his own mouth with a handful of puss-chewed batter.
The glossy Pickles waddles off, not a whit abashed. But the whiffy squalor of the lone pensioner on his uppers was not to be equalled again on celluloid till Edith Evans knocked us for six in THE WHISPERERS”.
¤ Gordon Jackson – ‘Mr Hudson’ from “Upstairs Downstairs”; MISS JEAN BRODIE’s nervous lover; an heroically patient friend of Kenneth Williams.
•much admired by her compatriot Garbo.
* these rationed players eat with genuine appetite. There is a wartime preoccupation with food and frustrated hunger throughout the picture: the scarcity or inferior quality of biscuits, oranges, saccharin, potatoes, cabbage, dates, potatoes, sausages and beer are all wistfully or disparagingly evoked.
¤¤ Besides Megs Jenkins, we have Terry Randall (who turned 100 last year), Eric Portman, Moore Marriott, Joy Shelton, Basil Radford, John Slater (later famed for the ‘Special K’ tv ads), the incomparable Amy Veness, Beatrice Varley, Irene Handl, a teenage Brenda Bruce and the eccentrically beautiful and very funny Ann Crawford who died of leukaemia at only 35….
“….& millions like YOU!”
PATRICIA ROC 1915 – 2003