WAIT FOR THE MOMENT WHEN: Patricia Roc

patricia roc

…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

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

BANDIT: by Robert Piguet out of Germaine Cellier

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Back in the 1970’s, the roguish matinee idol charmer Stewart Granger talked on afternoon television about what attracted him to a woman. She should be immaculately dressed,gloved, maquillee, shod and coiffured – “because I want to look at her and think, ‘I’m going to DESTROY all that!'” Coughs and lowered eyes all round…but I bet a whiff of Bandit would have driven the old boy right off his head. Bandit is a leather chypre, the total urban scent. Colossally sophisticated, even formidable, it is the ultimate parfum-de- film-noir; a scent of night clubs, car showrooms, private seances, art galleries, penthouses, theatres, and the sort of restaurant where children are unwelcome. It wears well with green suede gloves, elaborate lingerie,sable fur, cocktail napkins, pink Sobranies, crisp eye veils, Ferragamo shoes and vintage Schiaparelli. Wallis Windsor’s painted lobster dress is a perfect Bandit accessory. So is a lapis Faberge cigarette case, casually chucked about. This perfume always takes centre stage: everything else is an add-on.

Wear Bandit if you wish to seduce and intimidate and where you intend to dominate the proceedings by force of character, devastating chic and effortless charm. Seldom has a perfume been so demanding of the wearer. Possibly a scent to catch a very specialised husband, it is almost impossible to imagine being worn by a bride unless to create the most extraordinary impression. Anti-floral, stylised, artificial and magnificently rich in synthetics (Cellier was fond of tenacious chemical bases) Bandit has no vulnerability about it and few women would wish to be perceived as incisive, and imperious at the altar.But it has sex all right, and to a remarkable degree.

Bandit was created by Germaine Cellier, the first great female nose of the 20th century, a woman as elegant, magnetic and glamorous as any of her clients. Fracas, Jolie Madame and Vent Vert are all daughters of her genius. Beautifully dressed, an acquaintance of Jean Cocteau and Piaf, and moving in Parisian artistic and intellectual circles, Cellier made the acquaintance of the couturier Robert Piguet, former protege of Poiret and patron of Givenchy, Dior and Balmain.A suite of legendary perfumes spilled out from their laboratory and atelier, the first and greatest being Bandit in 1944.

All sorts of stories are told of the perfume. An old gentleman told me years ago that Piguet had asked Germaine to create a scent for his lover, a wild young man known as “Le Bandit”, very soon after killed in a car crash (” I knew the boyfriend!”). Bandit is also said to have been made as a gift for the gorgeous actress Edwige Feuillere, darling of the film intelligentsia and blessed with glorious red-gold hair and a ravishing husky voice. It certainly sits uncommonly well on the sort of pale, thin translucent sometimes freckled skin that often accompanies this tint of hair; the type of complexion that so often turns white waxy flowers like jasmine and tuberose. A product of the War years it exudes such a perversity, ambiguity and sheer weirdness that it is often wrongly assumed to have been a favourite in the pan-sexual Berlin and Paris of twenty years earlier. Certainly it has echoes of Tabac Blond and it could have been worn perfectly (maybe it was) by the likes of Dietrich, Louise Brooks, Margo Lion and Jo Carstairs. Men may sport it with elan and confidence; providing they be as poised as the girls.

When I smell Bandit I feel the hand on my shoulder of Zarah Leander, the great revue star, singer and actress who captivated Sweden, Germany and most of Europe in the 1930’s. Too tall and too massive for Hollywood, a natural red-head with a huge appetite for money, food, alcohol and cigarettes Zarah overwhelmed her audiences and employers: fans were said to have fainted at the sight of her,overwhelmed by her aura; an Italian journalist described her as a beautiful creature from another planet. On set she drank whisky or vodka through a straw from what purported to be Coke bottles or glasses of milk. Her voice recorded as a deep bass and her mystery was intensified by a lifetime of large impenetrable dark glasses. Nordic and practical, she liked to be photographed scratching her pigs on her Swedish farm; when she fled from Germany in 1943 with her film career in ruins, she turned to running her own fish cannery. Swathed in furs, her towering height increased by stilettoes, her skin a mass of freckles, her hair according to her own account “an interesting blend of beetroot and carrot” Zarah used Bandit to make a dream team for 40 years. Where does one end and the other begin? Cigarette papers and tobacco; then the dry fragrance of face powder, the silk lining of a coat, the tang of red hair, the exquisite soft leather of shoes, gloves, bag, all warm from flesh-contact. A hint of whisky, of body heat and feral animal oils, even fresh perspiration; the sharpness of a green corsage or stage-door bouquet. In a copse once, I saw a red dog-fox leap from a bed of violets: here is the fox but no trace of violets except a waft of their musky fleshy crushed hearts.

Image: filmmuseum-potsam.de