Her Brilliant Career: Ten Extraordinary Women of the Fifties

Rosemary Hill writes:

War was looming when Alexander Korda’s film Fire over England was released in 1937. It stars Flora Robson as Elizabeth I, and as the opening titles roll the voiceover sets the scene: ‘the free people of a small island’ defy the tyranny of a Continental power and ‘a woman guides and inspires them.’ Robson, firm of jaw and bristling with double-decker ruffs and farthingales, outwits the dastardly Spanish and the Armada is defeated. In 1953, with memories of war beginning to recede, there was another film based on Elizabeth’s life. Young Bess had Jean Simmons in the lead. Hemmed in by Stewart Granger as Thomas Seymour and Charles Laughton reprising his prewar role as Henry VIII, there isn’t much Simmons can do beyond tossing her hair and striking a curious hands-on-hips Holbeinesque pose to suggest that there is more to her defiance than teenage sulks. Her girlish wiles win her father round, she rashly falls in love with Seymour and with his disgrace and execution nearly loses her own head. It is a life entirely dominated and shaped by men up to the moment when she is about to ascend the throne, at which point the film ends.

(LRB 19 December 2013)

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