Edna May Oliver is our new hero.
We realized this when we screened Nurse Edith Cavell, a drama based on the true story of a courageous British nurse who helped over 200 Allied POWs flee Belgium during World War I.
This unusual war movie is about four not-so-ordinary women whose friendship propel them to defend their country by treating sick and injured POWs and sneaking them out of the country.
The smuggling ring is headed by the stalwart Cavell (played by popular British actress Anna Neagle), a nurse at the Berkendael Medican Institute in Brussels. (Neagle, incidentally, is almost too beautiful to be convincing in this role; however, she does bear a passing resemblance to the real Cavell.)
Neagle is joined by May Robson, a grandmother often given to hysterics, but is able to shelve the dramatics when necessary. The fabulous Zazu Pitts is the third member of the gang; she plays the amusing wife of a cargo boat owner who flirts with (and fools) German officers every time they unload “cargo” (read: escaped POWs) in Holland.
These characters are remarkable women, portrayed by terrific actors.
But our fave is Oliver, the fourth member of this consortium, a brisk, no-nonsense Countess who has little tolerance for silliness or idiocy. The Countess lives at Chateau Mavon, which seems to be comparable in size to the Pentagon. When her servants begin to panic with the sounds of approaching German cannons, they insist Oliver leave immediately. She may be killed! Oliver shrugs. “It would only be anticipating the inevitable by a few years,” she replies.
Whether Oliver is opposed to German occupation in general, or philosophically opposed to people more bossy than herself, it is hard to say. But she takes on the role of smuggler with relish.
In one scene, she visits a shoemaker to pick up forged ID papers. The shoemaker looks like a bit of a greasy character, but Oliver, in her expensive overcoat and sparkly earrings, pays no mind. She’s here on Business, so make it snappy with the forged papers, mac.
In another scene, a young man, claiming to be a POW, has come to ask Oliver for help getting out of Belgium. Oliver is compelling in this scene. She doesn’t speak; she studies the man evenly, asking only what he wants her to do. She then instructs her maid to take him to the kitchen where he can have something to eat. She adds, meaningfully, “And lock the kitchen so he won’t be disturbed while he’s there.” She then telephones police and asks them to arrest their own stool pigeon. She ain’t no fool.
Oliver is a perfect choice for a film with unorthodox gender roles. For instance, the heroes are women while the enemies are men. The women rescue men, instead of the familiar men-rescue-women movie scenario. The film also warns us that the German occupiers do not care if insubordinates are men or women.
Nurse Edith Cavell is a low-budget film, and can be a bit preachy at times, but it is a fascinating look at an incredibly courageous woman. We hope Cavell really did have a no-nonsense Countess as a friend, someone who was just like Edna May Oliver.
Bonus Trivia Fact #1: Nurse Edith Cavell premiered in New York on September 22, 1939, 18 days after the declaration of World War II.
Bonus Trivia Fact #2: There is a mountain named for Edith Cavell in Canada’s Jasper National Park.
Nurse Edith Cavell: Anna Neagle, Edna May Oliver, George Sanders. Directed by Herbert Wilcox. Written by Michael Hogan. RKO Radio Pictures Inc., 1939, B&W, 94 mins.
This post is part of the WORLD WAR ONE IN CLASSIC FILM Blogathon hosted by the delightful Movies, Silently and Silent-ology. Click HERE to see the other fab entries.