The Lucky 13 Film Club: 1930s British Female Protagonists


WELCOME to the discussion this month as we feature three period films set in 1930s Britain. They share comedic elements, great costumes, and illustrate the economic relationship between the classes. Thanks to my friend Ruth at FLIXCHATTER, who agreed to co-host.
Ruth’s observations 
It seems that I have a fascination with the English class system and films/series about the upper crust world of nobility and their servants are in vogue again thanks to Downton Abbey. But perhaps there’s always an interest in such topic, as Upstairs/Downstairs series was popular in the 70s and remade again in 2010. Gosford Park is one of the most famous cinematic study of the class system in the 1930s, but with an Agatha Christie mystery thrown in. Julian Fellowes (the mastermind behind Downton Abbey) won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
The cast alone makes it a MUST see for me, with the who’s who of British cinema: Maggie Smith, Helen Mirren, Kristin Scott Thomas, Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Clive Owen, etc.  It seems that no English class system story is ever complete without Maggie Smith as what else, an upper class snob of course. 
The first time I saw this film over a decade ago, all of the class system stuff went over my head. I only remembered the costumes and set pieces, but this time around I focused more in the story and the relationships of the characters. The film is more about the servant/master relationship than an actual plot, so the murder mystery is more of a red herring plot device in the story. Over the course of a weekend, we watch the interaction between the upper and servants class, there’s really no real protagonists or villains, just people across class dynamics. It’s as if we, the audience is eavesdropping on a weekend gathering, as the film drifts into one conversation to the next. The most interesting character is that of Robert Parks (Clive Owen) who holds a big secret and came to work at Gosford Park with a certain agenda. 
As for Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day, the film is focused on a pair of servant and employer, Miss Pettigrew (Frances McDormand) and Miss Lafosse (Amy Adams). The very thing that separate them, the wide financial gap and class structure between them, is what also brings them together. Miss Pettigrew ends up becoming Lafosse’s confidante and personal friend which gave her access into the exclusive and private world of high society. The romance involving the two main characters also stretch across class and financial hierarchy, as one of Lafosse’s suitors is a penniless pianist (Lee Pace) and Miss Pettigrew is drawn by a successful fashion designer who’s in a tumultuous relationship with a snobbish fashion maven.
Besides the class structure theme and that it takes place in a short period of time, what these two films have in common is the beautiful 30s costumes and the fun use of 30s music. It also has two gorgeous actors in English accent singing at the piano: Jeremy Northam in Gosford Park and Lee Pace in Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day. 
Cindy’s thoughts 
Being Julia:
Avice Crichton (Lucy Punch) is the ingénue whose ambitions to become a star has her hopping from bed to bed like a crowned piece on a checkerboard. Her sneeze scene during rehearsals is masterful. So, too, is the underrated Juliet Stevenson as Evie, Julia’s personal everything–maid, confidant, and bouncer. Sir Michael Gambon is the deceased mentor-director-tyrant who follows Julia around like a Shakespearean ghost. He is the voice of reason and provides the Oscar Wilde wit. Wiser than his parents, pensive Tom Sturridge plays the son Roger, and Jeremy Irons is the dull husband who manages Julia’s temper tantrums.
Being Julia feels like a revived version of All About Eve (1950) combined with the absurdity of a Billy Wilder comedy. It is filled within the shell of a play-within-a play and mounded with a meringue of stock characters and clichés.  You’d be tempted to write off the film and declare it a muddled mess. I suggest it’s a well-acted farce. 
Roger to Julia: You have a performance for everybody. I don’t think you really exist.
Julia is the performer who never leaves the stage. Neither do many of the characters from the three films. Gosford Park, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and Being Julia represent women and men such as Henry Denton, the male ingénue in Gosford Park, or Tom Fennel from Being Julia who present a facade to their audience while hiding behind their insecurities or ambitions. Sex is their payment for protection or advancement.
What is important to performers like Delysia Lafosse (Amy Adams) is to maintain the semblance of Britishness. With Julia, her blue-collared background is a topic of gossip. Henry Denton is American practicing to be Scottish. Homeless Miss Pettigrew pretends to be a social secretary. The theme of appearance verses reality creates comical ironies via bad accents or class jumping. The luscious costumes worn in the three films function as armors of deceit and shape their personas. These characters bumbling through their deceptions are entertaining to watch. The annoying voices and melodramatic posing given by Annette Bening and Amy Adams are necessary. Playing foils, Frances McDormand and Kelly MacDonald give breath to their characters; they offer the normality to sustain the plot and provide comedic contrasts.
Since a misstep of impropriety had adverse economic effects, such as the situation Elsie (Emily Watson) discovered in Gosford Park when she spoke out of turn as a servant, with a culture devoted to behaving well or else, who didn’t wear a mask to hide their true selves? How ironic then, that sex, a most indelicate act for a non-married woman in the 1930s, for ingénues like Delysia Lafosse  or Avice Crichton, sex is a way to ensure power and economic freedom. For Julia, who attained stardom, she clings to her position and knows her desirability is the key to her success. For a young man like Tom Fennel (Shaun Evans) to desire her sexually, sex affirms Julia’s sense of identity. It might also explain why snobby Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith), sitting at the top of the British social class, finds actors and the entertainment industry disreputable. Of course, Constance is acting, too, for she is broke and her lifestyle is in peril. She’s too old to confirm her position by sexual means; she must rely on the compassion of her brother who administers her allowance. Begging in fur and jewels. Irony, indeed.
Sex plays a large role in the three films–what are your thoughts on it?  Which of the three films did you like the most?  Do you see any interesting revelations about culture? What do you think of the functionality of costumes or how contrasts and irony create wit?  0001-60259980

65 thoughts on “The Lucky 13 Film Club: 1930s British Female Protagonists

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  1. I am a huge fan of Gosford Park, which has so many of my favourites in the cast, and is staged to perfection. As well as Helen Mirren acting against (her usual) type, it does indeed provide meaty roles for Maggie Smith and the wonderful Kristen Scott-Thomas, not forgetting Eileen Atkins, an actress often overlooked. Regarding the discussion about costume, I always feel that when it is done well, you don’t notice it at all, just accepting the period without comment. As for revelations about culture, anyone brought up in the UK after 1918 would have seen little that they were not already aware of, in the opulent lifestyles and wealth of the upper classes, contrasting with the working conditions and social place of their servants.

    If you are tired of Maggie as the spiky aristocrat, I would suggest revisiting (or discovering) her role as Miss Brodie, in ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ (1969) or the gentle ‘Ladies In Lavender’ (2004). Despite enjoying her delivery of the witticisms in ‘Downton Abbey’, I have admired her for many years, and she had much to offer in her youth.
    I agree that Owen was very good too, and Northam made a convincing Novello. Regrettably, I have not seen the other films featured, but I will look out for them, after reading this enjoyable entry in the Lucky 13 Club.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. Pete, ‘Ladies In Lavender’ is whimsical, romantic film with a fine setting and awesome acting by Smith and Dench. In Gosford Park, movement is a constant seen by the servants when dinner is over and the dressed retire for cards and conversation while below, the steam rises as the scrubbing begins. I loved the interlude when Ivor Novello plays the piano and the servants are musing in the shadows. I wish I saw more of Kelly MacDonald.

          1. High Profile roles for Kelly since have been the peripheal love interest for Nanny McPhee, the wife in No Country for Old Men, an award winning turn in the telemovie The Girl in the Cafe, the lead female in Boardwalk Empire an expensive HBO crime drama that never found as large an audience as The Sopranos and the lead offscreen voice work of Merida in Pixar’s Brave which by Pixar standards was a minor hit (only half a billion dollars). In short she’s done good work in good work but Ruth is right. Compare to say Amy Adams or Anne Hathaway, Kelly hasn’t gotten the opportunities she deserved but she’s having a good career I think.

          2. Lloyd, yes, I loved Brave and her voice was perfect. I don’t watch much television so missed Boardwalk Empire although many think it’s good. That’s right, she was in NCOM. I hardly recognized her. Now that Alicia Vikander is the new “It girl” I would like to see all four of the them in a movie together. That’s a dream cast!

          3. Throw in Jessica Chastain and we got a deal. I liked Boardwalk Empire. Speaking of British actresses who could be in more high profile work- Hayley Atwell is great.

          4. She had a big breakout year in 2008 with a supporting turn in The Duchess and Brideshead Revisited. Both of which I recommend. That led to a blockbuster with Captain America: The First Avenger but that leads to Agent Carter on ABC twelve nights a year and playing Cinderella’s mother. Oh well, I guess that ain’t too bad. So a movie with Mirren, Watson, MacDonald, Vikander and Chastain. What’s the plot? You thinking what I’m thinking? Yep… superhero movie for sure.

      1. Kelly is still very much around since this film. She was in ‘Harry Potter Deathly Hallows’, ‘No Country For Old Men’, ‘Finding Neverland’, ‘Elizabeth’, the wonderful ‘The Girl In The Cafe’ (with Bill Nighy) and many more.She was nominated for an Emmy for ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (which I have never seen) and was the voice of the princess in the animation ‘Brave.’ This year, she stars in a remake of ‘Swallows and Amazons.’
        Regards, Pete.

    2. Hi Pete! I was astonished how many great British actors are packed in Gosford Park. Helen MIrren definitely played against type but she did it well even in her relatively brief appearance. I love the costumes and set pieces, it really adds to the overall tone of the film.

      Oh I love both ‘The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’ and ‘Ladies In Lavender’ Interesting that she acted opposite her ex husband in ‘Jean Brodie’ and alongside her best friend Judi Dench in ‘Lavender.’ Owen is fantastic in Gosford Park, I’d love to see him do another period drama but he seems to gravitate towards action now. Northam is criminally under-appreciated, which is too bad as he’s a good actor, too.

      1. I have never seen it, but Owen receives high praise for his role in the period medical drama, ‘The Nick’, on US TV. (And on satellite here, I believe.) He made a decent, if strange, ‘King Arthur’, in a the so good film of that name, and was also well-cast as Sir Walter Raleigh in the Elizabethan period, in ‘Elizabeth:The Golden Age.’
        Northam is superb in period in ‘The Winslow Boy,’ (1999) and the film version of ‘Emma’ (1996)
        Best wishes from Norfolk, Pete.

  2. Sadly I have not managed to see the 3 films in time for this month but this will hopefully lead to brevity on my part. I have dim but fond memories of Gosford Park where absolutely yes Cindy- Kelly MacDonald shined. Sex was more shocking to my younger self in that film than ones where it was prominently displayed. Take for example Kristin Scott Thomas matter of fact resignation to do it again with Ryan Phillippe after noting her husband’s body is barely cold. Or that shocking reveal of a shot in the cellar. I once read the more conservative a society the more kinky its actions behind closed doors. It is certainly true that people’s needs don’t diminish to suit the culture of the day. My Mum quite liked Upstairs Downstairs and as a result I’ve always been familiar of the importance of the class system in Great Britain as a result. It’s important to note that everybody had their place. Themes Fellowes would touch upon when aristocracy dared to enter servant’s areas in his stories as well. I admire also the way people used to talk around things in this period. Much like Sense and Sensibility although in these stories set in the early 20th century this is changing. It was a fascinating time. I think Gosford Park celebrates what was lost but also hints at dark things that were good to leave behind. We may live in more confusing times but hopefully that is because we can be more true to ourselves.

    1. Lloyd, you are quite right. The social structure is fascinating to me. Who was more dependent on the other? The servant for a job to survive or the lord or lady who needed the servant to uphold their status?

    1. I’ve had a thing for Helen since the early days. ‘ Miss Julie’, ‘O Lucky Man’, ‘Excalibur’, Hussy’, ‘The Long Good Friday’, ‘The Cook, The Thief, His wife And Her Lover’, to name but a few…Add to those her role in the TV series ‘Prime Suspect’, and I could watch her all day. (And night)
      Regards, Pete.

    2. Hi Llyod, she is indeed. She has a certain regal-ness about her that she doesn’t seem fit to be cast as one of the servants, but still, she acquitted herself well in the role.

  3. One final point. Clothes defined everybody in terms of wealth. Servants wore uniforms. Fur and jewellery to display wealth. Different suits for different events. It reinforces this idea of everything in it’s place. Which makes it quite fascinating the idea of only really lovers and servants seeing you dressed down and more vulnerable. Servants know if you wear a wig amongst other intimacies. The quality of your clothes reflects the quality of your servant to maintain, clean and dress you in them. Married couples often have separate rooms. Lovers may come and go but a good servant could stay years and know a great deal about you.

    1. Very interesting observations about the costumes, Lloyd. I’m just astonished how much these servants are so integral to their masters’ lives. I mean, they pretty much know all your secrets. That’s why it’d be stupid for the masters to mistreat them, on top of being simply unkind and unethical. I grew up in a culture where it’s common to have maids live in the house, so I grew up w/ that, and they did become a part of our family so to speak.

  4. Sorry my link was sent on February 11th and was a little late for your article, Cindy. I wish I had figured out and read how to send it earlier. I have only recently figured how yo do some things on my cell phone.

    At any rate, Ruth, your review of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” was great! I didn’t think so much about class structure either when I saw these three films the first time. I wrote a post today about ” Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.” I will go back and update to include Ruth’s blog, too. 🙂
    I did feel that the film, “Gosford Park,” has a great cast but somehow, I could not warm up to any particular character. I liked the way Agatha Christie wrote this more than the actual movie. She does tend to have so much going on that you lose the emotions of such going’s on.
    I felt when watching “Being Julia” depends on the mood you are in while watching! 🙂 Annette Bening can be wonderful but in this film the screenplay makes her character so eccentric and “over the top.” Good comparison, Cindy, to the older style of film found in “All about Eve.”
    Great way to start a conversation, Cindy! Hope you have some “cross-traffic” over to my post as well as since I provided a link to yours, maybe you will get visitors, too. Happy Valentine’s Day to any and all here at the Lucky 13 Club!♡

    1. Gosford Park was written by Julian Fellowes, who also wrote Downton Abbey, The Tourist, (2010) and was a leading actor for many years. It is not an Agatha Christie story, even though it might sometimes feel like one.
      Regards, Pete.

      1. Thanks for straightening me out on this, it reminds me of the kind of people in the book, “Murder on the Orient Express” and the “And Then There Were None” parlour setting. So sorry I made this mistake about Gosford Park. Thanks, Beetley Pete. I did a fairly good review of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” but sent it too late to Cindy on February 11th. . . You may have fun with this. Smiles, Robin

        1. Maybe because I am English, I didn’t get the feel of a Christie story at all from ‘Gosford Park.’ It has that mystery element of course, but as a rule, Christie’s stories are much clunkier when filmed. Altman and Fellowes captured the feel of that time, and the social divide, to perfection.

          1. David Suchet was marvellous as Hercule Poirot in the British TV series. I can really recommend it. Available on in the US. (And maybe Netflix, I don’t know for sure.)

    2. Hello Reocochran! I didn’t think much about the class structure either the first time I saw ‘Miss Pettigrew’, maybe I was too mesmerized by Lee Pace, ahah. But it’s definitely there, and Cindy made a great point too about Lafosse (Amy Adams) using her sexuality for economic purposes, in a way it’s a survival thing for women in those days.

      Hey, I totally agree w/ you about Gosford Park. Even though I appreciate the artistry, writing and acting, I feel that it’s a rather cold film. I didn’t mention that on the post but I should have, I just didn’t connect w/ any of the characters.

      I need to check out ‘Being Julia’ soon, love the cast, esp Jeremy Irons. I generally like Annette Bening, I could see her play an eccentric, over-the-top character.

      1. Hi Ruth, I went ahead over to your blog and posted a comment and I think it got through! I use a cell phone and the library computer so I cross my fingers a lot about posting comments!
        I agree that Delysia feels she needs her looks and sexuality to attract a person to stay with her. I am so glad you liked Lee Pace. I feel like he looks like a man I enjoyed in the television series (U.S.) “Pushing Daisies.” I will need to find out if he “landed there” as the famous singer/actress Kristen Chenoweth was in it, too. 🙂
        I am so glad I did not offend you about the comment about “Gosford Park.” I accidentally equated it with the Agatha Christie books, “Murder on the Orient Express” and also, “And Then There Were None.” Both have stuffy characters but at least one (or a couple) to “cheer and root for,” in my opinion! Smiles, Robin

    3. Welcome, Robin, and thanks for partaking! I suppose of the three, Gosford Park is my favorite–I just love the acting and how the young servant (Kelly M) is smarter than the the nitwit detective and solves the mystery. Every actor is compliment to the ensemble performance. Every scene interesting. I could watch multiple times and not get tired. The other two, once or twice is enough, although they are all three enjoyable. As Ruth mentioned, the costumes and music accentuate the time and it’s a great era for clothes and style.

  5. Hey Cindy! You got me really intrigued by Being Julia now, esp when you said it ‘feels like a revived version of All About Eve’ I LOVE that film w/ Bette Davis, one of my fave Blindspots I saw recently.

    Great observations about ingénues in these movies using sex as a way to ensure power and economic freedom. When I first saw Amy Adams in ‘Pettigrew’ I thought she played up that ‘sexpot’ sensibilities that I hadn’t seen before in any of her films. Interesting to see Sir Michael Gambon in two of the three films here 🙂

    Thanks again for inviting me to be a guest this month!

  6. Reblogged this on and commented:

    My pal Cindy B. invited me to take part in the February edition of her Lucky 13 Film Club series! This month’s topic is 1930s British Female Protagonists and we’re discussing Gosford Park, Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and Being Julia. Check out the post on Cindy’s blog and take part in the discussion!

  7. Hi again Pete, yeah I heard great things about The Nick, but I haven’t seen it either. I LOVE Owen in Elizabeth as well as his indie dramas like The Boys Are Back, Words & Pictures, etc. and he’s excellent in Children of Men (one of his best roles ever IMO). Yeah, I first noticed Northam in EMMA, but I should check out The Winslow Boy too!

  8. Ive seen these three movies, but can recall nothing from them except for a scene in Gosford Park in which a guy playing popular songs interrupts a recital of high tone music and the servants all emerge from their quarters, in rapt adoration of this prototype for the pop star, while the rich act offended at the banality of his offering. Such a brilliant swipe at the invasion of popular culture into the stasis of the classically-bred ruling class.

    1. Hi Bill, yes, it’s one of my favorite scenes in the film. The contrast is delectable. And the motion and scurrying of the servants, to see them have a break, but ready to jump if “discovered” shows how precarious their situations was. Thanks for pointing out a poignant scene.

  9. Cindy, I sent the link on February 11 to your email address. Sorry the Internet did not connect if you didn’t get it. I didn’t get a returned email but it was late in terms of working it in, I imagine. No worries. Ruth covered her part and I liked your section, too. 🙂 ♡

    1. I feel the same way about the class system, but it’s fascinating at the same time. I think people are fascinated by it, that’s why films/shows about that topic continue to be popular.

  10. I’ve seen all three films at some time or another but only remember much about ‘Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day’, perhaps because it has a simpler plot. Having lived half my life in the UK and half in the US I have some observations about the class system in both countries which is now very different from the way it’s portrayed in these three films. In the UK education has become the big leveler. Leaving aside the royal family, who are still treated as celebrities, nobody with a decent education can be ‘put down’ any longer by someone with a title and a squeaky upper class accent. In the US, where money is the source of a different type of class divide, increasing standards of living have narrowed the lifestyle gap between those with real wealth and those without it. There is really not that much difference in quality of life between Bill Gates and most of the middle class in the US, although I’m sure Bernie Sanders would dispute this.

    1. Malcolm, as an economic guru, I appreciate your insights. I was thinking similarly with regards to how much the UK class system has changed since the 1930s, and I made the same connection with US class divides. It’s hard for me to accept your Bill Gates comparison, because I don’t think we have much of a middle class anymore, and that’s a root problem. However, I would consider myself in that category and that’s because I had blind faith in education, and I have a few degrees. I doubt Bill cleans his own appliances any more than I worry if variances in the stock market dents my portfolio. No, I’m not a socialist. Bill should enjoy his wealth, as I enjoy my middle class life.

    1. Hey Vinnie! Y’know, I think I appreciate the film more than I love it, if you know what I mean. I’m glad I rewatched it though and I agree it has many layers and well-acted all around.

  11. I watched Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (first viewing), and I liked it a lot. This wasn’t as much about class warfare as it was about gender inequality. I didn’t expect that. Not sure I’ll be able to watch the other two.

    1. Hi Eric! It’s true ‘Miss Pettigrew’ is more about gender inequality, but the class structure is definitely there as well. I think it’s far more frothy than Gosford Park and I’d imagine Being Julia (haven’t seen that one yet).

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