A Girl Must Live
A Girl Must Live – 1939 | 89mins | Drama | B&W
English audiences saw Carol Reed‘s next Gainsborough film, A Girl Must Live the year it was filmed, 1939, but America had to wait until 1942. The plot whisks a well-bred young lady (Margaret Lockwood) from a fashionable girls’ school in Switzerland to the chorus line of a London night-club, and into the arms of Lord Pangborough (Hugh Sinclair), a fairy-tale nobleman who rescues her from even the minimal contact with reality she has been forced to endure. Plot complications compel the heroine to assume the identity of a classmate, Leslie James; her chief companions in the chorus are squabbling Clytie Devine (Lilli Palmer) and Gloria Lind (Renee Houston), who are continually jostling one another aside in their pursuit of rich husbands or sugar daddies. Alternately, they receive assistance from Hugo Smythe Parkinson (Naunton Wayne), a suave con man.
A Girl Must Live does not commit the one aesthetic crime for which there is no extenuating circumstance; it does not fail to entertain. The first scene, at the girls’ dormitory in Switzerland, is appropriately sportive and high-spirited. Their stays loosened and their rebelliousness spilling forth, the corps of proper young ladies plots a successful escape for the beleaguered heroine, whose plummeting family fortunes have left her unable to pay her tuition. The strategy of Leslie’s escape is an adroit variation on the familiar device – a ladder of bed sheets. The long white rope is the first thing the camera shows us, conveying an impression of a hopelessly mechanical story. But it is typical of the story Reed does tell that the dangling ladder is not as standardised a device as it first appears. Rather the girls have cleverly anticipated the flight in advance, deliberately alerting the headmistress and her assistant (Muriel Aked and Martita Hunt). The two doyennes of the school – deftly caricatured as black-clad shrews – bicycle away to find the fugitive. With the coast clear, Leslie, who has been hiding, emerges and makes her getaway down the rope ladder.
In the first moments before Lockwood’s departure, the film’s slender but sufficient premise is quickly established – that she will gain an entree to the London theatre world by masquerading as a fellow student, the daughter of a famous actress of the previous generation, Leslie James. From this ingratiating start, A Girl Must Live speeds along in much the same brisk, unassuming fashion. In the boarding house at which Leslie stays in London, the landlady, an Eve Arden clone (Mary Clare) presides over an unruly, colourful roster of entertainers with authority. The other members of the household are enjoyable, quirkily so, especially a dotty old lady (Drusilla Wills), whose speciality is sound effects (I was the scream in East Lynne’) and animal noises. Although her brief appearance in the movie is largely comedic, Reed gives her a slightly grotesque veneer. Also living with them is Mr Joliffe (Wilson Coleman), a sanitation engineer, and architect of a ‘porcelain palace’ in Brighton, who sneeringly informs the perpetually struggling artistes that his livelihood is easily obtained because he ‘builds things people need’.
Much of the screen time is devoted to the ceaseless rivalry between Clytie and Gloria. As the two feuding friends top one another in outrageous ploys and reprisals, they seem evenly matched, even their accents, so aggressively on display, make them stand out from their fellow chorus girls – and apart from one another. With her curious brogue, Houston is the perfect adversary for ‘Viennese’ Lilli Palmer, a battle royal between the two, glimpsed in part through a keyhole, is exceptionally well staged, with the girls converting every conceivable item into a weapon. Even in a mild divertissement like A Girl Must Live, Reed’s inherent taste and intelligence show through. When Mrs Blount (Kathleen Boutall), the wife of the tycoon who is financing Gold’s show, confronts Clytie, whom the businessman has been pursuing, she is not kidded. Clytie haughtily informs her, ‘I wouldn’t be caught dead with your husband’, and the wife is permitted a surprisingly snappy reply, ‘Well, I would and I hope to when the time comes.’ The movie’s comic climax has Hugo, who is trying to execute a blackmail scheme against Pangborough after drinking too much, stumbling into room after room, attempting to catch the nobleman in a compromising situation. Conceptually the sequence is dusty, but Reed’s understated direction and Naunton Wayne‘s nimble acting give it some sheen.