Christine Grandy's study of interwar popular culture through the lens of film and fiction offers a fresh look at the way Britons reconstructed their world in the postwar moment. Grandy examines these two popular cultural forms as a means of understanding the anxieties and ideology that shaped post–World War I British society. Thoughtful and clearly argued, her Heroes and Happy Endings is more of a story of continuity than change. The popular films and novels she selects for consideration and assessment reinscribe the image of the male breadwinner through tropes of the hero, villain, and love interest that the war had threatened to upend.
Popular culture in films and novels of the 1920s and 1930s projected a return to normalcy rather than an easy escape from the realities of daily life (10–12). The return home of maimed and injured men from the battlefield and the uncertainties of the postwar economy put pressure on prewar heterosexual gender norms. The characterization of Britain as a war-weary nation after World War I stands up when you look at popular entertainment. Wartime audiences had little desire to be reminded of the brutal realities of the Great War. On stage, postwar theater consisted of relatively lighthearted fare. Expressionist nightmares that exposed the realities of modern war in plays like The Silver Tassie (1929), which had a recent London revival, did not appeal to audiences during this period. As Grandy shows, this assessment applied to popular film and novels as well. The preponderance of comedy, drama, romance, and, to a lesser extent, crime genres reveal an attempt by the “culture industry” to reinforce social norms particularly centered on the middle classes (7, 16). British audiences, however, were looking for more than an escape from the fighting when they went to the cinema. Postwar films reflected a desire to recreate a more familiar prewar order that rivaled the harsh reality of real life depicted on the Pathé newsreel and in the mainstream press.
Britons flocked to the movie theater for both entertainment and information. Twenty million mainly middle-class and working-class viewers in Britain went to the cinema every week in 1917, and film magazines encouraged viewers to experience moviegoing as a regular part of entertainment culture. In the year 1940, over one billion people attended the cinema (20–21). Though some contemporary critics rejected film as part of a frivolous prewar culture, going to the movies became both a reflection of everyday life and a pleasure of the imagination. Part of this response came from the recognition that the experience of war had changed tastes and the cinema itself. American and British films alike fed the growing entertainment culture. Men who came back from the war needed an escape, but their own experience and the larger cultural experience of the war also challenged the movie industry to make films that reflected the needs of new kinds of male and female viewers who had known real tragedy on the battlefield and at home (38–41).
Four chapters arranged thematically around the representation of postwar social norms on film and in novels attempt to show popular culture's powerful influence in interwar Britain. Using archival sources centered on the films and novels themselves, as well as their depictions in the popular press, Grandy identifies a pattern of representation that illustrates the norms she describes. Other sources include the records of the British Board of Film Censors, or BBFC, a voluntary organization of industry experts set up to police film content, and the records of the Home Office, which performed a similar censorship function for novels. The BBFC was an industry organization financed by fees paid by producers to the film censors, and though technically a private body, it had strong ties to the government (182). A chapter dedicated to the work of these two institutions demonstrates the powerful hold the masculine normative ideal had over postwar society through their ability to regulate content and determine what audiences could see and read.
Heroes and Happy Endings makes an important contribution to the fields of popular culture and gender studies. Solidly embedded in the historical context of the interwar moment, where concerns about the economy and social stability remained paramount, Grandy traces the ways in which the power of masculine heteronormativity manifested itself in popular culture. Popular novels and films thus serve as important reflections of this particular cultural anxiety. How much film and the novel shaped this phenomenon is harder to gauge, as is the politics behind controlling what people read and watched more generally. Going to the cinema was still a relatively new phenomenon after World War I. Worries over how audiences would understand what they saw on screen topped concerns for officials, as the appendix of “Censorable items” from the BBFCs annual reports at the end of the book indicates. Censorable items ranged from the sexual inappropriate to the politically sensitive. The BBFC, for example, could censor anything that brought “into disrepute British prestige in the Empire” (224). In 1919, the Foreign Office intervened, along with the BBFC, on these very grounds regarding the showing of a popular film based on a book about the Armenian Genocide, Ravished Armenia, because of fears that it would negatively affect public opinion in India. This episode suggests that a broader imperial politics were also at play in addition to domestic sexual politics when it came to considerations of what the public consumed.
Postwar audiences saw and experienced their world through the unforgettable prism of the war. As Grandy shows, cultural anxieties about social and economic stability revealed themselves in the films people watched and novels they read. Producing acceptable content from the perspective of the censor allayed some fears, as did supporting films and novels that seemed to not challenge traditional values. For women, who made up the majority of moviegoers during this period, the return to normalcy had significant implications for how they came to understand their role in society. Though Grandy does not focus on audience reception, certainly a difficult thing to glean from the archive for this period, she sees these representations as having a powerful effect. Despite women having experienced real political and economic gains during this period, contemporary problems were reimagined “in ways that maintained traditional views of gender, work and nation” (178). In the end, Britons may not have been able to turn back the clock to before the war, but they could get a glimpse of that world by going to the movies or reading a bestseller.