A non-Ealing studios film featuring a number of regular Ealing comedy alumni, Battle of the Sexes is only really of interest to people interested in the more historical aspects of film (me, basically). Like many of the classic Ealing Studios comedies from the late-40s/50s, there’s a lot that this film can tell you about attitudes and sensibilities at the time. Unfortunately, it lacks the sharpness and humour of the best Ealing Comedies; there’s none of the acerbic wit of Kind Hearts and Coronets; none of the satirical bite of The Man in the White Suit; no generous belly-laughs to hold a candle to The Ladykillers.
With two big names leading the film, one behind the camera and one in front (Charles Crichton and Peter Sellers respectively), it’s something of a disappointment. The basic plot is that Peter Sellers is an aging manager at an old Scottish textile firm, whose dusty life is turned upside down by the death of the firm’s owner and the arrival of his garrulous son, Robert (Robert Morely), who brings with him *gasp* an American woman, Angela (Constance Cummings), who also happens to be one of those newfangled business advisors so popular across the pond. Her modern advice shakes up the office just a tad too much, breaking apart tried-and-tested methods, until the otherwise meek and passive Peter Sellers decides to do something about it.
The tone of the film is heavily parochial, with a gentle, condescending tone taken against the figure of the American working woman, as if it’s an amusing passing fad: “well done my darling, you are quite a talented woman aren’t you, now back to the kitchen where you belong dear, yes?” Granted, the film makes a point of the fact that Angela is a well-respected professional in the US, whose methods don’t translate to the Old World of small-scale, handmade production—whilst Sellers’ character is presented as an out-of-touch old man clinging to the old ways— but her presence in the textile firm is frequently treated as a humorous yet shrill disruption of tradition, which worked just fine until she came along!
Its gender politics may be highly dated, but at the very least there is interest here historically from such a perspective; the professional working woman is a common and less derided figure these days, and strong female voices in the arts, media, and politics are more frequent, yet it was only five years ago that David Cameron said “calm down dear” to a female MP in Parliament. This bland, condescending sexism is still highly prevalent in our society, alongside a small but virulent, reactionary, and regressive faction that’s bitterly vocal on any below-the-line internet comments that seems to have sprung up in reaction to progress in gender equality. It seems that these factions once scoffed at the notion of equality, but now they feel they have to fight it directly. For every step forward, two steps back.
Of course, I could forgive certain regressive elements of The Battle of the Sexes if the film were entertaining or funny, which it isn’t, and it’s hard to imagine it being all that hilarious back in the day either. Jokes are few and far between, although Peter Sellers does make the most of it: such a talent is capable of at least dragging relative dullness like this up half a step. Charles Crichton, for his part, was a fine director, one of the more undervalued voices of post-war British cinema. Whilst not exactly a unique authorial voice in the vein of David Lean or Powell/Pressburger, his work does have a pleasing ease and exacting sense of comic timing to it (he began in the film industry as an editor). When paired with an excellent script, Crichton was superb; his final film, A Fish Called Wanda, written by John Cleese, is a case example of supreme comic timing, but his work here does little more than move the film along, shuffling slowly to its end. Mediocrity for film history geekery (me).