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England's Dreaming

At war with Germany as the 1940s began, the British turned to the cinema, not only for escapist fantasy but also for quality British films that showed more realistic struggles and self-sacrifice than Hollywood's.
Tom Ryall revisits Blitz-torn London and finds that austerity did not always stretch to the movies.

It's now a commonplace of film history to identify the 40s as the golden age of British cinema, the point at which British films established a distinctive profile and a national identity. Although many significant early British films were made in places as diverse as Sheffield, Holmfirth, Bradford, Brighton and Wales, the production industry had been settled in London and its environs since before World War I. In the 20s and 30s a spate of studio building and refurbishment consolidated London's central position. The area in question stretched from Islington to Ealing, from Shepherd's Bush to Twickenham, but also included an arc to the north and west of the capital incorporating Denham and Pinewood in Buckinghamshire and the massive complex at Elstree/Borehamwood in Hertfordshire, often referred to as the British Hollywood. In addition, the leading studios had their business headquarters in central London, most of them in Wardour Street in Soho.

The studio structure was in place by the late 30s, but in many respects the industry faced a struggle for survival. The decade had ended with production crises at Gaumont-British and Alexander Korda's London Film Productions, a scaling-down of British-based production by the American majors and the departure for Hollywood of such key film-makers as Alfred Hichcock and Victor Saville (a prolific director and producer). The government's decision to close cinemas at the outbreak of World War II, the requisition of some of the studios, the conscription of film workers and the rationing of film stock suggested a bleak future for an industry which had fought for many years to establish itself against the power and popularity of Hollywood. But in fact the war kick-started an aesthetic revival that was to continue to the end of the decade. Fewer films were produced than in the 30s - around 500 compared to more than 1,200 - but critics noted the emergence of what they termed a new 'quality' or 'prestige' cinema. David Lean's superbly repressed English adultery story Brief Encounter (1945) and Carol Reed's post-war black-market thriller The Third Man (1949) both won the critics' prize at Cannes; Laurence Oliver's Hamlet (1948) took the International Gand Prize at the Venice Film Festival. Lean and Reed were nominated for Best Director Oscars and Hamlet won Best Picture. Such acclaim suggested a new kind of British cinema which combined art with popular appeal, European sophistication with American vigour, and the realism of the documentarists with the tinsel of the entertainment industry. This mix was to leave its mark on British cinema for many years to come.

The war, of course, affected all artistic activity. Conscription diverted writers and arists from their cultural vocations; theatres and concert halls were faced with closure or switching to matinees; the Royal Opera House became a dancehall and the National Gallery's collection was evacuated to a Welsh quarry. Many small magazines closed and publishers faced paper rationing. But the unpromising conditions were not entirely destructive.

Institutions were formed to protect and foster cultural activities: the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (which became the Arts Council of Great Britain in 1946); the Entertainments National Services Association (ENSA); the Art and Entertainment Emergency Council, with a committee that included film-makers Anthony Asquith and Paul Rotha alongside such figures as Sir Thomas Beecham and George Bernard Shaw. The demand for literature increased and such significant magazines as Cyril Connolly's Horizon and Penguin New Writing were launched. Writers including J.B. Priestley and George Orwell became well known through their work for the BBC and a literary and artistic 'bohemia' emerged north of Soho in 'Fitzrovia'. Although the National Gallery was denuded of its old masters, it was used to display the work of contemporary painters commissioned by the War Artists Advisory Committee; it also hosted the famous Myra Hess lunchtime recitals captured on film in Humphrey Jennings' documentary Listen to Britain (1942). And the experience of war provided stimulating subject matter, whether in Roy Fuller's poem 'Soliloquy in an Air Raid' or Henry More's bomb-shelter drawings.

Rank's serried ranks

The Rank Organisation, founded by J. Arthur Rank, dominated British cinema both during the war and afterwards. The staid and cost-conscious Yorkshireman was a successful flour miller into middle age when, in 1933, his keenness to equip Methodist halls and Sunday schools with film projectors brought him into the industry. Soon this homely and shy teetotaller became the most influential figure in British cinema, tying together many of the disparate industry elements from production to exhibition under the aegis of his Rank Organisation. He was not a film-maker himself yet the influence of the group he headed extended to most of the key producers and directors of the decade.

By 1940 the Rank organisation had developed a powerful distribution base and acquired a quarter share in the US company Universal which brought lucrative distribution rights to popular Hollywood movies. It owned the Pinewood Studios, opened in 1936, and Denham - the largest studio in Britain which it had bought in 1939 from Korda as London Films floundered. In 1941 it acquired the Odeon chain of suburban cinemas and the Gaumont-British combine including its cinema circuit, establishing itself as a strong, vertically integrated company and enabling it to take advantage of the increase in cinema audiences from 1940 to the record attendances of 1946. Its films came from a variety of sources - including Independent Producers, a group of film-makers whose motto was to brook no interference from the front office, Filippo Del Giudice's Two Cities Films, the long-established Gainsborough studio which came as part of the Gaumont-British package, and Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios - through a financing and distribution arrangement.

Cigar-chomping Del Giudice was no more a film-maker than Rank - he was an anti-fascist lawyer who had fled Mussolini's Italy for London in 1932. Two Cities Films kicked off production promisingly in 1939 with the Anthony Asquith-Terrence Rattigan hit French without Tears, but nearly sank when its two owners were interned as enemy aliens on the Isle of Man in 1940. Set free towards the end of that year, Del Giudice began working again in his clan-gathering manner on films that were informally distributed by Rank, but later the relationship was formalised. Balcon had been instrumental in launching Hitchcock's career. But by the mid 30s his attempts to crack the US market with British films at Gainsborough, the company he founded in 1924, had left him battered, and his instinct was to return to making films primarily for British audiences at Ealing Studios, which Rank distributed.

Rank's main rival was the mercurial producer-director Alexander Korda, who arrived in Britain from Hungary in 1931 and would survive, according to von Sternberg, in a sea of debts and deceits. He had an early, huge international success as the producer/director of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), which spurred him to excessive ambition, borrowing from the Prudential Assurance Company to build Denham studios. But he couldn't follow up the popular appeal of Henry and after 1940 he divided his time between the US and Britain. Towards the end of the war he embarked on a more sustained plan to resurrect his career, but bids to merge his London Films with MGM-British came to little, and after his last two directing efforts Perfect Strangers (1945) and An Ideal Husband (1947) his career slipped into amiable decline.

Though other companies such as the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC), British National and Warner Bros.' British arm were also producing during the war period, the best-known films came from Rank and his associates. Pinewood was requisitioned for the duration of the war but Rank producers had access to the larger Denham studios; by contrast ABPC had to relinquish its Elstree complex and move production to Welwyn. While ABPC resumed operations at Elstree after the war and one or two companies from the 30s such as MGM-British and London Films did re-emerge, most of the major product still came from the Rank stable. Towards the end of the decade, however, Rank's relationship with several of his independent producers became strained and the company changed character once again.

Team Spirit

The directors gathered under the Rank umbrella included figures who were to play key roles in British cinema until the 60s. Films such as Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941), A Matter of Life and Death (1946) and The Red Shoes (1948), David Lean and Noel Coward's In Which We Serve (1942), Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat's Millions Like Us (1943), Lean's Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946), Laurence Olivier's Henry V (1944) and Carol Reed's Odd Man Out (1947) constituted the 'quality' end of British cinema and established its distinctive reputation. That many of these films were deliberately designed to embody British qualities of endurance, stoicism and self-sacrifice in the face of war and other difficulties shows how important the wartime mood was to this much-vaunted period. Of the above titles only The Red Shoes escapes patriotic content of some kind.

Many of these directors were working for Rank at Denham under the banner of Independent Producers (IP). The most prominent members of IP were Powell and Pressburger's Archers company and actor/director/producer Leslie Howard. Cineguild, set up in 1945 by Ronald Neame, Anthony Havelock-Allan and David Lean, was initially associated with Giudice's Two Cites but joined Independent Producers in 1944, as did Individual Pictures, founded by Launder and Gilliat. Other members of the group included Crown Film Unit documentarist Ian Dalrymple's Wessex Films and flamboyant Hungarian producer Gabriel Pascal, whose only film with IP was the spectacular but financially disastrous Caesar and Cleopatra (1945).

One striking feature of 40s production is its teamwork; not just Powell and Pressburger, but David Lean with Noel Coward and Ronald Neame, Basil Dearden and Michael Relph, Launder and Gilliat and the Boulting brothers. These film-makers constituted a new wave who, along with Carol Reed, John Baxter and Robert Hamer, started their careers in the 30s, often in the modest context of 'quickie' production. They worked alongside older hands such as Herbert Wilcox, Anthony Asquith, Thorold Dickinson and the Brazilian Alberto Cavalcanti, whose careers had started in the 20s, and Maurice Elvey whose work dates back to 1912.

But British cinema in the 40s was not only comprised of prestige films applauded by the critics. A thriving and popular genre cinema - cheaply produced thrillers, 'spiv' pictures, comedies by the likes of George Formby, Will Hay, Frank Randle, Arthur Askey and Flanagan and Allen, costume films, melodramas - had its own roster of directors including Walter Forde, Marcel Varnel, Arthur Crabtree, Leslie Arliss, Ken Annakin, John Paddy Carstairs and Compton Bennett. Their films attracted no plaudits - indeed costume and crime films such as Gainsborough's Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) and The Wicked Lady (1945) produced something nearer to critical revulsion - but they constituted a dependable bedrock of British production. Genre cinema also contributed to the emergence of something approaching a star system, with individual actors being cultivated by the studios and identified with generic roles. Margaret Lockwood, Patricia Roc, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and James Mason dominated the costume picture; Anna Neagle made Mayfair-set romantic comedies; John Mills and Richard Attenborough took roles as soldiers and sailors; and Alec Guinness emerged from literary adaptations and his multiple-role appearance in Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) to become one of the biggest British stars of the 50s.

Ideas Committee

The work of these directors and actors was framed until 1945 by several Government agencies including the Ministry of Information (MoI), the armed services and the Board of Trade, which controlled access to film stock. The MoI provided finance for Powell and Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941) but later abandoned direct sponsorship in favour of co-operative working with the film-makers themselves. Powell, Dickinson and documentarist Paul Rotha approved this approach from the outset and even such dissenters as Balcon eventually settled into a working relationship with the ministry despite arguments over The Big Blockade (1942) and Ships with Wings (1941) - the latter of which Churchill thought might cause "alarm and despondency" because of its military disaster ending.

The notorious 'ideas committee' - made up of civil servants and film-makers - provided a forum where the government could communicate its propaganda requirements to the industry and film-makers could discuss how their projects could be matched to the war effort. Of course, the government - with its power to requisition studio space, block the supply of film stock and refuse to release conscripted stars - had the last word, but the stream of films produced indicates the collaborative relationship had a high degree of success. Films such as Lean and Coward's In Which We Serve, Cavalcanti's Went the Day Well? (1942), Charles Frend's San Demetrio London (1943), Howard's The Gentle Sex (1943) Asquith's The Demi-Paradise (1943), Frank Launder's Millions Like Us (1943) and Reed's The Way Ahead (1944) brought war experience to the screen, illuminating key elements - the Battle of Britain, Dunkirk, the Blitz, training for the services, Britain's relationships with the US and the Soviet Union - in ways that had great popular appeal. A typical example is Went the Day Well?, a Graham Greene tale in which German invaders dressed as Biritsh troops try to subjugate a small village but meet with unexpected resistance from the locals. It works as soap opera and thriller while presumably giving useful tips to the populace on how to resist real invaders. Many of these fictional films incorporated documentary techniques while actual documentaries such as Harry Watt's Target for Tonight (1941) and Jennings' Fires Were Started (1943) introduced dramatic strategies into factual films. Critics identified this amalgamation of what had previously been distinct modes of film-making as one of the key elements of the 'quality' films on which the new reputation of British cinema was based.

Extravagant fantasy

The second half of the decade - the so-called age of austerity (rationing continued until 1954) - began with some of the most expensive British films ever made. According to Life magazine, Pascal's lavish Caesar and Cleopatra, made with a budget of around £1.25 million, cost more than Gone with the Wind (1939), while London Town (Rank, 1946), a musical featuring music-hall star Sid Field and directed by the American Wesley Ruggles, also topped £1 million. Other films such as Dickinson's Men of Two Worlds (Two Cities, 1946) and A Matter of Life and Death (Archers, 1946) cost over £1 million between them, [AMOLAD cost just £320,000] prompting a government report which attacked the industry extravagance.

But despite the increased popularity of British films, American product continued to dominate London's screens and its earnings contributed to the foreign-exchange crisis. Government proposals in 1947 to levy a substantial tax on US imports led to the threat of a US boycott, and though the dispute was quickly resolved, Rank had already embarked on an ambitious production programme to fill the gap. This resulted in many of the most celebrated titles of the post-war period, but proved financially disastrous when US films resumed their hegemony.

Many of the defining characterists of post-war British cinema are embodied in a handful of 1945 releases - Brief Encounter, Henry V, Caesar and Cleopatra, The Wicked Lady and Compton Bennett's The Seventh Veil. (Wartime subject matter was largely shelved, though a few films including Dearden's Frieda, 1947, and Powell and Pressburger's The Small Back Room, 1948, continued to explore the period). Brief Encounter touched very lightly on the issue of sexual infidelity, rife during the war but still not spoken about in polite company. Its careful cinematic craftsmanship, realism, humanism and stageplay origins are common to many of the 'quality' films, though its intense romanticism and exploration of passion suggest a dimension usually associated with Gainsborough melodramas. The film's romantic and melodramatic qualities are echoed in The Seventh Veil, the best box-office performer of the decade, in which a concert pianist convinced she can never play again is helped by a psychiatrist - and finds the man of her dreams. Romance was also at the centre of the cycle of films made by Herbert Wilcox and featuring Anna Neagle, including I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) and Spring in Park Lane (1948), and present in Powell and Pessburger's Black Narcissus (1947) and Lena's The Passionte Friends (1948).

The Shakespeare and Shaw epics Henry V and Caesar and Cleopatra had large budgets, spectacular settings and costumes and drew on the respectability of literary tradition. Extravagant fantasy seemed to meet the needs of the war-weary and impoverished (A series of literary adaptations followed including Cineguild's Great Expectations and Oliver Twist, Two Cities, Hamlet and The History of Mr Polly, and London Films' An Ideal Husband, The Winslow Boy and Anna Karenina.) Gainsborough continued to make costume melodramas along the lines of The Wicked Lady with Caravan (1946) and The Magic Bow (1946), though a change of senior personnel led to new directions later in the decade. Under Sydney Box the studio made The Brothers (1947) and Jassy (1947) and Christopher Columbus (1949), which were attempts to crack the US market. Costume films for other studios include The Loves of Joanna Godden (1947) and Saraband for Dead Lovers from Ealing and the Scottish epic Bonnie Prince Charlie (1948) from Korda's revamped London Films.

If the Gainsborough melodramas enraged critics earlier in the decade, that role was occupied in the post-war period by the medley of crime pictures - 'spiv' movies, film noir and psychological melodramas - that formed a distinct trend towards the end of the 40s. Such films as Appointment with Crime (1946), They Made Me a Fugitive (1947), Brighton Rock (1947) and No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948) were attacked for imitating American crime movies and for their "sordidness, corruption and violence" to quote Sight and Sound itself. Ealing's Hue and Cry (1946), a comedy thriller, prefigured the Ealing comedies that emerged in fuller form in 1949 with the release of Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore! and Kind Hearts and Coronets. Neither the blend of documentary and fiction apparent in wartime titles nor their social observation are present in immediate post-war cinema, though a few titles - including Fame Is the Spur (1946), When the Bough Breaks (1947), It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), The Guinea Pig (1948) and Good Time Girl (1948) - did confront important social and political topics.

British wartime cinema brought ordinary British life to the screen in a sharp break with the upper-middle-class ethos and world of South Kensington and the country-house retreat that had dominated in the 30s. The new films, it was felt, connected with their audiences, and the box-office returns seem to endorse this. Yet as the decade progressed, the tinsel genres (costume pictures, historical epics, romantic melodramas, comedies and crime films) re-established their position, offering a range of pleasures - escape and diversion, opulence and excitement, madcap humour and slapstick, violence, cars and fast-talking men and women - to audiences confronting the rigours of war and the privation of post-war austerity. Whatever the genre, London's theatreland still exercised an important influence: though Brief Encounter is set in the north of England, the accents and vocal delivery of Cedlia Johnson and Trevor Howard, both RADA trained and experienced on the stage, determine the film's flavour, and indeed commuting between the West End and the film studios continued to be a common career pattern for British cinema actors.

But British cinema was still overshadowed by Hollywood. London had achieved a significant position prior to World War I as an international distribution centre for US films and in the 40s Mrs Miniver (1942) outstripped home-grown-titles at the box office, while Gone with the Wind remained popular throughout the war. Cinema for audiences is as much about pleasure as anything else, and Britain's golden age owes its brightness and durability not just to the earnest and sober war pictures and literary adaptations revered by the critics but also to the 'scandalous' Margaret Lockwood movies and the 'morbid burrowings' of the crime genre.

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