Jump to: navigation, search

The Guardian (27/Sep/2003) - Gainsborough: The final reel

(c) The Guardian (27/Sep/2003)

The final reel

It gave us Hitchcock, and more sex than we'd ever seen before in the cinema. David Thomson remembers London's Gainsborough studios

When it comes to adding a few interesting statues to the London landscape, I am in favour. I can easily see the appeal of an authentically rotund bronze of Alfred Hitchcock in that part of Islington where a little bit of the old Gainsborough studio prevails.

But I feel that an opportunity has been lost. Yes, Hitch was a Gainsborough man, on and off, and took care to ensure that his profile would be recognisable. But there are fans who might more readily imagine the Gainsborough lady. She was the studio's logo, based on a portrait of Sarah Siddons, though looking like a duchess or a courtesan, one whose sedate, property-owning smile is already threatened by imminent ravishing from the looming and swashbuckling figure of James Mason. Another time, perhaps?

But the story of Gainsborough is worth telling, and I welcome the spotlight it is getting as well as the short season of "related" movies: The Lodger, Sabotage and Frenzy. Of course, Frenzy was actually made decades after Gainsborough had been folded into the Rank organisation, and there are disputes over whether Sabotage was shot in Islington (for Gainsborough) or Shepherd's Bush (for Gaumont-British). To think that there were once those local interests!

The Gainsborough was a modest studio founded in 1924 by Michael Balcon and Graham Cutts. Cutts was a director, far better known in the silent era, but Balcon - Sir Michael as he became - deserves to be considered as the most creative executive in British film history. It was he who promoted the young Hitch from Cutts's art director, eventually allowing him to direct The Pleasure Garden, The Lodger, Downhill, Easy Virtue, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Secret Agent and Sabotage. What happened with The Lodger is a reflection of Balcon's character and judgment - and of Gainsborough as an adventurous outfit.

Much influenced by German cinema, Hitch used "a pure narrative and, for the first time, presented ideas in purely visual terms". It was a suspense story: is the mysterious lodger a mass murderer? Hitch shot and cut his film for atmosphere and shock - and Cutts reported that the result was incomprehensible. Worse still, Hitch was willing to leave doubt as to whether the hero, or the star (Ivor Novello), might really be the killer. Cutts was offended, saying identification should be simple and direct.

In fact, Cutts was of the opinion that the film could not be released. But Balcon intervened: he decided that it was something new and gave it the go-ahead. The result was not just Hitch's first hit, but made him feel that his artistic career had begun.

Something quite similar occurred on Sabotage, the last film Hitch made for Balcon at Gainsborough. The film, an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, is nowhere near as psychologically rich as the novel, but it retains the central marital relationship, that of the Verlocs, in which he is secretly an anarchist using bombs to terrorise London, while she is the wife who begins to realise his crime. Verloc was played by Oscar Homolka, and Balcon imported American star Sylvia Sidney to play the wife.

By then, Hitch had his calculated fragmentary style well developed. The film in his head was a montage of precise and often very brief shots. This was especially so in the key sequence in which Mrs Verloc stabs her husband: for Hitch it was a series of shots of faces and knives. But Sidney wanted to act out the whole scene at once and could not grasp the subtle variations in expression Hitch required for reaction shots. Of course, he prevailed, and the result was a classic piece of suggestive violence.

But Gainsborough wasn't just Hitch. Balcon believed in a wide range of genres, all very economically made, and his operation prospered in the worst years of economic slump. He made light-hearted musicals, with Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge - Jack's the Boy and Ghost Train. He did a version of the stage hit, Chu-Chin-Chow, with music-hall star George Robey as Ali Baba. He let Robert Flaherty go off to make Man of Aran. He helped discover Jessie Matthews and he cast Nova Pilbeam as Lady Jane Grey in Tudor Rose.

In 1937, Balcon took over Ealing Studios, where his success would be even greater. Gainsborough might have been expected to slump, but its new production chief, Ted Black, had other ideas. He produced two of Hitch's best films - Young and Innocent and The Lady Vanishes - before the rotund director opted for Hollywood. He developed his own taste for slapstick comedy by making Crazy Gang films and building Will Hay into a national favourite with pictures such as Oh, Mr Porter. He encouraged the new director Carol Reed, and one of Reed's discoveries, the young Margaret Lockwood - in pictures such as Bank Holiday (where 100 tonnes of sand made a beach at the tiny Islington studio) and A Girl Must Live. He also capitalised on wartime gloom, which fuelled the desire to see lavish costume romances with more sex than British cinema had known before.

A key film here was Leslie Arliss's The Man in Grey, a story that cleverly played upon two types: the shy, modest, decent type (the English moderate, if you like) and the sexy scoundrel (whom England preferred to keep locked up). It also brought together four players who would be associated with the Gainsborough romance: Lockwood, Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger and Mason.

The pattern was returned to with huge success in such films as Anthony Asquith's Fanny by Gaslight (Calvert, Mason and Granger, plus Jean Kent), and the wartime Love Story in which Lockwood is a pianist with only months to live and Granger is a pilot going blind. The trend reached its peak in 1945 with two films: Arliss's The Wicked Lady (with Lockwood and Mason as highwaymen) and Compton Bennett's fascinating, if often unintentionally comic, The Seventh Veil, in which Herbert Lom is a psychiatrist trying to free Ann Todd from Mason's dark power.

Alas, these movies are not well known today. But historically they are of enormous interest, for they speak to a kind of emotional upheaval going on beneath the wartime surfaces of order, duty and uniform, and which fit well with novelists such as Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene and J Maclaren Ross. They also remind us that Michael Powell was not the only director playing upon fantasy and repressed sexual longing in the 1940s.

Black had left Gainsborough by the end of the war, but his traditions and many of the stars he had made stayed on. Granger played Paganini in The Magic Bow, directed by Bernard Knowles, who trained at Gainsborough as a cameraman. The Box family became powerful at the studio - producer Betty, writers Sydney and Muriel - and they worked on The Man Within (from Greene) and The Upturned Glass, in which Mason is a doctor who turns to murder.

There were new players - Patricia Roc, Dennis Price, Diana Dors and Richard Attenborough - and the genre began to go crazy with Price's very languid performance as The Bad Lord Byron (though even there, you could argue that Gainsborough was tackling the next sexual taboo - homosexuality). But Gainsborough did bow out with a beauty: So Long at the Fair, an entertaining mystery story set against the Paris of the 1889 World Fair, with Jean Simmons and Dirk Bogarde. It was directed by the young Terence Fisher, who would become a stalwart at Hammer - in so many ways the continuation of the Gainsborough spirit, with its taste for blood and cleavage.

The celebrations attached to the new statue include screenings of The Lodger, Sabotage and Frenzy - shot in England in 1971, and in some ways a throwback to the Gainsborough mood (though far more graphically violent than Balcon or Black would have allowed). I'd have preferred The Lady Vanishes because it has that very mixed regard for Englishness - fondness coupled with despair - that was at work at Gainsborough. But it is somewhere between folly and disgrace that the memorial spirit doesn't also think to offer the quite riveting beauty of Lockwood and Mason in a couple of things.

It is easy nowadays to suppose that England in the 1930s and 40s was a prim, repressed, dull place. But then consider that it was also the world that brought Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud into being, Britten, Walton and Vaughan Williams, to say nothing of the writers. Gainsborough movies were a part of that mood, and a reason why so many British people went to the movies so often in those years. After all, having the young Mason in your company in those days was every bit as potent - and a good deal more arousing - than rationing or the atom bomb.