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The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television (1956) - Notes on the British Cinema




Notes on the British Cinema

Gavin Lambert, who lectured on this subject at the University of California, Los Angeles, has written film criticism for various English newspapers and periodicals. He was an editor of Sequence, and in 1949 became editor of Sight and Sound and director of publications for the British Film Institute. In 1945-55, he wrote and directed an independent feature Another Sky, to be shown in the United States later this year. In 1956, he came to Hollywood as personal assistant to Nicholas Ray, on Bigger than Life, with James Mason. Mr. Lambert is now working, with Nicholas Ray and Rene Hardy, on an adaptation of the latter's novel Bitter Victory.

In 1928, a distinguished French critic, Leon Moussinac, published a book on the history of the motion picture. His chapter on the British cinema was rather short. It said, “There is no such thing” This was perhaps a little unkind; but, at the same time, not so far from the truth. By 1928, after all, the American cinema had produced — to name only the great figures — Griffith, Chaplin, and Stroheim; there had been the classic Russian, German, and Scandinavian periods; a great deal of experiment and adventure in France. The British cinema grew up late.

It has, naturally, its primitives. The pioneering period, like most pioneering periods, is full of charm. There are wild one-reel comedies, violent and surrealist and free, less personal than those of Zecca or Melies, but engaging for their invention and surprise. There is also "The Edwardian Lady About to Retire in her Boudoir at Hove, near Brighton" (1903), which is the most dignified and complicated piece of strip tease in the world, and deserves to be more widely known than it is.

In the Edwardian period, also, our most famous pioneer, Cecil Hepworth, began making films. His "Rescued by Rover", about a heroic dog, is mentioned in many textbooks as an early example of parallel crosscutting, and is an able, precocious piece of work. Hepworth continued as a film director until the end of the silent period; most of his films are careful, unvulgar, and well mounted. Creatively, though, his spirit seems dull and over-sentimental, too close to that of the three-volume Victorian novel. Like some other quiet Englishmen, Lewis Carroll and James Barrie, he liked virginal heroines. "Comin Thro' the Rye" (1924) has a very charming one, Alma Taylor.

What, however, had happened in British films by 1928 — and what Moussinac presumably didn't know about — was that two young directors, Alfred Hitchcock and Anthony Asquith, had made their first films. Hitchcock's included "The Lodger" and "The Ring", both melodramas, the first set in suburban London and the second with a popular boxing background. They were modest, but their style was vital. They had a realism in their backgrounds, a social accuracy in their observation, that was almost revolutionary at the time; and their narrative was sharp, fluent, dynamic, discarding the lethargic theatrical traditions that dominated most of their contemporaries.

Asquith's early films, "Shooting Stars", a comedy of manners set in a film studio, and a melodrama, "Cottage on Dartmoor", were also entertaining, sophisticated, and adventurous in their use of the medium. Hitchcock had clearly been influenced by German films, by Pabst and Dupont especially; one sees this in his creation of atmosphere, his lighting style, his use of objects for symbolic purposes. Asquith had been influenced by many things: by Soviet cutting, by Rene Clair's use of pantomime in comedy, and, when he made his first sound film, "Tell England" (1931), with its impressive scenes of the Battle of Gallipoli and their lateral tracking shots, by "All Quiet on the Western Front".

Hitchcock was given his first chance to make films by a young producer called Michael Balcon. Later, in the thirties, their partnership produced some outstanding work — "The Man Who Knew Too Much", "Sabotage", "The 39 Steps", In these Films, Hitchcock deepened his exploration of everyday backgrounds and patented his own formula for melodrama. The extraordinary erupted out of the ordinary. Unmentionably sinister acts might occur in a dentist's waiting room or a suburban cinema, at a respected Scottish landowner's mansion or a children's tea party. His famous climaxes, involving scenes of public violence, were staged at a London music hall, in Piccadilly Circus, on a seaside pier. The most dignified-looking British matrons had a habit of producing revolvers from their handbags, and obscure little bank clerks or vaudeville artists were revealed as members of an espionage gang.

So, for his own special purposes, Hitchcock took care to develop realistic backgrounds, ordinary characters. His films were also significant from Balcon's point of view. When Balcon took over Ealing Studios in 1938, his first productions, a boxing story called "There Ain't No Justice" and a film set in a Welsh mining village, "The Proud Valley", showed the same concern with social accuracy, the same taste for everyday life. This was extended by the best Ealing wartime films ("Went the Day Well?", "Next of Kin", etc.) and by the famous comedy cycle that followed later. "Hue and Cry" and "Passport to Pimlico" with their London locations, "Tight Little Island" with its Hebridean frame, imposed fantastic comedy — just as Hitchcock had imposed fantastic melodrama — upon familiar surroundings.

The documentary movement, it is often claimed, was responsible for injecting realism into the British feature film. There seems little real evidence for this. Few documentary directors moved over to features (the notable exception being Cavalcanti, associate producer and director at Ealing from 1940-47). Few feature producers or directors showed much interest in documentary at the time. Nor did the general public, since these films were not widely shown. The realistic style had been set earlier, by the first Hitchcock and Balcon productions.

Where the documentary movement might have had real influence — in feature films that dramatized social problems — it was sadly ignored. The social film that is such a vital tradition of American film making has never flourished in Britain. Carol Reed tried it in one of his earlier films, "The Stars Look Down" (1938); this had excellent mining backgrounds, but an impossible A. J. Cronin story.

Perhaps the difficulty was that documentary never gave much of a lead in human terms. Its best films were about objects — trains, boats, gas stoves; or about fish, smoke, etc. Early in the movement's career, two remarkable films were made — "Housing Problems" by Edgar Anstey and "Children at School" by Basil Wright. These used real people, a candid camera style. But the general trend moved away from them, toward the often brilliantly made but rather coldly abstracted "Nightmail", "Song of Ceylon", "Shipyard", and "Smoke Menace". Later, of course, isotypes came in. Wasn't there, even, a hint of slumming in these bright progressive films, a little like the contemporary poets who felt obliged to add pylons etc. to their imagery?

The realistic line that had begun with Hitchcock and developed in the years to come was, besides, socially unprogressive. Hitchcock was not concerned with social criticism; nor are other British directors, except on the most perfunctory level. This deeply convinced acceptance of the status quo has wide implications. The trappings of realism — i.e. that backgrounds should not look like sets, and people should be “natural” — are common to all British directors. The meaning of it does not seem to interest them very much. This finally becomes clear in postwar films like "The Third Man" or "Breaking the Sound Barrier"; the issue was, so to speak, deferred during the war, because it was then proper to make films of collective effort and pride and not to criticize too much; after the war, it is remarkable that only one minor film took any notice of one of the great happenings of the day — the Labour Government experiment. Except, of course, to make the usual jokes.

Meanwhile, something very important besides Hitchcock and Balcon happened in the British cinema during the thirties. This was the arrival of two Hungarians: first, Alexander Korda in 1933, then Gabriel Pascal in 1938. Of the two, Korda's impact was undoubtedly more spectacular and lasting, but indirectly we owe to Pascal as many good films as to Korda.

Korda's "Private Life of Henry VIII" (1933) is generally described as a landmark. A landmark because it was the first British film to receive wide international distribution; because it made a lot of money, enough for Korda to obtain backing from an insurance company and build Denham studios, then the largest in the country, for his firm of London Films; because it made Charles Laughton a star, and it launched Korda on his remarkable career in British films.

The film itself doesn't seem much more today than a historical bedroom farce with lavish and tasteful settings. But, in its context, Korda's choice of subject was characteristically shrewd. He decided to make a film about a king who had done the un-British thing of having six wives and sending two of them to the block (a far cry from the usual tributes to respectable monarchy, notably Queen Victoria, which have occupied the British cinema on and off for forty years). He perpetuated the popular myth that the reason for Henry's actions was constitutional infidelity or voracious appetite rather than political strategy. Lubitsch, by whom the film was certainly influenced, had already pioneered this kind of thing in "The Dubarry", but Korda's comedy, though it was inclined to lumber where Lubitsch trod like a cat on hot bricks, made up for lack of subtlety in production values. He chose a field in which British film makers have rarely excelled — the spectacular costume picture — and brought a cosmopolitan taste and flair to it. It set the style of his future thirties productions — "Catherine the Great" (another scandalous royal figure), "Private Life of Don Juan" (philandering again), and "Rembrandt", the most sumptuous and attractively designed of the whole series, though in other respects rather dull.

Korda built up, in the thirties, an international unit. He brought over Lazare Meerson, designer for Clair and Feyder; he used the English painter John Armstrong as costume designer; his brother Vincent was, and still is, a very capable art director. He developed such actors as Laughton, Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Ralph Richardson, Robert Donat. He also, of course, brought over foreign directors and stars — Clair, who made "The Ghost Goes West" for him, Feyder, who was landed with an unfortunate Dietrich vehicle, "Knight Without Armour", and finally von Sternberg, who began the ill-fated "I Claudius". This last was beset with disaster from the beginning; the designer died, and the leading lady was injured in an automobile accident. The enormous losses, coupled with the commercial failure of "Rembrandt", drove Korda into his first bankruptcy.

He was to come back, after working in America during World War II, and to gather round him several leading directors, to whom he gave considerable independence — too much, perhaps, from an economic point of view. Attenuated schedules became the order of the day. He was rewarded by a number of highly praised films, including "The Fallen Idol" and "The Third Man" from Reed, "Breaking the Sound Barrier" from David Lean, "Tales of Hoffman" from Powell and Pressburger, and "Richard III" from Laurence Olivier.

The films in which he took the greatest personal interest — "An Ideal Husband" (which he also directed), "Gilbert and Sullivan", "Bonnie Prince Charlie" — were, however, flops. Remaining faithful to his earlier tastes, Korda remained also their prisoner. His whole background was cosmopolitan, sophisticated, well bred; he liked — and bought — good paintings, good wine, first editions, and there was a trace of snobbery in all this. He was always more concerned with the fashionably successful talent than with the untried, unknown one. When he first arrived on the scene, he was right to think on his own scale; but later, in spite of all warnings, he was like the impoverished aristocrat who went on living in his enormous country house while, one by one, the rooms were closed up. If he made a “small” film — "The Heart of the Matter" or "The Captain's Paradise" — the result was somehow dingy and disinterested.

When he died, his company was over two million pounds in debt. Twice, in fact, he built up an empire, and then lost it. Perhaps what really defeated Korda in the end, for all his fine qualities, was a lack of contact with the reality of life around him. Always, he went back to the past. He liked an age of elegance and splendid leisure, and would ruin himself to maintain the illusion of it. Without him, the whole tradition of elegance and historical imagination in the best British costume pictures — in Thorold Dickinson's "Gaslight" and "Queen of Spades", in Olivier's films from Shakespeare and Lean's from Dickens — would probably never have been formed. He set the standards; he also became overwhelmed by them.

The case of Pascal was different. This was a man who arrived in England with a single obsession: to film the works of George Bernard Shaw. His knowledge of the English language was reputedly slight at the time, but he convinced the playwright — notably hostile to the cinema after seeing a film of "How He Lied to Her Husband" — to sell him the rights to several of his plays.

In his first production, "Pygmalion" (1938), Pascal achieved — perhaps without fully realizing it — several extraordinary things. In employing Anthony Asquith to direct it, he helped this talented film maker, whose work in the thirties had amounted to a series of interesting failures, to find himself. (Established by the success of "Pygmalion", Asquith went on to several more light, polished comedies of manners — "Quiet Wedding", "The Demi-Paradise", "The Importance of Being Earnest".) Pascal also virtually established the comedy of manners on the British screen. His next Shaw adaptation, "Major Barbara", was equally good; and from these two films stems an admirable tradition. Robert Hamer's "Kind Hearts and Coronets", the Launder-Gilliat "The Rake's Progress", and a little known but very amusing version of a Frederick Lonsdale play, "On Approval", under the direction of Clive Brook, have allied qualities. Their dialogue is unusually witty and sets an epigrammatic tone, their attitude toward social conventions is irreverent. They form an unusually civilized little pocket of the British cinema, quite distinct from films like "Tight Little Island" or "Genevieve", closer in spirit to one of the persisting themes of the English comic novel, which, from Jane Austen to Evelyn Waugh, has found rich satire in the rituals of snobbery and of relations between different social classes.

Pascal's films, unfortunately, got bigger. "Major Barbara" lost money not because it was brilliant but because it was expensive — unnecessarily so. It was “produced and directed” by Gabriel Pascal, though David Lean's contribution, as assistant and editor, was important. It was the last time, however, that Pascal worked with anyone of the caliber of Asquith or Lean. For "Caesar and Cleopatra", he relied almost entirely on himself, and the result was not brilliant, merely expensive. The extravagance was unjustified because it worked against the play. He gave an antiromantic historical comedy all the trappings of romanticism, under which it collapsed.

These, then, were the foundations. Everyday realism from Hitchcock and Balcon, elegance and sophistication from the Hungarians; by extension, modesty and extravagance, the present and the past. Most British films over the last ten years have followed one or other of these lines, sometimes combined them. The combinations can be interesting.

Compare, for instance, "Odd Man Out", which Carol Reed made for the Rank Organization, and his two productions for Korda, "The Third Man" and "The Fallen Idol". The Korda films are smoother and glossier and their casts are international. The photography of Belfast is less elegant and flamboyant than the photography of Vienna, and Odd Man Out, though it specifically disclaims political intentions, is seriously concerned with the human plight of its political fugitive, the meaning of whose predicament is gradually lost in other considerations. "The Third Man" is a clever piece of entertainment, dazzlingly tricked up — zither accompaniment, exotic locales with Orson Welles on the top of a great ferris wheel, a chase through the sewers, low-angle night shots of ruined masonry and staircases. In the background, impeccably composed, Vienna starves, is occupied, gives its sick children penicillin diluted in strength by a racketeer. It is perhaps typical, too, that for "The Fallen Idol", the setting of Graham Greene's original story, an ordinary London suburb, rather seedy as he likes it, was transferred to the more palatial quarters of a foreign embassy.

In David Lean's "Breaking the Sound Barrier" there is a curious upper middle-class neutrality of background, coldly well-to-do, as opposed to the vivid drabness of the country town in the same director's "Brief Encounter". In the film Lean made for Korda, airplanes are studied with rapt fascination, and there are passages like a beautiful mechanical ballet. Unfortunately, nobody asks what it is all about — what, in terms of everyone's life today, the great supersonic jag may involve. Instead we are fobbed off with the usual British tight little proposal-and-renunciation scenes, characters drawn from that polite, appalling vacuum of the successful West End play.

It is not, of course, a question of holding Korda responsible for this. The final responsibility must lie with the directors; but the climate in which they work undoubtedly has its effect. One remains with the suspicion that Reed's interest in postwar Europe and Lean's in the problem of a mechanized society cannot, under the circumstances, be very profound or creative.

The popular Ealing comedies have had much more simple, less de luxe backgrounds. After the success of "Hue and Cry", which combined the talents of T. E. B. Clarke (writer), Henry Cornelius (producer), and Charles Crichton (director) — talents later to be associated with many films of the cycle — it was discovered that, by accident, a formula had been invented and a new type of native comedy born. This formula amounted to a fantastication of the English scene. A community — of East End Londoners, Hebridean islanders, Bank of England employees — is placed in a fantastic situation. East End kids get on the track of a gang of thieves, islanders are deprived of the whisky that is their lifeblood, a mild bank clerk conceives the idea of robbery, villagers are threatened with the loss of a local railway, inhabitants of Pimlico are informed they are really citizens of Burgundy. The formula is ideally suited to one national trait; the barriers of reserve and normalcy come down most noticeably in England at a time of extreme crisis, when wildly unexpected ingenuity may be brought into play.

In each of these situations exists an undercurrent of rebellion — against the law, bureaucracy, even the police. In this sense, the comedy is gently anarchistic, though in another it is deeply conservative. Balcon's Ealing comedies are not, like the Shaw films, comedies of ideas, but of situations. In the best of them, the situations are appealing and the invention is vivacious, but the issues are basically trivial. Despite the mockery of bureaucrats and cabinet ministers, a tone of inner respectability persists. This also is typically British. It has been remarked that in Britain rebellion traditionally stops short at eccentricity. The definition of eccentricity in this case is nonconformism in small matters; in big matters, it is bad form. These little victories over authority achieve nothing fundamental. Hebridean islanders get their whisky after all, the country gentry manage to retain a useless old railway line. If this makes a dent in the status quo, it is too small to be even worth repairing.

A comedy about a more serious act of rebellion, if made in Britain, would probably be regarded as not cricket. One has a hint of this in "A Private's Progress" (directed by John Boulting), an affable farce about an undergraduate drafted into the army during World War II; he has an uncle who is a Brigadier, and the inefficient young man is quickly promoted to the corrupt, class-conscious officer world. Here, material for genuine satire is wholly neglected; the tone remains indulgent and casual, the film commits no more than a mildly rueful shrug. But even this was enough for the military authorities to refuse all cooperation.

Equally, the same temper persists in dramatic films. A policeman may be a gentle figure of fun in an Ealing comedy, but in an Ealing drama ("The Blue Lamp") he symbolizes a flawlessly efficient force. While the average American, to judge from the films he sees, is quite capable of believing a number of things that are not cricket — that prison conditions are often bad, that officials may be corrupt, racial minorities penalized and adolescents inclined to violence — the British cinema does not acknowledge that such things exist in its own country. It reflects a closed society, unfriendly to change and regarding self-criticism as rather bad form. While to an English audience the plain speaking of American social films may come as a shock and a relief, the quaint conservatism, the lack of real protest, in British films may strike American audiences as deeply reassuring. If one only has to worry about old railway trains and contraband whisky, and not about prison conditions and neurotic adolescents, the world may seem a happier place.

One can pursue the policy of evasion, conscious and unconscious, in British films. It is interesting that the lovers in "Brief Encounter", for instance, not only never consummate their love but return at the end of the story to legal husband and legal wife. It is interesting that for the adaptation of "1984", made in England by an American company, a special ending was shot for the British version. In Orwell's novel, Winston Smith ends up, after brainwashing, dutifully loving Big Brother. In the British version, he is shot by the Thought Police and — as Julia dies loyally by his side, stretching out her hand — he cries “Down with Big Brother!” The idea behind this seems to be that, for a British film, a rebel against tyranny must remain a rebel against tyranny; the notion of his renouncing his beliefs under pressure — however monstrous and terrible — is as deeply shocking as the notion of a policeman taking a bribe.

"The Young Lovers" (directed by Anthony Asquith) is politically even more immature. A young American, working in the embassy in London, and the daughter of an Iron Curtain ambassador fall in love. (The situation is cunningly designed for the British to remain neutral.) Disapproval from both embassies drives the pair to decide the only thing to do is, like the owl and the pussycat, to set to sea in a boat. Their dinghy drifts into a beautiful sunset, and a farewell message explains they hope to reach a better land. At no point is the question raised of what these two people really believe. They display an almost incredible lack of curiosity about everything except "Swan Lake" and making love. When they are prevented from enjoying either, the film suggests that opposing ideologies are pretty mean things. This is a plaintive but not very penetrating observation.

Again, just as the changing face of postwar Britain has been ignored, so at a time of retrenchment and unease in the Empire, the only films on this subject remain loyal to the idea of heroic whites vs. the fuzzy-wuzzies. "Simba", a melodrama purporting to deal with the Mau Mau, shows motiveless fanatics eviscerating dear old British colonists, who simply cannot understand what is happening and have never known the natives so restless before. "Storm Over the Nile" is a remake of the seventeen-year old "The Four Feathers", a rumbustious jingoistic adventure story, in which retired generals still relate the triumphs of battle over a glass of port, and their daughters hold hands with young officers on the terrace outside...

From birth, our cinema has suffered intermittently from two weaknesses: lack of concern with contemporary life and its issues, and a tendency to confuse half-art with art. The second is the outcome of the first. However brilliant the trappings, the stylistic effects, the incidental touches, the result will be — if the world itself is too isolated, too enclosed — thin and impermanent. "The Third Man" is a case in point, and the same director's "A Kid for Two Farthings" shows a wistful avoidance of any real aspects of life in London's East End that can only be described as shattering. Again, where is Dickens' social indignation in "Great Expectations" and "Oliver Twist", as adapted by David Lean, These are beautifully made films, of impeccable taste and surface; some of the characters come vividly to life; but nothing is related to Victorian society. The ultimate failure is one of vision. The films are inorganic.

Oddly enough, the director who had the most far-reaching vision in British films is sadly unknown. Humphrey Jennings, who died in an accident a few years ago while still in his mid-forties, made some films during the war that anticipated the neo-realist style and extracted a rich, marvellous poetry from everyday life and conditions. The best was "Fires Were Started", a study of a Fire Service unit, in which an account of daily duties and a fire-fighting episode also caught the whole “feel” of Britain in wartime. And "A Diary for Timothy", begun just as the war was ending, is a meditation on the uncertainties and hopes of immediately postwar Britain; following the first six months in the life of Timothy, a baby born in 1945, the film alternates reminiscence of the past with observation of the present. Jennings had a very special and perhaps limited talent, difficult for the commercial cinema to accommodate; but he had a genius for discovering what was momentous in the personal drama, what lay underneath the surface of everyday life. There was a passion for discovery, for illumination, in everything he did. It is just this passion that, as a whole, our film makers have lacked.

Only in a few independently made documentary and short-story films has there been a real awareness: in David, by Paul Dickson, a fine, tender study of a Welsh miner; in "Thursday's Children", by Lindsay Anderson and Guy Brenton, which shows the education of deaf children with a beautiful, intense directness; in "Together", by a young Italian girl, Lorenza Mazzetti, a strange poetic tragedy vividly set in the East End of London. In these films there is a modest but unmistakable revelation of the world.

Significantly, the industry has not encouraged any of these directors. It seems to be interested in a different kind. They can record with often brilliant skill. They can entertain. They can surprise by malice and elegant satire. But how mysteriously and maddeningly they dislike to commit themselves.