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The Times (18/Oct/1977) - Obituary: Sir Michael Balcon

The Times (18/Oct/1977)

Obituary: Sir Michael Balcon

A pioneer of British films

Sir Michael Balcon, a pioneer of the British film industry, died yesterday at the age of 81.

As a film producer he had courage, energy and a flair for showmanship, to which was added the restraining influence of a good business brain. Thus he understood not only what the public wanted, but also what it would cost to give it to them. Throughout his career he knew his own mind, and he made the films which he wanted to make, and on the way he wanted them made. He had a talent for producing comedy as well as drama, and the films which he produced at the old Ealing Studios combined originality, wit and humour in a way which has made them a unique part of British film history. During his long career he was responsible for a large number of films which gave great enjoyment to many people. This was his purpose and his reward. He was chairman of the Film Production Board (BFI) 1963-71, a governor of the British Film Institute, an honorary Fellow of the British Kinematograph Society.

Michael Balcon was the son of Louis Balcon, of South Africa and Birmingham, and he was born in Birmingham on May 19, 1896. He was educated at George Dixon's Grammar School in the town, and his early interests were for games, school theatricals, and the laboured flickering of the early silent films. On the outbreak of war in 1914, he trained with the Birmingham University OTC but was rejected for military service on account of his sight. Instead he worked for the Dunlop Rubber Company. But once the war was over he joined another young film enthusiast, Victor Saville, in forming a company named Victory Motion Pictures. At first they made only short advertising films, but were then advised by Jack Graham Cutts to launch out into the production of feature films in London. Courage was a notable quality in both of them, and so they borrowed money from men such as C. M. Woolf and Oscar Deutsch, miraculously scraped together some thirty thousand pounds, and made a film called Woman to Woman, which Jack Cutts directed, and in which an American star, Betty Compson, took the leading part. Triumph and disaster followed in rapid succession. Woman to Woman was an immense success, but the second picture which they made, The Prude's Fall, failed dismally. Balcon emerged, a wiser and more mature producer, to found his own company, Gainsborough Pictures, which was later to be merged with Gaumont British.

During the 1920s the young Michael Balcon learnt his trade. He visited the United States, where he formed the opinion that the American market would always be one which presented a formidable problem for British producers; and he experimented with the ideas of Anglo-German production, which he considered to be full of promise. Meanwhile he had converted a former power station at Islington into a film studio, and here he made pictures such as The Rat, The Lodger, the Squibs series with Betty Balfour, Easy Virtue, The Constant Nymph, Journey's End, The Ringer, Jack's the Boy, Sunshine Susie and Michael and Mary. In 1932 he became director of production for both Gaumont British and Gainsborough Pictures, and his first GB film was Rome Express, with Conrad Veidt, which did much to establish the prestige of the British sound film. This was followed by films such as The Good Companions, I was a Spy, The 39 Steps, Sabotage, Tudor Rose and Rhodes of Africa. In 1937 he joined MGM British, and for them produced A Yank at Oxford, with Robert Taylor. Later in 1937 he became executive producer at Ealing Studios.

During the Second World War he produced many outstanding feature documentaries, including The Foreman Went to France, Next of Kin, and San Demetrio London, In 1945 he sent a film unit under Harry Watt to Australia to make The Overlanders. Next came the long series of famous Ealing Comedies, including Kind Hearts and Coronets, Passport to Pimlico, Hue and Cry, Whisky Galore, The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Titfield Thunderbolt, several of which were the work of his talented script-writer, T. E. B. Clarke. These were followed by pictures as varied as The Cruel Sea, The Ladykillers, and Dunkirk. In 1959 he left Ealing to go into independent production and made The Long and the Short and the Tall; and in 1962 he made Sammy Going South. He was awarded honorary degrees by the Universities of Birmingham and Sussex. In 1969 he published his autobiography A Lifetime of Films.

Balcon was knighted in 1945. In 1924 he married Aileen Leatherman, and they had one son and one daughter, Miss Jill Balcon, the actress, widow of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis. The list of films which have been included in this obituary notice (and which only represent a small part of his total output) can stand as his epitaph. The history of the British film industry would have been sadly impoverished without them.