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British Film in the 1940s

Some of Britain's darkest hours also produced its finest films

Main image of British Film in the 1940s

The term "golden era" is often grossly misapplied, but the 1940s really was Britain's greatest film decade. When the BFI polled the hundred best British films in 1999, sixteen were from the 1940s - including half the top ten. Furthermore, the BFI's 'Ultimate Film' survey, an inflation-adjusted box-office champions chart, featured ten 1940s British films alongside Star Wars, Harry Potter and Titanic, with three in the top ten. Not only was this the heyday of David Lean, Powell & Pressburger, Ealing comedy and Gainsborough melodrama, over a billion tickets were sold each year, hitting an all-time peak of 1.6 billion in 1946. A tenth of that number would be considered a success today.

That said, the age was less golden in every other respect. When it began, Britain had been formally at war with Nazi Germany for nearly four months, but the conflict would begin in earnest in 1940. Though hostilities would end in 1945, the rest of the decade was a time of extreme national hardship, as a shattered Britain began the lengthy and expensive process of rebuilding itself. It's little wonder that the cinema was so popular: the only cheap mass medium with anything like the same potency was radio. (Television started broadcasting again in 1946, after a wartime hiatus, but would be restricted to the well-heeled until the early 1950s).

One of the immediate upshots of war being declared was that Britain's cinemas were closed due to concerns that they might be attractive air raid targets. However, they quickly reopened, not least because the government realised that the cinema was an ideal conduit for propaganda via its newly-created Ministry of Information. In 1940, the MOI took over the GPO Film Unit, responsible for the most consistently creative 1930s documentaries, and turned it into the state's official film propaganda arm. Renamed the Crown Film Unit, it retained many GPO filmmakers, including Harry Watt, Pat Jackson and Humphrey Jennings. The latter in particular would find himself in his element, making films with a poetic force and intensity that transcended their official purpose.

In 1941, the MOI also began backing fiction features with a propagandist message, starting with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 49th Parallel (1941) and including nursing drama The Lamp Still Burns (1943) and Millions Like Us (1943), a a portrait of an ordinary British family during wartime. After the war, the Ministry of Information was renamed the Central Office of Information, and the propaganda shifted towards promoting the sweeping social changes instituted by Clement Attlee's Labour government, including the creation of the National Health Service.

Many propaganda messages were delivered by major stars, as demonstrated by the very title of Eating Out with Tommy Trinder (1941). The biggest name was Leslie Howard, co-star of Gone With The Wind (US, 1939), who returned home that year to devote the rest of his tragically curtailed life (his plane was shot down in 1943) to making propaganda, whether short documentaries like From The Four Corners (1941) or fiction features like The First of the Few (1942) and The Gentle Sex (1943), both of which he directed. The public information film also created a bona fide star in the unlikely form of balding, rotund Richard Massingham, who delighted audiences with his comedic treatments of water rationing (The Five-Inch Bather, 1942) to public health (Jet-Propelled Germs, 1948) via the extraordinary What A Life! (1948), in which two postwar depressives attempt suicide, but ignominiously fail.

Of the most important British directors, Alfred Hitchcock had already decamped to Hollywood, where he would largely remain. Anthony Asquith's career never regained the artistic heights of the silent era, but the 1940s concluded with the earliest fruits of his long partnership with playwright Terence Rattigan (The Winslow Boy, 1948). Carol Reed flowered from promising new talent into internationally recognised master with such films as Odd Man Out (1947), The Fallen Idol (1948) and The Third Man (1949). Michael Powell formed one of British cinema's great creative partnerships with Hungarian-born screenwriter Emeric Pressburger. Their many masterpieces - including The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), A Canterbury Tale (1944), A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus (1947) and The Red Shoes (1948) - were both scintillating popular entertainment and brilliantly acute studies of Britishness from various angles.

Newcomers to directing included David Lean, Laurence Olivier, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, already established as pre-eminent talents in their original fields (editing in Lean's case, acting in Olivier's, screenwriting in Launder and Gilliat's). Lean began directing films in collaboration with Noël Coward (In Which We Serve, 1942; This Happy Breed, 1944; Blithe Spirit and Brief Encounter, both 1945) before striking out on his own with two inspired Dickens adaptations (Great Expectations, 1946; Oliver Twist, 1948). The classics also inspired Laurence Olivier's first two films as director: Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948). Launder and Gilliat jointly made the propagandist Millions Like Us before alternating directing chores on a series of wittily scripted, beautifully crafted entertainments including Two Thousand Women (1944), The Rake's Progress (1945), I See A Dark Stranger (1946), Captain Boycott (1947) and London Belongs To Me (1948).

Michael Balcon's Ealing Studios made perhaps the most impressive fictional contribution to the war effort, packaging propaganda in audience-friendly form in The Foreman Went To France, The Next of Kin, Went The Day Well? (all 1942), The Bells Go Down, Nine Men and San Demetrio London (all 1943). An 'Ealing comedy' in the decade's first half would have meant a Will Hay vehicle like The Goose Steps Out (1942), as the great Ealing comedies began in 1946 with Hue and Cry and reached their full flowering in 1949, a year that saw Whisky Galore, Passport to Pimlico and the masterly Kind Hearts and Coronets, one of the most pitch-perfect black comedies ever conceived. However, there were also distinguished Ealing postwar dramas (Pink String and Sealing Wax, 1945; It Always Rains On Sunday, 1947; Saraband for Dead Lovers, 1948) and even one of the classic British horror films in Dead of Night (1945).

Gainsborough Pictures moved in a different direction. Comedy specialists in the 1930s, the studio became indelibly associated with the trashy costume melodramas that dominated the mid-1940s box office after Regency romp The Man In Grey (1943) became a surprise hit. Its stars Phyllis Calvert, Stewart Granger, Margaret Lockwood and James Mason would make many more Gainsborough melodramas, often under protest. But Gainsborough also made subtler films in a social realist vein. In retrospect, Good Time Girl (1947) and Boys In Brown (1949) were harbingers of the "social problem film" that would become an important British sub-genre in the 1950s, though Gainsborough itself closed its doors at the start of that decade.

But the British studio that dominated the 1940s was the Rank Organisation, the unlikely brainchild of Methodist flour magnate J. Arthur Rank. Initially involved in cinema as a vehicle for religious education, by 1946 Rank had created Britain's first vertically-integrated film business, handling production, distribution and exhibition. Rank can take much of the credit for nurturing the careers of Lean, Powell & Pressburger, and Launder & Gilliat, who made much of their best work under his patronage, and on budgets they would have struggled to raise elsewhere. That said, Rank often failed to recognise the quality of what he had commissioned - The Red Shoes was dismissed as an 'art movie', and effectively written off before it opened. It was a much bigger hit in the US.

Alongside the Gainsborough stars, George Formby continued as a major box-office attraction, as did Anna Neagle, who began the decade in Hollywood incarnating historical figures such as Nurse Edith Cavell (US, 1940) before returning to make some phenomenally successful middle-class romances, all directed by her husband Herbert Wilcox. As the titles indicate, Piccadilly Incident (1946), The Courtneys of Curzon Street (1947), Spring In Park Lane (1948) and Maytime in Mayfair (1949) delivered glossy escapism to audiences enmired in postwar austerity. A less likely star was Alastair Sim, equally accomplished in roles both comedic (Green For Danger, 1946) and sinister (London Belongs To Me, 1948).

Two great films summed up the decade's two halves. Laurence Olivier's ambitious big-budget Technicolor Henry V was simultaneously the first great Shakespeare film and a vital contribution to the war effort, with the rousing battle scenes provided a huge morale boost. By contrast, Carol Reed's crepuscular The Third Man, set in divided Vienna and with a multinational cast portraying characters primarily looking out for themselves, brilliantly caught the postwar mood, one of feverish, scurrying uncertainty about what lurked around the corner.

Michael Brooke

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of 49th Parallel (1941)49th Parallel (1941)

Wartime drama: a Nazi U-boat crew is stranded in Canada

Thumbnail image of Dead of Night (1945)Dead of Night (1945)

Classic Ealing portmanteau film: five tales of the supernatural

Thumbnail image of Henry V (1944)Henry V (1944)

Laurence Olivier turns Shakespeare into rousing propaganda

Thumbnail image of In Which We Serve (1942)In Which We Serve (1942)

David Lean/Noël Coward classic about a bombed WWII destroyer

Thumbnail image of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Deliciously dark comedy, featuring no fewer than nine Alec Guinnesses

Thumbnail image of Lamp Still Burns, The (1943)Lamp Still Burns, The (1943)

Unsubtle but fascinating film about the pre-NHS nursing profession

Thumbnail image of Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, The (1943)

Ambitious wartime saga which infuriated Churchill

Thumbnail image of Man in Grey, The (1943)Man in Grey, The (1943)

Melodrama about two girls whose fortunes run on very different paths

Thumbnail image of Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)Matter of Life and Death, A (1946)

Romance fantasy bridging the gap between two worlds

Thumbnail image of Millions Like Us (1943)Millions Like Us (1943)

Launder & Gilliat film about the lives of women during World War II

Thumbnail image of Passport to Pimlico (1949)Passport to Pimlico (1949)

Cherished comedy in which a Pimlico street declares its independence

Thumbnail image of Red Shoes, The (1948)Red Shoes, The (1948)

Powell and Pressburger's beautiful and delirious ballet film

Thumbnail image of Spring in Park Lane (1948)Spring in Park Lane (1948)

Hugely successful postwar light comedy with Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding

Thumbnail image of Third Man, The (1949)Third Man, The (1949)

Masterful thriller set in postwar Vienna - recently voted Britain's greatest film

Related Collections

Thumbnail image of Ealing at WarEaling at War

Ealing Studios' diverse and fascinating WWII propaganda films

Thumbnail image of Gainsborough MelodramaGainsborough Melodrama

1940s costume dramas for a newly independent female audience

Thumbnail image of Social Problem FilmsSocial Problem Films

British cinema and postwar social change

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Thumbnail image of Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)Howard, Leslie (1893-1943)

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Thumbnail image of Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)Jennings, Humphrey (1907-1950)

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Thumbnail image of Central Office of Information (1946-2012)Central Office of Information (1946-2012)

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Thumbnail image of Crown Film UnitCrown Film Unit

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Thumbnail image of Rank Organisation, TheRank Organisation, The

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