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British Film in the 1930s

Unfairly maligned decade that saw British cinema take giant steps forward

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Whereas the 1940s has long been hailed as a 'golden age' for British cinema, the preceding decade has been viewed largely with disdain; the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and Alexander Korda have been seen to offer sporadic oases of cinematic quality in a desert of mediocrity. This abiding image, however, is neither complete nor accurate.

One major reason for prejudice is the perceived preponderance throughout the greater part of the 1930s of the so-called 'quota quickie', films made with the lowest possible budgets simply to fulfil the recently introduced quota obligations imposed on distributors and exhibitors by the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. One of the aims of a replacement Act in 1938 was to eradicate such films by the introduction of a minimum production cost requirement, but although the term 'quota quickie' may have consequently disappeared from popular discourse, the films themselves arguably prevailed.

Cheap and quickly shot these films may have been, but many still warrant interest, among them Tod Slaughter's essays in lip-smacking villainy, beginning with Maria Marten or Murder in the Red Barn (d. Milton Rosmer, 1935); the heartfelt social dramas of John Baxter, such as Doss House (1933); and some excellent thrillers from director Bernard Vorhaus, including the striking The Last Journey (1936).

As well as providing valuable experience for young acting talent such as John Mills, James Mason and Jack Hawkins, these low-budget films also offered opportunities to behind-the-screen talent to perfect their craft. Directors Michael Powell and Brian Desmond Hurst learned on quota films, as did David Lean (as editor), cinematographers Oswald Morris and Guy Green, art director Michael Relph and producer Anthony Havelock-Allan. Even Alexander Korda began his British career working in quota production.

Meanwhile, in more ambitious productions, relatively established directors cemented their reputations with critical and box office successes. Alfred Hitchcock, after a period in the doldrums in the early 1930s at British International Pictures, returned to Gaumont-British and hit form with a series of top-class thrillers, including The 39 Steps (1935), which established Robert Donat as a first rank international star, Sabotage (1936) and The Lady Vanishes (1938).

Herbert Wilcox found popular success fashioning vehicles for his rising star (and later wife), Anna Neagle, particularly with the costume dramas Victoria the Great (1937) and Sixty Glorious Years (1938). Anthony Asquith began the decade with the impressive anti-war film Tell England (1931) and ended it with two superlative stage adaptations, Pygmalion (1938) and French Without Tears (1939). Victor Saville also moved effortlessly between genres, being responsible for the most successful of the Jessie Matthews musical vehicles and the sublime musical comedy Love on Wheels (1932), as well as war drama I Was a Spy (1933) and social drama South Riding (1938).

Whether low or big budget, the decade's most prolific (with approximately a third of the features produced) and successful genre was comedy. The partnering of music-hall veteran Will Hay with Moore Marriott and Graham Moffatt produced one of the greatest comedy teams ever to work in cinema, and while the fast patter and risqué badinage of London-born comedian Max Miller could never migrate entirely successfully to film (despite several attempts), the Lancashire-born comedy performers George Formby and Gracie Fields took to the medium with alacrity, becoming, in the process, the biggest British box office attractions of the decade.

Hailed as the king and queen of comedy, Formby and Fields were also musical royalty, even if it was Jessie Matthews who reigned supreme over the genre. Variety films, beginning with Elstree Calling (d. Adrian Brunel, 1930), squeezed in as many musical performers as possible and were produced throughout the decade, while musical vehicles for the disparate likes of operatic tenors (Jan Kiepura, Richard Tauber) and dance band leaders (Henry Hall, Jack Payne) also met popular acclaim. Comedy was at the heart of the majority of musicals, although Herbert Wilcox's adaptation of Noël Coward's Bitter Sweet (1933), starring Anna Neagle, the Evelyn Laye vehicle Evensong (d. Victor Saville, 1934), and a version of Leoncavallo's opera Pagliacci (d. Karl Grune, 1936) with Richard Tauber were rare examples of musicals with dramatic themes.

Crime films constituted at least a fifth of all features produced in the 1930s. The many popular adaptations throughout the decade of Edgar Wallace's blood and thunder yarns (he even directed two films himself, albeit one in 1929) helped to make him the most adapted author of the decade. Other examples from the genre include whodunits solved by Agatha Christie's detective creation Hercule Poirot (played by Austin Trevor in three films), the thick-ear adventures of Bulldog Drummond (Ralph Richardson and John Lodge in two films), tales of low life criminality in the works of author James Curtis (whose novel They Drive by Night became one of the finest British films of the period (d. Arthur Woods, 1939)), and spy dramas, which proliferated towards the end of the decade, including the lively Q Planes (d. Tim Whelan, 1939).

But profits from the home market could be small, so overseas success was much sought after. The biggest market, of course, was the United States, and the phenomenal success there of Alexander Korda's partly American-financed The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), not only established Korda as a major force within the British industry, but led to the wider misguided conviction that American doors were now permanently open to British product.

Korda subsequently pitched his studio's films simultaneously at American and domestic markets, with big budget productions such as the ambitious science fiction spectacle Things to Come (d. William Cameron Menzies, 1936); spy drama Knight Without Armour (d. Jacques Feyder, 1937), teaming Robert Donat with Hollywood import Marlene Dietrich; and his series of patriotic films of Empire, including Sanders of the River (d. Zoltan Korda, 1935) and The Four Feathers (d. Zoltan Korda, 1939).

But Korda was not alone in his ambitions. Michael Balcon, head of production at both Gaumont-British and Gainsborough Studios, had an internationalist outlook during this period (rather more than in his later Ealing years) and eagerly targeted the American market with big budget productions, many showcasing American stars. Among these was Balcon's own Empire film, Rhodes of Africa (d. Berthold Viertel, 1936), starring Walter Huston. Others examples included the Canadian-set western The Great Barrier (d. Milton Rosmer, 1937), featuring Richard Arlen, and, reputedly the company's most expensive film, science fiction drama The Tunnel (d. Maurice Elvey, 1935), with Richard Dix.

One of the main contemporary criticisms levelled against the commercial British cinema, principally by a burgeoning intelligentsia (the critical journal Close Up had been launched in 1927), but also by some of the more mainstream critics, is that the films, whether big or low budget, failed to reflect social reality, depict ordinary British life or venture beyond the confines of a studio. A number of John Baxter's productions may have focused on working-class communities (albeit in studio recreations), and location work was a notable feature of some films with working-class themes, from the Lancashire cotton mills in Sing as We Go! (d. Basil Dean, 1934) and Cotton Queen (d. Bernard Vorhaus, 1937) to the fishing fleets of Grimsby in The Last Adventurers (d. Roy Kellino, 1937). But such productions were, admittedly, in the minority.

The depiction of the lives of ordinary British people was generally left to the documentary movement, whose films, emerging from such bodies as the Empire Marketing Board Film Unit, the GPO Film Unit (both overseen by the movement's figurehead, John Grierson) and the Realist Film Unit, are today widely hailed as the peak achievement of 1930s British cinema. Certainly, documentary blossomed in the 1930s, and the reputation of films like Night Mail (d. Harry Watt/Basil Wright, 1936) and Housing Problems (d. Arthur Elton/E.H. Anstey, 1935) survives to this day.

The 1940s were to witness a convergence, in terms of personnel, style and content, between the commercial and documentary sectors of the industry. The contribution of the latter, however, has generally been praised at the expense of the former. Yet despite the accusations of mediocrity levelled at the feature industry, there had been a clear improvement in the quality of British cinema during the 1930s, technically, artistically and commercially. While producers during the war years enjoyed an abeyance of Hollywood imports, the industry in the 1930s faced full-blooded competition while still adjusting to sound and, later, absorbing the emergence of Technicolor. Without such expertise, the triumphant achievements of British cinema in its 'golden age' would have been all the more difficult, perhaps impossible.

John Oliver

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