In the postwar years the British film industry was dominated by the Rank
Organisation and a handful of other major producers such as the Associated
British Picture Corporation, who between them controlled the majority of British
cinemas. Beneath them, however, were numerous smaller companies, such as
Anglo-Amalgamated, churning out supporting features and short subjects and
battling to fill the gaps in the programme. One of the smallest of all was
Adelphi Films, a tiny, family-run film business, operating out of a cramped
office in Wardour Street. Yet from this humble base, Adelphi produced and
distributed more than 30 feature films and shorts in the 1940s and 1950s,
boasting an impressive array of popular British performers. Modestly produced,
Adelphi's output was nonetheless diverse and ambitious. Some of their films -
despite their small-scale origins - were just as good as anything the big
studios had to offer.
Founded in 1939, Adelphi was acquired in 1949 by Arthur Dent and his two
sons, Stanley and David, to become an independent, family-owned film company.
Arthur was already an industry veteran: in the silent era he had been a salesman
for Famous Players-Lasky and, later, assistant to producer John Maxwell. By
1937, Maxwell was managing director of Associated British, while Dent, his right
hand man, was also on the board. In 1940, Dent left to become UK representative
of Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn. After the war, he struck out alone and bought
Arthur had tested his mettle as a producer with Comin' Thro the Rye (1947),
released under the Advance Films banner (Advance was later subsumed into
Adelphi). A short supporting feature, shot on a shoestring, it told the story,
in song, of poet Robbie Burns. Adelphi's subsequent output - modestly budgeted,
sometimes with partial funding from the National Film Finance Corporation -
ranged from crime to melodrama; however, Arthur, who had trodden the boards
himself, leant towards comedy, music and variety. Bless 'Em All (1948), now lost
except for a trailer, combined these elements. A parade-ground comedy designed
to appeal to those who had recently served in the forces, the film starred
now-forgotten variety comic Hal Monty, and provided an early showcase for the
musical talents of Max Bygraves.
The Dents had an eye for talent, and were always keen to give young
performers a break - and upcoming artistes were less able to demand high fees.
Adelphi shrewdly secured the services of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Harry
Secombe for Penny Points to Paradise (1951), a breezy comedy about a pools
winner on holiday in Brighton. On the cusp of fame with The Goon Show, the trio
were, soon afterwards, out of the Dents' price range. Similarly, blonde
bombshell Diana Dors appeared in four films for the company before she too rose
out of reach.
Many Adelphi films were booked at cinemas as supporting features, or as half
of a double bill, as part of the 'quota' (exhibitors' legal obligation to screen
a certain percentage of British-made films each year); but Dent was keen to
establish a reputation for quality drama. To this end he splashed out on The
Crowded Day (1954). Impressively directed by a young John Guillermin, this
engaging ensemble piece starred John Gregson and Joan Rice, two of Rank's top
stars, subcontracted at considerable expense. An intelligent, bittersweet drama
of shop floor intrigue, the film was definitely on a par with top-end British
studio product of the time. However, Arthur - a staunch advocate of the 'little
man' - had ruffled the feathers of the powerful exhibitors who controlled
British cinemas. Despite its quality, the big chains refused to book the film as
a first feature.
Arthur was disheartened and in declining health, but his ambition remained
undimmed. In 1956 he unveiled the first Adelphi release in colour, Stars in Your
Eyes, another musical comedy, but his death that same year curtailed further
projects. The company continued, however, and remains in family hands to this
day. Viewed in retrospect and with the company records still intact, Adelphi's
output constitutes a fascinating case-study in independent British filmmaking
outside the confines of the postwar studio system.