Gaumont-British was a subsidiary of the French production company Gaumont, which had bought the land for a studio at Shepherd's Bush in 1912 and begun producing by 1914. It was a solely British company from 1922 (run by the Ostrer brothers), and was an exhibition giant in Britain by the late '20s, with 280 cinemas in 1929. With its distribution interests as well, it was a prime example of the vertical integration at work in the film industry.
In 1927 Gaumont-British teamed up with Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures, with Balcon becoming director of production for both companies. Gaumont-British, the mother company based at Shepherd's Bush, produced 'quality' pictures, while Gainsborough's studios at Islington were dedicated to lower-status fare.
Under Balcon, Gaumont-British was responsible for some prestigious films, such as I Was a Spy (d. Victor Saville, 1933), Jew Süss (d. Lothar Mendes, 1934) and The Passing of the Third Floor Back (d. Berthold Viertel, 1935). Such films attempted to broaden contemporary definitions of
national identity, and they experimented with new methods of set construction. In the less ambitious comedies, such as Cuckoo in the Nest (d. Tom Walls, 1933), or musicals such as Soldiers of the King (d. Maurice Elvey, 1933), Balcon left the team unhampered to produce cheap and profitable fare.
Under Balcon's aegis, both Gaumont-British and Gainsborough provided a link to Continental, and specifically German, film practices. Balcon had links with UFA, and in 1925 he encouraged Alfred Hitchcock to study German methods in situ. Gainsborough also specialised in the production of multilingual films in the late '20s/early 30s.
As the German industry became uncomfortable for some artistes in the '30s, both Balcon's companies offered employment to displaced personnel, including Conrad Veidt, Elizabeth Bergner, Berthold Viertel, Mutz Greenbaum and Alfred Junge. In 1936 Balcon left for MGM-British, and the internationalist days of Gaumont-British were over. The Gaumont-British studio at Shepherd's Bush was closed.
As well as feature production, Gaumont-British engaged in three other areas of filmmaking. Under the name of G-B Instructional, it was involved in documentary, specialising in films for the educational market. Mary Field was one of the most important of its directors, making her name in school films about biology and history. Second, Gaumont entered the competitive newsreel market with Gaumont-British News; its competent newsreeels had wide showings in circuit cinemas. Third, in the mid-1940s, Rank set up G-B Animation, under American David Hand, but this venture was less successful, never rivalling the popularity of its US competition.
Cook, Pam (ed), Gainsborough Pictures (1997)
Sue Harper, Encyclopedia of British Film