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1930s Writers and Directors

The influence of theatre and literature in the early sound period

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The importance of dialogue after the introduction of sound in 1929 meant a more significant role for the screenwriter, who was often a well-known dramatist. The hit plays of Ivor Novello, Emlyn Williams, Noël Coward, George Bernard Shaw, J.B.Priestley, R.C.Sherriff and Ben Travers were all transferred to film. Some dramatists also wrote directly for the screen, as Sherriff did in The Four Feathers (d. Zoltan Korda, 1939). J.B.Priestley wrote the script for the Gracie Fields vehicle Sing as We Go (d. Basil Dean, 1934).

Not all playwrights adapted their own work for the screen, but Shaw co-wrote the script for Arms and the Man (d. Cecil Lewis, 1932), and wrote the screenplay for Pygmalion (d. Anthony Asquith, 1938). As Britain's leading playwright he was very particular about how his work was filmed. The Hungarian producer Gabriel Pascal succeeded in persuading Shaw to assign to him the film rights to several of the major plays; Major Barbara (d. Gabriel Pascal, 1941) and Caesar and Cleopatra (d. Gabriel Pascal, 1945) followed. Pascal's secret was to persuade Shaw himself to make the changes necessary to translate the plays to the screen, without losing any of their Shavian essence.

Many of the plays of William Shakespeare had been filmed in silent versions by the great actor managers of the day, but the coming of sound resulted in only two British film versions of the Bard during the 1930s. In The Immortal Gentleman (d. Widgey R. Newman, 1935), Shakespeare, Ben Jonson and Michael Drayton meet in a Southwark tavern and the people they see there remind Shakespeare of some of his characters, giving rise to extracts from the plays. As You Like It (d. Paul Czinner, 1937) was set in an elaborately-designed studio forest with real animals, and featured some distinguished names both behind and in front of the camera. Mainly a vehicle for Czinner's wife Elisabeth Bergner (Rosalind), the film also starred a young and passionate Laurence Olivier as Orlando.

Many people felt that even if the talking film did no more than record the masterpieces of the theatre, it deserved every praise. Others disagreed, seeing the theatre as a bulwark against British films "directed by people without taste, with no sense of language - nothing to express but the crudest sentimentality", as Sir Nigel Playfair put it. These feelings did not stop him from appearing in Perfect Understanding (d. Cyril Gardner, 1933) with Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier, or Little Stranger (d. George King, 1934) in which he played an elderly clerk who adopts an orphan.

Meanwhile, some directors, including Alfred Hitchcock and Victor Saville, were trying to find ways to make stage plays cinematic. Saville introduced greater realism in such films as Hindle Wakes (1931) and The Good Companions (1933), while Hitchcock - who saw a lot of theatre, especially when very young - continued the exploration of the possibilities of purely visual storytelling which he began in his silent films, including the use of objects as symbols in his work (as against the theatre's use of symbols for objects).

Janet Moat

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of As You Like It (1937)As You Like It (1937)

Britain's first sound Shakespeare feature film

Thumbnail image of Four Feathers, The (1939)Four Feathers, The (1939)

Lavish Technicolor costume epic about an alleged coward fighting in the Sudan

Thumbnail image of Good Companions, The (1933)Good Companions, The (1933)

Adaptation of J.B. Priestley's popular play about a performing troupe

Thumbnail image of Hindle Wakes (1931)Hindle Wakes (1931)

First sound version of popular Northern drama about social convention

Thumbnail image of Pygmalion (1938)Pygmalion (1938)

Oscar-winning adaptation of George Bernard Shaw's celebrated play

Thumbnail image of Sing As We Go! (1934)Sing As We Go! (1934)

Gracie Fields stars as an indefatigable mill worker in her best-loved film

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