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Brunel, Adrian (1892-1958)

Director, Actor, Writer

Main image of Brunel, Adrian (1892-1958)

In the 1920s Adrian Brunel was one of the liveliest new directing talents working in Britain. Short comedies burlesquing cinema trends tickled insiders and sophisticates; while mainstream Gainsborough features like Blighty (1927) and The Constant Nymph (1928) achieved considerable box-office success. Like George Pearson, Graham Cutts, and other leading directors - but unlike Alfred Hitchcock - talkies then removed Brunel from the limelight. There were subsequently years of unemployment, and others of furious activity directing quota quickies; he also worked as a film 'doctor' and helped his friend Leslie Howard on The First of the Few (1942), but a successful return to the director's chair eluded him.

Born in Brighton in 1892, Brunel grew up with a liberal outlook and multifarious gifts. Educated at Harrow, he soon succumbed to the lure of the stage (his mother, Adey Brunel, was a respected drama teacher). He acted, wrote plays, and trained as an opera singer. Cinema initially was one interest among many, but it began to dominate after local journalism in Brighton and a period in distribution with Moss Empire's Bioscope. In 1916 he formed Mirror Films with the scriptwriter Harry Fowler Mear, directing the company's sole feature, The Cost of a Kiss (1917). He gained further experience during the war in the Ministry of Information's Film Department, where he developed the concept of 'Film Tags' - short instructional films, peppered with humour, presented in the weekly newsreels. Returned to civilian life in 1919, he worked as scenario editor for the British Actors' Film Company.

The first signs of Brunel's directorial personality emerged in 1920 in The Bump and other short situation comedies, made with Leslie Howard and the writer A. A. Milne for their company Minerva Films. Brunel then joined other bright sparks, directing The Man Without Desire (1923) on location in Venice with studio work in Berlin; theatre idol Ivor Novello took the role of a lovelorn eighteenth century nobleman awoken after two centuries' suspended animation. The unusual story and Brunel's atmospheric visuals distinguished the film from most British product of the time.

Brunel's visual inventiveness found a sprightlier outlet in the series of burlesque comedies beginning with Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924), a travel film lampoon. Some of Brunel's humour may appear unduly facetious, but the visual japes and games with film form still fascinate and entertain. These burlesques were made independently until Michael Balcon offered to produce them through Gainsborough Pictures. The Typical Budget, a newsreel spoof of the Topical Budget newsreel, had its first showing at the opening screening of the Film Society in October 1925.

Brunel was one of the Society's champions and served on its Council; many films imported for screenings passed through his hands at his editing office. With Ivor Montagu, the Society's co-founder, who shared similar passions in cinema and politics, he turned the office into a business for hire, training new cinema recruits along the way. Until talkies curtailed business, the Brunel and Montagu company regularly prepared imported films for British distribution.

Balcon liked to attract lively minds to Gainsborough and offered Brunel the chance to direct feature films. But he was asked to withdraw from the Film Society's Council for fear that it branded him a highbrow, and the feature subjects chosen for him stuck close to the popular and fashionable. Blighty dealt sentimentally with a family's experiences of the Great War; The Vortex (1928), featuring Novello again, made polite but visually lively work of Noël Coward's sensational stage play; The Constant Nymph showcased Novello once more in Margaret Kennedy's Alpine story about a schoolgirl's love for a British composer.

With these films, made with the benefit of major players, eye-catching subjects and extensive promotion, Brunel reached the apex of his career. Yet after two further Gainsborough features, A Light Woman (1928) and The Crooked Billet (1929), Brunel found little else to direct but low-budget productions or fix-up jobs.

The turbulent introduction of sound played some part in his loss of status. There were also personal matters. Following The Crooked Billet, Brunel was advised to instigate legal proceedings against his employers for unpaid fees. Settlement was reached, but the affair jarred the industry, and offers of work shrank. For British International Pictures in 1930 Brunel made the revue film Elstree Calling, but saw his editing plans ignored and Hitchcock summoned to re-shoot material.

With no directing work of his own, Brunel wrote the book Filmcraft, first of three popular instructional guides for aspiring film-makers. By the time of publication in 1933, Brunel himself was back directing, making quota quickies, comedies and thrillers, mainly for Fox British and the producer George Smith.

Some projects gave him more scope, like Badger's Green (1934), based on R. C. Sherriff's popular play, and Variety (1935), a music-hall salute. But by the end of the 1930s Brunel was functioning more as a fixer of other people's problems than a director in his own right. In 1939 he was part of a triumvirate directing Korda's rushed production of The Lion Has Wings (d. Brunel/Michael Powell/Brian Desmond Hurst); later he served as Leslie Howard's production consultant on The First of the Few (1942) and The Gentle Sex (d. Howard/Maurice Elvey, 1943). His own last official directing credits, in 1940, were on two Home Front propaganda shorts.

In 1949 Brunel re-emerged as the author of Nice Work, an entertaining account of his film experiences. Nice work or not, Brunel's career was clearly not what it might have been, and the apparent absence of surviving copies of many of his talkies makes a thorough re-evaluation of his work difficult. But the burlesque comedies alone give him a distinctive place in British cinema history as a satirical jester, and a key player in the film industry's uneasy war between art and commerce. He died in Gerrard's Cross on February 18, 1958.

Brunel, Adrian, 'Experiments in Ultra-Cheap Cinematography', in Close Up, Oct. 1928, pp. 43-46
Brunel, Adrian, Filmcraft. The Art of Picture Production (London, George Newness, 1933)
Brunel, Adrian, Nice Work. The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production (London, Forbes Robertson, 1949)
Sexton, Jamie, 'Parody on the Fringes: Adrian Brunel, Minority Film Culture and the Art of Deconstruction' in Pimple, Pranks & Pratfalls. British Film Comedy Before 1930, Alan Burton, and Laraine Porter (eds) (Trowbridge, Flicks Books, 2000)

Geoff Brown, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Blighty (1927)Blighty (1927)

Melodrama about the impact of WWI on a wealthy English family

Thumbnail image of Constant Nymph, The (1928)Constant Nymph, The (1928)

Ivor Novello drama about a composer who leaves his wife for a schoolgirl

Thumbnail image of Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)Crossing the Great Sagrada (1924)

Hilarious, surreal, spoof travelogue - humour decades ahead of its time

Thumbnail image of Gentle Sex, The (1943)Gentle Sex, The (1943)

WWII drama about seven women in the Auxiliary Territorial Service

Thumbnail image of Lion Has Wings, The (1939)Lion Has Wings, The (1939)

Patriotic drama made as propaganda for British air forces

Thumbnail image of Man Without Desire, The (1923)Man Without Desire, The (1923)

Fascinating time-travelling romantic fantasy starring Ivor Novello

Thumbnail image of Salvage with a Smile (1940)Salvage with a Smile (1940)

Comic short designed to promote recycling for the war effort

Thumbnail image of Sheer Trickery (1924)Sheer Trickery (1924)

Entertaining exposé of filmmaking tricks and sleight of hand

Thumbnail image of Shimmy Sheik (1923)Shimmy Sheik (1923)

Enchanting 'shadowgraph' about star-crossed lovers in a distant land

Thumbnail image of Two-Chinned Chow (1923)Two-Chinned Chow (1923)

Entertaining silent short using human silhouettes

Thumbnail image of Vortex, The (1927)Vortex, The (1927)

Controversial melodrama from Noel Coward's first play

Thumbnail image of Yellow Caesar (1941)Yellow Caesar (1941)

Inventive, hard-hitting satire of the rise of Mussolini

Thumbnail image of Yes, We Have No - ! (1923)Yes, We Have No - ! (1923)

Witty silhouette animation about an infuriatingly catchy tune

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Thumbnail image of Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)Balcon, Michael (1896-1977)

Executive, Producer

Thumbnail image of Film Society, The (1925-39)Film Society, The (1925-39)


Thumbnail image of Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)