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Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)


Main image of Gainsborough Pictures (1924-51)

Gainsborough was founded in 1924 by Michael Balcon, and in 1927 became associated with the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, which was set up by the Ostrer brothers. Balcon became 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'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, and J. Arthur Rank acquired substantial interests in Gainsborough. Henceforth, Maurice Ostrer became more involved in production, and producer Ted Black was more influential in the running of the studio. Black had an unerring sense of British popular taste, and production was skewed to the home market with such films as Oh, Mr Porter! (d. Marcel Varnel, 1937) and Owd Bob (d. Robert Stevenson, 1938).

With the outbreak of war, Gainsborough was poised to dominate the popular market. Rank had a hands-off policy on the company, and the Ostrers gave Black his head in the orchestration of film topics. From 1942, a crucial figure in the Gainsborough production team was R.J. Minney, a successful novelist and former Hollywood scriptwriter. Minney and Black inaugurated a series of costume melodramas at Gainsborough which dominated the domestic market from 1942 to 1946. These were based on recent popular books by female novelists, foregrounding gypsies, wanton women and lustful aristocrats. They were made into films which mined a rich seam in British popular culture and were visually extravagant and morally ambivalent: films such as The Man in Grey (d. Leslie Arliss, 1943), Madonna of the Seven Moons (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1944), The Wicked Lady (d. Leslie Arliss, 1945) and Caravan (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1946). Black and Minney encouraged the careers of a new breed of British stars - Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Stewart Granger, Patricia Roc - who were democratic in their manner, and the female side of the British audience took them to their hearts. Critics and male viewers excoriated the Gainsborough costume melodramas, but for female fans the historical pleasures and sexual mayhem performed an important function.

From 1942 to 1946, Black and Minney also specialised in two other film genres: comedy and modern-dress melodramas. With the latter, the same themes as the costume melos were rehearsed. Love Story (d. Leslie Arliss, 1944), and They Were Sisters (d. Arthur Crabtree, 1945) dealt with desire, anger and sartorial envy. The comedies were more heterogeneous and lacked the box-office instincts of the melodramas. Tommy Handley's Time Flies (d. Walter Forde, 1944) was intellectually inventive but a box-office failure, and the Arthur Askey films such as Bees in Paradise (d. Val Guest, 1944) performed unevenly and were often misogynist.

After 1946, Rank's henchmen began to intervene more directly in production, and one by one the disillusioned Gainsborough specialists left. The Ostrers resigned, Black went to MGM, Minney left film production and Rank wished to appoint a successor who would continue their popular melodrama trajectory. He chose Sydney Box, mistakenly thinking that his The Seventh Veil (d. Compton Bennett, 1945) provided the right pedigree. But Box was essentially interested in verisimilitude of method and appearance. Films such as Here Come the Huggetts (d. Ken Annakin, 1948) and A Boy, a Girl and a Bike (d. Ralph Smart, 1949) were predicated on social realism. Box's output was uneven, and he was hampered by inexperience, bad planning and expensive location work. Gainsborough's dominance at the box-office declined drastically, and Rank cut his losses by closing the studio in 1950.

However, Box ushered in some important innovations in film practice. He appointed his sister Betty Box as producer at the Islington arm of Gainsborough, and gave her sufficient autonomy to develop a substantial career. Indeed, she was, from late 1946 and right throughout the '50s, the only major female producer in the British industry. She produced a range of comedies at Gainsborough, such as Miranda (d. Ken Annakin, 1948), which were professional and popular, and some crime thrillers, such as The Blind Goddess (d. Harold French, 1948), which were more mediocre. Sydney Box also furthered the career of his wife Muriel Box while at Gainsborough, promoting her to head of the Scenario Department. Muriel wrote a number of ground-breaking scripts, in which her feminism was much in evidence. Such films as The Brothers (d. David McDonald, 1947) and Good-Time Girl (d. McDonald, 1948) have scripts which nuance female desire and its punishment in an unusually explicit way.

Cook, Pam (ed), Gainsborough Pictures (1997);
Harper, Sue, Picturing the Past: the Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film (1994);
Harper, Sue, Women in British Cinema (2000).

Sue Harper, Encyclopedia of British Film

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