John Henry Graham Cutts was born in 1885 in Brighton. Trained as a marine engineer, he was attracted by the cinema and entered exhibition in Newcastle and Birmingham, before joining the Wilcox brothers to form Graham-Wilcox Productions. Cutts had already directed Cocaine (1922), a sensationalist drama re-titled While London Sleeps in response to censorship problems. His first film for Graham-Wilcox, the pictorialist and poetically conceived Wonderful Story (1922) - a rural psycho-drama about a man crippled on the eve of his wedding - received a rapturous critical response for its "truth, realism and perfect acting" (Kinematograph Weekly) but failed at the box-office. Its successor, Flames of Passion (1922), concocted by Herbert Wilcox and his wife, deployed more sensationalist melodrama: an American star, Mae Marsh, and a femme fatale flaming in Prizma colour. While commercially successful - the first post-war film to be sold in America - and admired for its technical skill and authentic Old Bailey sets, the story, involving seduction, illegitimacy and baby murder offended critical taste.
Following the well-received Paddy-the-Next-Best-Thing (1923), and armed with an option on Michael Morton's stage hit, Woman to Woman, Cutts joined the newly formed Balcon-Saville-Freedman company, soon to become Gainsborough. The film, made at the well-equipped Islington Studio, was a run-away critical and commercial success. An ecstatic Morton declared: "The emotion projected from the screen amazed me, America has her Griffith; we have our Graham Cutts."
Contributing to Cutts's script meetings was the young Alfred Hitchcock, employed at Islington as title designer and general factotum while assiduously learning about filmmaking. He not only offered to design the sets but acted as assistant director, and his career became increasingly entangled with that of Cutts. The Passionate Adventure (1924), like Woman to Woman, has Clive Brook as a neurasthenic postwar upper-class husband, torn between two women. The Blackguard (1925), made at UFA about an equally conflicted violinist, and The Prude's Fall (1925) fell prey to turbulence in Cutts's private life, and Hitchcock was often left in charge.
Nevertheless, until the late 1920s, Cutts was considered the saviour of the British film industry, "a sure-fire maker of box-office attractions" (Kinematograph Weekly) and courted by American studios. To defuse Cutts's growing dislike of Hitchcock, Balcon separated them, giving Cutts The Rat (1925), staring its co-author, Ivor Novello, in a romantic role as a class-boundary crossing Parisian Apache. Cutts's direction was noted for his audacious tracking shots and dramatic camera angles, making full use of N.G. Arnold's complex, multi-level 'White Coffin' set. The Rat and its sequel, The Triumph of the Rat (1926) raised hopes that with better material Cutts would become a world-class director. He returned to Germany to make The Queen was in the Parlour (1927), Nöel Coward's Ruritanian romance, now sexually dynamised by Cutts's increasingly sadistic camera, travelling with the sound of the drunken Prince's whiplash into a cowering Lili Damita's ear. For the next two years Cutts worked for First National, making the technically inventive Confetti (1927). In 1929 he directed The Return of the Rat for Gainsborough. It showed Cutts at the height of his visual powers, but the film was overtaken by the switch to sound.
In the early 1930s Cutts made four films for Basil Dean, including the second successful Gracie Fields film, Looking on the Bright Side (1932). Dean suggests Cutts resented 'talking pictures'. However, a sound version of The Return of the Rat with dialogue scenes added had been enthusiastically greeted, and in the '30s Cutts directed a number of well photographed, breezy comedies and musicals, including a freely adapted Three Men in a Boat (1933). However, he was never able to recapture his earlier success. After directing a number of quota quickies and a couple of films for Balcon, he found a niche at BIP, where he made his last feature films, mostly comedies and musicals, including Over She Goes (1937) with Stanley Lupino, and a popular adaptation of Just William (1939). In 1940 Cutts joined World Wide, making wartime documentaries and shorts until 1947. He died on 7 September 1958, in London, leaving a daughter, the actress Patricia Cutts.
While Hitchcock's rise to authorial pre-eminence effectively displaced his mentor, Cutts's '20s films were noted for their spectacular production values, experimental virtuosity of camerawork and lighting and the intense performances and attractive characterisations of his actors, several of whom rose to stardom under his direction. Cutts refused to subject his showman's instincts to the discipline of story, and his melodramatic and romantic scenarios increasingly disappointed his admirers by their improbability, 'jumpy continuity' and dubious moral tone. But Cutts aimed to use spectacle and topical controversy as a conduit to his audience's underlying instincts and passions. He used unexpected camera angles and movement, often combined with glass filters and framing devices, to traverse between depth and surface and recognised the voyeuristic potential of the camera to explore subjectivity and sexuality, a domain which Hitchcock would later claim as his own.
Balcon, Michael, Michael Balcon Presents . . . A Lifetime of Films (London: Hutchinson, 1969).
Barry, Iris, 'A British Director', Daily Mail, 18 Aug. 1926 (in Sydney Carroll's scrapbooks, BFI Special Collections).
Bioscope, 1 Nov. 1923, pp. 71-2.
Cutts, Graham, 'What Does the Public Want? A Consideration of Collective Demands',
Cutts, Graham, 'Secrets of a Film Director', Picturegoer, Oct. 1926, pp. 8-9
Dean, Basil, Mind's Eye (London: Hutchinson, 1973)
Gledhill, Christine, Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion (London: BFI, 2003)
Kinematograph Weekly, 22 October 1925, p. 44
'Low and High, No. 1 - With Cutts at Islington', Motion Picture Studio, 20 July 1922, pp. 10-11
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1918-1929 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1971)
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1929-1939 - Film Making in 1930s Britain (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985)
Wilcox, Herbert, Twenty-Five Thousand Sunsets: the Autobiography of Herbert Wilcox (London: Bodley Head, 1967)
Christine Gledhill, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors