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Launder, Frank (1906-1997)

Director, Script, Producer

Main image of Launder, Frank (1906-1997)

Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat formed one of the great partnerships of British cinema. As writers, directors and producers they provided intelligent commercial entertainment, and were especially successful in the thriller and comedy genres. While sustaining a long and close working relationship, they each demonstrated personal preferences, although it would be wrong to attribute to them, collectively or singularly, a strong claim for authorial identity. These were versatile filmmakers with a pronounced common touch, who generally conceived films together, collaborated on scripts and handed over direction to the one most suited to the subject. Writing was a consistent part of Launder's career and he wrote for the stage and radio, as well as for cinema. In 1937 the pair had helped to found the Screenwriters' Association and Launder became its President in 1946.

Launder was born in Hitchin, Hertfordshire on 28 January 1906. He was educated in Brighton, commenced work in the office of the Official Receiver of Bankruptcy and acted with the Brighton Repertory Company. It was through the good notices for a play he wrote for the company that he gained entry to the scenario department of British International Pictures at Elstree in 1928. Throughout the 1930s, Launder fulfilled a variety of writing jobs at British studios and on more than one occasion his path crossed with Gilliat. Their script for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938), their third together, established the partnership as a top writing team and their reputation was consolidated with two films written for Carol Reed: Night Train to Munich (1940) and The Young Mr Pitt (1942). Their collaboration on the wartime propaganda short Partners in Crime (1942) provided them with the opportunity to co-direct and was followed in 1943 by the exemplary People's War feature Millions Like Us. The film stood out as a home front war film, detailing the conscription of women into an armaments factory and it was a considerable commercial and critical success. However, the filmmakers determined not to co-direct again as they felt that having two directors on the set impeded and confused the actors.

After making his first solo feature, Two Thousand Women (1944), set in France in an internment camp for women, Launder reunited with Gilliat to set up Individual Pictures, one of a number of production concerns that made films under the Independent Producers umbrella for J. Arthur Rank. Individual was the first of a succession of production companies established by the team which gave them an unusual degree of control over their films. The late 1940s were a particularly fruitful period, and Launder directed one of British cinema's biggest box-office successes, The Blue Lagoon (1948). It was Launder and Gilliat's first colour picture and was partly shot on location in the Pacific islands.

Launder's films tended to focus on female characters. After the women factory workers of Millions Like Us and the cross-section of female types in Two Thousand Women, he provided an intriguing role for Deborah Kerr as an Irish spy in I See a Dark Stranger (1946) and a quintessentially English eccentric for Margaret Rutherford to play in The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950), before turning again to a female ensemble - the rampaging schoolgirls of the St. Trinian's films. Launder also showed a penchant for Celtic subjects such as Captain Boycott (1947), which dealt with the mid-nineteenth century Irish land question, and the two Scottish comedies Geordie (1955) and The Bridal Path (1959).

Comedy was clearly a forte for Frank Launder. He had written accomplished scripts in the 1930s for comic stars like the Crazy Gang and Will Hay, and his post-war work displayed a tendency for comedy. The flavour of this cinema has best been captured by Raymond Durgnat when he writes of "their consistent freshness and mischief, their cheerful lightly-and-slightly anarchism, their relaxed romping in and out of the system's little loopholes and bye-ways.". The vividness of the actors' performances and the strength of the scripts rather than their visual style mark his films. But as Bruce Babington suggests, it is necessary to acknowledge Launder (and Gilliat's) accomplishments in narrative and structure as more than mere verbal achievements.

Launder's comedy films provided defining roles for some of Britain's leading character performers, Margaret Rutherford, Joyce Grenfell and particularly Alastair Sim, who had previously made capital use of Launder and Gilliat dialogue in Inspector Hornleigh On Holiday (d. Walter Forde, 1939) and Inspector Hornleigh Goes To It (d. Walter Forde, 1940). Sim was a favourite actor for both film-makers, and for Launder his dour eccentricity was employed effectively in The Happiest Days of Your Life, Folly To Be Wise and the best of the St. Trinian's films.

Between 1958 and 1972 Launder and Gilliat devoted much of their energy to executive duties at British Lion Films. This resulted in a reduction of personal productions and a decline in the quality of those films they did direct. The formula of the St. Trinian's comedies wore increasingly thin, and with the anachronistic service comedy Joey Boy (1965), Launder revealed himself as hopelessly out of touch with the new trends in British cinema. He shared direction with Gilliat on the mediocre but commercially successful The Great St.Trinian's Train Robbery in 1966, but moved to France in the 1970s, only returning to direct The Wildcats of St. Trinian's in 1980. It was a hopelessly limp addendum to the series and performed poorly at the box office. More useful and entertaining were the brief introductions Launder and Gilliat made for a retrospective of their films on Channel 4 in the late 1980s. Frank Launder died in Monte Carlo on 23 February 1997 aged 91.

Babington, Bruce, Launder and Gilliat (Manchester: MUP, 2002)
Brown, Geoff, Launder and Gilliat (London: BFI, 1977)
Brown, Geoff, National Film Theatre Booklet, November/December 1977
Durgnat, Raymond, A Mirror for England (London: Faber & Faber, 1970)
Landy, Marcia, British Genres (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991)
Film Dope 30, London, 1985.

Alan Burton, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Ask A Policeman (1939)Ask A Policeman (1939)

A policeman is forced to commit crimes to avoid the sack

Thumbnail image of Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)Belles of St Trinian's, The (1954)

Anarchic comedy based on Ronald Searle's popular cartoons

Thumbnail image of Captain Boycott (1947)Captain Boycott (1947)

Lively drama about 19th-century Irish civil disobedience

Thumbnail image of Constant Husband, The (1954)Constant Husband, The (1954)

Comedy with Rex Harrison as an amnesiac with a terrible secret

Thumbnail image of Green Man, The (1956)Green Man, The (1956)

Comedy thriller with Alastair Sim as an eccentric assassin

Thumbnail image of Green for Danger (1946)Green for Danger (1946)

Whodunit with Alastair Sim as a less than Poirot-like detective

Thumbnail image of Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)Happiest Days of Your Life, The (1950)

Comedy with two very different schools forced to share a building

Thumbnail image of I See A Dark Stranger (1946)I See A Dark Stranger (1946)

A fiery Irishwoman becomes a spy for the Germans during World War II

Thumbnail image of Lady Vanishes, The (1938)Lady Vanishes, The (1938)

Glorious comic thriller about a mysteriously disappearing old woman

Thumbnail image of London Belongs To Me (1948)London Belongs To Me (1948)

Eccentric comedy-thriller about a fake psychic and an accidental murder

Thumbnail image of Millions Like Us (1943)Millions Like Us (1943)

Launder & Gilliat film about the lives of women during World War II

Thumbnail image of Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)Oh, Mr Porter! (1937)

Will Hay as a bumbling stationmaster in his most famous comedy

Thumbnail image of Rake's Progress, The (1945)Rake's Progress, The (1945)

Definitive Rex Harrison, as a carefree 1930s playboy confronted by war

Thumbnail image of Seven Sinners (1936)Seven Sinners (1936)

Comedy-thriller about train wreckers: a dry run for The Lady Vanishes

Thumbnail image of Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)Story of Gilbert and Sullivan, The (1953)

Technicolor biopic of the masters of the Victorian operetta

Thumbnail image of Two Thousand Women (1944)Two Thousand Women (1944)

Drama set in a women's internment camp during World War II

Thumbnail image of We Dive At Dawn (1943)We Dive At Dawn (1943)

Tense, claustrophobic WWII submarine drama starring John Mills

Thumbnail image of You Made Me Love You (1933)You Made Me Love You (1933)

Light musical comedy inspired by The Taming of the Shrew

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Thumbnail image of Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)Gilliat, Sidney (1908-1994)

Director, Writer, Producer

Thumbnail image of Sim, Alastair (1900-1976)Sim, Alastair (1900-1976)