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Mycroft, Walter (1890-1959)

Critic, Writer, Producer, Director

Main image of Mycroft, Walter (1890-1959)

Walter Mycroft became the Evening Standard's film critic in 1923, having spent the best part of a decade as a Fleet Street subeditor. The German films that had just begun to be shown in Britain, notably Ernst Lubitsch's The Loves of Pharaoh (Das Weib des Pharao, 1922), became his abiding cause. In December 1923 he urged "the institution of a repertory cinema, where the good but almost unknown pictures could be run off in recurring cycles". He named Victor Sjöström and Fritz Lang as victims of neglect and continued to publish variations on the same theme until the call was answered by the foundation of the Film Society, with his involvement, in 1925.

Mycroft had little time for Hollywood - he saw Lubitsch "dissipating his talent" there - nor for British cinema, with the important exception of Alfred Hitchcock, who he spotted early and befriended, describing him on the debut of his first film, The Pleasure Garden (1926), as "a new man in British film production of whom much may permissibly be hoped". In the French avant-garde films shown at the Film Society he saw only "a progression of pretentious meaninglessness". The arrival of FW Murnau's The Last Laugh (Der Letzte Mann, Germany, 1924) in March 1925 was, on the other hand, "an occasion of not less interest than, say, the appearance of a new 'Hamlet'".

Hitchcock and Mycroft began to write together while the former prepared to move from Michael Balcon's Gainsborough Pictures to the new British International Pictures plant at Elstree in 1927, resulting in that year's The Ring. Mycroft followed his friend there soon afterwards, joining as literary adviser and scenario editor. They worked quite closely together, notably on Champagne (1928), on which Mycroft has a story credit, but their friendship did not survive their professional association, which ended when studio boss John Maxwell vetoed The Man Who Knew Too Much, eventually made for Balcon at Gaumont-British in 1934.

After an ambitious first few years in the late 1920s, when directors like Arthur Robison and E. A. Dupont were brought to Elstree, Maxwell had by the early 1930s scaled back BIP's operations to serve the home market, on generally spartan budgets. Yet Mycroft, who once wrote that he had for Maxwell "the awe and affection that a storm-trooper might have for a Hitler", stayed on, becoming director of production, a position he held until Maxwell's death in 1940, not long after Elstree was closed for the war. He directed four films in the 1940s, and kept a hand in the industry until his death in 1959.

Mycroft's achievements at BIP include two of the earliest George Bernard Shaw adaptations, How He Lied to Her Husband (d. Lewis Cecil, 1931) and Arms and the Man (d. Cecil, 1932), and Abdul the Damned (1935), directed by an Austrian filmmaker he had championed as a critic, Karl Grune. He also mentored promising young writers including Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat, Rodney Ackland, Leslie Arliss, and J. Lee Thompson.

Later described as a 'fascist' by one of his Film Society colleagues, Mycroft nonetheless remained involved till the end; though his recommendation of Ultimatum (France, 1938), the final film by Robert Wiene, director of The Cabinet of Caligari (Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, Germany, 1919), as an illustration of "the degeneration of an avant-garde into a no more than so-so commercial director" may suggest the toll BIP took on his enthusiasm.

Henry K. Miller

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Champagne (1928)Champagne (1928)

Hitchcock melodrama about a millionaire feigning ruin

Thumbnail image of Murder! (1930)Murder! (1930)

Hitchcock whodunit with a theatrical setting

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

One of Hitchcock's best silents: a boxing melodrama with a twist

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Thumbnail image of British International Pictures (1926-33)British International Pictures (1926-33)

Production Company

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