Herbert Wilcox was both a film director and a film producer and, though overshadowed somewhat by contemporaries such as Michael Balcon and Alexander Korda, he was one of the most important and successful British film makers from the early 1920s to the 1950s. During that period he produced more than one hundred films and directed around half of them. The conventional view of Wilcox is that, despite his eventual bankruptcy, his considerable entrepreneurial skills enabled him to sustain a continued presence over a long period in a notoriously unstable industry; discussion of his directorial qualities usually acknowledges his professionalism but falls short of crediting him with any authorial status.
Wilcox was born on 18 April 1890 though, according to his autobiography, where - London or Co. Cork, Ireland - remains uncertain even to him. He proclaims himself Irish - indeed Rachael Low called him a "restless Irish chancer" - though he was brought up in England and, in his autobiography and in films such as Victoria the Great (1937), he displays a patriotic pride in being British. The main phases of his career were the formative 1920s, when he entered the industry and established a reputation as an enterprising young producer, and the period from 1932 until his bankruptcy in the mid-1960s, during which time his career was focused almost exclusively on Anna Neagle, the actress, singer and dancer who he was to marry in 1943.
He began his career just after the First World War, selling American films to exhibitors in Yorkshire, before moving into production. He formed a company (Graham-Wilcox) with the director Jack Graham Cutts and by 1925 he had established himself as a successful producer/director. He produced films in conjunction with German companies, pioneered the use of American stars to improve the saleability of British films in the United States, and experimented with colour, using Prizmacolor for the final sequence of Flames of Passion (d. Graham Cutts, 1922).
In addition, he was involved, along with the American entrepreneur J.D. Williams, in the setting up of the British National company (later to be absorbed into British International Pictures) and the Elstree studio complex - "the British Hollywood". By 1928 he had set up the British and Dominions Film Corporation, an important second-string company with its own studio at Elstree.
Wilcox was quick to recognise the importance of the sound film and rented studio space in Hollywood to make Black Waters. The film was trade-shown in May 1929, a few weeks before Alfred Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), the film usually regarded as the "first British talkie". Wilcox was also involved in the British cinema's early Technicolor experiments, incorporating colour sequences in Victoria the Great and shooting Sixty Glorious Years (1938) entirely in colour.
Goodnight Vienna (1932) began Wilcox's long professional and personal relationship with Anna Neagle - of the forty-plus films Wilcox directed thereafter, more than thirty were vehicles for Neagle. In the 1930s many of their films were biographies - ranging from the racy 1934 remake of Nell Gwynn (which Wilcox had first made in 1926 with Dorothy Gish) to hagiographic accounts of Queen Victoria (Victoria the Great, Sixty Glorious Years) and Nurse Edith Cavell (US, 1939) (whose career he had explored with Sybil Thorndike in Dawn (1928)). The cycle ended with the subdued and serious They Flew Alone (1942) based on the life of aviator Amy Johnson.
Wilcox and Neagle spent the early years of the war in America making musical comedies for RKO. After Wilcox directed a section of the pro-British pageant, Forever and a Day (US, co-d. René Clair/Edmund Goulding/Cedric Hardwicke/Frank Lloyd/Victor Saville/Robert Stevenson, 1943), they returned to Britain, where he directed Neagle in They Flew Alone and The Yellow Canary (1943), an espionage thriller with Neagle daringly cast as a seemingly pro-Nazi society lady who is shipped out to Canada as a security risk.
Their next films, I Live in Grosvenor Square (1945) and Piccadilly Incident (1946) were highly wrought melodramas with wartime themes of separation and loss, but they were also celebrations of upper-class England and began a cycle of popular films known as the 'London series', which paired Neagle with Michael Wilding. The later films, such as Spring in Park Lane (1948) and Maytime in Mayfair (1949), were unashamedly escapist semi-musicals with ball gowns, Rolls Royces, lavish settings and lovably eccentric aristocrats much in evidence.
By contrast, Odette (1950), a surprisingly authentic account of the experiences of the SOE agent Odette Sansom in Occupied France, dealt convincingly with the dangers and discomforts of life as a resistance fighter and showed scenes of torture and cruelty which still seem harrowing. Subsequent films however, seemed to hark back to Wilcox's earlier successes. In Lilacs in the Spring (1955), for example, Neagle reprises her roles as Nell Gwynn and Queen Victoria in a film which (like Piccadilly Incident) begins during an air raid during the Second World War.
The final stage of Wilcox's career saw attempts to align his brand of showmanship and entertainment with the popular music of the day in a series of films featuring singer Frankie Vaughan. His final film with Vaughan - The Heart of a Man (1959) - proved to be his last film in a career which had survived through the various crises in the industry since the 1920s
Drazin, Charles, The Finest Years : British Cinema of the 1940s (London: Andre Deutsch, 1998)
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 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1985)
Wilcox, Herbert, Twenty-Five Thousand Sunsets. The Autobiography of Herbert Wilcox (London: The Bodley head, 1967)
Tom Ryall, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors