George Pearson was born on 19 March 1875 in Kennington, London. His father was a craftsman in the silk industry. A happy home and stimulating schooldays led him in 1893 to Culham College, Oxfordshire, where he gained his Teacher's Certificate, followed by senior teaching posts and headships. However, he both rejected the rigid discipline and curriculum of school-board education and yearned to realise undefined desires for artistic expression. Around 1911, a travelling film show suggested to him the power of cinema as a medium for mass enlightenment through entertainment. By now he was married with three children, his fourth born in 1919.
However, in January 1913, aged thirty-seven and having impressed the managers of Pathé with his trial-run scenarios, Pearson abandoned his respectable career as headmaster and entered the then disreputable film industry as Film Producer in charge of Pathé's tiny London studio. The following year he joined George Samuelson at Worton Hall, moving in 1915 to Gaumont's new Lime Grove studios. From realising popular paintings and poems on film, and recreating topical wartime events as fictitious newsreels, Pearson would forge radical ways of reconciling British pictorialism to the moving cinematic image. Working in a range of popular genres, he helped film actors communicate emotion, while trying to make cinema the "'lingua franca of the human eye" (Pearson, 1957: 28). Responding to Gaumont's demand for a British hero to match the French 'Fantomas', Pearson invented 'Ultus', an avenger of injustice whose police-foiling adventures fuelled four stylish and highly popular films between 1915 and 1917.
In 1918 Pearson joined Thomas Welsh to establish Welsh-Pearson in new studios at Craven Park and forge his own position as a leading voice in '20s British filmmaking. The music-hall success, The Better 'Ole (1918), was followed by four 'Squibs' films (1921 -1923), which ensured the company's financial stability, took Betty Balfour as their ebullient Cockney heroine to stardom, and founded Pearson's reputation as a successful director. Their popularity was based on the down-to-earth humour of their working-class characters, combined with a touch of pathos acknowledging life's misfortunes. But Pearson's authorial stature was recognised in the human emotions he drew from traditional types, the charismatic performances of his actors, and inventive visual and symbolic effects wrested from limited resources and the skilled camerawork of Emile Lauste and Percy Strong.
Running in tandem with the Squibs films was a series of more personal productions for which Pearson wrote original scenarios that disregarded the constraints of plot and continuity - "that shibboleth" imported from America. Rather, believing "cinema should be a lawless medium, as free as the vision of the human eye" he sought glimpses of life caught in the empathic gestures of his actors and symbolic images rooted in everyday experience and popular culture. Nothing Else Matters (1920), Love, Life and Laughter (1923), Reveille (1924) and The Little People (1926) were intensely personal films centring on figures who, yearning like Pearson himself to communicate the ineffable, seek to exceed life's limitations, only to encounter disillusion and eventually reconcile to its terms. Pearson's ambition - expressed in his notebooks, discussions with his production teams, press books, articles and public lectures - was to build his films 'emotion by emotion', capturing in moving images (and later sounds) moments of human pain and hope. The result was often a roller-coaster of clashing moods - of laughter and tears - as in Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (1922), which bookends its uproarious social comedy with a murder and a suicide.
If held in great respect and frequently hailed a 'genius' - a Dickens or Barrie of the screen, Britain's D. W. Griffith - Pearson's practice increasingly departed from the industry norms established by Hollywood, and retained an idealism and investment in popular visual culture out of kilter with the modernist avant-garde. Thus while Reveille, a meditation on the injustices of peacetime and ordinary people's spirit of survival, was premiered in front of the Prince of Wales in 1924, two years later Little People was withdrawn for re-editing and re-titling by another hand. Pearson never experienced the same creative freedom again. With the economic downturn of 1926, Craven Park was sold and Welsh-Pearson forced to seek American deals.
However, Pearson remained an indefatigable defender of film art in broadcasts and lectures, becoming a Founding Member of the London Film Society, and, as President of the Association of British Film Directors, leading a deputation to the Board of Trade to oppose the Quota Act's threat to quality. After a visit to America, he perceived the inevitable onset of sound cinema, but he argued in vain with his struggling company the necessity of conversion. Eventually, after supervising the successful film version of Journey's End (d. James Whale, 1930) in a Hollywood sound studio, Pearson returned to find Welsh-Pearson in liquidation and his films sold for their celluloid.
In 1934, after piecemeal production, Pearson parted from Welsh, finding work on quota quickies with Julius Hagen at Twickenham. With the outbreak of war, he joined Cavalcanti, his former designer for The Little People, at the GPO Film Unit. From there he became Director-in-Chief of the Colonial Film Unit, returning to his starting-point: film in education, and finally running film schools for budding Commonwealth film-makers. In 1948 the Royal Photographic Society made him an Honorary Fellow, as did the British Film Academy in 1951, when he also received the OBE for his services to the film industry.
At eighty he retired, publishing his autobiography in 1957. He died on 6 February 1973 in a Malvern nursing home, having touched a succeeding generation of filmmakers with his generosity and advocacy for film art. If in the twenty-first century we return to his few surviving films and his writings, it is perhaps to re-find in his visionary populism a cinematic language of emotion rejected by modernism.
Bamford, Kenton, Distorted Images: British National Identity and Film in the 1920s (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999)
Gledhill, Christine, Reframing British Cinema: 1918-1928 (London: BFI, 2003)
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1914-1918 (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1950)
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)
Pearson, George, Flashback: an Autobiography of A British Film Maker (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957)
Pearson, George, Notebooks, Scrapbooks & Press Books, BFI Special Collections
The Silent Picture n. 2, Spring 1969 - Special Issue on George Pearson
Peet, Stephen, 'George Pearson 1875-1973', Sight and Sound, Spring 1973, p. 88
Denis Gifford Audiotape Collection (BFI National Library)
Christine Gledhill, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors