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Arliss, Leslie (1901-1987)

Director, Writer

Main image of Arliss, Leslie (1901-1987)

Although he directed some of the biggest British box office successes of the 1940s, Leslie Arliss's contribution to British cinema remains under-celebrated. Born Leslie Andrews in London on 6 October 1901, he spent his early career as a journalist in South Africa, returning to London in the late 1920s when he entered the film industry as a scenario writer. He was a versatile screen writer, working on a diverse range of films, including comedy vehicles, portentous historical epics, and critically acclaimed realist dramas such as Ealing's The Foreman Went to France (d. Charles Frend, 1942).

Arliss was Gainsborough Studios' resident 'scenario editor' by 1942, when the studio announced its wartime policy of allowing members of its respected scriptwriting team an opportunity to direct. Among the beneficiaries were Val Guest, Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat. Arliss in fact had already directed a couple of films, but it was The Man in Grey (1943), made for Gainsborough as part of this policy, which really marked his arrival as a director. The adaptation of Lady Eleanor Smith's Regency bodice-ripper appears to have been Arliss' personal project, and its full-blooded representation of female desire and baroque visual style marked a departure both for the studio and for British cinema in general. Although contemporary critics were appalled by a cinema so resolutely antipathetic to the respectable codes of wartime realism, the film was massively successful at the British box office, initiating the now notorious cycle of Gainsborough melodramas. Arliss contributed two more films to the cycle - Love Story (1944), which, despite a contemporary setting, shared the cycle's commitment to sexual desire as an organising principle, and The Wicked Lady (1945), the most famous and successful of the films.

The cinematic worth of the Gainsborough cycle is still a matter of debate. Despised for many years by the critical establishment, the films were subject to a major re-assessment in the early 1980s, when feminist critics such as Pam Cook and Sue Harper identified within them a flamboyance and exoticism lacking elsewhere in British cinema, and championed their unashamed address to wartime women's fantasies and desires. Even here, however, Arliss's contribution to the series was downplayed - the radicalism of the films was understood in terms of a visual style which owed much to Elizabeth Haffenden's extraordinary costume designs, John Bryan's art direction, and the contribution of cinematographers Arthur Crabtree, Bernard Knowles and Jack Cox.

Arliss's direction does often appear perfunctory, and his actors remembered him as a rather cold, distant figure. However, several entertaining flashes of directorial bravura are evident - the extreme close-up on Lockwood's eyes as she commits murder in The Wicked Lady, the shot through the flames of the fireplace as she pretends to contemplate her own damnation and the pull back through the window as she dies alone all indicate a director in sympathy with the heightened mood of the design. His scripts for these films are peppered with one-liners - some of which are startlingly indecent even by today's standards - and they consistently feature heroines who unequivocally express a desire to live on their own terms.

Outside Gainsborough, Arliss failed to prosper. Man About the House (1947), made with ex-Gainsborough producer Ted Black for British Lion, seemed to promise psychological subtlety in its exploration of female desire. But Black was soon to die of cancer, and Arliss's collaboration with ex-studio boss Maurice Ostrer on Idol of Paris (1948) proved a disaster. Their attempt to repeat the Gainsborough costume melodrama formula with second-rate stars and a weak script deterred audiences - despite the added salaciousness of a whip fight between two women - as well as critics, and the film's box-office failure severely damaged Arliss's career. During the 1950s he was relegated to directing B film thrillers such as Miss Tulip Stays the Night (1955), and episodes of television series for Douglas Fairbanks (several of which were released as compendium films). He died on 30 December 1987 on Jersey, the Channel Islands.

Aspinall, Sue and Robert Murphy, (eds), BFI Dossier No 18: Gainsborough Melodrama (London: British Film Institute, 1982)
Cook, Pam, Fashioning the Nation (London: BFI Publishing, 1996)
Harper, Sue, Picturing the Past (London: BFI Publishing, 1994)

Lawrence Napper, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Come On George! (1939)Come On George! (1939)

Racetrack comedy starring George Formby and an unstable horse

Thumbnail image of Foreman Went to France, The (1942)Foreman Went to France, The (1942)

Ealing propaganda film about a factory foreman's rescue of vital machinery

Thumbnail image of Love Story (1944)Love Story (1944)

A terminally ill pianist falls in love with a man who's going blind

Thumbnail image of Man in Grey, The (1943)Man in Grey, The (1943)

Melodrama about two girls whose fortunes run on very different paths

Thumbnail image of Wicked Lady, The (1945)Wicked Lady, The (1945)

A bored Margaret Lockwood finds fulfilment through highway robbery

Thumbnail image of Windbag the Sailor (1936)Windbag the Sailor (1936)

Will Hay comedy that puts him in charge of a most unseaworthy vessel

Thumbnail image of Buccaneers, The (1956-57)Buccaneers, The (1956-57)

Pirate action-adventure starring Robert Shaw

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Thumbnail image of Gainsborough MelodramaGainsborough Melodrama

1940s costume dramas for a newly independent female audience

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