October 28, 2016

British Cinema History

001a Any examination in detail of the British contribution to the motion picture reveals a disappointing diminution in its importance since the remarkable pioneering period which lasted from the last decade of the nineteenth century till around 1906. Certainly in spite of constantly recurring crises throughout its long history, British film output has never fallen as low as that of France during the occupation, but on a qualitative level it has trailed behind. The number of world-renowned figures produced by Britain is few, and most are actors and actresses fortunate enough in voice or physique to claim attention on either side of the Atlantic. The number of internationally regarded ‘pantheon’ directors is minute while creators on the level of Hitchcock and Chaplin have become almost totally identified with the American cinema, The domestic industry has never been adequate to sustain its most promising talents and the handful of internationally respected British directors, such as Victor Saville, David Lean, Carol Reed and John Schlesinger, have achieved that status as much for their work in America or for American companies as for their earlier, entirely British-based films, many of which failed to get an adequate distribution in the transatlantic market.

The granting of social respectability was unnaturally delayed for the cinema in Britain. America, with business acumen conquering narrow minded literary and theatrical snobbism, readily embraced the new medium of films, once it had been established as a commercial reality. In Britain, when films arrived, the theatrical world was that of Wilde, Shaw and Pinero, and the stage play had achieved, after more than two centuries of cultural neglect in the wake of Puritanism, its highest level of respectability. Suspicious as ever of change, the British allowed the cinema to develop in a hole-in-the-corner manner with magistrates, in their constant quest for scapegoats for social evils, eagerly attaching blame for petty crime on addiction to the darkened movie halls. Despairingly the film-makers sought spurious respectability by luring their actors and directors from the theatres. Such transitions were not always happy – a screen performance could seriously impair a reputation. Much more distressing, however, was the effect on the films themselves, for many were merely photographed stage plays, boringly presented and absurdly over-acted.

1927: The Lodger
1928: Moulin Rouge
1929: Blackmail
1930: Murder
1931: The Ghost Train
1932: Rome Express
1933: The Private Life of Henry VIII
1934: The Scarlet Pimpernel
1935: The 39 Steps
1936: Night Mail
1937: Oh, Mr. Porter!
1938: The Lady Vanishes
1939: Goodbye Mr. Chips

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