When British films ruled the world

Out of the horrors and privations of the early 1940s emerged the greatest flowering of British movie talent, all showcased in the most magnificent cinemas ever built. David Thomson salutes the golden age of the silver screen
Click to follow

In the heat of this summer, some people will relish the cool interiors of The Fallen Idol as the British Film Institute re-releases Carol Reed's 1948 picture. That was the year when Zatopek came to the London Olympics, when Britain was stricken still by rationing, and when footballers wore "shorts" several inches below their knees, earned £15 a week and married sweethearts. So how is it that amid such quaint times, The Fallen Idol can be so startling and compelling?

There are plenty of answers. The picture uses the Belgravia house as a world; the black-and-white is so beautiful it looks like something we might be on the point of inventing - at last, the drab days of colour are surpassed! The kid, Bobby Henrey, was just perfect, and Ralph Richardson seemed as dull and level and ordinary as a butler, but as you watched the film you felt the man's whole sad life.

But all of those things are just items in the larger being. The Fallen Idol tells a story in which everything fits, like the waxed pieces of wood in complicated carpentry - without a squeak or a sign of friction. Films told stories then, and they made pictures that might be modest - The Fallen Idol is a very small story , just a child's view of an adult melodrama - but which were fit for the huge crowds that went to the movie palaces of the 1940s.

Apparently, there are young people who have not heard of Carol Reed and do not know know that in just three years after the war he made three masterpieces in a row, Odd Man Out, The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. Extraordinary as that moment was for Reed, and those who worked with him, it was a fraction of the story. In the late 1940s, in Britain, we made not just a run of terrific movies - maybe they were the best ones being made anywhere in the world. And the country was on its knees, without a penny to spare, with bomb-sites all over London and music-hall jokes about how we'd have been better off if we'd lost the war.

The first thing you have to realise to feel what it was like then is that the whole business or art of the movies had been proved by the war. Despite the bombing and the black-out, people had turned out for "the pictures". They queued to get in. They sat in dense, full houses, with cigarette smoke swirling in the projector's beam. They laughed and cried in concert with a thousand strangers. And there had been this astonishing contrast between the colours and styles of the clothes people wore - drab, grey, utility clothes, the uniform of rationing - and the fantastic, coloured decor of the movie palaces: designs that resembled a French chateau, a pagoda from imperial Japan, a pyramid out of Montezuma's Mexico, or the deep-carpeted, Moorish grottoes and chapels of my own movie home, the Granada in Tooting, preserved now for bingo but far too large for the pictures anyone makes.

It was a measure of morale and resolve going to the pictures, seeing the newsreels, cheering on the bravura scenes of courage and sacrifice, and then falling into some Hollywood dream - pictures with titles that sang of separation and ultimate reunion: The Mortal Storm; Hold Back the Dawn; Heaven Can Wait; To Have and Have Not; Going My Way; Till We Meet Again; Since You Went Away; I'll Be Seeing You. Not all of them were great pictures, but are they not gorgeous titles?

They ring with sentiment, the way the theatre names were combinations of fantasy and reality - the Granada, Tooting; the Tolmer, Euston; the Astoria, Streatham; the Essoldo, Penge. It's like words from alien languages being put together. It was crazy, but it was full of hope, and it helped to bring in the masses in that last age before television sent us back to the loneliness of our own homes.

I don't mean to say that there had been no good British films before the end of the war. Alfred Hitchcock had come to mastery in the 1930s, with The 39 Steps, Sabotage and The Lady Vanishes, but that had only led to him being whisked off to Hollywood as war broke out. There was always that threat to the British picture business: do anything good and you were in America. One way and another, that luck (or curse) had fallen on Charles Laughton, Cary Grant, Ronald Colman, Claude Rains, Boris Karloff, Leslie Howard, Robert Donat, Olivier and Leigh and even a man called Chaplin.

But there were star figures in British pictures who stayed, often because their accent or humour didn't travel well - Gracie Fields, Will Hay, George Formby. Alexander Korda had come to Britain in the early 1930s, determined to rival Hollywood. He made a lot of notable pictures, not all hits, but stirring celebrations of British history such as only a Hungarian could understand: The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), The Four Feathers (1939), The Jungle Book (1942), That Hamilton Woman (1941). Moreover, in the war years, the British pursuit of documentary found its ideal subject matter; we had the great essays by Humphrey Jennings (Fires Were Started, Listen to Britain, A Diary for Timothy), as well as war stories strongly influenced by documentary techniques (Target for Tonight, Western Approaches, The Way Ahead).

Notable careers began during the war years or even in the 1930s, including those of the Boulting brothers, Alberto Cavalcanti, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, Reed himself, David Lean, Thorold Dickinson and the producer Michael Balcon, who took charge at Ealing Studios in 1938.

So, in the war years, there were British feature films such as One of Our Aircraft is Missing and the uniquely ambitious and disturbing A Canterbury Tale (by Powell and Pressburger), In Which We Serve (by David Lean and Noël Coward), and Went the Day Well? by Cavalcanti (about an English village occupied by Nazis). But the most inspiring production - as important in Britain as Casablanca in America or Les Enfants du Paradis in France - was Olivier's * * Henry V (1945). Aimed at the moment of victory, this Shakespearean film used Agincourt as a model for British victory against Hitler. It was jingoistic in the most basic way. But it also displayed a love of film itself, as Olivier directed for the first time. The decision to start at the Globe, with real actors about to put on the play, then opening out in "real" action, where the green meadows of Ireland stood in for Normandy, was itself a celebration of theatre, film and show business. And in its cast, the movie helped to introduce an age of acting, trained on stage but skilled in film; it included Robert Newton, Leo Genn, Robert Helpmann, Max Adrian, John Laurie, Freda Jackson, Leslie Banks, Esmond Knight.

Still, it would have been hard to predict the outburst of creativity from British studios from 1944 onwards. Just consider the surge from Ealing. To some degree, everyone associates "Ealing" with comedies, and those existed. The characteristic Ealing film picked on a small locality and then made a feast out of English eccentricity: in Passport to Pimlico (1949), that small area of London wants to go independent; in Whisky Galore! (1949), the people of a Highland isle take over a cargo of Scotch; in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), a pair of Battersea boys (Alec Guinness and Stanley Holloway) steal some bullion; in The Titfield Thunderbolt (1953), a West Country village refuses to accept the closure of its branch railway line.

One man, TEB ("Tibby") Clarke, wrote several of those films (Pimlico, Lavender Hill, Titfield), but the directors were the young American-born Alexander Mackendrick, Henry Cornelius and Charles Crichton. To them must be added Robert Hamer, who directed maybe the finest Ealing Comedy - Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) - in which a Clapham upstart, Louis Mazzini (Dennis Price) overthrows a great but fossilised aristocratic family (the D'Ascoynes). Many Ealing films were gentle and good-natured, but Kind Hearts has an acid edge and a feeling of potential insurrection that reminds us of the great works for change done by the Labour government that was elected in 1945.

But Hamer was not just a maker of comedies. He also made Pink String and Sealing Wax (1945), a period murder story set in Brighton, and It Always Rains on Sunday (1947), which is one of the founding films of the British noir movement. It's about a sadly married woman (Googie Withers) whose life is suddenly altered when an old boyfriend breaks out of prison and seeks her aid.

These are major films, and they mark a kind of movie that treated criminal life as a natural result of social upheaval and poverty - films like They Made Me a Criminal (with Trevor Howard); The Blue Lamp, that tribute to the ordinary copper that established Jack Warner on television as Dixon of Dock Green; Pool of London (about the docks and inter-racial romance); and even Night and the City, in which the American director Jules Dassin came to London and did a film set in the world of professional wrestling.

And in those same years, Powell and Pressburger, with their company, the Archers, working variously for J Arthur Rank or Alexander Korda, ran into their goden age. You'd have to start that run with The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), a venture that survived the disapproval of Churchill himself; A Canterbury Tale (1944), which harks back to the Chaucerian age but includes a quite disturbing modern magician; I Know Where I'm Going (1945), another hymn to magic and mad love; A Matter of Life and Death (1946); Black Narcissus (1947), about a convent in the Himalayas but shot at Pinewood; The Red Shoes (1948), that great but frightening tribute to dance and art; and The Small Back Room (1949), where David Farrar plays a crippled wartime bomb-disposal officer.

There was also a return to the classics. Olivier made his Hamlet in 1948 as a black-and-white film noir version of the play. Lean did two outstanding dramatisations of Dickens - Oliver Twist (1948) and Great Expectations (1946) - and Cavalcanti made a version of Nicholas Nickleby (1947). Far less successful, but much vaunted in its day, was Saraband for Dead Lovers (1948), a colour romance, set in the 18th century and starring Stewart Granger and Joan Greenwood as frustrated lovers. And there was John Mills as Scott of the Antarctic (1948), not too accurate an account of what happened in 1911-12, but with a great score from Vaughan Williams. One of the notable things about this period was the quality of the "technical' work. Jack Cardiff (working for the Archers) was one of the great cameramen. Tibby Clarke had the same reputation among screenwriters.

And then there were the actors, so many emerging or fulfilling their promise: James Mason, Granger, Price, Withers, Joan Greenwood, Margaret Lockwood, Kay Walsh, Jean Simmons (Ophelia to Olivier, an Indian dancing girl in Black Narcissus and Estella in Great Expectations), Deborah Kerr, Dirk Bogarde (the hoodlum in The Blue Lamp). And Guinness was everywhere: eight roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Herbert Pocket in Great Expectations, Fagin in Oliver Twist, a bank clerk turned robber in The Lavender Hill Mob, and so on.

And then there was Gainsborough, a small studio with a taste for lush melodrama and period clothes: Mason and Lockwood in The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945), both directed by Leslie Arliss; The Seventh Veil (1945), a psychological love story, with Mason and Ann Todd. Dickinson made The Queen of Spades (1949), from Pushkin, with Edith Evans and Anton Walbrook. Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliatt did Green for Danger (with Alistair Sim) and The Rake's Progress (with Rex Harrison). There was Richard Attenborough, brilliant as Pinkie in Brighton Rock (1947), directed by John Boulting from Graham Greene's novel. Greene, the one-time film critic, proved a deft screenwriter, and his influence showed all the way from Went the Day Well? to The Third Man.

The impact went far overseas, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences became a British club. Henry V was nominated for best picture. So was Great Expectations. A year later, Hamlet won (the first British victory), and one of the films it beat was The Red Shoes. Lean was nominated for Brief Encounter (a film I've not managed to mention before) and Great Expectations; Olivier for Hamlet; Reed for The Fallen Idol and The Third Man. There were acting nominations for Olivier as Henry V and Hamlet, for Richard Todd in The Hasty Heart, for Guinness in The Lavender Hill Mob, for Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter, for Simmons in Hamlet, for Muriel and Sidney Box for writing The Seventh Veil, for three writers on Brief Encounter and Great Expectations, for Greene for The Fallen Idol, for Clarke for Passport to Pimlico, for Paul Dehn and James Bernard for Seven Days to Noon (1951), in which a troubled scientist threatens to blow up a great bomb in London if his demands are not met. Cardiff won the photography Oscar for Black Narcissus.

What happened next? Did the standard fall? Yes, I think it did, but this is a subject for argument. Some successful directors were carried away - Powell and Pressburger, I think, lost touch with an audience; Lean became "international", to great success; Reed lost his knack for hits; Mackendrick went to America, did Sweet Smell of Success and faltered. Korda died in 1956. The Rank Company became more powerful and more stupid. Some smaller studios - like Ealing and Gainsborough - closed or slowed down.

And then Hollywood moved to London in the late 1950s for a pretty wretched period of co-productions. British budgets became inflated. The importance of local subject matter was surrendered to British television, and young people wanting to make movies in the late 1950s were better advised to go to the BBC. That led to the way Britain evolved the most varied and creative television programming anywhere in the world.

Finally, one must add that the cinema itself began to lose primacy and urge in the 1950s as television became the mass medium involving screens. Audiences declined. The huge movie palaces closed down or took up bingo. An age was over - the age celebrated so fondly in Terence Davies's film The Long Day Closes. But that is no reason now for young people in Britain not to rediscover that day.

The Carol Reed season begins today at the National Film Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (020-7928 3232; www.bfi.org.uk/nft).