John Bryan - Writer

Producer/Production Designer. Nationality: British. Born: London, 1911. Career: Nominated for Oscar for Set Design for Caesar and Cleopatra , 1947. Awards: Oscar for Great Expectations , 1947; British Academy Award (BAFTA) for Becket , 1965. Died: 10 June 1969.

Films as Producer:


The Card ( The Promoter ) (Neame)


The Million Pound Note ( Man with a Million ) (Neame)


The Purple Plain (Parrish)


The Spanish Gardener (Leacock)


The Secret Place (Donner)


Windom's Way (Neame); The Horse's Mouth (Neame)


There Was a Crooked Man (Mankiewicz)


The Girl on the Boat (Kaplan)


Tamahine (Leacock)


Caccia alla volpe ( After the Fox ) (de Sica)


The Touchables (Freeman)

Films as Production Designer:


The Song of the Road (Baxter)


Great Expectations (Lean)


Blanche Fury (Allégret); Take My Life (Neame)


Oliver Twist (Lean) (also set designer)


The Passionate Friends (One Woman's Story (USA)) (Lean) (also set decorator)


The Golden Salamander (Neame)


Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (Lewin); The Magic Box (Boulting)


Becket (Glenville)


Great Catherine (Flemyng)

Films as Art Director:


Pygmalion (Asquith and Howard)


A Stolen Life (Czinner)


Dangerous Moonlight ( Suicide Squadron ) (Hurst)


King Arthur Was a Gentleman (Varnel)


Dear Octopus ( The Randolph Family ) (French); Millions Like Us (Launder and Gilliat); Sabotage Agent ( Adventures of Tartu ; Tartu ) (Bucquet)


2,000 Women ( House of 1,000 Women ; Two Thousand Women ) (Launder); Fanny by Gaslight ( Man of Evil ) (Asquith); Love Story ( A Lady Surrenders ) (Arliss); Time Flies (Forde)


Caravan (Charell); The Wicked Lady (Arliss)


Caesar and Cleopatra (Pascal)

Other Films:


Things to Come (Menzies) (asst art d, uncredited)


Madeleine ( The Strange Case of Madeleine ) (Lean) (set decorator)


On BRYAN: books—

Low, Rachel, Filmmaking in 1930s Britain , London, 1985.

Cook, David, A History of Narrative Film , London, 1996.

McFarlane, Bryan, editor, An Autobiography of British Cinema , London, 1996.

* * *

A little-known but key figure in British cinema from the 1940s until the 1960s, John Bryan involved himself in most areas of film production. Bryan's work with directors David Lean and Ronald Neame on films like Great Expectations , Oliver Twist , The Card and The Million Pound Note , has proved to be the most enduring, and the films also rank among the directors' best work. Unlike many of his contemporaries who went on to make names for themselves in Hollywood, Bryan continued to work in the British film industry even as it began to struggle in the 1960s.

Bryan's career began in the 1930s as a production designer and art director on films such as The Song of the Road and Pygmalion. In many ways, these films were to shape Bryan's career, idealizing as they do an England of the past; in many of his later films Bryan was required to create sets and locations reminiscent of an earlier age. The Song of the Road tells the story of a man and his horse made redundant by the introduction of motorized trucks. The England it portrays is a comfortable, conservative one, and the main character, adhering to the values of honesty and hard-work and having a firm grip on his social position, is a peculiarly English hero of the time. Pygmalion , which was later to be adapted as the musical My Fair Lady , won an Oscar for its writers, and for George Bernard Shaw, the writer of the original play—although it was originally trailed in the United States as being based on a play by Shakespeare. The film is notable for the detail of its settings and the overall quality of the production, which marked Bryan out as an impressive talent in only his second film.

Bryan spent most of the 1930s and early 1940s working as art director at Pinewood Studios, where he contributed to notable films such as The Wicked Lady and the Bernard Shaw adaptation, Caesar and Cleopatra. The Wicked Lady is notable mainly for its period detail and had to be re-shot for American release in order that the women's costumes should meet the requirements of the Hays Code. Apart from its production values, Caesar and Cleopatra , benefits from a talented cast, including Vivien Leigh as Cleopatra, and Claude Rains as an unlikely Caesar.

It was after Word War II, when he teamed up with Lean, Neame, and Anthony Havelock-Allen, that Bryan entered the most successful period in his career. As production designer on Lean's Great Expectations , Bryan combined his talent for historically stylised versions of England with Lean's gothic imagination to create a Dickens adaptation that is decidedly British in its look. A comparative viewing of William Wyler's 1939 adaptation of Wuthering Heights , for which the Yorkshire moors were recreated, complete with transplanted heather, in the California hills, will confirm the Britishness of the look of Lean's film. Bryan also worked with Lean on another Dickens adaptation, as production designer for the exemplary Oliver Twist , a film which is superior in every respect to Carol Reed's commendable 1968 musical version, Oliver! Although Bryan and Lean collaborated on only two films, the dark settings and confident visual style mark Great Expectations and Oliver Twist out as two of the finest British films ever made.

As a producer, working with Ronald Neame, Bryan found almost immediate success, with The Card and The Million Pound Note becoming two of the best British films of the 1950s. Although he produced the films of other directors it was his collaborations with Neame that have proved the most long-lasting. Later in his career as a producer, as the British film industry entered a period of rapid decline, Bryan was less fortunate in his choice of film projects, and The Touchables , his last film as producer, was an unmitigated failure. As a production designer, Bryan was more consistent, and his penultimate film, Becket , is among the highlights of his career. Based on a play by Jean Anouilh, Becket is rather slow-paced, but the relative lack of action only serves to highlight the magnificence of the English locations.

John Bryan's career spanned the most successful period in British film making, and he was an important figure among the group of producers, directors, and cinematographers who gathered around David Lean and Cineguild in the 1940s and early 1950s. He became adept at recreating archetypal English landscapes and interiors, but he was also capable of dramatic exaggeration, as in the gothic bleakness of the country churchyard in Great Expectations. Oddly, his career began and ended with adaptations of George Bernard Shaw plays; first Pygmalion , and then, in 1968, the over-adorned Great Catherine.

—Chris Routledge

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