Responding to growing concerns over the increasing American dominance of the domestic market for films in Britain, Parliament in 1927 passed the Cinematograph Films Act, the first government intervention aimed at protecting the British film industry. The passage of this legislation was linked to the development of a growing cinema culture in Great Britain, which was also expressed through the founding of The Film Society in London in 1925 and the growing critical attention paid to film in the print media, including the specialist film magazine Close Up , which first appeared in 1927. The Act introduced a quota mandating a minimum allotment of screen time to British films that began at 5 percent in 1927 and was to rise to 20 percent by 1936.
The immediate effect of the legislation was a sharp rise in the number of British production companies, including British International Pictures, founded by John Maxwell as part of the vertically integrated Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) and the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation (GBPC), which merged a number of distribution, production, and exhibition companies under the auspices of Isidore Ostrer. The majority of the new companies floundered because their output was largely of inferior quality. The arrival of sound further hastened their demise. British International succeeded, as its Elstree studio was an early adopter of sound recording equipment. The larger company (ABPC) also controlled ABC Cinemas, a major British chain, guaranteeing itself an exhibition outlet for its productions. Gaumont-British survived because it too held extensive exhibition interests, and also because of a deal that Ostrer had struck with American producer William Fox, although the company remained under British control. This retention of control was not always the case in the industry. Significantly, the quota applied to films that were produced by a company constituted in the British Empire rather than specifically British-controlled companies. This led to the development of "quota quickies," films that satisfied the basic requirements of the quota system but that did not require large investment; these were frequently made by subsidiaries of the existing American majors, either within Britain or in some cases in Canada. While many critics have dismissed the bulk of these quota quickies, there is no doubt that they resulted in a boom in British cinema production. In fact, exhibitors regularly exceeded the quota requirements that had been established.
The era saw the development of a viable and sustainable film culture in Britain. Numerous key figures emerged at this time, figures who would continue to be influential in British cinema in the ensuing decades. Gaumont-British had joined forces with Gainsborough Studios in 1927 and Gainsborough co-founder Michael Balcon (1896–1977) became head of production for both companies. Gaumont-British focused on the "quality" films, while Gainsborough was to create works with more popular appeal. Among the directors who had worked under Balcon at Gainsborough was Alfred Hitchcock (1899–1980). Hitchcock had his start in the film industry working on design and creating titles for the London office of the American firm Famous PlayersLasky (later Paramount). When the firm left London, Hitchcock moved to Gainsborough, where he was exposed to its German-based productions through the company's ties to Ufa. As part of his work for Gainsborough, Hitchcock was on the set of F. W. Murnau's The Last Laugh (1924), and the influence of German expressionism is evident in his early British work, including The Lodger (1927).
Hitchcock directed Britain's first feature-length sound film, Blackmail (1929). He actually shot two simultaneous versions of the film—one with sound, the other silent, as many theaters were not yet equipped with sound technology. The film was made for British International Pictures, which had lured Hitchcock away from Gainsborough with a large contract, expecting that Hitchcock would shoot only a portion in sound, but the director instead shot most of the film in sound. The film was a huge critical and commercial success, with even Close Up , whose critics were so often harshly critical of British film, willing to offer praise. Following his association with British International Pictures, Hitchcock returned to his working relationship with Balcon, making, among other films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935) for Gaumont-British. After Balcon left to become head of production at MGM-British, Hitchcock made The Lady Vanishes (1938) for Gainsborough, though the film was commissioned by MGM. The latter film was the third screenplay written by Frank Launder (1906–1997) and Sidney Gilliat (1908–1994), who would continue to be significant contributors to British cinema in writing, directing, and producing well into the 1970s.
Gaumont-British and Gainsborough aided the careers of other significant figures within British cinema. Among these were the directors Anthony Asquith (1902–1968) and Victor Saville (1895–1979). As a founding member of The Film Society, Asquith was able to incorporate his firsthand knowledge of Hollywood with his knowledge of European cinema. Asquith's early career indicated promise but was not met with much critical acclaim. In 1932 he joined Gainsborough, where he was involved in a range of projects and duties. Later in the decade he co-directed Pygmalion (1938), an adaptation of the George Bernard Shaw play, with the film's star, Leslie Howard. With this film Asquith finally received the break that would help propel him to greater recognition
Hungarian-born, Korda became a naturalized British subject in 1936 and was the first film industry figure to be knighted, in 1942. Yet the issue of nationality and his relationship to the British film industry has always been a thorny one. Undoubtedly Korda played a central role in the development of the industry in Great Britain. His The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) represented a major breakthrough for British cinema, paving the way for successes in the American market. At the same time, Korda's devotion to "prestige" pictures, ambitious costume films that most frequently chronicled key historical figures and that made use of theatrical traditions, encouraged the industry to strive for production standards it could not sustain, contributing to the industry's economic collapse in 1937.
By the time Korda came to Britain he had already established his filmmaking credentials in Hungary. After World War I, the unstable political situation and the rise of anti-Semitism in Hungary led Korda first to Vienna and then to Berlin, where his films enjoyed success. Then, after three dismal years in Hollywood, Korda moved to Britain in 1931.
His first British film was the quota quickie Service for Ladies (1932), soon followed by his first film for his own company, London Pictures, Wedding Rehearsal (1933), a film that established Korda's use of cherished national symbols in its opening shots of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey, as well as his use of familiar national sterotypes amongst his characters. Following the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII , Korda continued to make lavishly produced biopics, such as The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) and Rembrandt (1936). Neither film came close to matching the commercial success of Henry VIII , although Rembrandt , featuring another memorable performance from Charles Laughton, who had won an Acdemy Award for his portrayal of Henry VIII, is considered by many critics to be Korda's finest directorial effort.
After the commercial failure of the latter two biopics, Korda turned his attentions to producing, running London Films as well as the large studio he had built at Denham. At the outbreak of World War II, Korda was back in the United States (some commentators have suggested he was there covertly on behalf of the British government). He returned to directing with That Hamilton Woman (also known as Lady Hamilton , 1941), a period piece about the affair between Admiral Nelson and Lady Emma Hamilton that actually served as a propaganda film, with Napoleon established as an obvious parallel to Hitler. Korda's final two directorial efforts came after the war, with Perfect Strangers (1945) and the Oscar Wilde adaptation An Ideal Husband (1947). He died of a heart attack in London.
As Director and Producer: Wedding Rehearsal (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Rembrandt (1936), The Lion Has Wings (1939), That Hamilton Woman (1941), An Ideal Husband (1947); As Producer: The Ghost Goes West (1935), The Drum (1938), The Four Feathers (1939)
Drazin, Charles. Korda: Britain's Only Movie Mogul . London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 2002.
Korda, Michael. Charmed Lives: A Family Romance . New York: Random House, 1979.
Kulik, Karol. Alexander Korda: The Man Who Could Work Miracles . London: W. H. Allen, 1975.
Stockham, Martin. Alexander Korda Film Classics . London: Boxtree, 2002.
through films such as Fanny By Gaslight (1944), made for Gainsborough, and The Importance of Being Earnest (1952), which starred Michael Redgrave (1908–1985), as well as a number of collaborations with playwright Terence Rattigan, including The Winslow Boy (1948) and The Browning Version (1951).
Gainsborough and Gaumont-British were more significantly involved in the early career of Victor Saville. Saville had first entered film as a producer, along with Michael Balcon, in 1923 with Woman to Woman (directed by Graham Cutts). When Balcon became head of production at Gaumont-British, Saville became the studio's most prolific director with films such as Hindle Wakes (1931) and Evergreen (1934). After a brief time as an independent producer, Saville found himself producing films for MGM, including The Citadel (1938), a very successful adaptation directed by the American, King Vidor, followed by an even more successful Goodbye Mr. Chips (1939), directed by Sam Wood. The start of World War II found Saville in Hollywood, where he remained producing and then directing films for MGM—except for a brief stay as a director at Columbia—until his return to Britain, briefly, to shoot films in 1949 and 1952, and then permanently in 1960.
The success enjoyed by the likes of Saville, and by studios such as Gaumont-British and British International, was overshadowed by the breakthrough success of a film made by an independent company affiliated with United Artists. Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) was produced by Korda's own London Films. United Artists was willing to take a chance on a British film being acceptable for the American market and had a true success on its hands when the film became the biggest international British hit to that point. Despite the fact that Korda was Hungarian and had previously failed in his attempt to make it in Hollywood, the film's subject matter was resolutely British. The success of the film led to renewed enthusiasm within the British film industry and indicated that it was possible for British film to compete with Hollywood. Korda's film has the distinction of being the first British film to win an Academy Award ® , with Charles Laughton taking the Oscar ® for Best Actor. Unfortunately, Korda's subsequent films could not match the success of The Private Life of Henry VIII , and the industry's optimism quickly waned as the creation of lavish "prestige" pictures could not be sustained and further success in the American market did not seem to be forthcoming. Ironically, it was more frequently in the quota quickies where the next generation of British film talent cut its teeth. Directors such as Michael Powell (1905–1990) as well as actors including Laurence Olivier (1907–1989), Vivien Leigh (1913–1967), John Mills (1908–2005), and James Mason (1909–1984) all found opportunity in the low-budget sector.
While American-affiliated companies continued to churn out the low-budget quickies, the British companies invested more heavily in expensive films aimed at cracking the American market. Asquith moved to London Films to shoot Moscow Nights (1935), while Saville's Victor Saville Productions was among those who made films for Korda in this era. In 1937 the bubble burst, and by 1938 the boom was definitely over. Denham Studios, which Korda had constructed for the production of "prestige" pictures, was losing money and eventually was merged with J. Arthur Rank's Pinewood Studios. The second Cinematograph Films Act was passed in July 1938, and among its regulations was an attempt to end the practice of quota quickies by instituting a minimum cost of £7,500 and permitting films that cost three times the minimum to count for double quota assessment. The onset of World War II, following a severe decline in production after the bust of 1937, meant that the effects of the 1938 act were never really felt.