English Film Industry: 20th Century

Figure 1.-- Here boys at the Empire Cinema at Leicester Square in London are enjoying a movie. The children are watching A Children's Film Foundation (CFF) film. This was a film group which specialised in making films for children. The group carried out research into the reaction of children to films. This was one of the photographs which the researchers took and is why there are a number of images inside the theater. The films were fast paced action with not too much dialogue. This proved to be a winning formula and at its height brought children to the Saturday morning film club shows. The photograph is undated, but we would guess it was taken during the 1950s. Notice how the boys have dressed up to go to the movies, they look to be wearing their school uniforms which look like private prep schools.

England in the 20th century becanme one of about five countries (America, England, France, Germany, and the Soviet Union) that launched major movie industries. After World War II, especially by the late-20th century we see more countries developing becomining important film industries. Language was not very impotant with silent filns, but this chaned with the talkies (1930s). The English film industry was assisted by the growing importance of the Enlish language, first because it had access to the American market ad subsequently the large number of English as a second language speakers. English films had a destinct look for many years. You could tell that they were Englisgh even without the accents of the actors. Here English film makers had trouble competing with Hollywood which mastered the action-packed rock-em sock-em films that had great box office appeal. English films tended to be well written, but often lacked action and special affects. There was also problems comopeting wih Grmany's dynamic film industry. Before World War II there were more German than English speakers throughout central abnd Eastern Europe. The Government had to require movie theaters to show a certain proportion of English-made films. We see both directors and actors migrating to America, this included Elizabeth Taylor and Freddie Bartholmew. It was a one way migration, exceot for a few patriots like Leslie Howard who returned to fight and die in Workd War II. We see English moving making changing in the late-20th century, adopting Hollywood techniques, butlosing their destinctive English look.

Early-20th Century (1900-20)

After the turn-of-the 20th century, film makers took the next step, producing narrative films, movies which told stories. These were at first still short running films, mostly comedies and melodramas. Some of the most popular film makers were the Bamforths in Yorkshire, William Haggar in Wales and Frank Mottershaw. The later's film, "A Daring Daylight Robbery" was the first chase genre--something that could not be staged in the live theater. The early films were very melodramatic in tone. And the public seemed to have a distinct preference for stories that they already knew such as Shakespeare and Dickens. American films were shown from a very early point. A saturday afternoon visit to the movies seems to have become a popular treat for the kids (1910s). We are not sure this was the case in the 1900s, but it certainly was by the 1910s. Btitain was one the first countries to develop important film industries, the others were America and France. Germany during this early period lagged behind. Early silent film making was internatiinal in chracter. No mater what language a film was made in, the narative text frames could easily be done in another language.

World War I (1914-18)

The British, unlike the Germans, were slow to realize the potential importance of the new film industry to mobilize support for the War. This included both domestic support and public opinion in neutral nations, especially the United States. British war policy from a very early point focused on the United Strates. But it was some time before the film insustry was mobilized in that effort. Charles Urban of German ancestry was the most important British film producer at the time the War broke out. He produced two films financed by the British Government (Wellington House) specifically designed to promote American support for the War: 'Britain Prepared" (early 1916) and 'The Battle of the Somme' (August 1916). Both films were sold to the Patriot Film Corporation for distribution purposes. The British were not impressed with the success of either film. We are not sure why the films wre not very successful. There was considerable interest in the War. British sources suspect that the fact that the films were produced somewhat surepticiously by the British Government for propagnda purposes was a factor. We suspect very strong anti-war sentiment in America may have been more important. British propaganda was very effective in affecting American views of the Germans, but the film industry appears to have played only a small role. The British Government created the War Office Cinematograph Committee (WOCC) (November 1916). Under the WOCC the British were more oopen about origins of the films made. The WOCC was transferred to the Department of Information (DOI) (early 1917). By this time the course of events as a result of incredible German bungling (the Zimmermann Telegram and the resumption of unlimited submarine warfare) had transformed American public opinion. President Willson asked Congress for a declaration of war (April 1917).

Inter-War Era (1920-39)

World War I impeded the development of the film industries in Europe, although not in America. There was an explosive growth of European fim industries and England was no exception. Leslie Howard and friend Adrian Brunel. formed Minerva Films in London. A.A.Milne of Winnie the Poo fame wrote trhe screen play for some of their films, including 'The Bump'. Films throughout the 1920s were back and white and silent. The lack of sound gave the early film industry an international character. Films could easily be sold in other countries by meerly translating the narative frames. There was great interest in color film. William Friese-Grene had developed the Biocolour additive system, but again ran into legal problems. His son, Claude Friese-Green, made the first English color films of any quality in the 1920s. The vbest known is 'The Open Road' (1926). He went on to work as the cinematographer on many films in the inter-War era. The international character of 1920s film making hurt the developing British film making. British film makers in particular had a difficult time competing with Hollywood. As a result, British theaters were showing mostly foreign films by mid-decade. One estimate suggests only 5 percent of the films shown in British theaters were British made (1926). Parliament responded with the Cinematograph Films Act (1927). Thisrequired British theaters to show a certain number of films with British content. The Act did increase the number of British films. Many were of low quality--'quota quickies'. But many future movie makers learned their craft working on these films, including Michael Powell and Alfred Hitchcock. The 1930s brough the 'talkies' and a grradual improvement in British film making. Here the major factor was the 'talkies'. This made it much more difficult for French and German film makers to compete in Britain, but of course not for Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock's 'Blackmail' (1929) is regarded as the first British sound feature, although it waas a mix of silent and sound. British film makers made many important films during the 1930s. Some of the most important British productions were produced by London Films, a company founded by Hungarian emigre Alexander Korda. Their films included 'Things to Come' (1936), 'Rembrandt' (1936) and 'Knight Without Armour' (1937). They produced somrof the early technicolor films: 'The Drum' (1938), ;The Four Feathers' (1939) and 'The Thief of Bagdad' (1940). For the first time, the British studios began to compere seriously with Hollywood in the U.S. market. What you do not see in the 1930s was any hint of criticism of the NAZIs. British film makets like the Government were committed to appeasing Hitler and the NAZIs. We are not sure to what extent this was a marketing decesion to main access to the German market or a policy influenced by the Government.

World War II (1939-45)

Hollywood films of course dominated the American film market. British films were also widely circulated in America. England had one of the world's most important film industries at the time of World War II. Although not quite up to Hollywood in box-office appeal, studios like Ealing made many important films. Film studios including German studios made anti-war films in the 1920s. We are unsure as to just when the studios began to change in the 1930s. As far as we can tell, the studios did not change until the outbreak of the War. It is interesting, that British studios also refrained from attacking the NAZIs. This of course reflected the appeasement policies of the Chamberlain Government. We do not know if the British Government actively tried to influence studio productions. British law did not permit the Government to issue orders, but the Government certainly could influence the studios in a variety of ways. Earnings from runs in German theaters may have been another factor. We know that the British made many important films during the war. The best know British anti-NAZI films are all war-time films. The best known is probably "Mrs. Minerva" (England, 1942) which won as Oskar. Another war-time film was "The Pied Piper" (England (1942). After the War began of course censorship and war acts gave the Government the ability to control film content. This was not the case before the War.

Post-War Era (1945-70)

Ealing Studios was without doubt the most successful British independent film company of the 1940s and 50s. Located in the London suburb where it took its name the company produced quality films from comedies to documentaries. Much of if not all of Ealing’s films were a mirror of British society. They sometimes poked fun at bureaucracy especially when it came to the lone individual standing up to the might of authority in the form of national and local government. Or they may shown the spirit of British tenacity in such films as "Scott of the Antarctic" for example. Above all, Ealing took much of the glitter away from the silver screen and brought out a no holds barred image of what the real world was all about. While this produced many important films, it apparently was not the most astute business decission. A British reader writes, "There is the thought films being the right sort that make money. The films the studio made flopped so the studio folded. Had we made a profit I would have had coffees in a high share price and we would have been able to make more pictures! No money = no films and no company." The British have a style all their own for certain types of films. A British reader, "We can't do musicals, well yes with lots of U.S techniticians and American trained Choreographers." Some of Ealing’s productions showed children in minor roles, perhaps on screen for a few seconds, but there were memorable films such as "The Magnet", "Hue and Cry", and "Mandy" in which children played a major part. Ealing Studios were bought by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1955, who then sold them to a film company in 1992, the company went bankrupt and then the studios were acquired by the National Film and Television School. Television appeared in the post-War era and by the 1950s was affectig box-office receipts. The "Children's Film Foundation" was established by Lord Rank of the Rank Organisation in 1951 to make films for children to be screened at Saturday morning matinees.

Late-20th Century (1970-2000)

We begin to see a shift in English moving making during the late-20 century. English studios were still not very effuicently run. George Luckas when filming part of the firsr Star Wars film in England haf all kinds of difficulty completing the shoot. They begion to looking more like Hollywood productions and are less destinctively Englih. This seems to be a simple matter of making films that could better compete with Hollywood.


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Created: 9:29 PM 7/5/2013
Last updated: 6:10 AM 7/6/2013