The Birth of the Cinema
Photographic, scientific and technological experiments in Britain clearly evidence that Britons were closely involved in the complex pre-history of cinema in the late nineteenth century. Britain introduced the cinema as a public spectacle in February 1896, two months after the first public exhibition of films in Paris by the Lumière Brothers (Auguste Marie Louis Nicholas, 1862 – 1954; Louis Jean, 1864 – 1948). The first motion two-colour pictures were shown in a London theatre in 1909. (Only in 1930 the American Firm Technicolou.r developed a full colour film). The English Friese- Greene (1855-1921) introduced one of the best film cameras. As to film production there were few notable directors. Cecil Hepworth (1874- 1953), who came to moving pictures from a background of Magic Lanterns, is the most noteworthy among the pioneers with the short film Alice in Wonderland (1903) and Rescued by Rover (1905), a dog that helps the police find a kidnapped child in a picturesque London.
Shortly before the First World War the filmmakers began producing longer narrative films, the “feature films”, usually dramatic adaptations exploitation of “classic” literary sources such as Henry VIII, Oliver Twist that attracted middle class audience into the cinema.
The war years (1915-18) saw the rise of the star system in Hollywood with the films of Charles Chaplin (1889 – 1977), Mary Pickford (1892 – 1979) and Douglas Fairbanks (1883 – 1939). The American films started dominating British screens threatening the British movie production. To help the new form of industry the government signed the Cinematograph Films Act (1927), a law that obliged distributors to limit American films in their programmes. The immediate response to the Act was a restructuring of the industry along Hollywood lines with the development of large vertically integrated companies.
In these years, the British cinema saw the development of silent documentaries. The pioneer in this field is John Grierson (1898-1972), who, in 1929, sailed on board of a drifter with his camera to run a documentary movie about fisher folk, Drifters. His example is followed by Stuart Legg (1910-1988), founder of BBC channel, the voice of England, who shot Song of Ceylon (1934) and by Harry Watt (1906-1987) director of the short Night – Mail (1936), an exploration of the British postal system with rapid trains that deliver post at night.
As to the topics, the British cinema industry started exploiting its most typical cultural tradition, the crime story. “Sapper”, John Buchan and Edgar Wallace became the source of a vigorous and powerful cinematic tradition. Its central figure was Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) especially with his “classic thriller”, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) now recognised as screen “classics”. Hitchcock was also one of the first directors to use sound in the film Blackmail (1929), the foremost British “talkie”, before moving to Hollywood.
These films were conceived with modest budgets and limited ambition, whereas the large American market required more sumptuous and rich films with elaborate costumes and settings.
One of the first British director, successful on the overseas cinemas was Alexander Korda (1893- 1956), who directed The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), starring Charles Laughton (Henry), Robert Donat, Elsa Lanchester, Merle Oberon and James Mason. The English director continued with other historical movies: Rembrand (1936) always starring Charles Laughton and The Thief of Bagdad (1940) with Douglas Fairbanks. Between 1934 and 1936 Paul Czinner (1890-1972), directed Catherine the Great and Harold French (1897-1997) The Scarlet Pimpernel starring Leslie Howard. Zoltan Corda (1895-1961), brother of Alexander’s, produced Bozzambo, or Sanders of the River (1935) in Africa and Elephant Boy (1937), inspired by R. Kipling’s The Jungle Books in Asia.
The Second World War is often presented as the “golden age” of British movies as the war itself provided topics for film makers and many of the best remembered films from the 1939-45 period mix propaganda of the war with dramatic action, romantic interest and other characteristics of conventional entertainment cinema. Even the government recognised the values of the cinemas and did not close them during the war, as they were means to sustain civilian morale and channels for propaganda.
American directors come to England to shoot their movies such as King Vidor (1894-1982) with The Citadel (1938) taken from Cronin’s novel; Sam Wood (1883-1949) with Goodbye Mr.Chipps (1939) and Basil Dean (1888-1998), Twenty one Days (1938) starring Laurence Olivier and his wife, Vivien Leigh, script writer Graham Green.
The post-war crisis in the industry was strangely complemented by a growing critical prestige for the British filmmakers like David Lean (1908-1991) – Great Expectations (1946) and Oliver Twist (1948)- and Carol Reed (1906-1976), who is famous for his sophisticated thrillers like The Third Man (1949). Critics began to praise British filmmakers for their “realism”, style and human qualities. This British cinema, free from the influences of Hollywood, attracted the attention of the major American companies that, in the fifties, began investing in British filmmaking. Pictures such as Mogambo (1953) by John Ford (1894-1973), Bhowani Junction (1956) (1) by George Cukor (1899-1983), Moby Dick (1956) by John Huston (2) (1906-1987), and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) by David Lean are productions, which mix British and American themes and stars to attract the international audience.
On the other hand, the properly British production turned to the Gothic genre, so dear to British popular culture. The Curse of Frankenstein (1957) and Dracula (1958) by Terence Fisher (1904-1980) began a cycle of horror films, which won the acclaim of audiences all over the world.
A primary figure of the British new wave was Tony Richardson (1928 – 1991)whose subjects have always been interesting and often based on stage plays such as Look Back in Anger (1959), starring Richard Burton and A Taste of Honey (1961), and occasionally on a literary classic such as Tom Jones (1963) with starring Albert Finney.
1. George Cukor reached popularity with My Fair Lady (1964), musical adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s 1912 play Pygmalion (1912) that had played successfully on Broadway from March 15, 1956 to 1962. The actors were Audrey Hebburn and Rex Harrison.
2. John Huston last film was The Dead from Dubliners by James Joyce. He died just at the final shots of the movie.