Origins and silent films
The first moving picture was shot in Leeds by Louis Le Prince in 1888 and the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park, London in 1889 by William Friese Greene, a British inventor, who patented the process in 1890.
The first people to build and run a working 35 mm camera in Britain were Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres. They made the first British film Incident at Clovelly Cottage in February 1895, shortly before falling out over the camera’s patent. Soon several British film companies had opened to meet the demand for new films, such as Mitchell and Kenyon in Blackburn.
The Lumière brothers show first came to London in 1896. From 1898 American producer Charles Urban expanded the London-based Warwick Trading Company to produce British films, mostly documentary and news. He later formed his own Charles Urban Trading Company, which also produced early colour films.
The earliest film in colour in the world is, like other films made at the time, of everyday events. Made in 1902, it was found by the National Media Museum in Bradford after lying forgotten in an old tin for 110 years. The previous title for earliest colour film, using the Kinemacolour process, was thought to date from 1909 and was actually an inferior method. The newly discovered films were made by pioneer Edward Raymond Turner from London who patented his colour process on 22 March 1899.
Although the earliest British films were of everyday events, the early 20th century saw the appearance of narrative shorts, mainly comedies and melodramas. Popular and pioneering film makers included the Bamforths in Yorkshire, William Haggar and his family business in Wales, Cecil Hepworth (a leading figure in the British silent cinema) and Frank Mottershaw whose film, A Daring Daylight Robbery, started the chase genre. The early films were often melodramatic in tone, and there was a distinct preference for storylines which were already known to the audience—in particular adaptations of Shakespeare plays and Dickens‘ novels.
In 1920 the short-lived company Minerva Films was founded in London by the actor Leslie Howard (also producer and director) and his friend and story editor Adrian Brunel. Some of their early films include four written by A. A. Milne including The Bump, starring C. Aubrey Smith; Twice Two; Five Pound Reward; and Bookworms.
By the mid-twenties the British film industry was losing out to heavy competition from the United States, which was helped by its much larger home market—in 1914 25% of films shown in the UK were British, but by 1926 this had fallen to 5%. The biggest star of the silent era, English comedian Charlie Chaplin, was Hollywood based. The Cinematograph Films Act 1927 was passed in order to boost local production, requiring that cinemas show a certain percentage of British films. The act was technically a success, with audiences for British films becoming larger than the quota required. But it had the effect of creating a market for poor quality, low cost films, made in order to satisfy the quota. The ‘quota quickies’, as they became known, are often blamed by historians for holding back the development of the industry. However, some British film makers, such as Michael Powell, learnt their craft making such films.
The early sound period
The Scottish solicitor John Maxwell founded British International Pictures in 1927 based at the former British National Studios in Elstree whose original owners, including producer-director Herbert Wilcox, had run into financial difficulties. One of the company’s early films, Alfred Hitchcock‘s Blackmail (1929), is often regarded as the first British sound feature. It was a part-talkie with a synchronised score and sound effects. With the advent of sound films, many foreign actors were in less demand, with English received pronunciation commonly used; the voice of Czech actress Anny Ondra in Blackmail was substituted by an off-camera Joan Barry during Ondra’s scenes. Later the same year, the first all-talking British feature, The Clue of the New Pin (also 1929) was released. It was based on a novel by Edgar Wallace, starring Donald Calthrop, Benita Home and Fred Raines, which was made by British Lion at their Beaconsfield Studios. John Maxwell’s BIP became the Associated British Picture Corporation (ABPC) in 1933. ABPC’s studios in Elstree came to be known as the “porridge factory”, according to Lou Alexander, “for reasons more likely to do with the quantity of films that the company turned out, than their quality”. Elstree (strictly speaking almost all the studios were in neighbouring Borehamwood) became the centre of the British film industry with six film complexes over the years all in close proximity to each other.
Starting with John Grierson‘s Drifters (also 1929), the period saw the emergence of the school of realist Documentary Film Movement, from 1933 associated with the GPO Film Unit. It was Grierson who coined the term “documentary” to describe a non-fiction film, and he produced the movement’s most celebrated early films, Night Mail (1936), written and directed by Basil Wright and Harry Watt, and incorporating the poem by W. H. Auden towards the end of the short.
Music hall also proved influential in comedy films of this period, and a number of popular personalities emerged, including George Formby, Gracie Fields, Jessie Matthews and Will Hay. These stars often made several films a year, and their productions remained important for morale purposes during the second world war. Many of the British films with larger budgets during the 1930s were produced by London Films, founded by the Hungarian emigre Alexander Korda. The success of The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), made at British and Dominion in Elstree, persuaded United Artists and The Prudential to invest in Korda’s Denham Film Studios, which opened in May 1936, but both investors suffered losses as a result. Korda’s films before the war included Things to Come, Rembrandt (both 1936) and Knight Without Armour (1937), as well as the early Technicolour films The Drum (1938) and The Four Feathers (1939). These had followed closely on from Wings of the Morning (1937), the UK’s first three-strip Technicolour feature film, made by the local offshoot of 20th Century Fox. Although some of Korda’s films indulged in “unrelenting pro-Empire flag waving”, those featuring Sabu turned him into “a huge international star”; “for many years” he had the highest profile of any actor of Indian origin. Paul Robeson was also cast in leading roles when “there were hardly any opportunities” for African Americans “to play challenging roles” in their own country’s productions.
Rising expenditure and over-optimistic expectations of expansion into the American market caused a financial crisis in 1937, after an all-time high of 192 films were released in 1936. Of the 640 British production companies registered between 1925 and 1936, only 20 were still active in 1937. Moreover, the 1927 Films Act was up for renewal. The replacement Cinematograph Films Act 1938 provided incentives, via a ‘quality test‘, for UK companies to make fewer films of higher quality and to eliminate the ‘quota quickies’. Influenced by world politics, it encouraged American investment and imports. One result was the creation of MGM-British, an English subsidiary of the largest American studio, which produced four films before the war, including Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939).
The new venture was initially based at Denham Studios. Korda himself lost control of the facility in 1939 to the Rank Organisation, whose own Pinewood Studios had opened at the end of September 1936. Circumstances forced Korda’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940), a spectacular fantasy film, to be completed in California, where Korda continued his film career during the war.
By now contracted to Gaumont British, Alfred Hitchcock had settled on the thriller genre by the mid-1930s with The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938). Lauded in Britain where he was dubbed “Alfred the Great” by Picturegoer magazine, Hitchcock’s reputation was beginning to develop overseas, with a New York Times feature writer asserting; “Three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not. Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the world.” Hitchcock was then signed up to a seven-year contract by Selznick and moved toHollywood.
Second World War
Humphrey Jennings began his career as a documentary film maker just before the war, in some cases working in collaboration with co-directors. London Can Take It (with Harry Wat, 1940) detailed the blitz while Listen to Britain (with Stewart McAllister, 1942) looked at the home front. The Crown Film Unit, part of the Ministry of Information took over the responsibilities of the GPO Film Unit in 1940. Paul Rotha and Alberto Cavalcanti were colleagues of Jennings. British films began to make use of documentary techniques; Cavalcanti joined Ealing for Went the Day Well? (1942),
Many other films helped to shape the popular image of the nation at war. Among the best known of these films are In Which We Serve (1942), We Dive at Dawn (1943), Millions Like Us (1943) and The Way Ahead (1944). The war years also saw the emergence of The Archers partnership between director Michael Powell and the Hungarian-born writer-producer Emeric Pressburger with films such as The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) and A Canterbury Tale (1944).
Two Cities Films, an independent production company releasing their films through a Rank subsidiary, also made some important films, including the Noël Coward and David Lean collaborations This Happy Breed (1944) and Blithe Spirit (1945) as well as Laurence Olivier‘s Henry V (1944).By this time, Gainsborough Studios were releasing their series of critically derided but immensely popular period melodramas, including The Man in Grey (1943) and The Wicked Lady (1945). New stars, such as Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, emerged in the Gainsborough films.