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British Cinema in the 1950s

British Cinema in the 1950s

Copyright Date: 2003
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    British Cinema in the 1950s
    Book Description:

    Offers a startling re-evaluation of what has until now been seen as the most critically lacklustre period of the British film history. Covers a variety of genres, such as B-movies, war films, women's pictures and theatrical adaptations; as well as social issues which affect film-making, such as censorship. Includes fresh assessment of maverick directors; Pat Jackson, Robert Hamer and Joseph Losey, and even of a maverick critic Raymond Durgnat. Features personal insights from those inidividually implicated in 1950s cinema; Corin Redgrave on Michael Redgrave, Isabel Quigly on film reviewing, and Bryony Dixon of the BFI on archiving and preservation. Presents a provocative challenge to conventional wisdom about 1950s film and rediscovers the Festival of Britain decade.

    eISBN: 978-1-84779-030-9
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. vii-vii)
  4. A 1950s timeline
    (pp. viii-xii)
  5. Celebrating British cinema of the 1950s
    (pp. 1-10)

    The origin of this book is an event which took place on Saturday, 5 December 1998 at the British Library in London. It was a study day consisting of lectures about British cinema in the 1950s: most of these are printed here, with an equal number of new essays which have been written since. In the evenings of the week preceding the study day, seven films were screened. They appeared under the headings of ‘Festive Fifties’ (The Importance of Being Earnest, in a sparkling new print), ‘Community Fifties’ (John and JulieandThe Browning Version), ‘Tough Fifties’ (Women of Twilight...

  6. Critics

    • Raymond Durgnat and A Mirror for England
      (pp. 13-22)

      Raymond durgnat’sA Mirror for England: British Movies from Austerity to Affluence, which deals extensively with British films of the 1950s, was written in the mid-1960s and was published in 1970. Given the shifts in attitudes over the past thirty years – in society generally as well as in the little world of film studies – one might expect the judgments expressed there, the choices of what is important, to have become dated and irrelevant. If one reads Roy Armes’sA Critical History of British Cinema, which was published in 1978, one is propelled into a time warp where academics...

    • Lindsay Anderson: Sequence and the rise of auteurism in 1950s Britain
      (pp. 23-32)

      The 1950s represents an upheaval in European film history. The financial losses of the Europeans, as compared to the Americans on the popular market, caused drastic changes within the European film industries, leading up to the continental government-subsidised film industries of the present. Even if the historical reasons for the changes in European film policies were mainly socio-economic, they were at the time mostly discussed and dealt with in aesthetic terms, and we saw eventually the emergence of the European art cinema, a new kind of film, specifically aimed at the literate and professional middle classes.

      One of the most...

  7. Mirroring England

    • National snapshots: fixing the past in English war films
      (pp. 35-50)

      At the very end ofSaving Private Ryan(1998), Steven Spielberg presents us with a screen-filling view of the Stars and Stripes. The flag is huge, well-travelled, loved and faded, like a Jasper Johns painting. It is held out bravely by the wind, which blows it rollingly across the full screen. It is now unthinkable that a British film would end in such a strong, big-hearted and perfectly unironic way. Even British Airways took the flag off their tail fins, though it is to the point of my argument that a surprising number of people noticed the erasure and expostulated....

    • Film and the Festival of Britain
      (pp. 51-63)

      The Festival of Britain, from 3 May to 30 September 1951, aimed to provide respite from the effects of World War II by celebrating the nation’s past achievements in the arts, industry and science, as well as looking hopefully to a future of progress and prosperity. It marked the halfway point of the century, a natural moment at which to take stock and examine advances in British society. The Director General of the Festival, Gerald Barry, promised ‘a year of fun, fantasy and colour’, an interlude of ‘fun and games’ after the long run of wartime austerity.¹

      Film was integral...

    • The national health: Pat Jackson’s White Corridors
      (pp. 64-73)

      White Corridors, a hospital drama first shown in June 1951, belongs to the small class of fictional films that deny themselves a musical score. Even the brief passages that top and tail the film, heard over the initial credits and the final image, were added against the wish of its director, Pat Jackson. Jackson had spent the first ten years of his career in documentary, joining the GPO Unit in the mid-1930s and staying on throughout the war after its rebranding as Crown, and the denial of music is clearly part of a strategy for giving a sense of documentary-like...

    • The long shadow: Robert Hamer after Ealing
      (pp. 74-86)

      Louis Mazzini, serial killer and tenth Duke of Chalfont, emerges from jail, cleared of the murder for which he was about to hang. Waiting for him, along with two attractive rival widows, is a bowler-hatted little man from a popular magazine bidding for his memoirs. ‘My memoirs?’ murmurs Louis, the faintest spasm of panic ruffling his urbanity, and we cut to a pile of pages lying forgotten in the condemned cell: the incriminating manuscript that occupied his supposed last hours on earth.

      So ends Robert Hamer’s best-known film,Kind Hearts and Coronets(1949). It’s an elegant, teasing sign-off from a...

    • ‘If they want culture, they pay’: consumerism and alienation in 1950s comedies
      (pp. 87-97)

      For every 1950s British comedy assimilated into the academic canon, there are many which have fallen into obscurity, reinforcing the alleged disposability of the form. One of the highest-profile casualties isThe Horse’s Mouth(Ronald Neame, 1958), which was justly celebrated at the time for Alec Guinness’s performance as aggressively anti-social artist Gulley Jimson, but has since suffered from the critical neglect regarding Neame’s work. It is true that the film dilutes the complex themes of Joyce Cary’s novel with broad comedy, and its removal of darker plot points – not least Jimson’s death – reinforces complaints grounded in fidelity...

    • Boys, ballet and begonias: The Spanish Gardener and its analogues
      (pp. 98-110)

      The Sixth Sense, an American film of 1999 from an Indian director, M. Night Shyamalan, with an all-American star (Bruce Willis), seems a very long way from British cinema of the 1950s.¹ But the boy in this film (Haley Joel Osment) seems almost a revenant from the British post-war era, with his lack of teenage quality, his innocence of youth culture and, more importantly, his anguished concern for and with the adult (Willis) whom he befriends. Here there is something of Carol Reed’sThe Fallen Idol(1948), Anthony Pélissier’sThe Rocking Horse Winner(1949), Philip Leacock’sThe Spanish Gardener(1956)...

    • Intimate stranger: the early British films of Joseph Losey
      (pp. 111-124)

      Ever an emotional soul, Dirk Bogarde confessed to being reduced to tears by the rave review inThe TimeswhenThe Servantwas premièred at the end of 1963. For Bogarde, this prestigious endorsement of his extraordinary performance as Barrett, the man-servant who brings the life of the aristocrat he serves crashing down about his ears, was a career turning-point, the fulfilment of his ambition to be recognised as a major screen actor and not simply a matinee idol. It marked a similar culmination for its director, Joseph Losey, who, after seeking work in England following his blacklisting in Hollywood...

  8. Painfully squalid?

    • Women of Twilight
      (pp. 127-129)

      Women of Twilight (Daniel Angel, 1952) was adapted from the play of the same name by Sylvia Rayman. The play was first performed at the Embassy Theatre, London, in July 1951, going on to the Vaudeville Theatre.Theatre World Annualcalled the stage set ‘painfully squalid’ and many people would have applied the phrase to the piece as a whole. It might have been used, too, of J. Lee Thompson’sYield to the Nighta few years later in 1956. It is a gritty and still shocking portrayal of the lives of those ‘women of twilight’ who, mostly as a...

    • Yield to the Night
      (pp. 130-132)

      Jean-Luc Godard once remarked that all you need to make a film is ‘a girl and a gun’ and the opening sequence ofYield to the Night(J. Lee Thompson, 1956) looks like a textbook illustration of his axiom. The girl is Mary Hilton, played by Diana Dors, who whips out the gun from her handbag and promptly shoots the woman she holds responsible for her lover’s suicide. As a result, she finds herself convicted for murder and sentenced to death. Most of the film’s action takes place in Mary’s condemned cell as she waits to hear if her appeal...

    • From script to screen: Serious Charge and film censorship
      (pp. 133-142)

      In May 1950 the Wheare Committee recommended that a new ‘X’ category be introduced and applied to films intended for exhibition to ‘adults only’. By January 1951, the British Board of Film Censors (BBFC) agreed to the implementation of an ‘X’ certificate which limited the cinema-going audience to those over 16 years of age. ‘It is our desire’, said the BBFC secretary, Arthur Watkins, ‘that “X” films should not be merely sordid films dealing with unpleasant subjects, but films which, while not being suitable for children, are good adult entertainment and films which appeal to an intelligent public.’

      The difficulties...

    • Housewife’s choice: Woman in a Dressing Gown
      (pp. 143-154)

      To anyone whohasseen it, Stephen Frears’s response toWoman in a Dressing Gown(1957) seems laughably inappropriate. The dressing gown of the title is not the flimsy négligé of a seductress but a decidedly unerotic shapeless old housecoat worn by middle-aged housewife Amy Preston (Yvonne Mitchell), whose inability to find time to dress in the morning illustrates her poor organisational abilities, rather than adéshabillésexuality. Amy aspires to be the perfect housewife but, despite several frantic attempts to get her house in order, never quite manages it. Themise-en-scèneacts as a constant reminder of Amy’s failure,...

  9. Adaptability

    • Too theatrical by half? The Admirable Crichton and Look Back in Anger
      (pp. 157-167)

      There is no doubt that British theatre has been very important to the development of British cinema, and – the input of television in general and Channel 4 in particular notwithstanding – it remains so, as a quick glance at the number of film adaptations from stage plays from the 1980s and early 1990s testifies. This is clearly the case in the 1950s, not least because a great many films have their origins in the theatre. I estimate that of the 1,033 British films of the 1950s listed in David Quinlan’sBritish Sound Films, some 152 were based on stage...

    • A Tale of Two Cities and the Cold War
      (pp. 168-175)

      Ralph Thomas’sA Tale of Two Citiesof 1958 occupies a secure if modest place among that bunch of 1950s British releases based on novels by Dickens, including Brian Desmond Hurst’sScrooge(1951) and Noel Langley’sThe Pickwick Papers(1952).¹ When all the arguments about successfully filming Dickens are considered it must be conceded that his fiction offers significant qualities that appeal to film-makers: strong and contrasting characters, fascinating plots and frequent confrontations and collisions of personality. In unsuspected ways, Ralph Thomas’s film is indeed one of the best film versions of a Dickens novel and part of this rests...

    • Value for money: Baker and Berman, and Tempean Films
      (pp. 176-189)

      You don’t need to be as fond of British ‘B’ movies of the 1950s as I am to feel that there is something to be said for the production team of Bob Baker and Monty Berman and their production company, Tempean.¹ The second features that emerged from this partnership are generally speaking fast-moving, unpretentious, lively and characterful, and, within their modest budgets, well enough staged to look more expensive than they were. However, it is not my primary intention to offer elaborate analyses of these films, or to make unsustainable claims for their being long-buried, unsung treasures of auteurist film-making....

    • Adaptable Terence Rattigan: Separate Tables, separate entities?
      (pp. 190-202)

      Terence Rattigan’s reputation has essentially been that of a theatre writer, and a conservative one, who is supposed to have avoided the darker themes that invaded the British stage after (roughly) the arrival ofLook Back in Angerin 1956. This view of Rattigan is by now surely on its way out. His relation to the theatre and the so-called New Wave is undoubtedly more complex. However, his track record as a screenwriter, sometimes but not always adapting his own plays, should not be forgotten. In 1939 we haveFrench Without Tears, thenQuiet Wedding(1940),The Day Will Dawn...

  10. Personal views

    • Archiving the 1950s
      (pp. 205-212)

      A number of factors have contributed to the relative neglect of the 1950s as a decade in British cinema history. It was a complex and unhappy decade in England and its films appear to have little contiguity or popular profile. The conventional back-of-a-postage-stamp view of British cinema history takes a strange skip and a jump when it comes to the 1950s. Much is made of the so-called ‘golden age’ of British cinema in the 1940s, but we tend go straight on to the 1960s and its ‘New Wave’ films. There is a vague sense of cosiness about the 1950s commercial...

    • Being a film reviewer in the 1950s
      (pp. 213-220)

      ‘The past is a foreign country.’ This magical first sentence fromThe Go-Between(1953) was the opening line of the first novel I was ever sent to review. TheManchester Guardian, as it was then, had sent me a parcel of books and after reading L. P. Hartley’s masterly tale of love and snobbery and guile and much else I felt that if this was reviewing, it was a wonderful way of earning, not perhaps a living, but at least a crust. Soon afterwards I was asked, out of the blue, to be film critic of theSpectator, and entered...

    • Michael Redgrave and The Mountebank’s Tale
      (pp. 221-230)

      In 1958 Michael Redgrave was appearing for the third and last time at Stratford-upon-Avon. The parts he played that year were Hamlet and Benedick inMuch Ado about Nothing. Hamlet was a brave choice. My father was by then 50. In an age less fearful than ours of growing old, great actors like Sir John Martin Harvey had been able to make a lifetime’s work out of a part like Sidney Carton inA Tale of Two Cities. Sir John performed it 4,004 times and gave his farewell performance in the role at 74 and audiences hardly seemed to mind....

  11. Index
    (pp. 231-236)