British Films on the Brink of Americanization
By Rosemary Thoburn, M.A.
Editor’s note: Miss Thoburn has taught high school English and History courses at The Fairfax Christian School in Northern Virginia. She currently serves as the school’s Dean of Academics. In her spare time, she is a script reader for Movieguide. Her research interests focus on military history and the study of popular culture. She completed her Undergraduate degree at George Mason University in 2012 majoring in History, with a double minor in English and Classical Studies. She completed her Masters degree in U.S. History in 2014. She has been published numerous times in Volition: George Mason’s Literary Arts Journal and coauthored articles in the Civil War News.
American dominance of the movie industry created a unique economic and social dilemma for Great Britain. In the eyes of many British filmmakers and politicians, the former colony had control over the domestic film market and therefore undermined British culture using its own cinemas. Scholars have often understated the role Britain had in America’s success, and the efforts the British market made to counter an American takeover. This paper discusses how Britain competed in a world market without losing its identity.
The world was aghast when James Bond jumped out of a helicopter with the Queen during the 2012 Olympic games. The London 2012 Olympic opening ceremony celebrated British creativity, ingenuity, and identity. Much of the elements within the ceremony paid tribute to icons of British film. Figures like Mary Poppins and Mr. Bean, alongside the performance of “Chariots of Fire” as a dedication to the British Film Institute, were reflections of British greatness in the movie industry. Britain did not always celebrate its place in the film market. There were points in movie history where Britain was far behind America and its European peers. Many historians assumed that the Americanization of the film market swept over the British movie industry and British culture. For example, historian Jeffrey Richards stated, “the British young now go round in baseball caps, eating Macdonalds (McDonald’s) using American slang, watching American films, [and] idolizing macho American stars…” Yes, the American film industry did dominate the British cinema, but the relationship was not one-sided.
This paper will explore two important aspects of British film history from the 1910s to the 1940s. The first is the active role that the British played in the American dominance of the film industry. The second is how British film maintained a sense of identity amidst the growing Americanization of the international film market. Ultimately, this examination hopes to shed light on the important role the British had in the development of the international film market.
Since the late 1920s, urban working class Britain preferred the escapist and thrilling style of American films to their British counterparts. The desire for American films also brought with it a demand for American products. This exchange of supply-and-demand enabled the later Americanization of the movie industry and rise of consumerist culture. This showed that Britain was not a passive player in America’s growing cultural and economic importance. When British filmmakers could no longer compete with Hollywood for financial reasons, they found other means of making a profit. First, British cinemas had to play a certain quota of domestic films with the passing of the Cinematograph Films Act in 1927. Second, the British government took steps to prohibit American companies from taking British profits out of the country. This effort still did not stop the popularity of American products. The end result was that British companies began to work with American companies to produce British films using American profits. This sparked a pursuit by British filmmakers to make works that were distinctively British in an effort to show how much control the nation had over its national identity.
Many scholars of national identity in film focus on Hollywood’s attempted domination over other European markets such as Spain, Germany, and France. This approach was common because these countries had a very successful film industry in their own right. In contrast, Britain fell behind as a world leader in films after World War I and did not recover until World War II. This explained why many scholarly works on British film history began their focus post-1945. This made it very difficult to analyze Britain’s importance in film before World War II without incorporating foreign scholarly sources. Even with heavier scholarly discussion over a broad definition of European national identity, the supposed Americanization of Britain had more important long-term cultural ramifications, and thus deserved a study of its own.
One counter to the belief of Britain’s struggling film history was a 2006 British Broadcasting Company documentary sponsored by the British Film Institute titled Silent Britain. This documentary presented forgotten British silent films as evidence against the assumption of American control over British film production. Silent Britain blamed film critics at the time and historians afterwards for downplaying Britain’s importance in the film market. While critics and historians played a part, the documentary ignored audience preferences in the cinemas as the final say for a film industry’s success. While the documentary made good use of the British Film Institute’s National Film and Television Archive, it was clear from the beginning of the recording that the documentary’s effort to set the record straight was also an effort to minimalize foreign influence on British films. It failed to bring up any mentioning of Americanization’s threat to British culture and what that meant to the British economy and identity. Overall, Silent Britain served as an example of recent steps made to understand Britain’s place in global film history.
Competition in the film industry challenged the unique economic and social relationship between Britain and the United States. Britain, as the mother country, viewed itself as a strong imperialist nation. What impacted British film was not limited to Great Britain proper, but the entire British Empire. When America, through New York and later Los Angeles, began to economically threaten what had been an Anglo-centric world, Britain faced a greater crisis of identity than other nations. As Andrew Higson argued, “from a nationalist point of view, the aggressive distribution of American films in European markets was a symptom of cultural imperialism.” This new form of imperialism meant that Britain could no longer remain on the top of the global social pedestal.
The perceived threat of American films to British culture within the Empire became so strong that it was a topic of discussion during the 1926 Imperial Conference. A memorandum from the meeting argued that the strong presence of foreign films within the Empire was very dangerous. The document went on to say, “It is not suggested that foreign films are the medium of intentional anti-British propaganda… the influence is indirect and for that reason more difficult to deal with.” The real threat was that American films showed lifestyles different from that of the British. The document claimed that because of foreign films exclusion of British subjects, the film producers insinuated that British culture was not worth depicting.
In reality, the nature of Americanization was not as threatening as it sounded. At its heart, American culture was made up of a diversity of cultures. Much of what made the American film industry so successful was its to ability to adopt other film cultures into its own and thus appeal to a wider audience. Many of the characteristics seen as American were actually traits adopted from other nations. The problem with American control over the film market was twofold. One, America’s imitation of other nations in film created a dilemma of how those nations viewed themselves, especially Ireland and Britain. Two, American films had more financial backing and thus were able to promote themselves more aggressively in the consumerist market. Britain understood what Americanization meant to the Empire. It meant that if Britain wanted to remain the keeper of British culture then it would have to compete in the film market.
Factors that led up to the 1926 Imperial Conference and the changing of the British market afterwards told a very different story about Britain’s place in the film industry. Britain was a very important market to American film producers and as such American films would not have tried to isolate British audiences by attacking British culture. If anything, American markets tried to appeal to British culture by adopting innovations by the British film industry as their own. Much of what made the American film industry so successful was an equal cultural exchange with Britain that started during the genesis of the film industry.
American sources showed that early on Britain and the United States produced films on an even playing field. In 1897, the American Mutoscope Company went to London and made video footage of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, which sparked an American interest in British subjects for many years afterwards. After seeing the success of the American Mutoscope Company, the British Mutoscope Company made a studio in London and began making its own short films.
It was not long before British film developers were ahead of their American counterparts. British innovators made a number of advancements in filmmaking. For example, film pioneer George Albert Smith introduced the use of close ups, cutting between different shots, and using multiple points of view within one scene. The 1901 British produced film Fire! was one of the first examples of early colored film stock and may have inspired a 1903 American film titled, The Life of an American Fireman. American imitations of European films were not unusual and often resulted in copyright wars. Scholars assumed for many years afterwards that two important plot elements from the time, the chase scene and the incorporation of violence, were American inventions. In reality, these plot techniques were both British inventions first shown in in the films A Daring Daylight Burglary and A Desperate Poaching Affray. One historian, John Mundy, explained that both film industries developed from a cross pollination of British and American investments, production, distribution, and talent. This exchange of creativity was especially true before Britain fought in World War I and dealt with the ensuing depression.
Early British filmmakers used two specific kinds of film styles for their domestic audience, documentaries and art films. Documentaries served two main purposes; they were a means of educating the British public about current events and also a propaganda tool to boost national pride and public support of controversial wars.
Two of the most important documentary film producers during the first decade of the twentieth century were Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. These two men used very early experimental footage as entertainment in traveling fairgrounds and public buildings. Short clips of everyday British life within major cities and along the countryside delighted viewers who sometimes saw their friends and neighbors in the footage. Mitchell and Kenyon’s captured images included factory life, businesses work along the streets, the upper class, and crowds cheering as soldiers returned home from war. Eight hundred of Mitchell and Kenyon film rolls survived to the present day and gave a vivid glimpse of life in cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Liverpool during the turn of the century.The democratic depiction of unique English lifestyles shown in this footage celebrated a British way of life that was outside of foreign influence.
Documentary footage was not limited to the British Isles. British filmmakers travelled throughout the world to record important events for the Empire. The Boer War footage shown in Army Life: Mounted Infantry was the first big British documentary. The film was originally two hours long and served as a propaganda piece to encourage young British men to enlist in the army. The Boer War in South Africa was the first media war and served as a precursor for the film The Battle of the Somme during World War I. Video footage of battle scenes built a stronger feeling of connection between those at home and those on the front lines. It was unimportant that some of the footage was staged; it still felt real to the people viewing it. These documentaries were a critical tool to boost national loyalty. Footage of World War I especially hit home when the film reels showed scenes of British soldiers being shot down.
Films reinforcing national pride and loyalty dealt with more than just war. When King George V and his wife visited India to celebrate their coronation as the new Emperor and Empress of India, the cameras were not far behind. The most famous surviving footage of this visit was Deli Durbar, a two-and-a-half hour documentary made with the experimental kinemacolor technique. Kinemacolor added red and green filters on black and white footage, serving as an early prototype of color film.The ceremony and grandeur of the British army in India was especially magnificent under the new colored film. This combination of British ceremony and innovation would have stirred feelings of enthusiasm for the Crown and Empire.
The second British film style was high art. The British use of artistic cinema was very different from other European countries approaches to artistic film. For example, Germany had a more abstract method, which resulted in famous works like Metropolis and F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu. German art films focused more on expressionism and did not promote traditional national identity like Britain’s films. British art films celebrated the nation’s contributions to world literature including silent films of Shakespearian plays, Sherlock Holmes, and Charles Dickens novels. Film historian Tom Ryall explained, “ ‘art’ cinemas can be seen as a form of cultural defense against the hegemony of the Hollywood cinema.” The promotion of these kinds of art films was a means of counteracting the dominant American presence in the film market and legitimizing British film innovation by connecting it with past icons of British creativity.
The documentary approach and the high art style lasted through the 1920s and served as a means of promoting British culture and national pride at a time when it was desperately needed. American studios quickly copied British film topics and made American editions of Shakespeare and Dickens stories. With a higher budget and better advertising, these American renditions of British films were an international success. This was evidence of an equal cultural exchange between America and Britain, not simply an American takeover.
Even when British cinemas played a majority of foreign films, the people still retained distinctively British views. In 1916, while Britain was facing World War I, the world’s first big screen epic D.W. Griffith’s Civil War masterpiece The Birth of a Nation made its way to London. In America, the sectional divides and racial hatred connected with the Civil War was still fresh in the minds of many of the audience members. In Britain no such memory existed. Instead, British viewers saw the film as a parallel to their own experience in the Somme and at home. Souvenir booklets for the film even served as a rallying cry for British women to stay brave in the face of the World War. Instead of simply accepting Civil War Americana, the British audience was able to interpret what they saw in a way that was unique to them.
The war effort diverted many British resources. This included time and effort that would have gone into domestic film production. American filmmakers filled in the vacuum caused by the lack of British films in the local cinemas. British demand for American popular films, like The Birth of a Nation enabled American film producers to demand ‘blind’ and ‘block’ booking in British theaters. ‘Blind’ and ‘block’ booking meant that American producers could contract minor American films in bulk without having to tell British theaters what the films were beforehand. In an autobiography, the famous British film producer, Michael Balcon, explained, “The War had virtually killed off British production… [And American film producers promised] all the films that British cinemas required…” This marked the turning point when British filmmakers fell behind their American competitors.
When the film industry and the nation ran out of money, British filmmakers could no longer compete against new American film innovations and techniques. In 1914, twenty-five percent of films in domestic cinemas were British films. By 1925, only five percent of films shown in local cinemas were British. There were a few reasons for this drastic change. Where British films were very plot-heavy, American producers made action films, like westerns, which were extremely popular and translated well in international markets. The escapism shown in Hollywood was much more appealing to an audience suffering from economic hardship than the realism that was a part of British documentary and high art films. Author Karen Diehl explained, “The increasing failure to compete with [the] United States cinema has been blamed on Europe’s inability to provide for such desires.” Another reason for American film popularity was its ability to sell films at a lower price, since success in American theaters already recouped the cost of production. British filmmakers knew that if they wanted to succeed in theaters they had to change their approach to films.
Though British film development and innovation may have appeared dormant within the trying times between the World Wars, it was not dead. There was evidence of continuing British agency within the film market. This occurred on two levels, one through legal efforts to control American influence in the British cinemas and two, by trying to take over the American market and thereby beating Americans at their own game. The British public knew the important role the media had in educating the next generation about Britain’s role in the world. One newspaper at the time put it this way, “Supposing ninety-five percent of our school books were written and published for us in the United States of America, Germany, and France. What would be the nature of the outcry raised? And yet the position is not dissimilar.” The cinema was a very important method of education. The fight to control the theaters was the fight for the hearts and minds of Britain’s youth.
The legal battle for British loyalty began in the late 1920s. British filmmakers petitioned the government to pass a quota law that would require local cinemas to play a small percentage of domestic films. Much of the argument for passing this law was the importance of retaining identity by not being under foreign control. It may have appeared that American dominance of British theaters hurt the British people, but in reality, cinema owners had no issues with the dominant presence of Hollywood films. Foreign films meant serious profits for the British movie houses. Author Tom Ryall explained, “British cinemas were thriving… Audiences flocked to see the latest Hollywood offerings apparently untroubled by the absence of offerings of the indigenous product.” The success in the theaters led to open opposition against a quota law. Some British film producers, like Balcon and C.M. Wolf, argued that it would hurt the exhibition sector if theaters were forced to play British films when there was no public demand for it. The quota was also criticized because producers feared that it would encourage poor quality British films. Thus, during a time when British politicians argued about saving the movie industry, British cinemas were actually thriving off of American productions.
The 1926 Imperial Conference placed this issue on a global scale. It led to the passing of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, which marked a turning point in British efforts to reclaim its industry and its identity. This act stated that a certain percentage of films shown annually in British cinemas had to be domestic films. The legal requirement for British films enabled the emergence of small British film companies. These groups produced what were called “quota quickies” which were cheap films that met British quota requirements. Balcon and Wolf’s fears about the quota encouraging poor quality British films had come true, but the emergence of new film companies did have beneficial long-term effects. New British film producers realized the value of making “quota quickies” under the sponsorship of larger American film companies. This arrangement allowed American films to meet quota requirements while it also jumpstarted the British filmmaking industry in the 1930s.
Legal fights continued as the British government pushed to have more domestic representation in the film market. The 1938 Cinematograph Films Act took things a step further by requiring British films to represent thirty percent of the cinema showings. This period also made several legal provisions in the hopes of encouraging United States film investment in Britain. By doing this, the government thought that it would be able to keep some of the American profits from leaving the country while also providing jobs and investments within the nation.
Alongside legal actions, British filmmakers also tried to impact the international film market by having a presence in the United States cinemas. Unfortunately, early British approaches to film as a “high art” instead of simple entertainment hurt how it advertised in America. Also, British produced films such as Henry V were not given the same treatment in the States as competing American films. These British films were extremely popular, but their distribution was very controlled. Disappointing sales in American theaters constantly frustrated British producers. Part of the contrast between these two countries boiled down to the core of what market these countries produced for. Typically British films appealed to a British audience, whereas American films focused on a more international market. This shows a shift in British thought since these British oriented films had a place in American popular demand and thus were no longer solely produced for a British audience.
British films may have struggled to make a profit in America, but Britain’s ability to change its focus from the domestic to the world market gave British films a chance to compete. The 1927 Cinematograph Films Act and the preceding growth of the British film industry was enough to bring new film styles to light in the British market. More importantly, these developments did not sacrifice elements of British identity in order to succeed. With the advent of sound during the 1930s, Britain developed its own approach to films of different genres including musical comedies, romances, and thrillers.
British musicals were one of the best examples of a British film method that was outside of America’s shadow. British musicals were more comedic and less conventional than their American counterparts. They originally developed as shorts to fulfill quota requirements then later they moved on to become feature films. They were important to the preservation of British culture because many of these films borrowed from popular British music found on radios and live performances. These films also contained storylines that dealt with social issues like class, race, and gender within British society. Historian John Mundy in his book The British Musical Film described the relationship between popular British performers and their ties to the box office, “together, they provided a complex articulation of British culture that recognized, but was still resisting, American influence, a culture in which identities were recognizably dependent on and defined by class, gender, and region.” Even though these films were specific to British life, their use of popular music made them attractive an international audience. In this way, Britain was able to stay faithful to its identity while also appealing to a wider market.
Another style of British film incorporated a controversial approach to romantic subjects. The 1927 film Hindle Wakes told the story of an independent young factory woman, named Fanny, who had a weeklong affair with her boss’s son. She was then confronted with the expectation that she should marry him to prevent a family scandal. Fanny refused, and asserted her independence by claiming that as long as the Lancashire mills were running, she could support herself. Hindle Wakes took place in a distinctively British setting and challenged the class and gender expectations of British culture. The film was not a product of an outside film company, but instead was an internal development to show a more edgy British society.
British romances also appealed to an international market by incorporating racial conflicts. One of the more famous examples of this was the 1929 film Piccadilly, which starred the Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong. The film took place in a London nightclub where a kitchen scullery maid (Wong) became an overnight star and fell in love with the English male lead, Valentine. The film used exotic dance, elaborate oriental costuming, class stratification, and racial tensions to challenge British opposition to mixed race relationships. Other British films staring Miss Wong included Java Head and Tiger Bay. Both of these films dealt with Englishmen traveling abroad and interacting with Chinese society. Java Head in particular, was the story of an Englishman’s Chinese bride and the rejection she faced at the hands of her new in-laws because of her race. The modern approach to social relationships shown in films like Hindle Wakes and Piccadilly served as a example of Britain’s transition from more traditional or “stuffy Englishness” to a modern transnational audience. This was beneficial in film storytelling because Britain could incorporate international ties within its storyline while still remaining faithful to British subjects.
The third major turning point of British film development was the international prestige earned by British thriller films, specifically those directed by Alfred Hitchcock. As one American author stated, “[there were] three unique and valuable institutions the British have that we in America have not…[the] Magna Carta, the Tower Bridge and Alfred Hitchcock, the greatest director of screen melodramas in the World.” Hitchcock’s name reached the United States long before he did and decades before he made films in Hollywood.
Hitchcock’s early films show the nation’s change in the industry over different periods of time. He began making British films in the early 1920s and his first London-made feature was The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, a film about the British serial killer Jack the Ripper. The Lodger incorporated unusual camera tricks, symbolic objects, and a poetic atmosphere that was common in the decade’s artistic movement. A film review from the time claimed, “It is possible that this film was the finest British production ever made.” Hitchcock later went on to create other British themed films including Britain’s first ‘talkie’, Blackmail, in 1929. Blackmail retained elements of what was a once considered the British art and documentary style while it also appealed to the American market. Hitchcock used the addition of sound strategically as part of an artistic approach to the film. When other film directors worldwide struggled with the transition to sound, Hitchcock pioneered onward and became an international success. In the 1930s, British spy and thriller films sparked international interest. The early artistic camera techniques that Hitchcock learned in the 1920s became a means of adding suspense to his thriller films. Hitchcock’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) and The Lady Vanishes (1938) used British characters, settings, and even humor in the plotlines to created a very pro-British image while also appealing to international storylines.
The 1940s celebrated films that projected British characteristics. This was part of a propaganda effort to build national unity during World War II. A leading figure in the marketing of distinctively British films was the producer Michael Balcon. Balcon made it a personal quest to promote British films and was for many decades a leading producer in the British film industry. In 1940, he produced the film Proud Valley as a piece of nationalist propaganda because it encouraged solidarity and sacrifice for the public good. Despite Balcon’s aspirations for the film’s success, the press king, Lord Beaverbrook, told his newspaper writers to ignore the film entirely after a disagreement with one of the leading actors.As a result, the film was unable to make a large impact in British society. Lord Beaverbrook’s ego serves an example of how film critics came to be blamed for the British film industry’s understated success in history.
World War II brought concern for British currency leaving the country. The film industry especially drained Britain of its precious sterling. British demand for American films, once again, grew from the need for escapism from the reality of blackouts and food shortages.As before, American films stepped up to fill this need and the British government stepped in to stop American profits from leaving the British Isles. In order to use the profits gained in Britain, movie producers would have to spend it in Britain. This eventually led to a shift of production costs from Hollywood to London in order to use the frozen funds. Independent American producers began making films in Britain and hiring local workers. This put income back into the British economy. Like before, joint Anglo-American film efforts helped to revive the British film industry. This time, new British productions were no longer cheap “quota quickies,” the products of poor quality amateur British film producers. Now, British films appealed to the American market as high quality foreign products that had a legacy of experience dating back to the beginning of the film industry. Hitchcock and many other famous British figures became leaders in Hollywood film productions. The new future of post-war British films had a foundation of unique stylistic approaches, distinctively British themes, and past leadership that believed in Britain’s greatness.
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