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Americanisation in 20th Century Europe: business, culture, politics. Volume 2

 | 
Nick Tiratsoo
, 
Mathias Kipping

British responses to the cultural influence of American films, 1927-48

Peter Miskell

Résumé

Cet article étudie la réponse britannique à la domination culturelle des films américains entre les années 1920 et 1940. Nous allons montrer que dans les années 1920, le cinéma constituait clairement une des formes les plus populaires de spectacle et qu’il faisait partie intégrante du tissu social, culturel et économique du pays. La domination culturelle des films américains préoccupant de nombreuses couches de population amena le gouvernement à y répondre par la loi sur les films de 1927. Même si cette loi permit une croissance rapide d’une industrie domestique du film dans les années 1930, la Grande-Bretagne ne fut jamais en mesure de concurrencer l’influence d’Hollywood et la loi fut considérée jusque récemment comme un échec. Dans les années 1940, la politique britannique se souciait peu du développement d’une industrie du film qui rivalise avec Hollywood et cherchait simplement à faciliter un flux régulier de films américains dans le pays sans ruiner le Trésor. En fin de compte, la domination américaine dans cette industrie culturelle fut acceptée.

Texte intégral

  • 1 A. Andrews to D. Griffiths, 26 May 1932, D/D A/B 20/2/39i, Glamorgan Records Office, Cardiff.

1Throughout the period of the cinema’s greatest appeal, which in Britain lasted from the 1920s to the 1950s, the vast majority of films shown in British cinemas were of American origin. British films did constitute approximately a quarter of screen time for most of this period, and many of these productions proved popular with domestic audiences. For the most part, however, it was Hollywood studios that provided the British cinema-going public with its favourite films and stars. As one cinema proprietor explained to a rather disgruntled patriotic customer in 1932: “[the public] say they want British films, but when we show one, as a rule, we do bad business. There are probably a small number of people, like yourself, who are prepared to support British entertainment, but it would appear the vast majority of the public prefer the American variety: it’s a matter for regret”.1

2It is also a matter for historical examination. This chapter will examine the response, in one European country, to the international dominance of American films. The focus here is on the UK. This was not a country where Hollywood entertainment was thought to pose a particularly serious political or ideological threat; it was a country with a long tradition of liberal, free trade opinion; and it was also much the most important foreign market for American film producers. The debates surrounding the impact of American films on the UK may or may not have been typical of those in other countries, but they do give an insight into how British opinion formers and policy makers responded to the increasing American influence on British society.

3The chapter is divided into three sections. The first provides a brief analysis of the central position that the cinema, as a social and cultural institution, played within British society in the period covered here. This is necessary in order to underline the point that American domination of the film industry provided the most visible evidence of the increasing American influence on British culture and society. The second section examines responses within Britain to this ‘American invasion’. It argues that there were differing bodies of opinion about how the British film industry ought to develop. Concerns about the weakness of the British film industry led to government action in the form of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act, but the legislation did not satisfy the concerns of the most influential critics in the 1930s and 1940s. The third, and final, section looks at the British government’s ill-fated attempt to impose a 75 per cent import duty on foreign films in 1947 and the subsequent boycott of the British market by US film producers. The failure of this policy illustrated not only that the British film industry was hopelessly unprepared to offer an alternative to American entertainment, but also that the British public was not prepared to go without its regular diet of (mainly Hollywood) films.

cinema and society in britain

  • 2 Deputation of CEA to Sir Robert Home, 6 May 1921, T/172/1406, Public Record Office, London [hereaf (...)

4By the 1920s the cinema was widely understood to be one of the country’s most popular and influential forms of entertainment. At the very highest levels of government the cinema was recognised as an important institution. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer put it in 1921: “the educative effect of these entertainments is very great; and their mollifying and assuaging results upon the public temperament are even of more value in times of difficulty”.2 Yet the 1920s could also be fairly described as the nadir of the British film industry.

  • 3 Reliable national statistics for cinema admissions do not exist for the years before 1934, but jud (...)
  • 4 The number of cinemas in Britain increased from just under 4,000 in the early 1920s to around 4,50 (...)
  • 5 C. Barr, “Before Blackmail: Silent British Cinema”, in R. Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book, L (...)
  • 6 Evidence of Board of Trade to Committee on Cinematograph Films (Lord Moyne’s Committee), 1936, BT (...)

5While cinema attendances appear to have been booming3 and new cinema buildings were being erected (and existing ones refurbished) across the country4 the production side of the British cinema industry was in some disarray. As one of Britain’s leading film historians confirms: “Our film culture has no roots in, and no memory of, the formative silent period. For a country which was to become a major producer in the Sound period, this is extraordinary”.5 The lack of British feature films in the 1920s had not escaped the notice of the Board of Trade, which observed: “Prior to 1914 some 25 % of the films shown in Great Britain were made here. During the War our production rapidly declined and the United States obtained almost a world monopoly. In 1926 probably not more than 5 % of the films shown were British”.6 The popularity of American films among British audiences brought to a head certain tensions between the cinema’s social, economic and cultural roles in British society.

  • 7 For example, J. Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939, L (...)

6 Socially, the cinema played a crucial role as a provider of light, escapist entertainment, at very low cost, for a population struggling to cope with the stresses first of the inter-war depression, then of war, and finally of post-war austerity. In the 1920s and 1930s cinema-going was noticeably more pronounced in the parts of the country that were worst affected by the economic depression. In the 1940s, when the whole country faced up to hardships caused by shortages, rationing, long working hours, the threat of aerial bombardment and anxieties over loved ones, cinema attendance reached new heights. The medium’s appeal remained at this extraordinary level during the post-war years of social and economic hardship and did not go into steep decline until the affluent years from the mid-1950s. For audiences between the 1910s and the 1950s, the cinema was more than a provider of films, it was a social institution at the very heart of towns, suburbs and local communities. The centrality of the cinema to the social life of so many communities was well understood, both by government and industry. It was something that nobody wished to disturb.7

  • 8 For example, P. Miles and M. Smith, Cinema, Literature and Society: Elite and Mass Culture in Inte (...)

7 Culturally, the cinema’s influence was a matter of dispute: for some it was regarded as being a major asset, the century’s newest art from; for others it was popular commercial entertainment at its worst. Leaving aside considerations of the development of film art, there was plenty of scope for discussion about the influence of the more popular screen fare. The ability of British film producers to reach an international market, and to compete on equal terms with their American counterparts, was regarded as a matter of national prestige. For those who cared deeply about the Empire, and the projection of a positive national image overseas, the failure of the British film industry to compete with Hollywood was a regret and a real concern. For those whose main concerns lay somewhat closer to home, the cinema appeared to be a harbinger of ever greater Americanisation. To such minds it was deemed necessary not only to control and regulate the impact of this form of popular entertainment, but also to encourage and promote the making of culturally uplifting films.8

  • 9 Deputation of cinema exhibitors to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 12 March 1934, T 172/1408, PRO
  • 10 See H. E. Browning and A. A. Sorrell, “Cinemas and Cinema-Going in Great Britain”, journal of the (...)

8 Economically, the cinema’s influence could be seen in at least three respects. First, it acted as a provider of jobs. According to the 1951 census of England and Wales, just under 86,000 persons were employed in cinemas, with almost a further ten thousand working in film production and processing. In the more economically depressed regions, the work available in the numerous local cinemas may not have made much impression on the unemployment statistics, but it was certainly welcome. Second, it was believed that the styles, fashions, products and general consumption patterns portrayed on cinema screens had a significant impact on audiences. The argument that ‘trade follows the film and not the flag’ was often heard at this time.9 A successful British film industry, according to this thinking, was not just a Symbol of national prestige but a real economic asset. Third, and perhaps most significant, was the simple fact that so many people chose to consume cinema entertainment at all. The 30 million weekly attendances in the immediate post-war years accounted for a sizeable chunk of disposable income. The fact that so much of this found its way back to American-owned film companies was a serious issue at a time when the British economy was desperately short of dollars. Under these circumstances the cinema was regarded not as an economic asset but an expensive (unaffordable) luxury.10

9The cinema industry, and American cinema entertainment in particular, had become an important part of the very fabric of British society in the period covered here. There were certainly those who were critical of the cinema’s role in bringing about the ‘Americanisation’ of British society, but for most of this period there was a broad consensus of opinion among the government, the cinema industry and the cinema-going public that nothing should be done to endanger the supply of Hollywood films to the British market. The need to keep cinemas open for business was ultimately more important than bringing to an end the reliance on American films. A recognition of this fact underpinned the British government s response to the popularity of Hollywood entertainment in this age of protectionism.

differing responses to us dominance and the 1927 cinematograph films act

  • 11 See J. Sedgewick, Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures, Exeter, Exeter Univers (...)
  • 12 H. Glancy, “Hollywood and Britain: MGM and the British ‘Quota’ Legislation”, in J. Richards (ed.),(...)

10In 1927 Parliament passed the Cinematograph Films Act which was meant to revive the British film industry. The Act introduced a minimum quota of British films to be screened in British cinemas (rising from 5 per cent in 1927 to 20 per cent by 1936). For the purposes of the Act, a film’s nationality was defined in economic, rather than cultural terms. A British film, therefore, was one made by a British subject or by a company of which the majority of directors were British. A majority of the labour costs (75 per cent) had to go to British subjects and all studio scenes had to be shot in Britain or the Empire. The intention of the Act was to give a much needed boost to film-making in Britain providing an outlet for British-made films. The Act has been much criticised for creating a situation in which inferior British films were guaranteed a market, and American companies were encouraged to set up subsidiary companies in Britain for the sole purpose of mass-producing cheap ‘British’ films that would satisfy quota requirements (the so-called ‘quota quickies’). More recently, a number of historians have argued that the Act was much more successful in supporting the British industry than had previously been supposed. Not only were many of the films produced by British companies highly popular with audiences11, but also the experience and opportunities offered to young British film-makers and actors in the 1930s helped to nurture a generation who went on to form the bedrock of the British film industry for decades to come. As H. Mark Glancy has observed: “The low-budget British films, like Hollywood’s ‘B’ films, provided early opportunities for young or developing directors and actors. The film careers of directors such as John Baxter, Adrian Brunei, Michael Powell and Carol Reed began with ‘quota quickies’, as did the careers of actors Errol Flynn, Vivien Leigh, James Mason, John Mills and Laurence Olivier”.12 It is argued here that the reason why the 1927 Act was viewed negatively for so long was because the criteria on which it was judged were quite different to the reasons for which it was introduced.

11The weakness of the British film industry in the 1920s and the cultural influence of Hollywood’s output was widely felt to be a matter of concern, but it is possible to detect distinct responses to the problem from differing sections of the middle class. Here it is useful to draw on George Orwell’s famous and much quoted analysis of the English middle class written in 1940. There were, according to Orwell, two “important sub-sections of the middle-class” which he regarded as “symbolic opposites”: one was “the military and imperialist middle class, generally nicknamed the Blimps”, and the other “the left-wing intelligentsia.” The Blimps, the Empire builders and administrators, had even before 1914 begun to lose some of their vitality. Their brand of blind patriotism and anti-intellectualism, however, was never far below the surface of both popular and official opinion in inter-war Britain. The intelligentsia, on the other hand, although not without influence, had largely been excluded from positions of official authority: “If you had the kind of brain that could understand the poems of T. S. Eliot or the theories of Karl Marx, the higher-ups would see to it that you were kept out of any important job. The intellectuals could find a function for themselves only in the literary reviews and the left wing political parties [emphasis added]”.

  • 13 George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicom: Socialism and the English Genius. Part I: England Your En (...)

12To literary reviews can easily be added film criticism, for the qualifies which characterised the English intelligentsia, as Orwell saw it, were precisely those which underpinned the more serious film reviews. He asserted, for instance, that “the English intelligentsia are Europeanised. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow.” Film critics, similarly, were most enthusiastic about the work of directors such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin, Pabst and Clair. The contempt which Orwell claimed the intellectuals had for “every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings” also applied to British films. Further, the journals which Orwell cites as the principal organs of the intellectual left, the New Statesman and the News Chronicle, were precisely those in which such critics wrote.13 The distinctions that Orwell drew between the Blimps and the intelligentsia are nowhere more evident than in the response to the cultural influence of the cinema.

13Among the more ‘Blimpish’ elements of the middle class lay a strong concern that the international dominance of American films was undermining British influence abroad. A letter published in the Times in 1932 captured the essence of the argument concisely:

  • 14 The Times, 5 March 1932.

No close study of films and talkies is needed to convince one that the British point of view is neglected oversea [s]. There is little enough shown with ‘home’ as a setting; practically nothing of the Empire, that treasure-house of colour and drama. Sentimentally this is a pity: politically it is a tragedy, for in this case ‘point of view’ connotes standards, influence, trade...14

  • 15 Ibid.

14The paper itself strongly endorsed such sentiments: “The British Empire should know itself; and the world should know the British Empire”.15 It was concerns such as these which had led to the establishment, in 1929, of the Commission on Educational and Cultural Films. The Commission’s 1932 report, The film in National Life, devoted a chapter to ‘The Cinema and the Empire’ in which it was argued:

The backward races within the Empire can gain more and suffer more from the film than the sophisticated European, because to them the power of the visual medium is intensified. The conception of white civilisation which they are receiving from third-rate melodrama is an international menace, yet the film is an agent of social education which could be as powerful for good as for harm.

  • 16 Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, The Film in National Life London HMSO 1932, p. 126, (...)

15The authors of the report concluded that a National Film Institute needed to be established, “an important branch” of which “should deal with Imperial and Colonial film affairs”.16

16Attached to these fears about the cultural influence of American films and the need to maintain Britain’s standing abroad, was the concern that a failing film industry was damaging to trade. ‘Trade follows the film’ was the much heard cry, as it was argued that international exposure to American culture and lifestyles through the movies had created a demand for American goods. A successful British film industry, so the argument ran, would open up new export markets for UK firms across the economy. Whatever the merits of this argument as an explanation for declining UK industrial performance, it seemed to hold some sway at the Board of Trade. The evidence given by the Board of Trade to Lord Moyne’s Committee on Cinematograph Films in 1936, provides as clear an indication as any of the Government’s reasons for introducing the legislation of 1927:

  • 17 Evidence from the Board of Trade to Committee on Cinematograph Films, 1936, BT 55/3, PRO.

It was indicated that the cinema is the most universal means through which national ideas and national atmosphere could be spread... Apart from the national aspect, there was also the importance of the cinema to our trade abroad from the advertising point of view... the constant exhibition of foreign films has considerable effect on the sentiments, habits and thoughts of the people. Foreign flags, foreign styles and foreign habits are impressed upon their minds. From the points of view above given it was submitted by the President of the Board of Trade, in introducing the Bill, that the need for the development of British films, from a national and a trade point of view was firmly established.17

  • 18 S. Street, British National Cinema, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 8.
  • 19 J. Petley, “Cinema and State”, in Barr 1986: 32.

17The concerns about Britain’s image overseas and the need to promote trade were both significant factors behind the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act. As Sarah Street has explained: “Britain and the Empire were in danger of overexposure to screen advertisement of American goods and lifestyles. Concern over the propaganda value of film and anti-Americanism therefore played a large part in securing the passage of the Cinematograph Films Act, 1927”.18 The emphasis on Britain’s imperial and trading interests no doubt helped to get the protective legislation through Parliament at a time when the Government was officially in favour of free trade, but the sentiments were genuine enough. As Julian Petley has said of the climate of opinion existing in 1927: “Compared to, for instance, France or the USSR there was at this time little interest in the art of the film, or in the cinema as what might be called a ‘cultural industry’. More typical of the level of debate was Lord Newton’s concern with the ‘industrial, commercial, educational and Imperial interests involved’”.19 Film art was clearly of little concern to legislators, but this did not mean it was ignored altogether.

18The class that Orwell labelled the ‘Blimps’ may have had political influence, but from the mid-1920s there was also a growing body of intellectual critics who began to take the cinema seriously as an art from. The formation of the Film Society in London in 1925 and the establishment of journals such as Close-Up (1927) and Cinema Quarterly (1932) provided the platform for a more intellectual appreciation of film as an art form in Britain. By the mid-1930s there was an established body of critics writing seriously about film not only in specialist journals but also in the national press. This body of opinion had not featured prominently in debates surrounding the 1927 Cinematograph Act, but they certainly exerted an influence on how that legislation was subsequently judged.

  • 20 The most comprehensive survey of critically acclaimed films of this period can be found in P. Roth (...)
  • 21 R. Low, Film Making in 1930s Britain, London, Allen and Unwin, 1985, p. xiv.

19The sorts of films that received critical acclaim in Britain in the 1930s and 1940s were not those that formed the bulk of the average cinema-goer’s screen diet.20 Yet until very recently the critical consensus established in the 1930s and 1940s about which films deserved to be taken seriously remained in place. Until at least the 1980s, therefore, most film historians were prepared to accept that the British industry had produced few feature films of note in the 1930s, and that the so-called golden age of British cinema in the 1940s was based largely on the work of a few directors such as David Lean, Carol Reed and Michael Powell and the occasional gem from Ealing studios. From this perspective the effect of the 1927 Cinematograph Act was hardly impressive. Film production may have increased in the 1930s, but the films themselves were much maligned and added little of cultural significance. Rachael Low’s assessment - that “The 1927 quota legislation intended to solve all the industry’s problems was a failure... [which] went far to ruin the reputation of British production as a whole” - was widely shared.21

20It may very well be true that the 1927 Act did relatively little to advance the development of film art, but it is important to remember that this was not the reason for its introduction. The Act’s supporters were more concerned with protecting British influence and trade than they were in film as a medium of artistic expression. If the expectations of both the imperial/patriotic and the critical/intellectual elements of the middle class were to have been satisfied, the British film industry would have had to achieve a number of conflicting objectives. It would have needed to be able to rival Hollywood in terms of popular cultural influence, yet not be guided by purely commercial considerations; and to have produced films that were widely popular without being populist; to have created films that were ‘truly British’ yet suitable for an international audience.

21In fact, the design of the Films Act was such that the concerns of neither the most patriotic nor intellectual critics of British cinema were addressed directly. By allocating approximately a quarter of all screen time in cinemas for the showing of British films, a market was created for small or medium budget British films directed at a domestic audience. The UK market was simply not large enough to justify big-budget productions that may have been able to rival the top Hollywood films for international popularity. Apart from the occasional success such as The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, 1933) such ventures were not financially viable. British film studios were not able to guarantee international distribution for their films, regardless of how much they spent on production. Far from enabling the British film industry to challenge the international supremacy of Hollywood, the 1927 Act did not even bring to an end the American dominance of the domestic market. Around three-quarters of screen time continued to be taken up by American films. Furthermore, the Act’s definition of a British film as more an economic than a cultural product did little to encourage the emergence of a distinctive national cinema.

22The inability of the British film industry in the 1930s either to rival the international popularity of Hollywood or to achieve the level of critical acclaim reserved for French or Soviet films should hardly come as a surprise given that film-making had virtually ground to a halt in Britain by the mid-1920s. Yet failure to achieve these (over) ambitious goals should not obscure the real advances made as a direct result of the Act. In 1926 only 36 films were made in Britain constituting just 5 per cent of cinema releases. Ten years later the British film industry was churning out over 200 films per year. By this time the industry had become much more concentrated, along American lines, with the formation of two large vertically integrated combines. The Gaumont-British Picture Corporation and the Associated British Picture Corporation could not rival the major Hollywood studios, but within Britain at least were able to combine the functions of production, distribution and exhibition and thus guarantee an outlet for their films in their own chains of cinemas.

  • 22 See, for example, T. Ryall, “A British Studio System: The Associated British Picture Corporation a (...)

23The result of the 1927 Cinematograph Act was the development of a moderately successful British film industry that served a domestic market. A measure of the industry’s success can be gauged from the fact that most cinemas in the 1930s actually screened more than their minimum quota of British films. A number of low quality films were made (often by British subsidiaries of American companies) that were intended to do little more than satisfy quota requirements. For the most part, however, British studios, working within tight financial constraints, were able maintain a steady output of low budget films that audiences were happy to watch.22 This was a significant advance on the situation existing in the 1920s, but it was not enough to satisfy those who felt that Britain ought to be a leading international player in this industry. The failure of the 1927 Act, therefore, was not a failure to encourage the development of a domestic film industry, it was a failure to develop an industry with international cultural influence.

  • 23 S. Street, “British Film and the National Interest, 1927-1939”, in Murphy 1997.
  • 24 Ibid. p. 25.

24The experience of the 1930s led to a subtle but significant change in government policy. The 1938 Films Act (the 1927 legislation had only been meant to last for ten years) relaxed quota restrictions for US companies which invested more money in their ‘British’ films. By the end of the 1930s the logic behind Britain’s film policy was no longer based on building up a strong independent film industry that could present the British way of life to international audiences. In public the politicians continued to use bold and ambitious language, but behind this lay a recognition that Britain could not compete on equal terms with Hollywood. As Sarah Street has pointed out, shortly after the President of the Board of Trade (Oliver Stanley) made a speech proclaiming that “I want the world to be able to see British films true to British life, accepting British standards and spreading British ideas”, he agreed with the American Ambassador (Joseph Kennedy) to insert pro-American clauses in the new Films Bill.23 No longer was it assumed that the British film industry would be able to rival Hollywood; on the contrary, it was now appreciated that if the British industry was to prosper at all it needed to attract more American investment. As Street tells us: “Britain was no longer in a position to be Hollywood’s reluctant and ungrateful customer. By 1939, therefore, the ideal of a strong British film industry had been compromised by complex economic and political realities”.24

britain’s reliance on hollywood films: the ‘bogart or bacon’ debate

  • 25 Macnab 1993:163.

25By the end of World War Two economic and political realities had reached crisis point. After years in which industry had been geared towards supporting the war effort, the transition to peacetime economic realities was a slow and difficult process. In short, the British had been living off imports for which they could no longer afford to pay. If the Treasury was not to run out of dollars the consumption of American goods had to be cut back. Unsurprisingly, under the circumstances, the popularity of Hollywood entertainment increasingly came to be viewed in official circles as an unaffordable luxury. As Geoffrey Macnab has explained: “This was to have dire consequences for [J. Arthur] Rank and the British film industry”.25

  • 26 See Browning and SORREL.I. 1954: 134.
  • 27 A UNESCO survey found that the number of annual cinema admissions per head of population in Great (...)
  • 28 Quoted in Street 1997: 202.

26Levels of cinema attendance had reached new heights in Britain during World War Two, and remained remarkably high throughout the decade. In 1946 there were 31.6 million tickets sold at British cinemas each week.26 A survey made at the end of the decade showed the British to be by far the world’s most avid film-goers.27 Economic hardship only served to fuel the cinema’s popularity, which in turn acted as a drain on the country’s dollar reserves and escalated the economic crisis. In 1947 it was estimated that the earnings of American films in the U.K. amounted to $70 million. As the cinema became more of a social necessity, it also became a greater economic burden. The Conservative MP, Sir Robert Boothby, had expressed his concerns in Parliament in 1945: “If I am compelled to choose between Bogart and bacon I am bound to choose bacon at the present time”.28

  • 29 R. Murphy, “Under the Shadow of Hollywood”, in Barr 1986: 61.
  • 30 Quoted in Macnab 1993: 162.

27Within two years the Labour Government appeared to have come round to a similar view. In August 1947 the axe fell. An ad-valorem tax was imposed on the import of foreign films.29 This marked a dramatic shift in British film policy. Until this point governments had sought to protect and support the British film industry without depriving audiences of the opportunity to see American films. The cultural/economic benefits of a healthy British film industry had been balanced against the social/economic importance of cinema consumption in Britain. The 1947 ad-valorem duty, however, made no such attempt to balance the interests of producers, exhibitors and audiences. The duty was introduced as a crisis measure. It came at a time when the Prime Minister was warning the country “that it was about to fight another Battle of Britain”.30 Under these circumstances there was little room for consideration of the preferences of cinema-goers. The decision between Bogart and bacon had been made, and the government had opted for the latter.

  • 31 Macnab 1993: 173.

28This bold announcement took most observers by surprise and quickly exposed the conflicting interests of those in different sectors of the industry. Within two days, the American companies, in the form of the Motion Picture Export Association (MPEA), had responded by announcing a total boycott of the British market. As Eric Johnson (President of the Motion Picture Association of America) put it, the British were attempting to get “a dollar’s worth of film for a quarter”.31 Nobody involved in the U.S. film industry was prepared to let them.

  • 32 Quoted in Macnab 1993: 180.

29It was never feasible for British producers to suddenly fill the void left by the absence of American films from the market. In the years prior to the duty, British films made up barely a quarter of all those shown in British cinemas. There was simply not the money, skill-base nor studio space within Britain to increase film production from around 100 films a year to over 400. The nation’s favourite form of entertainment was suddenly in very short supply. Nowhere was this more keenly felt than among cinema exhibitors. The majority of British cinemas at this time were not owned by major companies, but belonged to small, locally managed chains, or were completely independent. To the managers and proprietors of these halls the loss of a regular supply of American films was a very serious threat indeed. Their views were expressed by the general secretary of the Cinematograph Exhibitor’s Association who, in 1948, made dire predictions for the industry as a whole, arguing: “It is the biggest threat to our future yet... In the end there won’t be enough cinemas open for our films to pay their way - which means our studios would close down”.32

30With large sections of the British cinema industry allegedly on the brink of collapse, and the British government under intense pressure from the U.S. State Department, which argued that the import duty was totally against the letter and the spirit of the Vinson loan agreement, the duty was eventually removed. In Match 1948 the recently appointed President of the Board of Trade, Harold Wilson, came to an agreement with the U.S. companies, whereby they would be allowed to remit $17 million of their British profits annually. Much to the annoyance of the Americans, Wilson also decided to set a new quota of British films to be shown in cinemas at 45 per cent.

  • 33 Murphy 1989:223.
  • 34 Eric Johnson to Board of Trade, 22 June 1948, BT 64/4538, PRO.
  • 35 Alexander B. King to Board of Trade, 21 March 1949, BT 64/4538, PRO.

31The deal struck by Wilson was good enough to get the U.S. boycott lifted without crippling the balance of payments. Robert Murphy has described this as “an adroit settlement of what had developed into a futile and mutually harmful dispute”.33 It is hard to disagree. Certainly, there were those who felt aggrieved by the deal. Eric Johnson of the MPAA complained to the Board of Trade in 1948 that “This 45 % quota is excessive, unnecessary and impossible of fulfilment, and violates the spirit of the Film Agreement recently negotiated between the British Government and the United States film industry”.34 The following year Alexander King, representing British film exhibitors, expressed his view that “Nothing has happened in this trade to alter the long accepted division of playing time between British 25 % and American 75 %”.35 Both the U.S. film producers and British exhibitors hoped for a return to pre-war conditions, but account had to be taken of the changed economic circumstances. When a U.S. Embassy official visited the Foreign Office in August 1948, hoping for at least some gesture of goodwill regarding the films quota, it was put to him that:

  • 36 Notes on visit of Mr. Bliss from U. S. Embassy to the Foreign Office, 12 August 1948 BT 64/4538, P (...)

We were bound to take all the steps open to us to build up film production in this country if our film supply was not to be at the mercy of our dollar situation. I also pointed out to him that even under the present quota, the American industry was left with more than half of the most valuable part of our screen time, and that this was a very substantial hold on our market.36

32The policy adopted by Harold Wilson at the Board of Trade was actually not so different from that taken by British governments since 1927. He had moved away from the draconian measures introduced by the Treasury in 1947. The failure of the ad-valorem duty illustrated that there was little to be gained by asking people to choose between Bogart or bacon. The cinema industry may have been an expensive drain on resources, but it was a highly important industry which could not be put at risk.

  • 37 Tony Garnett, quoted in P. Stead, “Wales in the Movies”, in T. Curtis (ed.), Wales: The Imagined N (...)

33It has been said that “to be an Englishman working in the film industry is to know what it’s like to be colonised”.37 The point is surely a valid one. Any hopes and dreams that may have existed in the 1920s that Britain might be able to advance its Imperial power through the export of films, had been replaced by the 1940s with the reality that the British themselves needed to go on buying American movies even when it seemed to be against the country’s economic interests. Far from laying plans for a British assault on the international film market that would bolster national prestige and expand trading opportunities, government officials by the end of the 1940s were more concerned with how to regulate the flow of American films into the UK without bankrupting the Treasury. The dominance of US films on British cinema screens not only provided evidence of the growing ‘Americanisation’ of British society, it was a clear indication of Britain’s diminishing status as a world power. This fact, it would seem, has done much to shape the way in which the British film industry of the 1930s and 1940s has been regarded. For most of the second half of the Twentieth Century, when historians were preoccupied with Britain’s ‘decline’, the inability of the film industry to stand up to American dominance looked very much like another example of national failure. Within the last decade, however, as attitudes to decline have moved on and Britain’s economic performance has been interpreted more favourably, the performance of the British film industry has also been re-assessed. Rather than viewing Britain’s failure to compete with Hollywood as a failure, attention has been focussed on the real progress that was made in British film-making in the 1930s and 1940s. By removing the expectation that the British film industry should have been a world leader, it has been possible to judge it on its own terms, and not in comparison with Hollywood. This reassessment may allow us to look more favourably on the performance of the British film industry, but it also serves to underline the degree to which American cultural influences in Twentieth Century Britain have come to be accepted.

***

Bibliographie

Barr C. 1986. (ed.), All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, London, BFI.

Browning H.E. and A. A. Sorrell 1954. “Cinemas and Cinema-Going in Great Britain”, journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 117 (part II), p. 133-165.

Commission on Educational and Cultural Films 1932. The Film in National Life, London, HMSO.

Cook C. 1991. (ed.), The Dilys Powell Film Reader, Manchester.

Curtis T. 1986. (ed.), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Essays in Cultural and National ldentity, Bridgend, Poetry Wales Press.

Dickinson M. and S. Street 1985. Cinema and State: The British Film Industry and the British Government 1927-1984, London, BFI.

Higson A. 1995. Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain, Oxford, Clarendon Press.

Jones S. 1987. The British Labour Movement and Film, 1918-1939, London, Routledge.

Low R. 1985. Film Making in 1930s Britain, London, Allen and Unwin.

Macnab G. 1993. J. Arthur Bank and the British FilmIndustry; London, Routledge.

Mckibbin R. 1998. Classes and Cultures: England, 1918-1951, Oxford, OUP.

Miles P. and M. Smith 1987. Cinema, Literature and Society: Elite and mass Culture in Inter-War Britain, London, Croom Helm.

Miskell P. 2000. Pulpits, Coal Pits and Fleapits: A Social History of the Cinema in Wales”, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.

Murphy R. 1989. Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain 1939-1949, London, Routledge.

Murphy R. 1997. (ed.), The British Cinema Book, London, BFI.

Richards J. 1984. The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939, London, Routledge.

Richards J. 1998. (ed.), The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939, London, Taurus.

Rotha P. 1949. The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, London, Vision.

Sedgewick J. 2000. Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures, Exeter, Exeter University Press.

Street S. 1997. British National Cinema, London, Routledge.

Notes

1 A. Andrews to D. Griffiths, 26 May 1932, D/D A/B 20/2/39i, Glamorgan Records Office, Cardiff.

2 Deputation of CEA to Sir Robert Home, 6 May 1921, T/172/1406, Public Record Office, London [hereafter PRO].

3 Reliable national statistics for cinema admissions do not exist for the years before 1934, but judging by the number of cinemas already in existence by then, the popularity of silent film stars from Chaplin to Valentino, and the general level of public and political debate that the medium generated, cinema-going was no less popular in the 1920s than it was in thel930s.

4 The number of cinemas in Britain increased from just under 4,000 in the early 1920s to around 4,500 by the mid-1930s. The increase in seating capacity would almost certainly have been much greater than this, however, as some of the smallest halls were replaced by much larger ‘dream palaces’.

5 C. Barr, “Before Blackmail: Silent British Cinema”, in R. Murphy (ed.), The British Cinema Book, London, BFI, 1997, p. 5.

6 Evidence of Board of Trade to Committee on Cinematograph Films (Lord Moyne’s Committee), 1936, BT 55/3, PRO.

7 For example, J. Richards, The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939, London, Routledge, 1984; R. Murphy, Realism and Tinsel: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1939-1948, London, Routledge, 1989; P. Miskell, “Pulpits, Coal Pits and Fleapits: A Social History of the Cinema in Wales, 1918-1951”, unpublished PhD thesis, University of Wales Aberystwyth, 2000.

8 For example, P. Miles and M. Smith, Cinema, Literature and Society: Elite and Mass Culture in InterWar Britain, London, Croom Helm, 1987; R. McKibbin, Classes and Cultures: England 1918-1951, Oxford, OUP, 1998; P. Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, London, Vision, 1949 edition.

9 Deputation of cinema exhibitors to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, 12 March 1934, T 172/1408, PRO.

10 See H. E. Browning and A. A. Sorrell, “Cinemas and Cinema-Going in Great Britain”, journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 117 (part II), 1954, p. 133-165; M. Dickinson and S. Street, Cinema and State: The British Film Industry and the British Government 1927-1984, London, BFI, 1985; G. Macnab, J. Arthur Rank and the British Film Industry, London, Routledge, 1993; S. Jones, The British Labour Movement and Film, 1918-1939, London, Routledge, 1987.

11 See J. Sedgewick, Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures, Exeter, Exeter University Press, 2000.

12 H. Glancy, “Hollywood and Britain: MGM and the British ‘Quota’ Legislation”, in J. Richards (ed.), The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema, 1929-1939 London, Taurus, 1998, p. 62.

13 George Orwell, “The Lion and the Unicom: Socialism and the English Genius. Part I: England Your England”, in The Penguin Essays of George Orwell, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1994 edn., p. 154-156.

14 The Times, 5 March 1932.

15 Ibid.

16 Commission on Educational and Cultural Films, The Film in National Life London HMSO 1932, p. 126, 139.

17 Evidence from the Board of Trade to Committee on Cinematograph Films, 1936, BT 55/3, PRO.

18 S. Street, British National Cinema, London, Routledge, 1997, p. 8.

19 J. Petley, “Cinema and State”, in Barr 1986: 32.

20 The most comprehensive survey of critically acclaimed films of this period can be found in P. Rotha, The Film Till Now: A Survey of World Cinema, London, Vision, 1949 edition.

21 R. Low, Film Making in 1930s Britain, London, Allen and Unwin, 1985, p. xiv.

22 See, for example, T. Ryall, “A British Studio System: The Associated British Picture Corporation and the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation in the 1930s”, L. Napper, “A Despicable Tradition? Quota Quickies in the 1930s”, and L. Wood, “Low Budget British Films in the 1930s”, all in Murphy 1997; L. Wood, “Julius Hagen and Twickenham Film Studios”, and H. Glancy, “Hollywood and Britain: MGM and the British ‘Quota’ Legislation”, both in Richards 1998.

23 S. Street, “British Film and the National Interest, 1927-1939”, in Murphy 1997.

24 Ibid. p. 25.

25 Macnab 1993:163.

26 See Browning and SORREL.I. 1954: 134.

27 A UNESCO survey found that the number of annual cinema admissions per head of population in Great Britain was 28, while the United States was some way behind in second place with 23. See Browning and Sorrele 1954: 136.

28 Quoted in Street 1997: 202.

29 R. Murphy, “Under the Shadow of Hollywood”, in Barr 1986: 61.

30 Quoted in Macnab 1993: 162.

31 Macnab 1993: 173.

32 Quoted in Macnab 1993: 180.

33 Murphy 1989:223.

34 Eric Johnson to Board of Trade, 22 June 1948, BT 64/4538, PRO.

35 Alexander B. King to Board of Trade, 21 March 1949, BT 64/4538, PRO.

36 Notes on visit of Mr. Bliss from U. S. Embassy to the Foreign Office, 12 August 1948 BT 64/4538, PRO.

37 Tony Garnett, quoted in P. Stead, “Wales in the Movies”, in T. Curtis (ed.), Wales: The Imagined Nation. Essays in Cultural and National ldentity, Bridgend, Poetry Wales Press, 1986, p. 161.

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