‘I am sick of films’ – James Mason on the British Film Industry of the 1940s

Adrian Garvey, Queen Mary University of London

25 August 2017


Focussing on the 1930s to 1950s, my PhD examined the career of the actor James Mason as he achieved stardom in Britain, and then made a difficult transition to Hollywood. My primary aim was to explore the inter-relationship between performance, stardom and national identity, in what I believe to be a diverse and under-examined career. As with any star, part of this also involved considering the performance of the off-screen or ‘real’ James Mason during this time.

Although in later years he acquired more of the aura of a benign elder statesman, Mason had an enduring off-screen reputation as a ‘difficult’ actor – with one profile in the 1950s describing him as ‘the rudest man in Hollywood.’ This was probably most evident when, during the height of his stardom in Britain, he seemed intent on sabotaging his career. After eight years of limited success as a leading man he had become enormously successful as the eponymous Marquis of Rohan in the 1943 Gainsborough melodrama The Man in Grey. Further successes, in Fanny by Gaslight (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945) and, especially, The Seventh Veil (1945), quickly consolidated his status and created a distinct and unusual persona for a major star, that of a saturnine, charismatic, brute – while studio era male stars sometimes played anti-heroes, very few consistently played villains.

James Mason in The Man in Grey (1943)

A parallel off-screen image emerged during this time which established the actor himself as a truculent and opinionated figure. Unusual at a time when publicity material tended to stress a star’s dedication, modesty, and gratitude to the industry and their fans, this was at least in keeping with his on-screen persona. By contrast, a contemporary such as John Mills would have struggled with such an intransigent image. Mason was also an unusually prolific author of articles in this period, and used them to freely express his views about his career, and also about the British film industry and its perceived shortcomings. These pieces were not confined to fan magazines, and, with such titles as ‘I Hate Producers’ and ‘Why I am Going to America’ were far more opinionated and polemical than the standard, often ghosted, promotional material expected from film stars. Along with the drawings he frequently produced to illustrate these pieces, they can be read as a counter-narrative to the often negative accounts of Mason which began to appear in the fan, trade and lay press.

Mason was consistently forthright in his criticism of the domestic industry and his admiration of Hollywood, and became increasingly outspoken and intemperate during the decade. In ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?,’ a 1944 article for Picturegoer magazine, he defended those who had relocated to America, arguing that ‘most of the British actors in Hollywood had very little encouragement here.’ Comparing the two industries, he says ‘I have always had such immense admiration for American-made films and in the not so distant past found very few British which aroused a like enthusiasm.’[i]

Reviewing his career for Picture Post in 1947, he described the recent Odd Man Out as ‘the one completely satisfactory film of all the thirty I have been in.’ Among numerous criticisms of others, he finds that They Were Sisters ‘got progressively worse in the course of its making,’ says of Fanny by Gaslight that ‘I can’t say that I liked the finished product very much,’ and calls The Wicked Lady ‘an excellent story which contrived to appear extremely vulgar on the screen.’[ii]

Though more oblique in its message than such articles, Mason’s 1945 piece ‘Glamour’, for the miscellany magazine Summer Pie, proved the most controversial. Ostensibly, the piece is about how theatre and film have lost their magical aura as they have become more familiar to him. Saying that he finds ‘precious little glamour in British pictures,’ he pointedly envisions a ramshackle production in which the director is sacked and his ‘abysmally ignorant’ replacement has to film an actor from the waist up because he has broken his leg in a drunken fall. The piece ends on a rhapsodic mock-credo:

Tell me, if you please, that Hollywood is slipping, that it has made no outstanding films for the past four years, that Denham’s portentous product will presently wipe the floor…  I have faith. I have faith in the sacred permanence of an institution which fills my eyes … with such delight and my mind with the glorious company of Carmen Miranda, Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Jean Gabin.[iii]

James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, p. 83

Mason’s expansive paean to Hollywood was not widely commented on, but his belittling of British film-making practices brought a flood of condemnation from the industry and was widely reported and debated in the trade press. The actor was reprimanded by his former director Anthony Asquith, then head of the Association of Cinema Technicians, and the union itself threatened him with exclusion from the studios. He retaliated by offering to cancel his film contracts and withdraw from the industry. The issue resurfaced in the mainstream press the following year after an Express article ‘I am sick of films says James Mason,’ in which he claimed to be turning down Hollywood offers but unwilling to work in Britain. ‘When I see a film of my own on the screen, he was reported as saying, ‘I am pleased when I see myself but bored with the rest of it.’[iv]

Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3

The actor’s departure for America was now almost inevitable. By the time he left in 1947, the British film industry’s sense of anger and betrayal was especially acute because of the economic problems it faced in the post-war climate. J. Arthur Rank’s ambitions to challenge Hollywood had succeeded in an unprecedented US distribution deal for British films with the major studios and, after the great American success of The Seventh Veil, Mason’s name was a prominent part of the Rank portfolio being touted there. The plan collapsed within months, after the British government’s unexpected imposition of a 75% Import Duty on foreign films soured relations between the two industries and the studio refocused attention on domestic production.

Certain themes emerge from Mason’s sustained polemical attacks, most notably about the poverty of creative talent and ambition within an industry which he regarded as parochial and insular. However, some elements of humour and provocation, as well as strategic self-publicity, are also undoubtedly involved. While Mason’s articles and comments represent an unaligned, individualist stance, the critique of the national industry does echo some of the views of the ‘quality’ film critics of the time – who, for example, also found the Gainsborough films absurd – but his evident regard for Hollywood, for genre cinema, and for popular culture in general, also suggests a more nuanced position which was uncommon at the time.

Mason eventually found Hollywood to be an even more frustrating working environment than Britain. A protracted lawsuit with an agent meant that he was unable to work for any studio for the first eighteen months after his arrival in America; by the time that he could, he found that he had already become a less attractive proposition for the industry. His American career, which he later deemed a failure, but which included such films as The Reckless Moment, A Star is Born, Bigger Than Life and North by Northwest, would show him attempting to renegotiate his image as a transnational star.


[i] James Mason, ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?’, Picturegoer, June 10, 1944, p. 11.

[ii] ‘James Mason Talks About His Films’, Picture Post, 1 February 1947, pp. 14-17.

[iii] James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, pp. 83-86.

[iv] ‘“I am sick of films” says James Mason’, Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3.


Dr Adrian Garvey is a Teaching Assistant at Queen Mary University of London, where he completed his PhD, Performance and Stardom in the Transatlantic Career of James Mason, in 2016. Recent publications include ‘Steely Velvet: The Voice of James Mason’, in the Journal of British Cinema and Television (January, 2015), ‘Ageing Masculinity in the Films of James Mason’, in Lucy Bolton and Julie Lobalzo Wright (eds.), Lasting Screen Stars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and ‘Stardom in Silent British Cinema’, in Ian Q. Hunter, Laraine Porter and Justin Smith (eds.), The Routledge History of British Cinema, Routledge, 2016).

The Boundaries of Genre: History, Impedance and Flow

Sue Harper

1 August 2017


Sue’s blog is based on her keynote lecture which was  delivered at the British Association of Film, Television and Screen Studies (BAFTSS) Conference at the University of Bristol, 19-20 April 2017, when she was awarded an ‘Outstanding Achievement Award’.


I have three separate agendas for this BAFTSS lecture: to give an overview and critique of my own academic work, to make a contribution to the debates on genre (the topic of this conference), and to suggest a number of terms which might help us to think through the issues of innovation and transformation in film culture. It’s important to say that, although this lecture is in response to my Outstanding Achievement Award,  I don’t think that seniority  should automatically confer deference.  I don’t want to be an authority now, but a doorway  or a portal to a looser and freer mode of thinking about film culture.

I

My own work in film originated in a revolt against non-contextualised analysis. I did English and German at a university which specialised in a “poem-on-the-page” approach, with a good dose of Leavis thrown in. This was unsatisfactory, to say the least. I did well, but I knew it was a silly way to proceed. When I went to a lecture in 1965 by E.P. Thompson called “Apostacy and Disenchantment”, it was an absolute coup de foudre for me. Thompson insisted on seeing culture in its historical context, and I knew then and there that I had to work in this field, and did an MPhil under him  – about Hazlitt and the political journalism of the Romantic period. What I was looking for then was the consonance (or contradiction) between artistic discourses and those of other social practices. And I’m still doing that now. History is for me the master-discipline: but what I want to know is, is cultural history simply an adjunct to it, or could it be a means of recasting the debate about historicity itself? In my most fanciful moments, I wonder whether the social function of popular cinema is sometimes to operate as the canary down the mine – as a sort of early warning system of subtle changes in consciousness. The real issue is when it operates like that.  There are periods when cinema lags behind (something like a tortoise), rather than setting the agenda.  This has to do with the medium’s technological developement and social purchase. Genre has a role to play in this canary-or-tortoise process, and it is one of the aims of this lecture to talk about that. But with one proviso. We will need to begin to think about a  critical world beyond genre if we are to make any headway at all.

Most of my work, on costume film, on Portsmouth film-going, on the 1950s, and the 1970s (and even my most recent published piece on Tom Jones in the Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television) has been unashamedly revisionist: that is to say, it is based on archival work. I am one of those sad  creatures whose happiest hours have been spent in the National Archives. But let us not fall into the traps of thinking that the archive is  absolute or neutral – or (worse) that its conclusions can be straightforwardly adduced into a feminist or socialist discourse.  I think we should begin with the archive: but we should never end with it. As I have been insisting for some time, we now need to look beyond the archive and to speculate about the triggers of innovation, the nature of overlap between different media, and the boundaries of genre.  What concerns me now is the relationship between film culture and broader patterns in taste and ways of seeing. In some periods, film is porous to outside influences: in others, it is attempts to be hermetically sealed from them. I want to know why this is. It is not just down to personnel, or to accident or luck.

II

Genre can be conceived of as  an industrial category, of course.  Those of us who have trawled through Kineweekly will be familiar with this argument – that some genres are more suitable for “the lower-class halls”.  Viewed thus, genre is an economically determined structure which exemplifies a neat match between audience pleasure and production profit. 

This model can never work for long, though. In the first place, certain genres are critical rather than industrial (no mogul ever gathered his associates round a table to discuss  making a film noir). And in the second place, the “industrial” model has to be rigorously historicised for it to be of any use. Even five years in cultural history is a very long time, and generic shifts can take place at breakneck speed. Consider the thriller genre. In the post-war period in British cinema, films such as Odd Man Out and Mine Own Executioner shared a visual rhetoric and view of trauma. The genre was pretty homogenous as a whole during the period from 45 to 50. But right through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, the thriller genre became bewilderingly diverse: it could be bifurcated between black and mild, between fascinated and repelled,  between liberal and repressive.  It is possible to argue that the multiplicity of the genre is due to the unease in the period about transgression and taboo. The thriller  genre could be seen  in this period as responding, in an indirect manner, to the lack of  consensus about the outsider in society. In the 1970s, with films such as Gumshoe, the thriller genre became a site of irony and disavowal.

But more is at issue. It is imperative to combine the study of genre with attention to questions of agency.  Agency is the organisational procedure which determines the hierarchy of authorships. In any given genre, a text is produced by the relationship between competing authorships.  In some  costume melodramas (say), the dominant discourse will be the language of the clothes. In others, such as thrillers, it can be the lighting. Is this because the producer has intuited, in his wisdom, that  it is his task to inhibit the free play of agencies in production? Is it his task to orchestrate them, privileging some and downgrading others?  In that case, attention to the means whereby  ideas get into texts will be an important part of the film historian’s repertoire. That’s likely, but it doesn’t get us far enough. We need to ask ourselves about the cultural tasks which specific genres perform.

To do that, we need to raise the issue of consciousness: of the audience and of the text’s progenitors. It seems to me that all generic texts – thrillers, westerns, costume dramas – rely on the  energetic but finite excersise of audience creativity. That is to say, there must be a dynamic relationship between what the audience knows and does not know: there must be the right proportion of what is  familiar and what is fresh. Too much predictability  and it will be stale: too much innovation and it will be puzzling. Audiences will, it seems to me, use genre  texts as a way of refining their own sense of cultural competence. But with the rider that audience requirements alter drastically according to social factors. For example, I showed in my work on the Portsmouth Regent (pubished in the HJRFTV)  that the taste for “bad women” was very short-lived. Films which celebrated them ceased to be very popular after 1947. That was because, during a period of sexual consolidation,  transgressive females in thrillers and melodramas needed to be summarily dealt with, if  audiences were to like them.

In some periods (but not beyond 1970), each genre evoked a particular emotional landscape. This was achieved only when film-makers had the confidence to slice away  everything extraneous and flag up the unambiguous markers or icons of their genre. In order to assess the emotional  landscape  of a genre film, we have to look at the way it deals with anxiety. Is the text itself poised between stasis  and anxiety? At what stage does the resolution take place?  If it is early on in the film, then anxiety will be reduced. And does comfort matter? In some ways, a solidly generic film can operate like a pair of old slippers: eased on with a sigh of pleasure, but worn with a degree of embarassment.

And this brings me to the issue of genre and class. I  do think that  firmly generic texts have, perhaps, very clear class boundaries in terms of their representation, mode of address and appeal (and these cannot easily be accomodated within  standard explanatory models of low-and- middle-brow). And the converse might be the case too: that cross-generic texts, which push against existing formal boundaries, have more fluid class arrangements. This will help us to dispose once and for all of  the issue of “reflection”. It is not the genre text’s job to tell us how the world is, in class terms, but to allude to both the real and the imagined worlds, with  varying degrees of intensity, and to encourage the audience to think it knows the difference.

But how does change come about in genre? It can’t just be a question of one trope becoming tired and audiences becoming fractious and bored. It seems to me that in some periods – the 1970s for example – generic boundaries are acutely at issue due to a widespread transformation in ways of seeing. The ideas of Lefebvre are useful here. He argues, in his Critique of Everyday Life and Introduction to Modernity,  that the status quo in art depends on the idea of wholeness. Once that homogeneity is challenged, then nothing can ever be the same again. Fracture and discontinuities, even of a hairline kind, move things forward. Most useful of all, Lefebvre argues that there is a tipping-point which brings about cultural change. Every time a motif, a phrase or an image is used, its accretions become more heavy and overdetermined, until in the end its weight moves it into a different mode, possibly that of irony. This is fruitful. For now I want to tentatively suggest that the “tipping points” in British film culture have to do with the weight or intellectual heaviness which the film text can comfortably carry.  Genre plays an important role in this process. It provides us with an analytical method and focus.  In literature or painting, the tipping-points have to do with the speed with which the art-work can swing from one discourse to another. In film, the tipping-point has to do with the intensity and weight of the cultural quotations within the  generic text. But different genres may share the same emotional landscape within a period, and that provides some very interesting challenges which I would like to try to meet.

III

I now want to invent some analytical or descriptive terms which might help us to think about film history. Let’s consider film culture and its social function  in terms of a range of concepts or metaphors: of armature, impedance, porousness, and atavism.

Armature

This is a term taken from sculpture. The armature is the structure hidden beneath the surface of the work of art: the wood or metal that permits it to stand and gives it strength. I want to argue that all works of art have an armature: a set of politico-social attitudes which may be incoherent but which are irreducible. These can be either simple or complex. For example, I would say that the armature of A Matter of Life and Death is the following set of ideas: that love overcomes death, that culture has a vital educative function, that history is cyclical in structure, and that self-sacrifice is sometimes necessary. The same armature can be seen in J.W. Dunne’s  An Experiment in Time or the paintings of Stanley Spencer. I am not saying that there is a stylistic similarity here, but that they have the same mindscape (which is not the same as “structures of feeling”). If, by comparison, we think about the armature of the Gainsborough Caravan, it is based on the following precepts: that marginal groups are attractive, that literature is the privilege of everyone, and that high status and pleasure are not necessarily linked. The same armature can be seen in the paintings of Russell Flint and the writings of George Borrow. And Dickens too, come to think of it.

What can we do with the concept of armature? I think we can use it to establish (for example) a film’s place in the cultural field, the nature of its allegiances, the scope of its eclecticism, and its typicality or atypicality in its own period. If a film’s armature is shared with a substantial number of others in its own period, then we can assume there there is an unusual homogeneity in the cinematic field, and we can ask questions about why that is. For example, such homogeneity might, during the war, be ascribed to the films promulgated by  the MoI, which enforced its own attitudes with some rigour. Or it might, in the post-war period, be ascribed to the fact that of a number of artists  were coming to their creative peak at the same time, and with a consonance in their cultural capital. If a film (or group of films) share their armature with paintings or literature, we can assume an unusual fluidity between the media, and ask ourselves why that is. It is crucial not to confuse armature with  the Althusserian  concept of ideology: it is much more complex than that.

Armature can be a useful tool for thinking about a genre’s function and topography. In British cinema of the 1930s, musicals from a wide variety of production backgrounds have the same mindscape: that talent will come into its own, that true love will be consummated after a series of tests, that classical beauty can be outweighed  by charm, and that lowly backgrounds are no bar to success. This armature, interestingly  enough, is shared by the romantic novels of a period slightly earlier –  Maria Corelli and Ethel M. Dell. No other genre in the 1930s has this consistency of armature. The comedies of the period are much more varied in terms of their belief-systems and cultural politics. The types of social anarchy contained within Gracie Fields or George Formby comedies, or the Aldwych farces, are quite distinct from each other. We might tentatively conclude that the task undertaken by the musicals is much narrower, and that the solidity of their shared armature makes their generic boundaries  temporarily impregnible.  The musicals aim for a precision  of focus, whereas the comedies have more of a scattergun technique. This means that the musicals are much more vulnerable in the market-place, and accounts for the fact that they cease to be made during the war. This was certainly not the case with American musicals, which were made and enjoyed throughout the war. But they, of  course, had a different armature.

Impedance

I don’t mean by this  the external determinants that hinder the performance or structure of the film text  – that would be simple to describe, and would be a matter of assessing the influence of bodies like the BBFC or the MoI or the NFFC. What I mean by impedance is an unevenness within the film – a halting, uncertain quality to its rhythm, structure or style. It is only on very rare occasions that we can ascribe textual impedance to inefficiency or expedience during the production process.

Justin Smith and I commented, in British Film Culture in the 1970s: the Boundaries of Pleasure that, in a very large tranche of films made in the 1970s, there was a textual awkwardness which obtained in work by different directors, production companies or indeed actors. I now want to suggest that this awkwardness can be defined as impedance – a sort of slurring or unevenness in the rhythm of the text. If we analyse the cutting rhythm of Joseph Andrews or O Lucky Man!, the set work of Barry Lyndon or The Duellists, and the costume work in Tommy or Don’t Look Now, or the performance style of The Go-Between, we can see that there are very swift shifts between different styles, and that these are not presented symmetrically.  I want to argue that this phenomenon  – of a sort of drag and bustle – happens in film culture when there are specific pre-conditions. When the boundaries between high and popular arts have been challenged (as they were in the 1970s), and when the symbolic function of objects becomes ambiguous and insecure, then there will be a profound change in the type of anchorage. This can be seen in the way objects appear in the frame (composition) or in their frequency of iteration (editing). In a cinema like the 1970s, the effect of impedance is to present a world of relativism and disproportion, in which resolution is perpetually postponed.

Some cinemas will not exhibit textual impedance at all: MoI-backed films, for example, or most British films of the 1950s. These all display a sort of smoothness and textual coherence which cannot solely be ascribed to rigorous production control. Rather, it can be ascribed to the security of a shared set of values (both moral and aesthetic). Irony, as a mode, will only be a prominent part of a film culture when it is “on the turn” – or when the traditional patterns of deference are disrupted for a substantial tranche of artists. Thus textual impedance occurs in late 1950s film culture, in the films of the New Wave or early Carry Ons. High-impedance film texts often attract critical opprobrium, which is a sure sign that something important is afoot.

There is, of course, the phenomenon of impedance in literature- that “drag and bustle” to which I alluded earlier. The best examples I can think of are in high modernism – Ulysses, for example, or To the Lighthouse. In high modernism, the aim is to use impedance to display authorial virtuosity. In more mainstream literature – that which casts a nod in the direction of realism  – too marked a use of impedance would reduce the illusion of randomness and ordinary life. Film culture, of whatever type and period, uses impedance as a signal of anxiety or unease. And  that is why it is rarely seen in films which are firmly located within a genre category.

Porousness

By this I mean having a discursive openness and flexibility, All artistic texts are porous to some degree. Dickens, for example, was an unusually porous writer, in that his novels are exceptionally open to the languages of politics, journalism and visual art of his own period. Sometimes, as in Hard Times or A Tale of Two Cities, those languages seep through in a way which was (for the readers of the time)  offensively direct.  Some Romantic writers too – Hazlitt, Coleridge, Keats – are at pains to make their work function as a sort of cultural sieve, in which their readings of Chapman, Greek mythology, and political journalism can filter through and be seen working in the text.  The nature of  inter-media porousness in British (or any) cinema is different . It can’t just be ascribed to personal circumstance  or the varying autonomy of film staff. It has to do with the relative strengths and weaknesses of the media – their social centrality or marginality at any given time.

The degree of porousness will have a profound effect on the look of a period, of course.  For example, it seems to me that 1930s British cinema is extremely porous to the realist novel, in a way that the 1940s is not. To be sure, that has something to do with the role and status of scriptwriters, and the relative dearth of original scripts: but it has more to do with the status of realism. Its orthodoxy in literature is more powerful at some times than others. In the 1930s, it seems to me that middle-brow writers like Priestley, Holtby and Cronin  played a dominant part in the cultural scene, and in general the cinema was too insecure to mount a challenge. Film-makers like Korda, who did not espouse the ethics or aesthetic practices of realism, were operating as mavericks, from the edge.  The structure of the 1930s film industry – ad hoc,  ramshackle and entrepreneurial – was particularly susceptible  to the charms of stability, realism  and textual hierarchy.

During the war and the post-war period, however, there was strong competition from non-realist prose writers, who had a different cultural competence. The work of Rumer Godden, Lady E. F. Smith and Norah Lofts was colourful and extravagant and was, perhaps, attractive to a cinema which was quite tightly controlled. This new “porousness” of the industry to more popular and highly-coloured literature doubtless had something to do with changes in literary habits and readership patterns. But when this was combined with an intensified receptivity to Romantic visual style, a transformation took place. The work of German and continental designers, and the rise of film-makers sensitive to the pastoralism and Romanticism of the more traditional British “sublime” school, meant that late war and post-war British cinema had a dominant look which can only be defined as expressionist – cheap and cheerful at Gainsborough, upwardly mobile with Powell and Pressburger and Carol Reed.  The visual style of Odd Man Out or I Know Where I’m Going or AMOLAD is a testament to film-makers’ willingness to receive and recycle British and German painting styles (both pastoral and expressionist) and  reinvent them anew.

Such  cinematic porousness is exhibited  mainly in certain genres: the melodrama (both costume and modern),  very commonly.  It’s interesting to consider the Western in this regard.  This is the genre whose boundaries are least porous of all.  But the clue is that its iconography (horses, space, clothes, Indians) is geographically and  historically very narrow, while its themes (masculinity, territory) are sufficiently broad to permit  some, but not total,  leeway. And so we can conclude that  porousness is an important  precursor to the phenomenon of generic flow. A genre can be friable  – moist and workable –  when its boundaries are not too rigorously defended, and it can then  be sinuous and adapt itself to cultural circumstance. Hence the long shelf-life of the horror genre.

Atavism

In my last theme, I want to consider the usefulness of atavism as a way of categorising cultural texts. By atavism I mean, pace Lefebvre, the archaic or primal element in culture. This can invoke the magical and the irrational, or it can occasionally  invoke its opposite. But in either case, the atavistic always yearns for something anterior, and is essentially nostalgic as a mode. I don’t want to argue that any work of art is totally atavistic, but that it may have concealed atavistic yearnings or components, and that the proportion of these, either in the individual work of art or cluster, will determine the flavour of the overall culture. For example, it strikes me that in (say) Anna Karenina, there are atavistic yearnings which are so powerful that they dominate the novel  – yearnings for the land, wholeness and a sort of equality under the sun. The same can be said of Middlemarch or (in film) The Song of the Road  or The Good Companions. Or indeed the Gothic movement in literature and film, which is almost wholly atavistic. Everything depends on the intensity with which the atavistic elements are displayed, or whether some energy has been deployed in concealing them.

If we look at some film examples, it seems to me that the proportion of atavistic longings in 1950s British cinema is quite small. I think this is  because it is a cinema which is rigorously constructed, industrially speaking; it is not so much that the studio system was working well, but that the industrial, ideological and economic constraints did not undercut each other. To be sure, 1950s British cinema did often  worry about boundaries and rituals. But it was also preoccupied with modernity, and in an ambivalent way, so that there was little if any space in the culture for the expression of atavistic yearnings. The same was true of the 1960s, but for different reasons: then, the pleasures of modernity were positively embraced, and on the whole the atavistic was relegated to a minor key. With one exception, of course: that of Hammer, where blood, ancient rituals, matriarchal cultures and nature worship were displayed. In 1970s cinema, the re-drawing of a wide range of boundaries, industrial chaos, the loss of cultural confidence and coherence forced into view a whole range of atavistic films, made under a range of production circumstances and by different directors.  Such films would be The Wicker Man, The Rocky Horror Picture ShowZardoz, or  even The Long Good Friday.  They allude, always indirectly, to a prior set of values which are residual but powerful.

Atavistic elements in film must not be confused with conservative leanings – with nostalgia for hierarchical social structures. To be sure, the atavistic in culture tends to come to the fore when there is a challenge to the existing order: but it takes the form of a yearning for pre-industrial forms – for the organic and the tribal. That, actually, is the way we ought to interpret those MoI documentaries about the land. What is notable is that the atavistic tendency does not appear to be generically located. It is pretty evenly spread across the full range of film types, and that leads me to conclude that atavistic yearnings, which evoke the magical, are like ancient tracks which criss-cross the whole  landscape of  film culture and which are most in evidence at certain times.

IV

Much remains to be done.  I suppose that what I have tried to do is to broaden the definition of evidence.  We all know that what lies before, within and after the film text is historical evidence. What I have done here is to argue that what lies beside it is just as crucial.  I wanted to suggest a  way of  analysing films of a particular period without  resorting to industrial or artistic  determinism or naive reflectionalism, and I wanted to be in  a position to explain the complexity of film’s relationship to other cultural forms. We can analyse and measure the relative strengths of some media, and the relative openness of film to them. This will allow us to think about the various ways in which  innovation occurs.  I still think that the “tipping point” is a useful way of thinking through  the issue of innovation. If motifs and tropes are repeated often, they become stale and self-conscious: it is then that they tip over into a new type of practice, through the intensity and frequency of stimulus. Innovation happens, too, when notions of social space undergo a transformation across a range of media. It is for these reasons that I persist in seeing the 1970s as an intensely innovatory period in British film culture. The only one to match it is the period from 1945 to 50. The difference between the two periods is perhaps that the second is more assimilated into critical discourses about quality and industrial control. But that is a larger debate which we must reserve for another time.


Sue Harper is Emeritus Professor of Film History at the University of Portsmouth. She inaugurated the first undergraduate degree in Cultural Studies there. She has published extensively on film history and British cinema and has appeared on radio and television. She is the author of many articles on British cinema, and her books include  Picturing the Past: The Rise and Fall of the British Costume Film (1994) and Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know (2000). She  co-authored British Cinema of the 1950s: The Decline of Deference (2003) with Vincent Porter, and British Film Culture in the 1970s: The Boundaries of Pleasure (2011) with Justin Smith. She co-edited The New Film History (2007) with James Chapman and Mark Glancy, and British Culture and Society in the 1970s (2010) with Laurel Forster. She led a major AHRC research project at Portsmouth on the 1970s.

 

Film Finances: Making Hollywood Happen

Charles Drazin, Queen Mary – University of London

4 July 2017


As I begin to write this blog on the world’s first completion guarantor Film Finances, I can’t help wondering what the company’s founder Bobby Garrett would have made of today’s online world. During World War II, he had been deputy head of the Air Section at Bletchley Park. When the war was over, he returned to the publicity-hungry movie industry, but ran his little-known corner of that industry with all the tact, discretion and knack for eluding attention that characterised his previous career in secret intelligence.

I was recently amused to find in the company’s archive a letter from the early 1970s that explained to a new business partner: “Our UK and European operation as far as we are concerned has been restricted within a very confined area; bankers, distributors, etc, are aware of our function within the Industry. Therefore, we have found that there has been no need for any publicity.” It was perhaps some left-over from Garrett’s day that helped to explain why, when I was first invited to explore Film Finances’ archive in 2009, I had not heard of the company and had no idea what a completion guarantor did. The fact that the IAMHIST conference will be hosting a panel on Film Finances offers some index of the increased awareness eight years on of this company’s crucial importance to post-war film history.

Founded in London in 1950, Film Finances pioneered a system of guaranteeing budget overcosts, as well as the certainty of completion and delivery by a specified date, which facilitated the financing of independent production. By “independent production” I mean a film that is not funded directly by a major studio but requires its producer to raise its budget from separate, independent financiers. In order to obtain a guarantee that Film Finances would meet any extra costs, a producer had to provide not only a plan of production but also regular reports on progress. Once the film had been completed and delivered to its distributor, Film Finances would then archive the paperwork relating to the project.

Over the nearly seventy years of its existence, Film Finances was an important catalyst in the spread of independent film-making from Britain and Europe to Canada, Australia and Hollywood. The result today is a vast collection of papers –  including correspondence, scripts, budgets, schedules, call sheets and progress reports –  that detail the behind-the-scenes production of thousands of feature films, including some of the most celebrated ever made –  The African Queen (1951), Dr No (1962), Cabaret (1972), Terminator (1984), Pulp Fiction (1994) and so on all the way to La La Land (2016). It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of an archive that encompasses so many industries and so many significant films.

In 2012 Film Finances agreed to grant scholars access to the papers relating to the first thirty years of its history. A special issue of the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television in 2014 offered a taste to the academic community of the archive’s treasures. Since then the company has continued to facilitate research, most recently welcoming researchers from the BFI/AHRC project, “Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema”. In the long term, Film Finances plans to work with institutions that can help to develop the research potential of the archive, whether through digital access, cataloguing the collection or arranging exhibitions.

When Bobby Garrett retired in 1982, the British film industry was in the doldrums. In a difficult climate, publicity became important even to Film Finances, as Garrett’s successor, the much more gregarious Richard Soames, sought to explain the value of what the company did to new markets that had not previously been aware of its function. The biggest of those new markets was Hollywood, where the advent of video distribution was fuelling the growth of independently financed films.

My paper at the IAMHIST conference will tell the story of how Film Finances came to Hollywood. Drawing on original documents in the Film Finances Archive, it will focus on Francis Ford Coppola’s Outsiders (1983), which Film Finances took the risk of guaranteeing even though the director’s previous two films, Apocalypse Now (1979) and One From the Heart (1982), had incurred massive overcosts. The production turned out to be the perfect calling card, as Film Finances took out a full-page advert in Variety to congratulate Coppola on finishing the film “on schedule and on budget”.

Opening an office on Sunset Boulevard only weeks later, Film Finances was keen during its early years in Hollywood to explain what it could offer to an industry that was still unfamiliar with how the completion guarantee worked. In an article that appeared in the Hollywood Reporter in 1985 Soames discussed the difference that Film Finances might have made if only it had been around to provide a completion guarantee for Heaven’s Gate (1980).

Budgeted at $11.5m, the film notoriously ended up costing over $40m and nearly ruined United Artists.  “The big advantage that the production would have had if we’d been there would have been to have an objective party who was involved in the creative aspects and who could point out where the film was really going.” In another interview with a trade journal called The Business of Film, Soames pointed out that over more than three decades “practically every set of circumstances in the making of a film has come past our door”. There were few other companies that could match the experience it had accumulated in solving the problems of production. “The very fact that there are problems with pictures is the reason that we’re in business.”

When a special issue of the Hollywood Reporter celebrated Film Finances’ fiftieth anniversary in 2000, the company had guaranteed approximately 3,000 films. Although the Hollywood office was now the headquarters of the company, the last page of the issue offered a nod to its British origins.

“Excellent Batsman for 50 years,” declared the advertisement from Merchant Ivory Productions. “May you continue for the next 50.”  It will be some time until scholars can hope to have access to the papers relating to films that Film Finances guaranteed after its arrival in Hollywood in 1982, but meanwhile the first thirty years of Film Finances’ history, relating chiefly to the British film industry, are likely to keep researchers busy for quite some time.


Charles Drazin is Senior Lecturer in Film at Queen Mary, University of London, and the author of Finest Years: British Cinema of the 1940s (1998), In Search of ‘The Third Man’ (1999) and Korda: Britain’s Only Movie Mogul (2002). Charles will be presenting a paper, ‘Film Finances goes to Hollywood’, at this year’s IAMHIST Conference.

http://filmstudies.sllf.qmul.ac.uk/filmstudies/people/drazin.html

 

  • Archives