9.3 Giving UK films a chance in the 1920s and ‘30s
It was the first world war, and the role that film began to play in it, that alerted many governments to the importance of their national cinema. The US government formed a committee to coordinate film propaganda abroad, and noted that entertainment films were good advertisements for the American way of life. Meanwhile, British government involvement in cinema had been confined to matters of safety (the danger of fire in cinemas) and, from 1913, to an arms-length supervision of film censorship through the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) on behalf of the industry and local authorities. But after World War I, when the US emerged as the dominant force in world cinema, many European countries took steps to protect their domestic film industries from aggressive American policies.
Most of these national schemes involved some form of distribution or exhibition quota, linking the number of imported US films to a required minimum proportion of domestic productions. Although regulation was applied at the point of offer to the public, it was assumed that this would have the effect of stimulating domestic production by creating a guaranteed market. In the case of Britain, by the early 1920s access to the exhibition market was an acute problem, and British producers were complaining that distributors’ forward and block booking policies were preventing their films from being released.96In 1923–24, ‘British film weeks’ were
organised to highlight this problem and to enable indigenous films to be seen; but these were not enough to salvage both the longest-established British producer, Cecil Hepworth, and one of the newest large-scale companies, Stoll, from facing terminal problems.
In 1926, just 36 UK films were made which comprised 5% of all films released, while 624 US films made up 84% of UK releases.97Producers and exhibitors reluctantly concluded that only legislation could provide a secure basis
for future British production. As a result of their campaign, the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act established a progressively increasing quota of UK films to be offered by distributors and shown by exhibitors, starting in 1929. When the Bill was first framed, synchronised sound was still a novelty, but by 1929 the ‘talkies’ had triumphed, and the operation of the Act effectively inaugurated a period of modernisation and expansion in British
production. Over a hundred new, mostly small, film companies were registered between 1930 and 1936.
96. Rachael Low,History of the British Film,vol 4, 1918-1929 (1971), pp81 ff.
Many of the leading personnel of British cinema – actors, directors, producers, technicians – started or consolidated their careers during this period. Despite this, historians for a long time regarded the 1930s as demonstrating the negative effect of quota legislation, because British production appeared to become institutionalised as cheap and shoddy. In herHistory of the British Film,Rachael Low identified the Hollywood majors, notably MGM, as responsible for deliberately distributing low-quality British ‘quota quickies’ to boost their own productions and profits. In a further Cinematograph Film Act of 1938, a minimum cost scale was introduced to boost production values, at which point MGM became a producer of high-budget UK-based films, such asA Yank at Oxford(1938) andThe Citadel(1938). These are the precursors of post-World War II US/UK co-productions, by which Hollywood studios fulfilled British nationality criteria to access UK incentives, while retaining ultimate ownership of the product.
More recent commentators have challenged the conventional interpretation of the 1930s, noting that the 1927 Act may have had unintended negative consequences, but arguing that nonetheless it also had many beneficial effects, both in terms of developing the British industry and producing high quality films which ultimately also had cultural impact.98One of these, John Sedgwick, states on the basis of an exhaustive survey of the relative
popularity of UK films:
The quota legislation… provided domestic producers who wished to operate at the quality end of the market the incentive of a protected market segment to make films which people wanted to see [and] such films were made in large numbers during the 1930s… From the viewpoint of the moribund state of the industry in the mid-1920s these results appear nothing short of remarkable.99
In a study of filmgoing preferences in the 1930s, Sedgwick demonstrates that UK films such as Gracie Fields musicals and Will Hay comedies were actually more popular than Hollywood films that took more money at the box office through being more widely exhibited.100This should provide a salutary warning against equating
gross box office with popularity per se.
With this and other well-evidenced analysis of the results of the 1927 Act, it seems clear that this first phase of government film policy was both necessary and effective in securing the production of films that were often popular, that had recognisable ‘British identity’, and that had cultural impact. Initially, this impact was largely limited to the UK, apart from some high-profile films produced by Alexander Korda, who had access to the US market through his membership of United Artists, and the early work of Alfred Hitchcock. But the careers nourished during the first quota period – Carol Reed, Michael Powell, David Lean, Thorold Dickinson and a host of actors and technicians – would pay more visible international dividends in the following decades. A further important benefit of the first quota period was the establishment of Britain’s four major studios – Shepperton, Twickenham, Denham and Pinewood – all launched on the basis of the new assurance of a market for
98. For instance, Ian Christie, ed.,Powell, Pressburger and Others(1978); Mark Glancy, Hollywood and Britain: MGM and the British ‘Quota’ Legislation, in Jeffery Richards, ed.,The Unknown Thirties(1998); John Sedgwick,Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain: A Choice of Pleasures(2000); Steve Chibnall,Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British B Film(2007).
99. John Sedgwick, Cinemagoing Preferences in Britain in the 1930s, in Richards, ed.,The Unknown Thirties,p21.
100. Sedgwick has developed an analytic framework he terms Popstat, which uses a variety of measures, such as frequency of re-booking, to estimate popularity. See Sedgwick,Popular Filmgoing in 1930s Britain, pp55-83.