‘A Special Relationship’ Q&A: Britain in Hollywood and Hollywood in Britain
- First of all, what made you think of a book on “the special relationship” between the American and British film industries – particularly on the British side?
I was aware of a couple of books on the British in Hollywood, but I wanted to move beyond that somewhat limited discussion and document the whole British/American relationship as it applied to filmmaking.
Growing up in England, I had always been interested in the history of the British cinema, but generally my writing on film history has been concentrated on America. I suppose to a certain extent I wanted to go back into my archives, reread my early interviews with British filmmakers and make some use of them.
I also was of the belief that as an Englishman who has lived for many years in the United States, I was more than qualified to tackle the subject. Like the filmmakers in my story, I have had a special relationship with both British and American cinema.
- In a 1926 interview, actor Ralph Forbes dismisses the British film industry of the period, asserting that “cinema in England is as yet scarcely an industry.” How come? Especially considering that Germany had a vibrant film industry throughout the silent era, while France and Italy and even smaller countries like Denmark and Sweden all had flourishing industries at some point during that period.
Is social “conservatism” – as discussed in A Special Relationship – enough of an explanation to justify Britain (seemingly) lagging so far behind Hollywood and several other European countries?
Of course, the opinion that “cinema in England is as yet scarcely an industry” is that of Ralph Forbes. It is not necessarily correct. You point out flourishing film industries in other European countries, but, more to the point, is that the films produced by France, Italy, and the Scandinavians demonstrated then and continue to demonstrate in retrospect an artistry lacking in British films.
I do not believe there is a fundamental difference between the film industries of the various European countries, all of which had a certain amount of government involvement, but rather that Ralph Forbes, or others, were of the opinion that the British most of all should be able to emulate the Americans. They spoke the same language and there was no reason why Britain should not have a fully functioning film industry on a par with that in the United States. But it didn’t. “How come?” you ask.
Well, I don’t really know, but I would suspect it had something to do with a different work ethic in the two countries and the inability of Britain to produce titans of industry as did America – not just in film but elsewhere. Britain had no Henry Ford, no J.P. Morgan, no Andrew Carnegie (despite his being born there), and no Louis B. Mayer or Carl Laemmle.
- In your introduction, you ask, “Did English filmmakers really understand how mediocre their work was compared to much that was coming out of America?”
This is a follow-up question to the previous one: Why would that be? The lack of money might have resulted in a less polished final product, but what about British screenwriting, direction, acting?
I cannot believe that the writing, directing and acting talents in the British film industry were not aware that their work was not on a par with that produced in America. But surely the issue is money, or lack of it.
I recall, for example, director Walter Forde bemoaning to me that he had wanted to film his 1934 production of Chu Chin Chow in color, but producer Michael Balcon was unwilling to spend the money.
There were no British producers willing to invest heavily in British cinema. I don’t think they really understood what British filmgoers, and filmgoers outside of Britain, really wanted. They made films as cheaply as possible. It showed. And audiences stayed away.
It might even be that audiences were tempted by British films, but having been disappointed once, they were unwilling to take a gamble again.
When you think about it, the only great British producer was Alexander Korda, and he, of course, is not British but Hungarian. OK, an argument might be made that Michael Balcon was a superior British producer, but his films generally did not gain a wide circulation in the U.S. His Ealing Comedies are adored and venerated, but when they first came out over here, they were shown primarily at arthouses. They were not released in great number across the United States.
- Throughout the decades, American actors, directors, producers, and technical personnel found work in England at some time or other. In your book, you discuss the different reasons that led them to cross the Atlantic.
Of course, it worked both ways, with British talent coming to work in Hollywood. One key reason for their desire to be a part of the American film industry was the lure of more – likely much more – money…
Money and a showcase for their talent. Why waste your ability on second-rate product when there is the potential to be first-rate elsewhere?
The time period might also be relevant. Did World War Two have anything to do with Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Stevenson deciding to come to the United States? Certainly, Stevenson was a pacifist, a conscientious objector if you will, and David O. Selznick’s offer of a Hollywood contract provided him with an excuse to escape the war.
- Alfred Hitchcock. Pure speculation, but … What if he had stayed in England? Do you think that would have made a difference for the British film industry of the late ’30s/’40s?
Good question. I don’t know the answer. But I will point out that there were many other talented directors at work in Britain in the 1930s — Walter Forde, Victor Saville, etc. So, I don’t think that it would have made a major difference to British cinema had Hitchcock stayed.
Now, if you want to be slightly controversial: Do not forget that Hitchcock’s best British films were written by Charles Bennett, and I am strongly of the opinion in that he was most influential in their being successful. Like Hitchcock, Bennett left the U.K. for America in the late 1930s. Perhaps if he had stayed, it would have made a difference to British cinema.
Below: Charles Bennett: Alfred Hitchcock collaborator on ‘The Man Who Knew Too Much,’ ‘The 39 Steps.’
- There seems to have been a marked change in the look and quality of British films in the 1940s. Why did that happen then? Were Hollywood personnel in any way responsible for that improvement? In the post-war years, did that serve as an enticement for American talent to cross the Atlantic?
After the war, primarily for financial reasons, Hollywood took an active interest in producing films in Britain. It provided the stars and other talent, and it also encouraged the best of British cinema to work on films produced in Britain but under the auspices of Hollywood studios. It was natural that those films should have less of a quaint British look and more of a Hollywood veneer.
- From Herbert Rawlinson and Ronald Colman to Andrew Garfield and Michael Fassbender, British actors have not infrequently fared (at least relatively) well in Hollywood (and/or Hollywood-ish) movies.
What about American actors and actresses in the U.K.? How have they fared? Have any faded Hollywood personalities been able to revive their careers after starring in British films?
I am not particularly aware of faded Hollywood personalities reviving their careers as a result of starring in British films. I suppose an argument might be made that Cary Grant’s Hollywood career was somewhat in decline when he came to England in 1936, and certainly it improved when he returned.
In the 1920s, Evelyn Brent came to Britain. She was not a Hollywood star at the time, but thanks to her starring in a slew of mediocre British films, she returned to America identified as a “star,” and thus was offered starring roles there.
- British producers have often relied on the appeal American performers had/have as far as British film audiences are concerned.
Back in the ’20s, Betty Compson, Nita Naldi, Mae Marsh, and Dorothy Gish were brought over to England.
How come? Why would an American (or some other foreign) celebrity have more box office appeal than a British (or foreign-born but British-based) celebrity? Or is that simply not true? Or were top British productions made with an eye on the American market?
You answer your question in the last sentence. Major British productions needed major stars – and they came from Hollywood. Even major British stars, such as Leslie Howard, Clive Brook, Ronald Colman, Merle Oberon, etc., were “stars” thanks to their work in Hollywood not in the U.K.
- For decades, some in Hollywood have screamed in despair, “The British are coming! The British are coming!” Has there ever been something similar on the British side re: some purported “American invasion” of the British film industry?
It is not so much the British film industry that has been invaded by America, but rather British cinemas (or movie theaters). From the 1910s onwards through into very recent times, it has been America that has been at the forefront of films on screen in British theaters.
The Americans are coming, and continue to come, and there are times when it seems only an aged actress, such as Judi Dench or Maggie Smith, can hold them at bay. As the song goes, “There Is Nothing Like a Dame,” and Americans are such snobs that they fall over themselves to welcome a Dame on to an American screen, be it in a theater or on television.
- In Hollywood, there was a “British Colony” – with people like C. Aubrey Smith, David Niven, etc. Was there ever an “American Colony” in the British film industry? If not, why would you say that never happened?
You know the English are fixated with class. There has always been a class system in England, and it still exists to this day. So, in a way, the British Colony, existed because of that class system. It was ruled by the aristocracy in the form of Dame May Whitty and Sir C. Aubrey Smith, and everyone else bowed and scraped in their presence – or at least played cricket at the order of Sir C. Aubrey Smith.
The class system does not exist in the U.S., and so Americans in Britain had nobody to form a colony around. I do not actually think that American filmmakers in Britain had that much interest in one another.
Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch were thrown together because of the color of their skin, but even they were not close, particularly in view of Welch’s supposed relationship with someone whom Adelaide Hall and most of us would have despised. (For various reasons I cannot reveal that individual’s identity.)
Constance Cummings was married to a left-wing British M.P. and writer, Benn W. Levy, and when the blacklist began in the U.S., those fleeing to Britain tended to gather around Connie and Levy simply because their politics were similar.
- Hollywood studios such as Warner Bros. and MGM had British studios for a while. How did that work? And why wasn’t that sort of bicontinental studio concept revived after World War II? Or was it, perhaps in some other form?
Warner Bros. had the most prominent of American-owned British studios, at Twickenham. Other major studios tended to acquire films for the British market made cheaply by independent British studios and producers.
After the War, MGM opened a U.K. studio at Borehamwood. (One wit had it that in view of the films made there, it should have been called “Bore ‘em stiff.”)*
- When it comes to this “special” relationship between the U.S. and U.K. film industries, what would you say are the top two or three key differences between the early 21st century and the studio era (1920s–1950s)?
The major difference is that today most major films are international productions. There is really no such entity as a major British film. Finance comes from all over the world. Technicians and actors move freely from one country to another.
The biggest franchises in British cinema this century are the James Bond and the Harry Potter films, and I am sure to most people seeing those productions on American screens, they are identified as American films.
MGM Borehamwood studio
* Note from the Editor: Among the films at least partly shot at MGM’s Borehamwood studio were:
- Edward My Son (1949).
Director: George Cukor.
Cast: Spencer Tracy. Deborah Kerr. Ian Hunter. James Donald.
- Conspirator (1949).
Director: Victor Saville.
Cast: Robert Taylor. Elizabeth Taylor. Robert Flemyng. Honor Blackman.
- The London Film Productions / The Archers’ co-production The Elusive Pimpernel / The Fighting Pimpernel (1950).
Director: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Cast: David Niven. Margaret Leighton. Cyril Cusack. Jack Hawkins.
- The Miniver Story (1950).
Director: H.C. Potter (actually replaced by an uncredited Victor Saville).
Cast: Greer Garson. Walter Pidgeon. John Hodiak. Leo Genn.
As found in A Special Relationship, according to MGM’s Eddie Mannix Ledger only Richard Thorpe’s Knights of the Round Table (1953), starring Robert Taylor, Ava Gardner, Mel Ferrer, and Anne Crawford, turned in a profit for the studio.
Actor Rex Ingram The Thief of Bagdad image: United Artists, via Four Color Comics.
Evelyn Brent image via Doctor Macro.