By the end of the 1940s, Lance Comfort had established a solid record of achievement in 'A' features, primarily in the melodramatic mode. Towards the end of the 1940s and the early 1950s, the dominant figures in the British cinema's corner of the field of cultural production were those whose output could be seen as having literary or social realist affiliations. This was the period of the ascendancy of Carol Reed, David Lean and Anthony Asquith, all of whom enjoyed critically privileged positions in British cinema. In a field dominated by the likes of those, a number of directors who had made some mark in the 1940s were to find difficulties in conducting careers at the same level in the succeeding decades. Among those who, like Comfort, had made their names and their most attractive films in the melodramatic mode were Leslie Arliss, Bernard Knowles, Arthur Crabtree and Lawrence Huntington.
Lance Comfort has been shamefully neglected in the standard histories of British cinema, which have tended to be dominated by the work of major figures to an extent which obscures beguiling work done in less obviously prestigious areas of the field. His work exhibits strengths in categories that have been habitually undervalued in the discourse on British cinema: melodrama, genre film-making and the 'B' film have only very recently been given overdue attention. Actually, the word 'reappraisal' is a misnomer since Comfort has never had serious appraisal, even when he was the 'busiest film director' in Britain in the early 1940s. The rehabilitation of his critical reputation may depend on further work in melodrama and on an openness to the possibility of finding rewards in the too-often dismissed category of the 'B' film.
Lance Comfort might have established himself more firmly in the field of British cinema production, if he had followed up his success with Hatter's Castle by several more films in a similar vein. There were six intervening films that include Those Kids from Town, Squadron Leader X, Old Mother Riley Detective, When We Are Married, Escape to Danger and Hotel Reserve. 'One of the best spy melodramas yet made.' This was the verdict of Lionel Collier on the first of Comfort's wartime thrillers, Squadron Leader X, made at Denham for RKO-Radio, from a story by Emeric Pressburger. Comfort had worked, at British National, as assistant director and/or technical superviser to John Baxter on three of the series: Old Mother Riley in Society, Old Mother Riley in Business and Old Mother Riley's Ghosts.
The Tempean films succeed in hooking the view with provocative opening episodes which have an element of ambiguity that one doesn't expect in budget film-making. Bob Baker recalled that Eros would buy American films outright for showing in the United Kingdom, then take a British film as a co-feature and distribute the double bill, an arrangement which was clearly to the advantage of Tempean. Baker and Monty Berman relied on the services of personnel they could trust and built up a roster of actors and others who knew their job and could be relied on to get it done in the required time and within the allotted budget. With an eye on the US markets, Baker and Berman very often secured the services of American actors.
Arliss, Crabtree, Knowles and Huntington, more or less overlapping in age and most productive periods, offer an insight into what sort of fare constituted popular film-making, especially in the 1940s. They arrived at their most prolific period by different routes, but as their popularity waned there are some striking similarities in the ways in which they sought to maintain their careers.
This chapter explores the film-making career of Leslie Arliss. A prolific screenwriter of the 1930s, Arliss made his directorial debut with The Night Has Eyes (1942) before truly establishing himself with The Man in Grey (1943), the original Gainsborough melodrama, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason. He went on to direct several more films in the 1940s, including Love Story (1944) and The Wicked Lady (1945), but his career tailed off in the 1950s. Nonetheless, he was an accomplished purveyor of popular entertainments, some of which resonated intelligently with the social climate of their day.
Having established himself as a capable cinematographer in the 1930s, working on such films as Michael Powell’s The Love Test (1953), Arthur Crabtree began his directing career with Madonna of the Seven Moons (1947), a Gainsborough melodrama starring Phyllis Calvert and Stewart Granger. His subsequent films of the 1940s included They Were Sisters (1945), Caravan (1946) and Quartet (1948). In the early 1950s he directed a pair of films based on the popular German love song ‘Lili Marleen’, but found himself out of kilter with such prevailing genres as wartime adventures or domestic comedies. The rest of the decade was characterised by unrewarding television work and a late-career sortie into the horror genre via Fiend without a Face (1958) and Horrors of the Black Museum (1959).
Like Arthur Crabtree, Bernard Knowles established himself as a cinematographer before entering directing. Beginning in 1927, he racked up forty-three credits over seventeen years, including five with Alfred Hitchcock, The 39 Steps (1935) among them. Knowles’s first film as director was A Place of One’s Own (1945), starring James Mason and Margaret Lockwood. Though it was not well received, he went on to have better luck with subsequent works such as The Magic Bow (1946), Jassy (1947) and The White Unicorn (1947). He spent the 1950s directing ‘B’ movies and television before returning to A features with the science-fiction films Frozen Alive (1964) and Spaceflight IC-1 (1965). His final film as director (uncredited) was the Beatles vehicle Magical Mystery Tour (1967).
Lawrence Huntington’s directorial career began earlier than that of the other figures discussed in this book. By 1940 he had already directed twelve ‘B’ movies, though they are mainly forgotten today. He directed a further five in the early 1940s before hitting his stride with Night Boat to Dublin (1946), an effective espionage thriller starring Robert Newton. His successful run, including Wanted for Murder (1946) and The Upturned Glass (1947), continued into the early 1950s before dissipating into co-features and television work. He directed a handful of films in the 1960s, including the Edgar Wallace adaptation Death Drums along the River (1966).
While none of the four highlighted directors ever made a certifiable masterpiece, the skills deployed in their most popular films in the 1940s now suggest that there was more to their talents than has been critically allowed. Further, they now seem in some ways like barometers registering changing mores and changing generic tastes – whither the melodrama and the ‘quality’ film – in a crucial period of British film-making. Close examination of their films, including the stars who featured in them, has proved illuminating in such matters, as well as in the industrial and cultural climate of their making.