The 1940s represent a high point in the history of British film, characterised by the works of such recognised greats as David Lean and Michael Powell. But alongside this ‘quality cinema’ there exists a body of popular productions by film-makers who have not yet been the objects of detailed scholarly attention. Four from the forties addresses this oversight, drawing attention to four directors whose career trajectories had a good deal in common and can tell us much about what British film-goers expected from the cinema in this crucial decade. Leslie Arliss, Arthur Crabtree, Bernard Knowles and Lawrence Huntington were all born at the turn of the century. All had been active in a range of film-making functions in the 1930s, and all would do their most proficient and popular work in the 1940s, thereafter prolonging their careers into the 1960s through ‘B’ movies, co-features and television. Taken together, they offer a commentary on the changing fortunes of mid-century British cinema.
Brian McFarlane’s The never-ending Brief Encounter is above all a book intended
for those who have seen and never forgotten the famous 1945 film in which two
decent, middle-class people meet by chance, unexpectedly fall in love, but in
the end acknowledge the claims of others. The book grew out of an article, the
writing of which revealed that there was so much more to the after-life of the
film than the author had realised. This book examines David Lean’s film in
sufficient detail to bring its key situations vividly to life, and to give an
understanding of how it reworks Nöel Coward’s somewhat static one-act play to
profound effect. It also examines the ways in which the ‘comic relief’ is made
to work towards the poignant ending. However, the main purpose of the book is to
consider the remarkable after-life the film has given rise to. The most specific
examples of this phenomenon are, of course, the appalling film remake with its
miscast stars, and the later stage versions – both bearing the original title
and attracting well-known players and positive audience and critical response –
and an opera! As well, there are films and TV series which have ‘quoted’ the
film (usually via black-and-white inserts) as commentary on the action of the
film or series. There are many other films that, without direct quotation, seem
clearly to be echoing their famous predecessor; for example, in the haunting
visual quality of a deserted railway platform.
Lance Comfort began to work in films between the age of 17 and 19, more or less growing up with the cinema. When he came to make 'B' films in the 1950s and 1960s, his wide-ranging expertise enabled him to deal efficiently with the constraints of tight budgets and schedules. He was astute at juggling several concurrent plot strands, his prescient anticipation of postwar disaffection, the invoking of film noir techniques to articulate the dilemma of the tormented protagonist. Comfort's reputation as a features director seemed to be made when Hatter's Castle, made by Paramount's British operation, opened at the Plaza, Piccadilly Circus, after a well-publicised charity première attended by the Duchess of Kent and luminaries such as Noel Coward. He had been in the film business for twenty years when, in 1946, he directed Margaret Lockwood in Bedelia. Comfort is not the only director who enjoyed his greatest prestige in the 1940s and drifted into providing fodder for the bottom half of the double-bill in the ensuing decades. There were six intervening films, justifying the journalist who described him in early 1943 as the Busiest British film director. Great Day, Portrait of Clare, Temptation Harbour, Bedelia, Daughter of Darkness, and Silent Dust were his six melodramas. He was an unpretentious craftsman who was also at best an artist, and in exploring his career trajectory, the viewer is rewarded by the spectacle of one who responded resiliently to the challenges of a volatile industry.
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.