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Author: Steve Chibnall

Since his first directorial commission at Welwyn Studios in 1950, Lee Thompson has directed forty-five pictures for theatrical release, covering almost every genre of the cinema. His remarkable ability to adapt his style to suit the material has made him perhaps the most versatile director ever produced by Britain. This book intends to plot the trajectory of a unique film-maker through the typical constraints and opportunities offered by British cinema as a dominant studio system gave way to independent production in the two decades after the Second World War. Thompson was born in Bristol just before the First World War. By the time Thompson left school his ambition was to be an actor, and he joined Nottingham Repertory, making his debut in Young Woodley in 1931. Thompson's opportunity to direct a play came when he received an offer from Hollywood for the film rights to his play Murder Without Crime. His debut box (or ottoman) of tricks went out on the ABC circuit as a double bill with an American film about a GI finding romance in Europe, Four Days Leave. Although the cutting room remained sacrosanct, directors of Thompson's generation had more influence over the final cut of a picture than their predecessors. The Yellow Balloon may be frustratingly limited in its social critique, but as a piece of film making, it was rightly praised for its performances and technical proficiency.

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Steve Chibnall

There really is a great deal to say about British films and specifically about British films in the 1950s. This is especially true of those made by J. Lee Thompson. He is not a name with household status. Since his first directorial commission at Welwyn Studios in 1950, Lee Thompson has directed forty-five pictures for theatrical release, covering almost every genre of the cinema. His remarkable ability to adapt his style to suit the material has made him perhaps the most versatile director ever produced by Britain. This introduction presents the key concepts discussed in the subsequent chapters of this book. The book intends to plot the trajectory of a unique film-maker through the typical constraints and opportunities offered by British cinema as a dominant studio system gave way to independent production in the two decades after the Second World War.

in J. Lee Thompson
Steve Chibnall

Lee Thompson was born in Bristol just before the First World War. By the time Thompson left school his ambition was to be an actor, and he joined Nottingham Repertory, making his debut in Young Woodley in 1931. His first 'association with the cinema' had been as an actor in Carol Reed's solo directorial debut Midshipman Easy made at Ealing Studios in the summer of 1935. Lee Thompson's second significant assignment away from Elstree's scriptwriting department was as a 'dialogue coach'. The Hitchcockian influence emerges clearly in the adaptation that Lee Thompson worked on immediately after his secondment to Jamaica Inn. Unlike No Place For Jennifer, which had been a considerable box office success, Last Holiday fared badly with the critics and struggled to find an audience. Lee Thompson's opportunity to direct came when he received an offer from Hollywood for the film rights to his play Murder Without Crime.

in J. Lee Thompson
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Steve Chibnall

Based closely on his own successful stage play, Lee Thompson's Murder Without Crime is a confident but largely unadventurous first step in film making. Lee Thompson clearly signposts Murder Without Crime as a tall story, a macabre entertainment with enough Grand Guignol to grip the spectators in the stalls and enough ironic self-awareness to please the more intellectual patrons in the circle. Lee Thompson's debut box (or ottoman) of tricks went out on the ABC circuit as a double bill with an American film about a GI finding romance in Europe, Four Days Leave. Although the cutting room remained sacrosanct, directors of Lee Thompson's generation had more influence over the final cut of a picture than their predecessors. The Yellow Balloon may be frustratingly limited in its social critique, but as a piece of film making it was rightly praised for its performances and technical proficiency.

in J. Lee Thompson
Steve Chibnall

By the spring of 1953 it was clear that British cinema had found a film-maker who could handle the technical demands of the thriller in a cinematic rather than a purely theatrical fashion. With The Yellow Balloon, Lee Thompson had demonstrated an aptitude for visual storytelling and a flair for imaginative shot composition while coaxing compelling performances from his actors. Late in 1952 he noticed a new book from Victor Gollancz which was causing a stir, reaching its fifth impression within two months of publication. It may be a worn-flat cliché, but this was to be the book that changed Lee Thompson's life. He read the book called Who Lie in Gaol by Joan Henry, and fell in love with her. Lee Thompson quickly set to work with Joan Henry and Anne Burnaby to develop a screenplay which would blend social criticism and melodrama with the leavening ingredient of comedy.

in J. Lee Thompson
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Steve Chibnall
in J. Lee Thompson
Steve Chibnall

In the 1950s, 'family entertainment' was still the cinema's core business, and it was inevitable that a promising new director would be pressed into the service of the mass market for insubstantial comedy and undemanding music. It was time for J. Lee Thompson to pay his dues to light entertainment. The themes of confinement and liberation, elaborated by a discourse of moral dilemma, are worked through the contemporary preoccupations of British social life, just as they are in his more serious films. Thompson's films contain post-war housing problems and the spread of new social mores (For Better, For Worse); the impact of foreign cultural forms on the British way of life (As Long As They're Happy); the megalomania of media tycoons and the dangers of materialism (An Alligator Named Daisy); and the erosion of small-scale modes of entertainment and the sense of community they engender (The Good Companions).

in J. Lee Thompson
Steve Chibnall

According to Raymond Williams, the most powerful physical image created in the period of major naturalistic drama is the living room as a trap. Yield to the Night was a watershed film for J. Lee Thompson. It marked a moment of revelation which would profoundly influence his career trajectory. The trauma of leaving his family and the excitement of his new relationship did indeed seem to intensify Lee Thompson's desire for independence and experiment in his professional life. The nervous energy released is evident in Woman in a Dressing Gown's restless camerawork, insistent directorial style and, most of all, in the high-octane performance which he encouraged from Dressing Gown's star Yvonne Mitchell. However, Melanie Williams pointed out that, in the way it echoes the claustrophobic perspectives of Yield to the Night, Dressing Gown's mise-en-scène implies the idea of housewife as domestic prisoner.

in J. Lee Thompson
Steve Chibnall

For the first twenty-three years of his career, J. Lee Thompson's film-making activities were confined to England. The nearest he came to an overseas location was visiting J. B. Priestley on the Isle of Wight. Given the popularity of the genre during the 1950s, it is surprising that it took until 1957 for J. Lee Thompson to make a war film. Sea of Sand has a small platoon with a mission, feuding officers, battle scenes, a largely unquestioning commitment to the war, and a faceless enemy interested only in the destruction of the film's protagonists. North West Frontier opened at Rank's flagship Odeon in Leicester Square, London, to a chorus of approval from the popular press which saw it as a worthy successor to The Bridge on the River Kwai. Manchester Guardian gives '"fair do's" all round' in the classic liberal manner, while acknowledging the untenable nature of imperialism.

in J. Lee Thompson
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Steve Chibnall

By 1958 British production houses were becoming increasingly conscious of the importance of continental as well as American markets. Woman in a Dressing Gown and Ice Cold in Alex had both been premiered with striking success at the Berlin Film Festival, and Rank had begun to use German stars to ease its product into European cinemas. Impressed with his success in Germany, Wintle and Parkyn approached Lee Thompson to direct a vehicle for another 'Deutscher Star', Horst Buchholz. I Aim at the Stars gave Lee Thompson the opportunity to work with another 'Deutscher Star', Curt Jurgens, who played von Braun with a 'quiet, persuasive intensity'. Von Braun might be looking at the stars, but London critics judged that Lee Thompson was definitely standing in the gutter. Tiger Bay began filming only a few days after white youths in London's Notting Hill had mounted well-publicised attacks on the area's black residents.

in J. Lee Thompson