United Kingdom Cinema - From the Pioneers to the Documentary Movement

United Kingdom Cinema: From the Pioneers to the Documentary Movement


The contributions of the inventor W. Friese-Greene corresponded, in the decade 1896-1906, to those of the pioneers RW Paul, CM Hepworth, J. Williamson and GA Smith. Williamson and Smith, both photographers, were among the leading exponents of the so-called Brighton School which pioneered the techniques, syntax and genres of the future film industry on an artisanal and family level. From 1908 to 1914 the network of cinemas was built and this too was a British primacy compared to other nations, but it was thwarted by the First World War because from 1916 onwards the screens were the prerogative of Hollywood. The production made use of theatrical actors for reductions from Dickens and Shakespeare, but without contrasting the step to foreign films, more lively and modern.

According to Computergees, the vogue of the theater and the novel continued into the 1920s, although some directors such as M. Elvey, V. Saville, A. Brunel, or director-actors such as H. Edwards, G. Newall, W. Forde, or director-producers like H. Wilcox, who preferred re-enactments in costume, were sensitive to the evolution of technique and tried to accommodate the changing tastes of the public. Following the failures and crises that occurred in 1924, when American films monopolized almost all programs, a protectionist law was passed in 1927 and, however minimal, it was enough to revive national production (from 23 films in 1925 to 128 in 1929). M. Balcon, to new personalities of directors such as A. Hitchcock (The Boarder – A History of the London Fog, 1926) and A. Asquith, to the influence (especially in lighting and editing) of German filmmakers operating in Great Britain like Dupont. The advent of sound did not block the rebirth and was indeed absorbed with ease (Blackmail, 1929, by Hitchcock; Tell England, 1931, by Asquith). While Balcon aimed to create a quintessentially English school, hosting Hitchcock’s thriller (The Man Who Knew Too Much, 1934; The Club of 39, 1935), another producer, the Hungarian A. Korda, tried the cosmopolitan card, directing The Six Wives of Henry VIII himself (1933) with Ch. Laughton and obtaining an international success that allowed him to hire foreign actors and directors (D. Fairbanks, P. Robeson, M. Dietrich among the former, R. Clair, RJ Flaherty, J. Feyder among the latter). Add the films of the German couple P. Czinner-E. Bergner and the success of Pygmalion (1938) by Shaw entrusted to producer G. Pascal, director Asquith and actor L. Howard. Nonetheless, the 1930s were positively characterized above all by the documentary movement, promoted and led by the Scottish J. Grierson, which, gaining the support of ministries, trade unions and sectors of enlightened capitalism, nurtured and grew around it a cinema of united social description. to formal research.

In addition to Grierson himself who had started in 1929 with Pescherecci, filmmakers such as P. Rotha, A. Elton, S. Legg, E. Anstey, B. Wright and H. Watt (the last two authors in the 1936 of the very valuable Night Post); RJ Flaherty, who after directing with Grierson Industrial Britain (1932) made The Man from Aran (1934) also sponsored by Balcon; A. Cavalcanti, who took the place of the head of the school who moved to Canada (1939) in the leadership of the movement and of the new generation. A second wave of documentaries in fact occurred during the war and alongside the experts Rotha and Watt the personality of H. Jennings emerged (The fires had begun, 1943; A diary for Timothy, 1945). At the same time, the best British cinema showed that they had learned the teaching of that school of realism also in the subject war film (Heroes of the Sea, 1942, by N. Coward and D. Lean; Flight with no return, 1942, by M. Powell; The Way of Glory, 1944, by C. Reed; St. Demetrius London, 1943, by Ch. Frend; La via delle stelle, 1945, by Asquith, which was perhaps the director’s and genre’s masterpiece). Another current, not directly linked to the problems posed by the conflict, nevertheless revealed a remarkable search for quality, sometimes very expensive (but a theatrical magnate had risen on the horizon, the producer JA Rank). We belonged movies like Gaslight (1940) by Th. Dickinson, And the stars are watching (1940) by Reed, Brief Encounter (1945) Lean, and especially the wonderful Henry V (1945) by L. Olivier. The trend continued even after the war, not only with the other Shakespearean films by and with Olivier (Hamlet, 1948; Riccardo III, 1955) or with the Dickensian ones of Lean (Great Hope, 1946; Oliver Twist, 1948); but with the musical performances of the couple M. Powell – E. Pressburger (including Red Shoes, 1948), with psychological dramas (Addio Mr. Harris, 1951, by Asquith) or atmospheric dramas (The third man, 1949, by Reed), with the war itself reviewed and judged at a distance (Mare cruel, 1953, by Frend). However, the notoriety abroad of post-war British cinema was ensured by the comedies of the more modest Balcon, often interpreted by the quick-change actor A. Guinness, always centered on savory humor.

United Kingdom Cinema - From the Pioneers to the Documentary Movement