Yet during this decade there was an emergence of some of the most interesting and popular British films with the cinema-going public, offering an insight into the society and culture of this period in British history.
The introduction of the Cinematographic Films Act of 1927 placed an emphasis on producing a percentage, or quota, of British films to offset the vast amount of American films being shown in British cinemas. This inevitably led to a mixture of filmmaking, some of an inferior quality. As a result, a second Cinematographic Films Act was introduced in 1938 with the object of putting an end to the ‘quota quickie’ as it was called.
Director Alexander Korda
Many films made in the period were hardly inferior. The acclaimed Private Life of Henry VIII, directed by Alexander Korda in 1933, was a popular and critical success in Britain and America, attracting investment from the Prudential Insurance Company and ensuring Korda’s fame as a film producer. Rachel Low quotes Korda in her History of British Film 1929-1939: Film Making in 1930s Britain, “if British films were to compete successfully with Hollywood in British cinemas they needed to be produced on a similar scale.”
Some of the most popular films with British audiences, produced mainly by Basil Dean’s Associated Talking Pictures, were the working class comedies and musicals that had their roots in the music hall. Sing as We Go, in 1934, showcased the talents of Gracie Fields, known affectionately, as ‘Our Gracie’. Stephen Shafer, in British Popular Films 1929-1939: The Cinema of Reassurance, suggests that “for the first time in a Gracie Fields film, a high quality screenplay had been prepared.”
Other stars became well known in a series of films that emphasised their individual talents, such as Will Hay who starred as the ineffectual Dr Twist in Good Morning Boys from Gainsborough Pictures in 1937. Some critics were quick to despise these popular films but they were often more to public’s taste than American films. The ordinary British man or woman could identify with the stars and situations in a reassuring and comforting way between the wars.
Two other genres that became popular in this period were Crime and Thrillers. In ‘Celluloid Shockers’ from The Unknown 1930s: An Alternative History of the British Cinema 1929-1939, James Chapman suggests that the 1930s “have an excellent claim to be regarded as the golden age of the British thriller.” Alfred Hitchcock began his illustrious career with the first successful British talkie feature, Blackmail, in 1930, which is now regarded as a landmark in the history of the British film.
Some early Hitchcock films are available in the British Classics series, such as Murder, a 1930s whodunit with a gentleman sleuth and a trial by jury. Many of Hitchcock’s films gained success in America. His 1936 film, Sabotage, was distributed in the US under the title A Woman Alone and offered an authentic portrayal of London life. Hitchcock was soon interested in making more realistic films but was blocked by the British Board of Film Censors who discouraged too much social criticism.
Established by the film industry as a self-regulating body in 1912, the Censors had great influence over films of the 1930s. This caused problems for another popular genre, the horror film. This period saw the emergence of American films such as Dracula, 1932, and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1932, which were derived from British fiction often using British actors. However, censors were concerned about the protection of young film goers, even although these films were made to thrill their audience.