January 2, 2017


George Pearson (1875-1973) b. London, England.

George Pearson

Pioneer British film-maker whose most successful work was in the 1920s – he discovered golden-haired Betty Balfour when she was 17 and took her to the top of all popularity polls in British stars. From 1920 to 1926, they made 11 films together. What these pictures lacked in sophistication – Pearson was a forward looking director but somewhat deficient in finesse – they made up for in their working-class appeal. Pearson’s decline began ironically with possibly his best film – The Little People (1926). Too innovatory for British audiences, it was a big flop, and with the 1930s, after some work in production for Michael Balcon, Pearson found himself directing ‘quota quickies’ for which he had little flair. A former teacher and headmaster, Pearson had been with the British film industry almost from its beginnings. Claiming that he saw the cinema as ‘the teacher’s true medium’, he joined Pathe as a scriptwriter in 1912. Despite his late start, it was a medium in which he would lead a full life. He was instrumental in improving the primitive shooting conditions of films in Britain, freeing the camera from its initial rigid position (set on a capstan head bolted to the floor) and, by 1915, after his appointment as head of Gaumont, getting £130,000 spent on new studio premises at Shepherd’s Bush. Most of his early films are documentaries, but he soon began to make important features, among them A Study in Scarlet (1914), John Halifax Gentleman (1915), Sally Bishop (1916), The Better ‘Ole (1919) and Garryowen (1920). His series of ‘Ultus’ thrillers, modelled after the serials of Louis Feuillade, were also popular. He first directed Betty Balfour on Nothing Else Matters (1920), but his most successful films with her were the ‘Squibs’ series, casting her as a cockney flower-girl of spirit, involved in a series of low-life intrigues, romances and adventures. Pearson’s eye for interior detail added authenticity to these rather melodramatic proceedings, although he could also make good use of location work, notably in Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (1922), and his use of cross-cutting gives his films easy rhythm. Although his camerawork was never flashy, it seldom fails to show the little ‘Pearson’ touches which give his silent films such character, albeit perhaps the character of an Edwardian novelette. With sound, Pearson found his assignments drastically diminished in importance, although one, The River Wolves (1934) was praised for its realistic waterfront atmosphere and settings. Like most of his films in the 1930s, it was a short-length thriller designed as a second-feature. Despite such a come-down, and advancing years, Pearson continued to direct. In 1939 he joined the G.P.O. Film Unit, and devoted himself for a short while to his old love – the documentary. In 1942, Pearson, a man of tremendous vigour, moved on to the Colonial Film Unit as Head of Production, remaining there until his retirement at 81. Two years later he published his autobiography, Flashback.

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