January 2, 2017


Studio Photograph

On his arrival at Ealing, Michael Balcon had to go along with the established production programme, but the start of the Second World War a year later hastened his conversion of the majority of the studios’ output to films based on original screenplays. One by one the old guard of directors from the Dean era faded away, and new opportunities arose to be fulfilled by the young men of talent on whom Balcon had cast an eye, such as Pen Tennyson, Basil Dearden and Charles Frend. At the same time the comic films of George Formby and his successor, Will Hay, ensured an Ealing pull at the box office. Balcon ran a tight ship and his style did not suit everyone. He was a great believer in the cross-fertilisation of ideas, and very little of Ealing’s creation took place behind closed doors. Rushes, or ‘dailies’, were not private affairs, but open to anyone in the studios’ employ, and everyone there was encouraged to keep an eye on each other’s work and to discuss it freely.

It was a place in which the editor was highly regarded, and nearly all Ealing’s directors had served earlier in the cutting-rooms – Charles Crichton, Charles Frend, Henry Cornelius, Thorold Dickinson, Robert Hamer, Leslie Norman, Michael Truman and Seth Holt were all former film editors. A much smaller number had graduated from screenwriting – this group included Basil Dearden, Harry Watt and Alexander Mackendrick. But significantly no actors were ever elevated to a directorial role. Ealing operated almost on a repertory basis, with a number of reliable performers appearing again and again, no doubt attracted as much by the idea of regular work as of contributing to the product of a much-favoured British studio. But Ealing, good as it was for reputations, was no place in which to get rich.

One of Balcon’s shrewdest moves during this period was to bring in Alberto Cavalcanti, who exacted a creative influence on Ealing output as massive as his own. It was Cavalcanti who pioneered the use of documentary techniques in the making of fiction features, stamping them with the mark of authenticity. Ealing continued to flourish during WW II and even escaped near destruction after an incendiary bomb crashed through the roof of Stage 2 but miraculously did not ignite. The studios’ generator was also used as a back up for a local hospital in times of power shortages. Some of Ealing’s wartime films were overt propaganda, their effectiveness heightened by the professional skill of the film-makers; Next of Kin, an anti-’careless talk’ film, expressed its message so graphically that Churchill wanted to ban it as he felt that it would demoralise audiences. By the end of the war Ealing had found and developed a recognisable style which it was then able to apply to an eclectic range of subject matter. One of the persistent Ealing myths is that only two kinds of film were made there – comedies and war films. But almost every film genre was tackled, with the exception of the musical (Champagne Charlie was the closest approach to that area) and the Western, although many familiar ingredients of the latter could be found in the films Balcon made in Australia.

It is the great Ealing comedies, which must include Passport to Pimlico, Whisky Galore!, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man in the White Suit, The Lavender Hill Mob and The Ladykillers, that are the legacy for which the studios are best remembered, although they were only a small proportion of the whole. Perhaps against his better judgement, Balcon was persuaded by J. Arthur Rank himself to make the expensive and financially unsuccessful historic drama, Saraband for Dead Lovers; its failure was mitigated by the acclaim in the same year given to the similarly costly and prestigious production, Scott of Antarctic an epic story of British heroism on the one hand, the downfall of gentlemanly amateurs on the other.

Of the ninety-six films made under the Balcon aegis, inevitably there are a number of failures, and even one or two embarrassments. But the average Ealing film met a number of criteria that gave it an edge over the rest of British output of the time. Ealing is often sneered at for its cosiness and paternalism, for its fail-safe method of working, and for being a sort of cottage industry of film-making. The predominance of men among the production staff (Diana Morgan and Janet Green were the only female writers of any consequence, and during the war, possibly as a result of a manpower shortage, Mary Habberfield and Eileen Boland received editing credits, initially under Sidney Cole‘s supervision) undoubtedly led to Ealing’s deficiencies in handling women and women’s subjects, but there were a few exceptions; Robert Hamer in particular showed skill in his direction of Googie Withers in Pink String and Sealing Wax and of Valerie Hobson and Joan Greenwood in Kind Hearts and Coronets.

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