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British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years
By Lawrence Napper
University of Exeter PressCopyright © 2009 Lawrence Napper
All rights reserved.
A Law For British Film: The Cinematograph Films Act 1927
The cinema is today the most universal means through which national ideas and national atmosphere can be spread, and even if those be intangible things, surely they are among the most important influences in civilisation. Everybody will admit that the strongest bonds of Empire ... are just those intangible bonds—a common outlook, the same ideas, and the same ideals which we all share and which are expressed in a common language and a common literature ... Today films are shown to millions of people throughout the Empire and must unconsciously influence the ideas and outlook of British people of all races. But only a fraction, something like five per cent, of all films which are at present shown in the British Empire, are of British origin. That, as I submit ... is a position which is intolerable.
From the trade point of view, the influence of the cinema is no less important. It is the greatest advertising power in the world. Just let the house imagine the effect upon trade of millions of people in every country day after day, seeing the fashions, the styles, and the products of a particular country. It influences them in their trade purchases ... That is not theory, it is practice. It is realised by our own people; it is above all realised by the people of the United States.
It is clear that in his opening address on the second reading of the Cinematograph Films Bill in March 1927, Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister's concerns were wider than just the health of the film trade. This lengthy quotation reveals that the Bill was to a certain extent being made to operate as a symbolic solution to the two most important and intractable problems facing Stanley Baldwin's government in the late 1920s—Britain's economic decline, and its accompanying loss of status on the world stage.
Britain had been slipping from its position as the dominant industrial nation ever since the 1870s, when countries such as Germany and America began to offer serious competition as a result of their more recent (and more effective) industrialisation. However, this competition had to some extent been masked by the existence of the Empire, providing the safeguard of a number of easily accessible markets for British exports. Because of the Empire, a succession of Liberal governments (unlike those of other countries) had been able to resist the need to introduce protective legislation which was antithetical to the long-standing British tradition of free trade. In so doing, they ensured a fairly low cost of living in Britain as the prices of foreign goods were not inflated by import duty.
After the First World War, however, the crisis in the British economy became unavoidably apparent. The disruption to the export industry caused by the war meant that in many cases, foreign (especially American) competitors were able to take over certain markets with little or no competition, and by the 1920s obtained a hold over those markets against which Britain was unable to compete. This led to a slump in exports, not only in the film industry, but also in more economically crucial industries such as coal, iron, and textiles. By the end of 1921 nearly two million people were out of work, and the unemployment figure did not fall below one million again until the Second World War. Demand for traditional British exports never revived to its pre-war level.
One of the results of this state of affairs was renewed debate on the issue of protectionist legislation. Various prominent members of the Conservative government of 1924–29 were in favour of protection, including Baldwin, the Prime Minister, and Cunliffe-Lister, the President of the Board of Trade. However, having lost a 1923 General Election over the issue, the Conservatives as a whole recognised protection as an unpopular policy associated with a higher cost of living in the minds of an electorate recently expanded to include women over thirty and the working classes. When another General Election was called in 1924, the Conservatives were considerably more wary about admitting their support for protection. As Margaret Dickinson and Sarah Street have pointed out, while Baldwin assured the nation that he would introduce no general policy of protection, nevertheless he claimed he would make it his business to 'safeguard the employment and standard of living of our people in any efficient industry in which they are imperilled by foreign competition'—provided that industry was of 'national importance'.
Once in office the Conservatives remained reluctant to tackle this potentially divisive policy. To a certain extent their hands were tied—to introduce protective duties on all foreign goods would be seen as reneging on an election promise, pushing up the cost of living for an already struggling and uneasy population, and running the risk of an economically disastrous trade war. However, in the light of the worsening economic situation, Winston Churchill's success in 1925 in persuading the Board of Trade that the iron and steel industries were not of sufficient 'national importance' to merit safeguarding must have appeared to many as a cynical excuse for indolence. The political situation in which the Conservatives were operating was changing rapidly. With the widening of the franchise immediately after the war, and the decline of the Liberal Party during the 1920s, the political focus had shifted in a more populist direction. Social unease at the economic situation, particularly over unemployment, could not so easily be passed off as the agitation of a few revolutionaries. While the General Strike of 1926 was on the face of it a victory for the government, it nevertheless served to highlight a situation whereby the Conservatives' attitude to the economic and social climate was seen as reactive rather than proactive, and all the initiative was held by the Left and the newly respectable Labour Party. Looking forward to the next General Election, what was badly needed was a gesture that would steal the political fire back for the Conservatives, while remaining economically risk-free.
For several reasons, the film industry must have seemed the perfect focus for such a move. Film was, after all, not only an economic industry but also a cultural medium. This enabled the government to stress its 'national importance' above and beyond that of coal and iron by claiming that, 'On the success or failure of the British film industry much more depends than its own future. It inevitably involves great interests, national and imperial.' As we shall see, throughout the debate around the Films Act, the Government insisted on a blurring of the economic and cultural effects of film, effectively enabling it to obscure the usual issues of the protectionist debate through grandiose sentiments about preserving British morals and the British way of life, while at the same time implying indirectly that they intended to boost British industry though the tenet of 'trade follows the film'. Furthermore, the aggressive trade practices of the American film distributors in Britain enabled British producers to be portrayed as an efficient industry genuinely imperilled by unfair foreign competitors. This responded to a certain amount of anti-American sentiment amongst both industrialists and sections of the general public (and expressed in the pages of the Daily Mail) which had been heightened ever since the debacle over Britain's war debts in 1923.
By the mid-1920s the industrial practices developed in Hollywood during and after the war had enabled the vertically integrated American film companies to gain an effective stranglehold over the British exhibition and distribution markets. They were able to do this partly as a result of the strength of their position in the domestic American market as vertically integrated companies controlling not only production but also distribution and exhibition in the USA. The Hollywood 'majors' were able to fund production generously, maximising studio space and staff and ensuring a reliable supply of films to their theatres. Furthermore the size of the American market meant that even on relatively expensive films, they were able to cover their overheads with American distribution. Consequently, all export revenue represented profit, and its marketing and control was accordingly aggressive. While in contrast to their position in America, Hollywood companies had relatively little direct control over exhibition in Britain, the scarcity of British films meant that British exhibitors were in effect reliant on America for their supply. The Hollywood companies took advantage of this situation, consolidating their position in a number of ways. Not only did they greatly undercut the rental charges of their British competitors, but they also instituted the notorious practices of blind and block booking. The British exhibitors, reliant on the American distributors, were forced to take sets of films in blocks. This might include one film which was clearly a big hit, and any number of films of dubious quality or appeal—often unspecified films or even films yet to be produced. The result of this practice was that cinemas were effectively tied to a single distributor for long periods of time, and booked up for as much as six months in advance. For the American companies, this practice ensured a guaranteed market for their films and effectively protected that market from British competitors. Although some British exhibitors expressed nothing but satisfaction with the American films they received, others found block booking an onerous practice, representing as it did, a loss of control over their business. For the British producers, however, it proved disastrous. What little support they did get from the City finance houses in funding film production was reliant on a relatively quick turnover. Block-booking meant that when British producers did manage to raise enough finance to complete a film, it might be a year or more before they were able to get it into cinemas and see any return on their investment.
The result was a deepening crisis in the British production industry during the early 1920s as companies went out of business and fewer and fewer films were made. Despite various attempts by British producers and distributors to boost trade through publicity stunts such as the 'British Film Weeks', production continued to dwindle from 145 films in 1920 to just 37 in 1926. By this time producers were looking to the government for assistance.
Dickinson and Street, in Cinema and State, give a detailed account of the machinations of this lobbying process which went on from early 1925, and it is clear from their account that the most influential argument in persuading the government to agree in principle to protection for the film industry was that of 'trade follows the film'. The central tenets of the 'trade follows the film' argument are neatly expressed in the quotation from Cunliffe-Lister which opens this chapter and it was repeatedly invoked by the government throughout the Parliamentary debate. Basically its implication was that the reason behind Britain's poor export performance was not that the British goods were uncompetitive on price or supply, but rather that consumers in overseas markets, particularly of the Empire (and the focus of the debate on the 'coloured races' of the Empire is peculiarly telling), were being encouraged by their exposure to American films into buying American goods. A strong British film industry would not only create direct employment in film production, it was argued, but it would also indirectly stimulate other manufacturing industries through its advertising effects, as Hollywood was doing for American industries. The British producer John Maxwell, setting forth the arguments in a letter to the Nation and Athenæum, estimated that with the support of the Bill, even in its early stages 'not less than two million pounds a year would be spent on making British Films, and almost the whole of that would go on wages and salaries'. Furthermore, he suggested that,
Britain's drooping exports require any stimulus that a volume of British made pictures circulating throughout the world would provide. That would be a consequential effect of establishing a substantial volume of film production in England, and has been so recognised by our leading manufacturers.
To support the 'trade follows the film' argument in the Parliamentary debate, Cunliffe-Lister chose a slightly more inflammatory angle. He quoted Dr Julius Klein, head of the US Department of Commerce, who had confirmed that the motion picture was
... invaluable in China. It is invaluable in all markets where there is a high percentage of illiteracy among the people, for from the pictures they get their impressions of how we live, the clothes we wear, and so forth. In fact there has been a complete change in the demand for commodities in dozens of countries. I can cite you instances of the expansion of trade in the Far East traceable directly to the effects of the motion picture.
This was bad enough in places like China, but when the effect was noticeable in the dominions of Britain's own Empire, it became intolerable. For British commentators of all parties, the American film industry's dominance in the Empire was not only a threat to trade, but a threat to the Empire itself and to Britain's cultural hold over it. As the director of education for Victoria told the Imperial Education Conference in 1923: 'The Cinematograph might be made the means of the most insidious propaganda ... People were being familiarised with ways of thinking and acting and speaking that were not British ways.' This concern should perhaps be seen in the context of a long history of the deployment of screen entertainments in the service of the Empire. Throughout the late nineteenth century, after all, the magic lantern had been a central tool of social and political persuasion for a number of groups: the Salvation Army, Temperance movements such as the Band of Hope, missionary workers, as well as the Conservative Party's own Primrose League. A substantial proportion of these slide entertainments were designed for use both at home and abroad in promoting Imperialist sentiments and a sense of pride amongst both the British and the natives of the colonies. These concerns can be traced into the interwar period through travel films, and finally in the 1920s and 1930s through the importance of the film unit of the Empire Marketing Board. It must have been particularly galling to discover that the medium which had served the Empire so well was now being used to undermine it—for this is what commentators such as Charles Tennyson carefully implied. Speaking for the overseas committee of the Federation of British Industry in April 1926, Tennyson stated that:
The Committee ... consider that [the prevalence of foreign films shown in the Empire] must have a most detrimental effect on British prestige, and must be seriously prejudicial to the best interests of the Empire, especially those parts of the overseas dominions which contain large coloured populations.
These sentiments were repeated over and over again throughout the debate over the Films Bill. As well as expressing concern over the threat to the Empire, they more often than not operated as thinly veiled attacks on American films, and on the American culture producing them, as the source of a threat which was deemed not only to be financial, but also moral and cultural.
'Side by side with a desire to afford a measure of protection to a struggling industry,' proclaimed Cinema World in an editorial reviewing the Act in February 1928, 'the Government has been actuated by the necessity to sound a counterblast to the foreign—principally American—propaganda which, through the agency of the film, is permeating the whole world'. Such foreign propaganda, the paper darkly intimated, might have a detrimental moral and social effect if left unchallenged by a revived British film industry:
British ideals are not behind those of any other country; indeed, judging by what one reads daily in the newspapers about foreign countries, a Britisher may be excused an inner consciousness of being the leader in many directions, and we are conceited enough to believe that the world will not be the loser if some of this foreign propaganda be displaced by British.
Even Ramsay MacDonald, speaking in general against the Bill, felt it appropriate to relate his moral outrage on passing a village cinema in the colonies:
It was emblazoned with advertisements which ought to have brought a blush of shame to the cheek of the thickest-skinned and most corrupt and abandoned of men: and the actors in that film were white people. And yet certain markets seem almost to be abandoned to that kind of sinful and abominable rubbish, which is held up to these people who, a few years ago regarded us as being a dominant and ruling people ... I am not going to say what these films were; they were not British films—I do not believe if we had a virile and a flourishing industry in the production of British films, British films would be turned out on the moral and social level of these films.
Excerpted from British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years by Lawrence Napper. Copyright © 2009 Lawrence Napper. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations Preface and Acknowledgements Introduction: The 'Middlebrow' Concept of the National: Music Hath Charms 1935 1. A Law for British Film: The Cinematography Films Act 1927 2. British Cinema, The Publishing Industry and the Mass Market: The Constant Nymph 1924-1928 3. The 'Middlebrow' Debate and Film: The Good Companions 1929-1933 4. New and Old Cultures: The Lambeth Walk 1937-1939 Conclusion: The Viability of National Cinema Notes Bibliography Index