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Balcon, (Sir) Michael

BALCON, (Sir) Michael



Producer. Nationality: British. Born: Birmingham, 19 May 1896. Education: Attended George Dixon School, Birmingham. Family: Married Aileen Leatherman, 1924; one son; one daughter, the actress Jill Balcon. Career: 1919—founder, with Victor Saville, Victory Motion Pictures, distributing company; 1921—first film produced, the documentary The Story of Oil; 1924—founder, with Graham Cutts, Gainsborough Pictures, Islington; 1926—organized Picadilly Pictures with Carlyle Blackwell; 1928—founder, with Maurice Ostrer and C. M. Wolf, Gainsborough Pictures Ltd.; 1931–36—in charge of production for Gaumont-British (who had taken over Gainsborough); 1936–38—head of production for MGM British; 1938–59—head of production for Ealing Studios (later Ealing Films); 1959–75—head of Bryanston Films; 1964–66—Chairman of British Lion. Knighted, 1948. Died: 16 October 1977.


Films as Producer (Features):

1925

The Rat (Cutts)

1926

The Sea Urchin (Cutts); The Triumph of the Rat (Cutts); The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (The Case of Jonathan Drew) (Hitchcock); The Mountain Eagle (Fear o' God) (Hitchcock)

1927

Blighty (Brunel); Downhill (When Boys Leave Home) (Hitch-cock); The Rolling Road (Cutts); Easy Virtue (Hitchcock); One of the Best (Hunter); The Vortex (Brunel)

1928

A South Sea Bubble (Hunter); A Light Woman (Brunel); The First Born (Mander); The Wrecker (von Bolvary)

1929

The Return of the Rat (Cutts); Armistice (Saville); City of Play (Clift); Taxi for Two (Esway); Woman to Woman (Saville)

1930

Just for a Song (Gundrey); The Crooked Billet (Brunel); Journey's End (Whale); Balaclava (Jaws of Hell) (Elvey); Symphony in Two Flats (Gundrey); Ashes (Birch); A Warm Corner (Saville)

1931

P. C. Josser (Rosmer); Hot Heir (Kellino); Who Killed Doc Robin? (Kellino); Bull Rushes (Kellino); Third Time Lucky (Forde); The Sport of Kings (Saville); The Stronger Sex (Gundrey); Aroma of the South Seas (Kellino); The Ringer (Frode); The Lady of the Lake (Fitzpatrick); A Night in Montmartre (Hiscott); The Man They Could Not Arrest (Hunter); My Old China (Kellino); The Ghost Train (Forde); Hindle Wakes (Saville); The Calender (Bachelor's Folly (Hunter); Michael and Mary (Saville); Sunshine Susie (The Office Girl) (Saville)

1932

Lord Babs (Forde); The Frightened Lady (Criminal at Large) (Hunter); The Faithful Heart (Faithful Hearts) (Saville); White Face (Hunter); Jack's the Boy (Night and Day) (Forde); Love on Wheels (Saville); Marry Me (Thiele); There Goes the Bride (de Courville); Rome Express (Forde); After the Ball (Rosmer); The Midshipman (de Courville)

1933

The Man from Toronto (Hill); The Good Companions (Saville); Soldiers of the King (The Woman in Command) (Elvey); King of the Ritz (Gallone); The Lucky Number (Asquith); Sleeping Car (Litvak); It's a Boy (Whelan); Falling for You (Hulbert); Britannia of Billingsgate (Hill); Orders Is Orders (Forde); The Ghoul (Hunter); I Was a Spy (Saville); The Fire Raisers (Powell); Just Smith (Walls); Friday the Thirteenth (Saville); Aunt Sally (Along Came Sally) (Whelan); The Constant Nymph (Dean); Turkey Time (Walls)

1934

Jack Ahoy! (Forde); Evergreen (Saville); A Cup of Kindness (Walls); Prince Charming (Elvey); Man of Aran (Flaherty); Wild Boy (de Courville); Chu Chin Chow (Forde); Wings over Everest (Barkas and Montagu); Little Friend (Viertel); My Old Dutch (Hill); Evensong (Saville); Jew Süss (Power) (Mendes); The Camels Are Coming (Whelan); Lady in Danger (Walls); Road House (Elvey); The Man Who Knew Too Much (Hitchcock); Dirty Work (Walls); Temptation (Neufeld)

1935

The Iron Duke (Saville); Things Are Looking Up (de Courville); Oh, Daddy! (Cutts and Melford); Fighting Stock (Walls); Bulldog Jack (Alias Bulldog Drummond) (Forde); Forever England (Born for Glory; Torpedo Raiders) (Forde); The 39 Steps (Hitchcock); The Clairvoyant (The Evil Mind) (Elvey); Me and Marlborough (Saville); Boys Will Be Boys (Beaudine); Stormy Weather (Walls); Car of Dreams (Cutts and Melford); The Passing of the Third Floor Back (Viertel); The Guv'nor (Mister Hobo) (Rosmer); First a Girl (Saville); The Tunnel (Transatlantic Tunnel) (Elvey); Foreign Affairs (Walls)

1936

King of the Damned (Forde); Jack of All Trades (The Two of Us) (Stevenson and Hulbert); First Offence (Mason); Rhodes of Africa (Rhodes, the Empire Builder) (Viertel); Pot Luck (Walls); Tudor Rose (Nine Days a Queen) (Stevenson); The Secret Agent (Hitchcock); It's Love Again (Saville); Where There's A Will (Beaudine); Seven Sinners (Doomed Cargo) (de Courville); Everything is Thunder (Rosmer); The Flying Doctor (Mander); East Meets West (Mawson); The Man Who Changed His Mind (The Man Who Lived Again; Doctor Maniac; Brain Snatcher) (Stevenson); Everybody Dance (Reisner); All In (Varnel); His Lordship (Man of Affairs) (Mason); Strangers on Honeymoon (de Courville); Sabotage (A Woman Alone) (Hitchcock); Windbag the Sailor (Beaudine)

1937

O.H.M.S. (You're in the Army Now) (Walsh); Head Over Heels (Hale); The Great Barrier (Silent Barriers) (Rosmer); King Solomon's Mines (Stevenson)

1938

A Yank at Oxford (Conway); The Gaunt Stranger (The Phantom Strikes) (Forde); The Ware Case (Stevenson)

1939

Let's Be Famous (Forde); There Ain't No Justice (Tennyson); The Four Just Men (The Secret Four) (Forde); Cheer Boys Cheer (Forde); Young Man's Fancy (Stevenson); Happy Families (Forde)

1940

Return to Yesterday (Stevenson); The Proud Valley (Tennyson); Let George Do It (Murder in Bergen) (Varnel); Saloon Bar (Forde); Convoy (Tennyson); Sailors Three (Three Cockeyed Sailors) (Forde)

1941

Spare a Copper (Carstairs); The Ghost of St. Michael's (Varnel); Turned Out Nice Again (Varnel); Ships with Wings (Nolbandov); Black Sheep of Whitehall (Dearden and Hay)

1942

The Big Blockade (Frend); The Foreman Went to France (Somewhere in France) (Frend); The Next of Kin (Dickinson); The Goose Steps Out (Dearden and Hay); Went the Day Well? (48 Hours) (Cavalcanti)

1943

Nine Men (Watt); The Bells Go Down (Dearden); Undercover (Underground Guerillas) (Nolbandov); My Learned Friend (Dearden and Hay)

1944

San Demetrio London (Frend); The Halfway House (Dearden); For Those in Peril (Crichton); The Return of the Vikings (Frend); They Came to a City (Dearden); Champagne Charlie (Cavalcanti); Fiddlers Three (Watt)

1945

Johnny Frenchman (Frend); Painted Boats (The Girl on the Canal) (Crichton); Dead of Night (Dearden, Cavalcanti, and Hamer); Pink String and Sealing Wax (Hamer)

1946

The Captive Heart (Dearden); The Overlanders (Watt)

1947

Hue and Cry (Crichton); Nicholas Nickleby (The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby) (Cavalcanti); The Loves of Joanna Godden (Frend); Frieda (Dearden); It Always Rains on Sunday (Hamer)

1948

Against the Wind (Crichton); Saraband for Dead Lovers (Saraband) (Dearden); Another Shore (Crichton); Scott of the Antarctic (Frend)

1949

Eureka Stockade (Watt); Passport to Pimlico (Cornelius); Whiskey Galore! (Tight Little Island) (Mackendrick); Kind Hearts and Coronets (Hamer); Train of Events (Cole, Dearden and Crichton); A Run for Your Money (Frend)

1950

The Blue Lamp (Dearden); Bitter Springs (Smart); Cage of Gold (Dearden); The Magnet (Cole)

1951

Pool of London (Dearden); The Lavender Hill Mob (Crichton); The Man in the White Suit (Mackendrick); Where No Vultures Fly (Ivory Hunter) (Watt)

1954

Lease of Life (Frend)

1955

The Night My Number Came Up (Norman); Armand and Michaela Denis (series—3 films); Touch and Go (The Light Touch) (Truman); The Ladykillers (Mackendrick)

1956

The Feminine Touch (The Gentle Touch) (Jackson); The Long Arm (The Third Key) (Frend)

1959

The Scapegoat (Hamer)

Films as Producer (Shorts):

1925

Gainsborough Burlesque Films (Brunel)

1926

The Steven Donoghue Series (West)

1929

In a Monastery Garden (Brunel)

1930

Sugar and Spice Series (Oumansky); Gainsborough Gems Series

1931

Harry Lauder Songs Series (Pearson—8)

1940

All Hands (Carstairs); Cable Laying (Carstairs); Dangerous Comment (Carstairs—2); Signals Office (Carstairs); Now You're Talking (Carstairs)

1941

Freedom Must Have Wings (Bennett)

1942

Go to Blazes (Forde); Mighty Penny (Carstairs); Raid on France (Bennett); Meet Mr. Joad (Williams)

1943

Did You Ever See a Dream Walking? (Dearden); Save Your Shillings and Smile (Watt); The Saving Grace (Frend); Fleet Air Arm (Bennett)

1944

Journal of Resistance

Films as Co-Producer:

1921

The Story of Oil (Saville); Liquid Sunshine (Saville)

1923

Woman to Woman (Cutts)

1924

The White Shadow (White Shadows) (Cutts); The Prude's Fall (Cutts); The Passionate Adventure (Cutts)

1925

The Blackguard (Cutts)

1926

The Pleasure Garden (Hitchcock)

1928

The Constant Nymph (Brunel)

1963

Sammy Going South (A Boy Ten Feet Tall) (Mackendrick)

Publications

By BALCON: books—

Realism or Tinsel?, Brighton, 1943.

The Producer, London, 1945.

Twenty Years of British Film 1925–1945, London, 1947.

Film Production and Management, London, 1950.

Michael Balcon Presents . . . A Lifetime of Films, London, 1969.


By BALCON: articles—

"The Diary of a Talkie," in Film Weekly (London), 24 January 1931.

"The Function of the Producer," in Cinema Quarterly (London), Autumn 1933.

"Whither Film?," in Film Art (London), Winter 1934.

"How Films Are Made," in The Listener (London), 26 January 1938.

"Rationalise!," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1940–41.

"Propaganda and the Feature Producer," in Cine-Technician (London), February-March 1942.

"The British Film During the War," in Penguin Film Review (London), August 1946.

"The Eye Behind the Camera," in Saraband for Dead Lovers, London, 1948.

"The Technical Problems of Scott of the Antarctic," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1948–49.

"Film Comedy," in The British Film Yearbook 1949–50, edited by Peter Noble, London, 1950

"10 Years of British Films," in Films in Britain 1951, London, 1951.

"The Feature Carries on the Documentary Tradition," in Quarterly of Film, Radio and Television (Berkeley, California), Summer 1952.

"The Secret of Ealing Comedy," in International Film Annual I, edited by George Campbell Dixon, London, 1957.

Interview with Penelope Houston, in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1962–63. Vision (London), March 1977.


On BALCON: books—

Danischewsky, Monja, editor, Michael Balcon's 25 Years in Films, London, 1947.

James, David, "Scott of the Antarctic": The Film and Its Production, London, 1948.

Anderson, Lindsay, Making a Film: The Story of "Secret People," London, 1952.

Slide, Anthony, editor, Michael Balcon, Producer, London, 1969.

Barr, Charles, Ealing Studios, London, 1977.

Perry, George, Forever Ealing, London 1981.

Brown, Geoff, editor, Der Produzent: Michael Balcon und der englische Film, Berlin, 1981.

Wilson, David, Projecting Britain: Ealing Film Posters, London, 1982.

Fleugel, Jane, editor, Michael Balcon: The Pursuit of British Cinema, New York, 1984.

Brown, Geoff, Michael Balcon: Pursuit of Britain, New York, 1990.

On BALCON: articles—

Clynton, Lionel, "Michael Balcon of Ealing," in British Film Year-book 1947–8, edited by Peter Noble, London, 1947.

Dickinson, Thorold, "The Work of Sir Michael Balcon at Ealing Studios," in The Year's Work in the Film 1950, edited by Roger Manvell, London, 1951.

Koval, Francis, "The Studio: Sir Michael Balcon and Ealing," in Films of Britain 1951, London, 1951.

Baxter, Brian, in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), February-March and April-May 1973.

Barr, Charles, "'Projecting Britain and the British Character': Ealing Studios," in Screen (London), Spring and Summer 1974.

Pickard, Roy, "The Ealing Story," in Films in Review (New York), February 1975.

Baynham, Henri, "The Golden Age of Ealing Studios," in British Journal of Photography (London), 30 January, 12 March, 9 April, and 25 June 1976.

"Michael Balcon, 1896–1977," in Sight and Sound (London), Winter 1977–78.

Hall, Dennis John, "Balcon's Britain," in Films (London), February and March 1981.

"Ealing Studios," in National Film Theatre Booklet (London), November-December 1981, March 1982, and October-December 1982.

Salem, Charles, "The History of Ealing," in Cinema (London), November and December 1982, and January 1983.

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, no. 3, 1992.

Segnocinema, January-February 1992.

Kythreotis, Anna, "Born Again: The Studio of Subversive British Comedies," in New York Times, 27 March 1994.

Richards, Jeffrey, "Soldiers Three: the 'Lost' Gaumont British Imperial Epic (Michael Balcon's Imperial Epic; Film Production Outfit)," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, March 1995.

Harding, Bruce, and E. Barnouw, "Sir Michael Balcon," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 17, no. 1–4, 1995.

Sedgwick, John, "Michael Balcon's Close Encounter with the American Market, 1934–36," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, August 1996.

Moat, Janet, "The Aileen and Michael Balcon Special Collection: an Introduction to British Cinema History," in Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, October 1996.

Kemp, Philip, "Paradise Postponed: Ealing, Rank and They Came to a City," in Cineaste (New York), Fall 1998.


* * *

Of the three producers whose influence, above all, shaped the British cinema—Alexander Korda, J. Arthur Rank and Michael Balcon—it was Balcon that in the end proved the strongest and the most lasting. Though he never enjoyed Korda's international prestige, nor Rank's financial might, he succeeded in creating a body of films recognizably stamped with his own image. To speak of a Denham film, or a Pinewood film, conveys no particular idea—but "an Ealing film" suggests, for better or worse, a very specific and very British style of movie, strongly marked by the personality of Balcon himself. Many of the outstanding qualities of British cinema, both during his lifetime and since, can be credited to Michael Balcon. And so, perhaps, can some of its faults.

Balcon's influence on British cinema long pre-dates his arrival at Ealing in 1938. He produced his first feature film in 1923 at Islington Studios, where he founded Gainsborough Pictures and gave Alfred Hitchcock his first chance to direct. As head of Gaumont-British in the 1930s he produced some of the most successful British films of the period: not only Hitchcock's thrillers, but Jessie Matthews musicals, Ben Travers farces, and the comedies of Jack Hulbert and Will Hay. There was also a string of slightly ungainly Anglo-German co-productions—and the occasional excursion into high seriousness such as Flaherty's Man of Aran, otherwise known as "Balcon's Folly."

After a brief, unhappy stint heading MGM's UK operation, Balcon took over from Basil Dean at Ealing, where he created the nearest the British film industry ever came to a studio after the classic Hollywood pattern. Like, say, Warners in the 1930s, Ealing had its roster of personnel—directors, writers, technicians, and so forth—on permanent salary, its pool of actors, its recurrent thematic preoccupations and, derived from all these, a recognizable house-style of filmmaking.

During this, "the happiest and most rewarding period of my working life," Balcon was able to realise his ambition of an indigenous, independent, national cinema, modest in its resources but international in scope. His aim, like that of every major British producer, was to get into the American market, but without aping the values, and the "hard technical perfection," of Hollywood movies. "We shall become international," he insisted, "by being national." To the "tinsel" of Hollywood he opposed the "realism" of Ealing—documentary-based productions, in authentic settings. Documentary, he contended, was less a question of factual, non-fiction subjects than of "an attitude of mind towards filmmaking."

Throughout his career Balcon was a great nurturer of young talent. At Ealing, presiding benevolently over "Mr Balcon's Academy for Young Gentlemen" (in Monja Danischewsky's famous phrase), he fostered a whole generation of filmmakers—not just directors like Alexander Mackendrick, Robert Hamer, Charles Crichton, Basil Dearden and Seth Holt, but producers, writers, cinematographers and actors—allowing them to develop their skills within an exceptionally tolerant and supportive atmosphere. He was, as Mackendrick remarked, "very mean with money, but extraordinarily generous with opportunities."

Inevitably, this benign environment had its drawbacks. Under Balcon's guidance, Ealing encouraged a consensus mentality that verged on complacency, a weakness for eccentricity dangerously akin to whimsy. Staunchly patriotic, he set out to make films "reflecting Britain and the British character," but it was a reflection contained within a carefully defined frame. Certain subjects—notably sex and religion—alarmed him, and featured rarely, if at all. Social institutions could be gently mocked, but never seriously attacked. Those directors—Hamer, Mackendrick, Cavalcanti—who expressed a darker vision did so only by defying, or subverting, the studio ethos.

Balcon has been accused of insularity, of turning his back on cinematic developments elsewhere—in Bertrand Tavernier's words, "a totally British talent but closed to the rest of the world." Certainly, Ealing never encouraged formal experimentation, and it's hard to imagine the swirling Baroque fantasies of Michael Powell fitting in there. In its latter years the studio retreated into a dated, toytown concept of England, and after its demise Balcon himself seemed a diminished figure, presiding uneasily at Bryanston over the brash outspokenness of the British New Wave.

Balcon's limitations, though, were the obverse of his strengths. And it is for his strengths that he was remarkable—for his vigorous, indefatigable championship of British filmmaking, for his skill in reconciling commercial appeal with creative integrity, for his knack of spotting, cultivating and teaming disparate talents. If his concept of cinema sometimes seemed unambitious, it was also—like the man himself—refreshingly free from pretension or rhetoric. It was typical of him that, looking back on his career, he assigned to others the credit for his achievement. "A film producer is only as good as the sum total of the quality of the colleagues with whom he works, and in this respect I have been uniquely fortunate."

—Philip Kemp

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