Dean, Basil

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DEAN, Basil

Producer and Director. Nationality: British. Born: Croydon, Surrey, 27 September 1888. Military Service: 1914—joined Cheshire Regiment: head of War Office theatres, 1917–18. Family: Married 1) Esther Van Gruisen (divorced); 2) Lady Mercy Greville (divorced); 3) the actress Victoria Hopper (divorced). Career: 1907–11—member of the Horniman Repertory Company, Manchester; 1919–26—cofounding director, with Alec L. Rea, theatrical production company Reandean; 1926—cowrote the play The Constant Nymph with Margaret Kennedy, based on Kennedy's novel (and later filmed); 1926–64—head of Basil Dean Productions, (and L.B. Dean Productions, 1939–46); 1932—founder, Associated Talking Pictures (later Ealing Studios); 1939—founding director, Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA); 1942—director, National Service Entertainment; 1948—organized first British Repertory Theatre Festival, London. Award: Commander, Order of the British Empire, 1947. Died: 22 April 1978.

Films as Producer and Director:


The Return of Sherlock Holmes


Escape (+ sc); Birds of Prey (The Perfect Alibi) (+ sc)


Nine till Six; The Impassive Footman (Woman in Bondage); Looking at the Bright Side (co-d + co-sc)




Autumn Crocus (+ sc); Sing As We Go


Lorna Doone; Look Up and Laugh


Whom the Gods Love (Mozart)


The Show Goes On (+ co-sc)

Films as Producer:


A Honeymoon Adventure (Footsteps in the Night) (Elvey) (+ co-sc); Sally in Our Alley (Elvey)


The Water Gipsies (Elvey) (+ co-sc); The Sign of Four (Lee and Cutts); Love on the Spot (Cutts)


Three Men in a Boat (Cutts); Skipper of the Osprey (Walker)


Love, Life, and Laughter (Elvey); Java Head (Ruben)


No Limit (Banks); Midshipman Easy (Men of the Sea) (Reed) (co)


Queen of Hearts (Banks); The Lonely Road (Scotland Yard Commands) (Flood)


Feather Your Nest (Beaudine)


I See Ice (Kimmins); It's in the Air (George Takes the Air) (Kimmins)

Other Films:


The Constant Nymph (Brunel) (co-sc)


The Constant Nymph (d + co-sc)


The First and the Last (21 Days; 21 Days Together) (d)


Penny Paradise (co-pr + co-sc)


By DEAN: books—

The Repertory Theatre (lecture), Liverpool, 1911.

With Barry V. Jackson, Fifinella (play), London, 1912.

With Margaret Kennedy, The Constant Nymph (play), London, 1926.

With Margaret Kennedy, Come with Me (play), London, 1928.

The Theatre in Reconstruction, Tonbridge, Kent, 1945.

Hassan (play), London, 1951.

The Theatre at War, London, 1956.

Seven Ages and Mind's Eye: An Autobiography 1888–1972, London, 2 vols., 1970–72.

By DEAN: articles—

"Talking Pictures," in Nineteenth Century and After (London), December 1929.

Picturegoer (London), July 1930.

On DEAN: article—

Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television (Abingdon, Oxford), Vol. 10, no. 1, March 1990.

* * *

A major figure in British theatrical history, Basil Dean is all too often overlooked in the study of British film history. His fame as the creator of Ealing Studios is overshadowed by the importance placed on his successor, Michael Balcon. Because of the general opinion that British cinema failed to exist on an international level prior to Alexander Korda's production of The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933, Dean's work in the development of a major studio, Associated Talking Pictures (arguably the first British company to be incorporated after the coming of sound), and its collaborative activities with the American RKO Radio Pictures, has been neglected. (Coincidentally, in 1937, Korda and Dean worked together, far from amicably, on 21 Days, which Dean had originally produced on the stage, and which was intended as a starring vehicle for Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh.)

More importantly, Basil Dean has not received recognition for understanding the screen potential of British music hall stars and for his work in developing two of those stars, Gracie Fields and George Formby, into the most popular British screen personalities of the 1930s. Dean's screen career led directly from his work in the theatre, as he wrote the screenplay for Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph and directed John Galsworthy's Escape, both of which had been highspots in his stage career. Basil Dean further learned the rudiments of motion picture production from a trip to New York, where he directed one feature for Paramount, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, a surprisingly competent production for one unfamiliar with American production techniques.

In 1930 Somerset Maugham had advised Dean that "it would be grand if the pictures ceased to be an outrage to the intelligence of an educated person." Dean sought to heed Maugham's suggestion, initially by adapting works by A.A. Milne and John Galsworthy, among others, for the screen. Later, he realized that British films had the potential for depicting the working-class view of British society. The theatre belonged to the middle and upper classes. The screen belonged to the masses. He developed two North Country comedy performers, Gracie Fields and George Formby, and used their personae to show the grit and determination, the humor and pathos of working-class society. Fields and Formby were already familiar to theatregoers in Britain. Dean was able to create films which brought these performers away from the confines and limitations of the stage and helped show the world the unsentimental reality of British working-class life. His finest achievement is, unquestionably, Sing As We Go, which boasts a screenplay by J. B. Priestley, and captures the drama of life in the Lancashire cotton mills. It is one of the finest social realistic portraits of North Country British working-class society.

During the years that Dean was a producer, he helped further the careers of many individuals at Ealing studios, notably David Lean (then an editor), Carol Reed, Thorold Dickinson, and Basil Dearden. In many respects, his films from 1931–38 are the forerunners of the popular Ealing comedies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. Indeed, Dean claimed up to his death that his Ealing comedies, which relied more on personalities than situations, had stood the test of time better than those of his highly promoted Ealing heir, Michael Balcon.

—Anthony Slide

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Dean, Basil

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