The History of British Cinema

Published: 2019-09-30 10:30:00
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One of the youngest arts, cinema is now one of the most popular its types. Its history is slightly longer than one century, though being on its highest level of development nowadays it outshines such ancient arts as theatre and music. Moreover, cinema appears to be quintessence of almost all arts ever existing there is theatre in actors acting, music in the soundtracks, dance can be presented in musicals etc. However, it is sometimes difficult to believe that the history of cinema is comparatively short. The beginning of cinematography is mostly associated with the name of Brothers Lumiere, who were French, therefore France is considered the homeland of cinematography. Not many people know that Great Britain has also played a significant role in the development of world cinema.

Great Britain has the reputation of isolated and self-concerned country with reserved, conservative, and prudish people. It is a stereotype, but based on some true facts, therefore the history of British cinema is as complicated as the inhabitants of this island. The development of British cinema was not fast and had different stages, some of which are characterized as dozy and slow, especially in comparison with the pace of cinematographic development in Hollywood, the USA. The beginning of British cinema history is connected with the name of Louis le Prince, who shot the first moving picture in 1888 in the city of Leeds. He was the first to create what is called a camera nowadays. A motion picture camera, which also contained projector, was a 16-lens device for which le Prince even received patent in the same year of 1888. Slightly later, in October of 1888 he improved his 6-lens device making it single lens, which allowed him make the first motion movie ever. A short film called Roundhay Garden Scene was first presented to general public in 1888 in Leeds in the Whitley factory. This film is considered the oldest surviving movie ever. However, Louis le Prince was French by nationality, he worked in Great Britain and contributed to its film history mostly.

However, there were some attempts to create what we nowadays call a film even before Louis le Prince. Thus, in 1830s William Horner introduced pictures that were moving to public. For this purpose, he used a device called zoetrope, which produced an illusion of moving due to displaying a sequence of certain pictures. Another inventor William Lincoln created a zoopraxiscope also called a wheel of life special device alike zoetrope which presented pictures in motion. The next important step towards cinematic production was made in 1873 by Edward Muybridge, who made photographs of Sallie Gardner, a horse, in motion. In order to create them, he used several 24 stereoscopic cameras. Each photo was taken at one thousandth of a second (Clegg).

After Louis le Prince another inventor of British origin William Friese Greene created celluloid film, which he patented in 1890. The first pictures in motion were made by him in 1989 in Hyde Park of London. The next step in creating movies was undertaken by Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul the first people to create a 35 mm camera. Already in February 1895 they shot the first British movie called Incident at Clovelly Cottage. Soon afterwards the first film companies appeared in order to meet the demands of the public. One of the first companies of that kind was Mitchell and Kenyon.

Most of the first films told everyday routine stories, however already at the beginning of 20th century pioneering melodramas and comedies, mostly short ones, appeared. The representatives of such film directors are William Haggar, who worked in Bamforths, Yorkshire, Cecil Hepworth and Frank Mottershaw. The film called A Daring Daylight Robbery of the latter initiated such movie genre as chase. There were even films based on literature works, the most popular for screen adaptation were the works of William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens.

One of the most significant figures of the British silent movies was Cecil Hepworth British film director, screenwriter and producer. He is deservedly considered one of the bounders of the British cinematography. Moreover, Hepworth was the first in Britain to write a book about cinematography, which was published in 1897. Together with Monty Wicks, his cousin, he owned a company of film production called Hepworth and Co. also known as Hepwix, which ended up being named Hepworth Picture Plays. Later, in 1899 a small film studio was founded by them in Walton-on-Thames. The company was very successful and produced about 3 films every week. The first big financial success of Hepworth was Rescued by Rover in 1905, which was created in cooperation with Lewin Fitzhamon. What was special about this film is that the title role belonged to a dog, a collie. After that the company produced many successful movies, becoming internationally known. In 1919 Hepworth decided to create a huge studio development, however it ended up in failure as he did not manage to raise all the necessary capital. Therefore, the company got into receivership, where most of Hepworths film negatives were melted (Friedman).

Already in 1920s the influence of Hollywood was so massive that British cinema started losing its positions to its overseas competitor. For comparison 25% of the films shown in Great Britain in 1914 were British, while in 1926 only 5% of all films in British cinemas were homemade. Therefore, to improve the situation in 1927 was issued The Cinematograph Films Act, which main purpose was to increase the percentage of British films in the cinemas. It came to power in 1928 and stated that not more than 7,5% of foreign films should be shown in the cinemas of Great Britain. It was clarified what films could be considered British thus movies shot in Great Britain together with Australia and Canada, which were its Dominions. Moreover, the author of the scenario of the movie had to be a British Subject and 75% of salaries for the production was supposed to pay to British Subjects. However, this Act is generally considered unsuccessful as the films, which filled British cinemas were mostly of low quality. They were named quota quickies as they were made quickly with low budget, which resulted in their quality. On the other hand, it boosted the investments to national cinema production from abroad and helped to bring costs to the home market. What is more, the audience for British movies became even larger than the Act quotas demanded (Napper).

Two prominent figures of British silent films were Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock. Sir Charles Spencer Chaplin is nowadays considered one of the key figures not only of British cinema, but of the whole history of cinematography. Being brought-up in a poor family in London, he started his performing career at young age and soon after signing a contract with Keystone Studios he left for the USA and became popular thanks to the tramp persona character. In 1918 he was one of the most well-known people in the world, on 1919 he became a co-founder of the company United Artists (Gehring). Among his most famous movies are The Gold Rush, City Lights, The Circus, and The Great Dictator, in which he created a satire on Adolf Hitler. Altogether, Charlie Chaplin was an actor, director, composer, and editor of the films. He still remains one of the most well-known British actors, though he became popular living and working in the United States.

Unlike Charlie Chaplin, who refused to move from silent to sound films, Alfred Hitchcock was the director, who created the first British sound film. Sir Alfred Joseph Hitchcock is generally considered the best British director of all times, though in 1939 he moved to Hollywood and even got American citizenship in 1955. Hitchcock was a pioneer in many film options such as psychological thriller and suspense as well as in different ways of using camera while filming in order to create necessary atmosphere. His films are known for unexpected endings and mysterious plots and in 1978 Hitchcock himself was described as "the most universally recognizable person in the world" by John Russel Taylor, film critique. (Ebert). The most known his films are Blackmail, "Rebecca", Psycho. In 2002 Alfred Hitchcock was named the most influential filmmaker ever (Wood). Despite the fact that both Charlie Chaplin and Alfred Hitchcock emigrated to the USA, they are known as the British who were the key figures of the world cinema.

However, until 1930s all the films were silent. Only in 1929 appeared a film, which is nowadays considered the first British sound movie (Allen). It was thriller drama Blackmail by Alfred Hitchcock. Financial problems with which John Maxwell, the founder of British International Pictures production company, faced forced him look for possible ways out of this situation. Making a breakthrough in national cinematography could save the company, therefore, during filming Blackmail was made a decision to convert from silent into sound movie. What is curious is that Hitchcock himself considered the idea of making the movie sound absurd. As the result two versions of the film both silent and sound were released for the cinemas. For this purpose, was created the first European sound studio at British and Dominions Imperial Studios based in Borehamwood. Despite all the difficulties, Blackmail was both commercial and critical success. Hitchcocks Blackmail not only saved British International Pictures and its founder John Maxwell, but also turned the company into the Associated British Picture Corporation, which produced great number of films and later earned the reputation of the porridge factory "for reasons more likely to do with the quantity of films that the company turned out, than their quality" (Burton, Chibnall 43).

The 1930s were marked by the emergence of the genre of documentary film, which is often associated with the name of John Grieson. He stood at the origins of the Documentary Film Movement. Together with Grieson there were Arthur Elton, Harry Watt, Basil Wright and Edgar Anstey. As almost all the members were young and progressive, they had good education and liberal political views, as the main principle of the Movement they saw the goal to educate people, mostly about democratic society. Later the Movement divided into several branches, each of which remained influential in its own sphere (Swann).

Another important personality in the history of British cinema of 1930s was Alexander Korda, an immigrant from Hungary. He was known for producing films with large budget in his studio London Films. His first big hit was the movie The Private Life of Henry VIII shot in 1933. This film proved Korda as a good film director and brought investments from such studios as United Artists and The Prudential. After The Private Life of Henry VIII followed the movies Rembrandt and Things to Come, featured in 1936 as well as Knight Without Armour, which was released on screens in 1937. Moreover, some of the first British technicolor movies Wings of the Morning in 1937, followed by The Drum, shot in 1938, and The Four Feathers in 1939. Alexander Korda was the first film director who received an honor of knighthood ("The Gazette").

However, not all film directors and production companies were so successful in the late 1930s. while in 1936 there were 640 production companies registered in Great Britain, in 1937 this number fell dramatically to 20 only. What worsened the situation was the new Cinematograph Films Act of 1938, which introduced quality test for films in order to reduce the number of movies produced, but increase their quality. American investments were allowed and encouraged by the Act as well. As a result, was created a British subsidiary of MGM, the largest American film stu...

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