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balcon and ealing
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m i c h a e l   b a l c o n  :   b i o g r a p h y  ]

"Here...many films were made projecting...the British character."
- Sir Michael Balcon's plaque at Ealing

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    Rather than attempt a filmography for Michael Balcon, it seems more appropriate to list the key positions he held. His function in British cinema is essentially that of a chief executive, a studio head, rather than a producer in the creative sense of the word.


      Gainsborough Pictures - co-founded with Graham Cutts. In charge of production.


      MGM-British - director of production.


      Ealing Studios - director and chief of production.


      Bryanston Films - founder.


      British Lion - chairman.

    Some of the films he produced for Gainsborough Pictures are: The Pleasure Garden (1925), The Mountain Eagle , The Lodger (1926), Woman to Woman (1929), Rome Express (1932), The Good Companions, I was a Spy (1933), Man of Aran, Evergreen, Little Friend (1934), First a Girl, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935), Tudor Rose.

    His name appears as producer on most Ealing films of the period of his incumbency, but one needs to check the name of the associate producer to discover who actually performed the producer's function on an individual Ealing film.

    balcon and ealing

      'Can we ever build up a real British film industry?'

    Michael Balcon asks this in his 1969 autobiography. No one could accuse him of not having made his contribution to this tricky enterprise. In an industry which threw up few moguls (Rank and Korda are the only others that come to mind), Balcon emerges as a somewhat headmasterly figure, a benevolent dictator, in the accounts one receives of his leadership at Ealing. In the twelve years he presided over Gainsborough Pictures, he notably produced some of Hitchcock's most charming entertainments. He then had two frustrating years in charge of production at MGM-British, from which he escaped to Ealing, where he spent:

      'the most rewarding years in my personal career, and perhaps one of the most fruitful periods in the history of British film production.'

    Balcon was always concerned to establish a recognisable British industry, believing 'that a film, to be international, must be thoroughly national in the first instance.' While at Gainsborough, however, as well as making such wholly indigenous works as the Jessie Matthews musicals, Balcon also imported American stars and made films with an eye consciously on the US market. He nevertheless bewailed the loss of British talent to America, later claiming that scaped to Ealing, where he spent:

      '...before the war a debilitating effect was had upon British films by the fact that it was generally the British technician's and the British actor's ambition to go to Hollywood as the Mecca of filmmaking.'

    The plaque he had erected at Ealing when the studio was sold in 1955 (the classic The Ladykillers was in fact in production at the time of the sale) said:

      'Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.'

    What most people associate with the studio is 'Ealing comedy'. This term derives from a batch of comedies ushered in by Hue and Cry in 1947 and followed famously by Passport to Pimlico, Kind Hearts and Coronets, Whisky Galore! and The Lavender Hill Mob. They are really more heterogeneous than the 'Ealing comedy' label suggests: they are variously gentle or dry, sunny or black, whimsical or tough. Wrote Balcon:

      'Our theory of ludicrously simple. We take a character, or a group of characters, and let them run up against either an untenable situation or an insoluble problem. The audience hopes they will get out of it, and they usually do: the comedy lies in how they do it.'

    He goes on to say that 'comedy at Ealing usually starts with an original filmic idea rather than a bestselling book', and certainly among the charms of the films is their quirky freshness and oroginality, their cinematic inventiveness. (Compare them with some of the stiffly theatrical comedies whose production Balcon oversaw at Gainsborough in the '30s) Elsewhere, he wrote that 'film producers want good authors to work for them and with them...provided they are prepared to understanding of films and a skill in writing for them'. And it's true that Ealing films avoid debilitating literariness. But Ealing offered more than comedy, and its war films (e.g. San Demetrio, London) and its post-war dramas (e.g. Mandy) were much praised for their realism. In their way, they also projected 'Britain and the British character'. In its representations of courage, fortitude and consensual effort, the Ealing ethos was characterised by a low-key realism which was the legacy of 'the men who kept realism going on the screen': by these 'men', he meant the documentary filmmakers he praised in a lecture he gave to the Film Workers' Association in 1943.

    The worst that could be said of Balcon's achievement is that it was sometimes too suburbanly cosy; against this it may be said that he brought a new naturalness into British feature films.

  • British War Dvd Collection. Prices from 2.99 incl. postage from the golden years of the 1940s & 50s.

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    balcon and ealing | kind hearts and coronets
    books | dvds | videos
    michael balcon
    alfred hitchcock | victor saville
    madeleine carroll | robert donat | alec guinness


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