Was British cinema purely ‘Internationalist’ during the 1930s?
During the 1920s Hollywood dominated British cinema, “By 1923 … only 10 percent of the films shown in Britain were actually made in Britain, and by 1926 this had fallen to 5 percent.” (Richards, 1984, p.35). There was very little money to be made by British filmmakers, resulting in government intervened with the Cinematograph Films Act of 1927. This act allowed profits generated by the Distribution and Exhibition of American films to be put back into British filmmaking.
However, few British films made an impact on American audiences. Street outlined some attributes which were important for American viewers in order for British films to be successful, which few films applied. “British films needed to communicate clear and well-recorded dialogue not necessarily in an ‘Oxford’ accent” (Street, 2002, p. 47). This aspect was rarely achieved due to the focus on ‘quota quickies’ which had a focus on efficiency over quality. Only large production companies such as Gaumont British and London Film Productions had the capability to produce high-quality texts. Often these texts pander to the aspects which American audiences find important in British films, such as when they “include appealing female stars who would not be ‘smothered’ by male actors”.
Evergreen (1934) was one such film which successfully resonated with American audiences by following these aspects. A huge part of the film’s success was the leading lady Jessie Matthews who “Variety called ‘Princess Personality … the most sensational discovery in years’ when the film opened to outstanding notices (and receipts) at the Radio City Music Hall in New York” (Quinlan, 1984, p.26). She was the star of the film as seen in this scene of her performance.
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It can be seen why Evergreen was so popular in America when compared to Swing Time (1936) which starred Ginger Rodgers as the leading lady and was of the same romantic musical genre which was incredibly popular since the implementation into the mainstream of sound cinema.
The similarities can be seen immediately in the semantics of the two scenes with the large expansive space being utilised by the characters dancing. The extravagance of both settings shows the high production values which at the time were crucial to creating a successful film. Both Jessie and Ginger are seen wearing elegant, flowing dresses and highlights their appeal to the audience. Neither are overshadowed by their male counterparts in their respective scenes and this further shows the accuracy of Street’s (2002) outline and how important it is that British cinema is as similar to American cinema as possible in order to be successful.
In conclusion, it cannot be said that British cinema was purely internationalist during the 30s. However, of the highest grossing and most well-received British films, the majority were internationalist texts which contained aspects which American audiences found crucial and were included in extremely popular Hollywood movies of the time as evidenced by Evergreen (1934) and its similarities to Swing Time (1936) which is just one of many films that follow this motif.
Quinlan, D. (1984). British Sound Films: The Studio Years 1928 – 1959. London: Butler & Tanner Ltd.
Richards, J. (1984). The Age of the Dream Palace. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul plc.
Saville, V. (Director). (1934). Evergreen [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Gaumont British Picture Corporation.
Stevens, G. (Director). (1936). Swing Time [Motion Picture]. United States: RKO Radio Pictures.
Street, S. (2002). Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the USA. New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.