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Ian Scott, From Pinewood to Hollywood: British Filmmakers in American Cinema, 1910-1969.

Hilaria Loyo
Bibliographical reference

Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010. Pp.208. ISBN-13: 978-0230229235. (hbk).

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1Ian Scott’s From Pinewood to Hollywood is a book about the emigration, film careers and socio-cultural influence of British filmmakers who moved to Hollywood during a time period that precedes and follows the studio era, as clearly indicated in its subtitle, British Filmmakers in American Cinema, 1910-1969. Although it is not presented as such, this book can be seen as a timely contribution to the recent academic interest within film studies in the transnational practices that have historically characterized film-making and film exhibition world-wide, and particularly Hollywood film industry. This book does not invoke any current theoretical discussion on transnationalism in cinema, and yet it still offers enormously valid insight into some of the cultural, technological and industrial interactions across nations that shaped and transformed Hollywood from a fledgling movie industry to the globalized culture industry that it is today. A chronological trajectory describing the contribution to American cinema of those British filmmakers who moved to Hollywood can be traced by an identifiable national imprint stamped upon both Hollywood films and industry over a period of time ranging from its pioneering years, before the studio era was properly established, to the emergence of the so-called ‘New Hollywood,’ well after the studio era had come to a close. Admittedly, other international communities – French, Italian, German and Eastern Europeans artists and professionals – also made their significant contribution to Hollywood cinema at the same time, but the British, Scott claims, were not only greater in number but took a very distinctive ‘path’ that made its way into Hollywood’s economy and politics as well as into its cultural, social and artistic practices. This path started to be laid down much earlier than it has usually been thought and has extended much further than many have claimed, furnishing a lasting legacy that even subsists, according to the author, in the work of today’s British filmmakers in Hollywood, such as Ridley Scott, Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, Kevin MacDonald and all their contemporary colleagues. These are now regarded as part of global multi-national Hollywood, whose homogenizing impulse, however, erases any clear national imprint of its own. In the introduction and the five chapters that follow the prologue Scott examines the film careers and socio-cultural influence of those British émigrés by piecing together diverse data from a wide range of sources and archival material. In superbly smooth prose, he weaves with great ease a quite neat account of this transnational interplay from different thematic threads, making its reading a pleasurable experience. This is, no doubt, one of the strengths of this book.

2The introduction, entitled “The British connection: themes and theories,” gives a succinct account of the well-known contribution of British figures to Hollywood during the 1920s, the alleged ‘British invasion’ of Hollywood, and the classic period recognized by other film critics and historians, and claims a much earlier and lesser-known British influence that has been generally overlooked and that extends well beyond the studio era. Capitalizing on existing American Anglophilia, Hollywood hired famous British writers and playwrights like P.G. Wodehouse, Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, J.B. Priestly, Noel Coward, Elinor Glyn, Edgar Wallace, Hugh Walpole and many others, actors like George Arliss, C. Aubrey Smith and Charlie Chaplin, and film directors like Frank Lloyd, James Whale, Edmund Goulding and later Alfred Hitchcock. The familiar account of the British filmmakers in the classical Hollywood era usually focuses on their construction of stereotypical British sensibility and their reshaping of certain genres such as historical epics, social dramas, bio-pics and adaptations of British canonical literature, often contributing not only to the cultural sophistication Americans attributed to Europeans, and to the British in particular, but to Hollywood’s much sought after product diversification, needed to maintain commercial appeal. But the impressive number of British films made in the studios were not concerned only with British settings and stories. Unlike other contemporary European émigrés, these British talents possessed an asset – the English language – that gave them a special flexibility in adapting to America values, traditions and tastes. It was not only the acceptance of the British cadence in actors like Ronald Colman and Clive Brooks, but also the British writers’ ease in adapting to the American vernacular that contributed to British films’ success. Despite their skills at adapting to the American national psyche, the British, like other European filmmakers, provided a more critical vision of the American character by bringing to light darker cultural aspects that Americans themselves ignored or were blind to. But even in their stimulating perception of the American experience there was something distinctively British, a national hallmark bearing in those early decades of the twentieth century the cultural and social imprints of their Victorian background. As Scott writes, “They appreciated the richness of the American experience, brought American wit and character to their films, but never lost that touch of eloquence and sentiment that characterized the national mood, their nation, the land of their upbringing” (29).

3In this introductory chapter Scott also brings to life the less renowned earlier British émigrés who played an important role in the founding of Hollywood in its first years. J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith created The Vitagraph Corporation in 1897, one of the first major studios of the east coast, attracting other British immigrants to the film business. Scott rescues from academic oblivion the film careers of numerous British émigrés who followed Blackton’s and Smith’s steps attracted by the economic opportunities the new industry offered when moving west to California. The film careers of Reginald Barker, Charles Brabin, Colin Campbell and Frank Lloyd, among others, are analysed in the first chapter entitled “Early Invaders: The First British Wave.” These ‘sons of pioneers’ would soon display a flare for experimentation and risk that translated not only into the thematic originality and a sensibility able to capture on screen the contemporary American mood and tastes, but also into their reckless attitude to business and to studio politics. An example of the assimilation of their talents to the American cultural taste is seen in the early slapstick comedy, a distinctively American film genre that has its roots in the English music hall. Under the guidance of the music hall maestro, Fred Karno, this tradition shaped the early career of celebrated comics like Charlie Chaplin and Stanley Jefferson (later Laurel) who have become iconic figures of the genre. With some notable exceptions, the British émigrés of the 1910s and 1920s would pave the way for the “extraordinary and overwhelming” contribution of British talent to the Hollywood film industry in the studio era.

4With the same richness of detail – ranging from individual attitudes to the aggressive commercialism of Hollywood film industry, from professional initiatives and struggles, to artistic innovation in numerous films and individual stories of glory, failure and adaptability – chapter two, “Sound and Vision: British Filmmakers and the Politics of Pre-war Hollywood,” examines the significant influence of British émigrés during the studio era before World War II. Nonetheless, the British national imprint stamped on Hollywood at this time was in fact a cultural hybrid resulting from other cross-national interactions. Gainsborough Pictures (later Gaumount-British), the important British film company created by producer Michael Balcon with Victor Saville in 1924, adapted the techniques and stylistic devices Balcon had learned from the Ufa German films to the characteristic British penchant for “story-telling, wit and melodrama” (64). At a time of a generalized Americanization of Britain, the struggle for survival in the harsh competition with Hollywood studios, which were producing numerous adaptations of canonical British literature with the collaboration of excellent British personnel and talents, would force Balcon and other members of the British film industry to seek a difficult balance between the desire to keep a creative distinctiveness and independence against the desire to make profit. Despite the establishing of the protective quota system in Britain, Balcon would eventually work in collaboration with MGM in Hollywood and discover that the formula for solving the conflicting desires for creative recognition and profit would consist in their making national issues and topics international. The British on both sides of the Atlantic were not just making good British movies, but they “were making transatlantic, transnational pictures that appealed everywhere and made the most of the British origins and upbringing” (106). Numerous British novelists and scriptwriters, actors and actresses, and film directors would contribute to the so-called ‘Hollywood British’ film conveying a stereotyped view of British culture within specific generic confines while addressing a wide audience. But some of them would move beyond these boundaries and prove remarkably perceptive in their grasping of the American context they lived in. This is the case of the British novelist and scriptwriter Elinor Glyn who, like many other female writers, would make the most of the career opportunities that Hollywood offered to certain women of that time. Sophisticated and unconventional, Glyn named actress Clara Bow the “It” girl, a pronoun encompassing the changes in fashion and sexual mores that the novelist portrayed in the romantic stories she wrote for the screen in the 1920s and early thirties, before the enforcement of the Production Code. Glyn would transcend the confines of her seemingly British sophistication to incarnate a modernity that went beyond the boundaries of what was considered morally acceptable in both America and Britain. Other examples of adjustment and perceptiveness of the American cultural context can be seen in the careers of British film directors James Whale and Frank Lloyd. Whale, who in the earlier part of his career so aptly translated onto the screen the Victorian virtues of duty, service and emotional restraint first in historical-social melodramas and then in his celebrated gothic melodramas, would prove in the late 1930s his adaptability to American culture by directing a musical based on a classic American story, Show Boat (1936), accepting the challenge of working on both a story and genre that were new to him. In 1940, Frank Lloyd would also turn his attention to classic American history in The Howards of Virginia, proving once more his ability to assimilate and adapt to the new changes and needs. These are just some examples of the career evolution of many British émigrés Scott examines in this chapter.

5The global conflict of World War II marked a point of inflection in the participation of British filmmakers and talents in Hollywood during the war years, which Scott studies in the third chapter, “Movies for the Masses: The British in the Second World War.” In the WWII years many films made on both sides of the Atlantic participated in the war effort against fascism by conveying propaganda messages needed to boost the morale of the allied nations, but in different ways. The Hollywood industry continued cashing in on the American interest in Britain, but this time some films started to display a darker side of a British past tattered by rigid class barriers, marking a contrast with a more egalitarian American society. On the other hand, the British film industry would resort to laughter and jokes, some form of distinctively British humour, as well as portrayals of national life and consciousness as in David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) or even lavish spectaculars such as Alexander Korda’s The Thief of Baghdad (1939). But the war years bought about other changes. Some American companies like MGM had already moved to Britain to overcome the restrictions imposed by the quota system and to cater for the British audiences. Meanwhile, to survive in the commercial competition with Hollywood, British filmmakers at home, like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell, followed Balcon’s doctrine of making national issues international to gain acceptability in the American market. But the state regulation enforced by British government during the war period forced British producers like Korda to set up a production company in the United States, moving back and forth across the Atlantic. Thus British stereotypical personifications continued to be produced but a newer generation of British émigrés began to introduce “a harder-edged, more serious and melodramatic force” (121), marking a point of inflection in film production. In the war years, changes in the studio system were well under way, towards a ‘hyphenated’ collaboration of writer-producers, writer-directors and producer-directors, giving rise to an enriching cross-national cultural interplay. An example of this cross-national interaction is seen in films like The Ministry of Fear (1944), directed by German filmmaker Fritz Lang, based on an espionage story by British novelist Graham Green, set in London but filmed in Hollywood. Scott also singles out the influence of Alfred Hitchcock’s early films as an example of the British Hollywood community assuming a more daring approach to filmmaking. In Scott’s words, this community “invented spy thrillers and political movies, and brought ideological menace and avant-garde suspense to pictures” (126). These more radical formal and thematic innovations introduced by British filmmakers in their films were to inspire post-war generations.

6Some trends set in the war years were followed after the war, as the author indicates in the title of the fourth chapter, “Post-War Directions: Ealing Escapism and the Menace of McCarthy.” The British filmmakers at home would exploit wartime successes. Under Balcon’s direction, the Ealing Studios, for instance, vindicated the documentary as both an ideological weapon and cinematic form and exploited some type of British humour in its highly popular comedies that, as Scott writes, “would define an era, genre and character of British life” (127) as a much needed form of escapism from the grim days of the post-war era. Despite its commercial success, the British film industry could not match the popularity of Hollywood films. Hollywood studios kept their production units in Britain and continued signing co-production deals. The British in Hollywood, on the other hand, portrayed the fears and prejudices that haunted the Hollywood community in the 1940s and 1950s. The anti-communist crusade conducted by the HUAC and other federal offices would also affect the careers of celebrated British writers like Christopher Isherwood and Aldous Huxley who participated in more politically daring film projects. For Scott, Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge (1946) is the film that best captures British disapproval of American ways and manners. However, post-war political unrest and economic recession impelled British and American producers to collaborate in joint film projects that proved so beneficial during the war years. The success of some these international collaborations would leave an important legacy, giving rise to a new genre, the Cold War thriller. Built on the success of a British film, The Fallen Idol (1948), The Third Man (1949) is based on a Graham Green story, directed by British director Carol Reed, performed by American actors like Orson Wells and Joseph Cotten and produced by Selznick. These international collaborations would set the pace of the British émigrés in the Hollywood industry in the post-studio era.

7British film director John Schlesinger epitomises, for the author, the internationalism and globalizing instinct that British filmmakers would demonstrate in the international collaborations that became the norm within the movie industry in the following decades. The fifth and last chapter, “Atlantic Crossing”, studies the careers of the next wave of Anglo-filmmakers like John Boorman, Ken Russell and Nic Roeg who, together with Schlesinger, continued the tradition set by their predecessors of “replaying America back to itself” (157). The crumbling of the studio system allowed the production of a more radical cinema in the 1970s that showed a more self-conscious cinematic style, overt sexual reference and a more liberal ideology. This cinema would meet the filmmakers’ own demands for independent creativity as well as those of younger film connoisseurs crowding film art-houses and independent theatres for more interesting and provocative movies. Scott also highlights the important roles of British screenwriters like Robert Bolt and later Christopher Hampton and Tom Stoppard in these more radical movies. Later, directors like Peter Yates and Tony Richardson, who inflected Hollywood film genres in a very substantial way, took this path, proving like their British predecessors both their commercial instincts and creative independence. This is the path taken from the 1970s onwards by British filmmakers like Alan Parker, Ridley Scott, Michael Apted, Christopher Nolan, Paul Greengrass, Kevin MacDonald, nurtured from a legacy that helped make American filmmaking a core cinematic reference and cultivated traditions and approaches that would endure to these days, when Hollywood became a global multinational industry. In this book, Scott reassesses the ‘Britishness’ in the Hollywood films that British émigrés contributed to, films that, in his view, came across as transnational productions. In the neat trajectory of the British legacy to Hollywood filmmaking he sketches, this British national hallmark becomes at once identifiable and mutable, subjected to enriching cultural flows and interactions.

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Electronic reference

Hilaria Loyo, « Ian Scott, From Pinewood to Hollywood: British Filmmakers in American Cinema, 1910-1969. », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2011-2, document 1, Online since 30 May 2011, connection on 22 April 2018. URL :

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Hilaria Loyo

University of Zaragoza, Spain

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