This valuable resource book begins in London, in late September 1960, where two films were shooting at Pinewood Studios. One was the notorious 20th Century-Fox production of Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, the most famous film couple at that time. The other film was Alfred Shaughnessy’s modest thriller The Impersonator (1960), starring American actor John Crawford, Jane Griffiths, John Salew and Patricia Blake. The media were not interested in The Impersonator. Its “stars” were virtually unknown, its budget of £23,000 indicated an unimportant film and its genre, the low-budget crime film, was often ignored by newspaper critics. On the other hand, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and their romantic/marital entanglements, brought the world press to Pinewood. Playboy magazine even published photos of Taylor as the semi-naked Goddess of the Nile. These reasons, and the fact that the protracted shoot and endless retakes nearly bankrupted 2oth Century-Fox, ensured that Cleopatra remained in circulation via television and video/DVD. The Impersonator, a superior film, quickly disappeared from circulation – and largely from film history. In The British “B” Film, Stephen Chibnall and Brian McFarlane address this gap in the history of British cinema. The release of The Impersonator also marked the final phase of the British “B” film:

When the curtain comes down – as it literally does – in the last frames of The Impersonator, it signals a wider finality. The black-and-white British ‘B’ film, which has supplied thirty years of indigenous supporting-feature entertainment and just about out-lived its American counterpart, is coming to a close. (pp. ix-x)

This meticulous book systematically examines the cultural policy, production economics and audience demand for the low-budget British film between 1940 and 1965. It does not begin at the start of the production of “B” films, as the pre-1940 period is addressed in Chibnall’s earlier book, Quota Quickies (1).Instead it begins in the 1940s, a period when the “B” film was facing extinction. After 1927, film distribution and exhibition in Britain were regulated for the next 25 years by a series of legislative enactments. An immediate ramification was a “quota” system whereby exhibitors were required to devote a minimum percentage of screen space to British-registered films. This, in turn, created an economic incentive for cheap British second features. However, during the Second World War there was a determined effort to phase out low-budget second features in an attempt to implement an ongoing cinema program of “A” films supported by a perfunctory number of short films. This move was accompanied by the government’s preference for “educational” documentaries rather than cheap genre films. These factors, combined with rising costs and a shortage of studio space, resulted in a marked decline in the production of “B” films in 1943 and 1944. As the “B” film declined, the featurette – a short documentary film with a brief running time of just over 30 minutes – took over as the major support.

After the War, the battle lines were drawn between those who favoured a return to the “B” film and those who preferred the continued dominance of the featurette. The result was decided by the public and exhibitors, who preferred the “B” film. While the public rejected the one feature film policy and demanded two feature films, exhibitors opposed state-sponsored documentary films which they considered a form of government propaganda. However, the shortage and expense of studio facilities remained major obstacles to production. Chibnall and McFarlane note that in 1947 there were 15 studios with 51 sound stages. The cost of renting these facilities, however, was beyond the economic reach of most “B” producers. Ironically, the government came to the rescue with a series of regulations, such as the 1947 ad valorem duty on imported American films and the 1948 Film Act. This resulted in a reduction of American capital for the production of “A” films and, consequently, the need for home-grown second features to fill British screens.

The production of the “B” film was further encouraged in 1950 by the Eady Levy which returned cinema proceeds to local production. Low-budget production companies, such as Exclusive/Hammer, profited from this levy and crafted a profitable association with American producers. This resulted in an influx of American actors, directors and screenwriters, including those eager to find work in Britain following the blacklist, and greylist, imposed on many American filmmakers as a result of investigations by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the late 1940s and early 1950s. This triggered the “golden age” of the British “B” film that lasted until the early-mid 1960s. Its obituary, however, was announced in 1967 when The Times (23 January) claimed that the Film Producers Association estimated that the minimum cost of a second feature (£24,000) regularly exceeded the maximum amount that could be recouped in the UK. This was estimated to be only £16,000.

Chibnall and McFarlane, in their third chapter, provide a comprehensive overview of the “B Factories”, the companies, studios and producers. This included Butcher’s; Highbury Studios, who were acquired by the Rank Organisation for their low budget films; Tempean Films; The Danzigers; Merton Park and Anglo-Amalgamated, the “home” of the Edgar Wallace mysteries; Adelphi and Advance Films; ACT Films and Group 3, E.J. Fancey, a family business that included distributors DUK and New Realm as well as the production company Border; Vandyke; Brighton Studios; Apex and Present Day Productions; Guido Coen and Fortress; Bill Luckwell and Independent Artists. Chapter 4 surveys “B” directors on the way up, such as John Gilling, Terence Fisher, Ken Hughes, Wolf Rilla, Don Chaffey, as well as those on the way down from the heights of their “A” films or, at least, medium-budgeted films. This list includes Lance Comfort, Vernon Sewell, Montgomery Tully, Maurice Elvey, David Macdonald, Leslie Arliss, Bernard Knowles, Lawrence Huntington and Daniel Birt. Chibnall and McFarlane also celebrate those directors, such as Ernest Morris, Francis Searle, Michael McCarthy, Terry Bishop and Oswald Mitchell, who never really left the “B” film. Hard-working screenwriters such as Brian Clemens, Mark Grantham, Paul Tabori, Norman Hudis, William Fairchild, Brock Williams and Brandon Fleming, together with Doreen Montgomery, one of the few female screenwriters working on “B” scripts, are also acknowledged alongside cinematographers Monty Berman, Basil Emmott, the prolific Walter J. (“Jimmy”) Harvey, James Wilson, Geoffrey Faithfull and the highly talented Arthur Grant. Also, actors such as Lee Paterson, John Bentley, Ronald Howard, the son of celebrated screen and stage actor Leslie Howard, Donald Houston, William Lucas, Peter Reynolds, Dermot Walsh, Honor Blackman, Susan Shaw, vamp Sandra Dorne, Barbara Murray, Zena Marshall, Rona Anderson and Jane Hylton are not neglected.

The book rightfully acknowledges the significance of the impact of expatriate Hollywood directors on the British “B” film. Some, including blacklisted American writers such as Oscar winners Carl Foreman and Howard Koch, and directors such as Joseph Losey and Cy Endfield, often worked anonymously in Britain while others, such as Richard Landau, sent their crime scripts across the Atlantic. The British “B” film in the 1950s also benefited from the presence of many Hollywood actors. Some were primarily character actors, or actors who never reached the top, such as Dan Duryea, Alex Nicol, John Ireland, Dane Clark, Zachary Scott, Lloyd Bridges, Robert Hutton, Wayne Morris, Richard Denning, Scot Brady, Arthur Kennedy, Richard Carlson, Mary Castle, Marguerite Chapman, Faith Domergue, Marsha Hunt, Phyllis Kirk, Kim Hunter, Carole Matthews, Mary Murphy, Macdonald Carey and Hilary Brooke. Others were former major stars who, for various reasons, had lost their status – including Paulette Goddard, who made her last film in the UK (The Unholy Four aka The Stranger Came Home, Terence Fisher, 1954), George Brent, Paul Henreid, George Raft and Larry Parks. This list also included two women who escaped scandals in America for work in Britain: Barbara Payton and Lizabeth Scott. Scott’s trip to the UK for the Hammer-Lippert co-production Stolen Face (Fisher, 1952) took place as her Hollywood star was on the wane and by the time she returned to the UK for Lance Comfort’s The Weapon (1957), her Hollywood career was over.

Chibnall and McFarlane provide a number of different approaches to the British “B” film. They categorise these films according to genre and, not surprisingly, conclude that the crime film was the most prolific genre, followed – at some distance – by comedies. Within the crime genre, they point to the significance of the police procedural, essentially “the men from the yard”, and the prolific Edgar Wallace mysteries. They also analyse the point of view of a large body of “B” films with regard to key social values such as law and order, attitude to work, leisure, sex, class, race and ethnicity. The book concludes with an overview of the “best of the B” films – such as It’s Not Cricket (Roy Rich and Alfred Roome, 1949), The Late Edwina Black (aka The Obsessed, Maurice Elvey, 1951), Private Information (Fergus McDonell, 1951), Marilyn (aka Roadhouse Girl, Wolf Rilla, 1953), The Flying Scot (aka The Mailbag Robbery, Compton Bennett, 1957), Small Hotel (David MacDonald, 1957), The Man Who Liked Funerals (David Eady, 1959), Devil’s Bait (Peter Graham Scott, 1959), The Tell-Tale Heart (J.B. Williams, 1953), The Impersonator, Cash on Demand (Quentin Lawrence, 1961), Tomorrow at Ten (Comfort, 1964), Unearthly Stranger (John Krish, 1963), An Act of Murder (Michael Gordon, 1948), and Smokescreen (Jim O’Connolly, 1964).

For the film scholar, film buff, or anyone interested in film history, The British “B” Film is an invaluable resource. Take, for example, one relatively minor portion of the book’s survey of the “B Factories”. While conventional film histories usually begin their coverage of Hammer Films with a perfunctory outline of the studio’s origins, most studies quickly move on to what really interests them – Hammer’s contribution to the Gothic Horror genre. Not, thankfully, Chibnall and McFarlane. They end their coverage of Hammer before The Curse of Frankenstein (Fisher, 1957). They are more interested in how the studio emerged from its tentative position on the edge of the British film industry to one of consolidation into a viable production studio. This was largely due to its canny management that was able to exploit government financial assistance while simultaneously fostering a working relationship with independent American producers such as Robert L. Lippert. This clever move enabled the company to distribute its co-produced films, shot in Britain, in the lucrative American market at a time when most British film companies were unable to gain access to this market. Lippert, for his part, supplied relatively cheap Hollywood talent, such as Dan Duryea, Dane Clark, Richard Conte, Alex Nicol, George Brent, Zachary Scott, Lizabeth Scott and Barbara Payton, for formulaic crime films, often with noir overtones, that were accessible to both American and British audiences. This was accompanied by flexible marketing arrangements that resulted in different publicity campaigns, and different titles for the same film. Hence the potentially salacious story of a middle-aged bookshop owner (George Brent) who, in a sudden fit of passion, kisses a young female employee (Diana Dors), was titled The Last Page (Fisher, 1952) in the UK, while American audiences were lured to the theatre to see Man Bait.To ensure that the budgets were kept tight, Hammer employed highly professional genre directors such as Terence Fisher, Montgomery Tully and Francis Searle. Although the results were variable in terms of quality, the low production costs and wide distribution generally ensured a profit for Hammer. Some of these films were very good. This included The House Across the Lake (Heat Wave in the US, 1954), directed by Ken Hughes and starring American imports Alex Nicola and Hilary Brooks in a variation on Billy Wilder’s 1944 tale of seduction, marital infidelity and murder, Double Indemnity. A similar theme imbued The Flanagan Boy (The Bad Blonde in the US, Reginald Borg, 1953), starring Barbara Payton as the unfaithful wife who seduces a young man to kill her husband. The film was produced amidst the scandalous publicity surrounding Payton and her volatile relationship with actor Tom Neal while married to another well-known actor, Franchot Tone. After Tone was seriously hurt in a brutal encounter with Neal, Payton was the centre of a scandal that, no doubt, intensified interest in The Flanagan Boy.

There are many books and articles on the American B Film. There are very few on the British B Film. There are even less offering the wealth of information found in Chibnall and McFarlane’s book. The authors should be congratulated by those merely interested in discovering neglected British films, filmmakers, or production companies, as well as those who want to build on the often-groundbreaking material found in The British “B” Film.

The British “B” Film, by Stephen Chibnall and Brian McFarlane, British Film Institute, London, 2009.

Endnotes

  1. Steve Chibnall, “Quota Quickies”: The Birth of the British “B” Film, British Film Institute, London, 2007.

About The Author

Geoff Mayer was formerly Head of School and Chair of the Cinema Studies Department at La Trobe University. His most recent book is ‘Encyclopedia of American Film Serials’ (McFarland, 2017).

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