Sir Michael Balcon is often regarded as one of the pioneers of the
British film industry. Born with natural courage and a flair for showmanship,
he also was a highly intelligent man with a good sense of business.
He had a talent for producing both comedy and drama; the films which
he produced at the old Ealing Studios combined originality, wit and
humour in a way which made them a unique part of British film history.
Balcon, the son of Louis Balcon of South Africa, was born in Birmingham
on 19 May, 1896. He was educated at George Dixon Grammar School, City
World War I he joined another young Birmingham film enthusiast, Victor
Saville, in forming a company called Victory Motion Pictures. At first
they made short advertising films but then launched into the production
of feature films in London. Within two years they had begun producing
feature films in London – ‘Woman to Woman’ (1923)
was their first. He formed Gainsborough Studios the following year.
visiting the UFA studios in Berlin in he realised the usefulness of
their operation and so began a co-production association with ‘The
Blackguard’ that was to last 10 years. German technical staff
populated Gainsborough films throughout the 20s and early 30s giving
them a slick, sophisticated veneer to match any produced in Hollywood.
Sir Michael was clearly aiming for a product of international interest
unlike many other British studios in the silent and early talkie era.
He married Aileen Leatherman in 1924 and they had a son and a daughter,
Jill (the actress widow of the poet Cecil Day-Lewis).
1928 the company came under threat of a takeover by Gaumont-British
and this became a reality in 1931. Balcon however remained joint production
chief both at Gainsborough and at Gaumont-British until 1936. Whilst
there he was prominent in building up a huge annual production programme
of films for both studios.
joined MGM's British production unit but that relationship did not
even last the year out. He did make three excellent films though,
‘A Yank at Oxford’, ‘Good-bye Mr Chips’ and
‘The Citadel’. In 1938 he joined ATP which soon changed
its name to Ealing Studios. He had many superb best films in the 1930s,
which were also extremely financially successful, such as ‘The
Good Companions’, ‘The 39 Steps’, ‘Sabotage’.
the outset of the World War II he put forward a plan to the Ministry
of Information to rationalise the film industry and create a programme
of propaganda films. (This was unfortunately ignored). So acting alone,
he set Ealing on a steady track with films supporting Britain and
the war effort during this period. Examples of these would be ‘Convoy’
(1940), ‘Next of Kin’ (1942) and the excellent ‘Went
the day well?’ (1942).
were tempered with comedies starring George Formby and Tommy Trinder
where the stars took swipes at Germany and the Nazis. After the war
his career continued to blossom both commercially and personally.
1948 was a particularly good year for Balcon, ‘Scott of the
Antarctic’ starring Sir John Mills was selected for the Royal
Command Film Performance, and he received his knighthood from the
post-war films reflected the changed attitudes of the public and the
relief of victory such as the famous series of Ealing Comedies –
‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’, ‘Passport to Pimlico’,
‘Whisky Galore’, ‘The Lavender Hill Mob’,
‘The Titfield Thunderbolt’ and the ‘The Ladykillers’.
He also produced the excellent ‘Mandy (1952) and ‘The
Cruel Sea’ (1953), both incidentally with Jack Hawkins playing
1951 he became Chairman of Group 3 which was a subsidiary of the National
Film Finance Corporation who had a brief to develop new acting talent,
which they did very well, some of their films included ‘Miss
Robin Hood’ (1952) and ‘The Love Match’ (1954).
the closure of Ealing Studios in 1957 he became an independent producer
forming Bryanston Films. He spent a troubled two years as Chairman
of British Lion 1964-5 and was involved in the British Institutes
Experimental Film Fund. He retired at the age of 72. Michael Balcon
died on the 17th October 1977 in Hartfield, England – his grandson
is the actor Daniel Day-Lewis.
Michael is considered one of the most important figures in British
cinema it was his vision that brought international prestige to Gainsborough
in the 20s and 30s. His work with Ealing has left an indelible mark
on the history of British Cinema. He was a vigorous spokesman for
the industry for his entire career.