Film Birmingham aims to strengthen the city’s link with its cinematic past. Without the vision, drive and talent of three men, British Film making would not be what it is today.
Birmingham based film producer Roger Shannon writes…
Birmingham & Film…
Birmingham and film – to some the coupling of those words might echo the famous French Director Francois Truffaut’s remark that there was a certain incompatibility between the terms Ocinema and OBritain But how wrong they would be, because without Birmingham’s ingenuity and entrepreneurship there might have been no films at all.
No Chaplin or Keaton. No Garbo or Gable. No movies on the big screen lighting up our lives. No wonderful art deco palaces of the imagination. No marvellous Ealing comedies.
The Discovery Of Celluloid
In 1862 in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter Alexander Parkes discovered celluloid (cellulose nitrate to be precise), and from then on we can chart the real beginnings of the film industry. With celluloid, and its US patenting, comes the flickering sensation known as moving images – the movies. And with Alexander Parkes’s invention, Birmingham can rightly be proud that its entrepreneurship, in the tradition of the Lunar Society, played an Oscar style leading role at the birth of cinema.
Later three Birmingham film pioneers were instrumental in the early 20th century in getting the film industry in the UK going – this trio was Michael Balcon, Oscar Deutsch and Victor Saville. All three brought up close to each other in Birmingham , they began to conquer the film world in the early 1920’s with their company Victory Motion Pictures, which produced in 1923 the silent classic, Woman to Woman, the most expensive UK film at the time, and the first film to benefit from the creative input of Alfred Hitchcock.
In fact, it was Michael Balcon who discovered the young London director, later to achieve world wide fame with movies such as Psycho, The Birds, North by Northwest, Vertigo rear Window etc.
So, ‘Birmingham and film’ has after all a long and distinguished heritage, which Film Birmingham will now add to in many exciting and visionary ways, echoing the ingenuity of those Birmingham pioneers in the early years of cinema.
Michael Balcon became a film producer of movie mogul standing and reputation, knighted for his services to the UK film industry. Initially with Victory Motion Pictures, and later with Gainsborough Pictures, Gaumomt-British, MGM-British, and Ealing Studios, Sir Michael Balcon was one of a tiny number of Hollywood style film producers active in the UK in the middle of the 20th century, gathering together creative teams of writers, directors, actors, musicians, designers and technicians in a way that is unparalleled in British film history. Balcon discovered Hitchcock and produced all of his UK films; he oversaw the output from Ealing Studios in the 1940’s and 1950’s, which is undeniably at the centre of the British film industry’s most prestigious period – and, above all, it stands as the significant achievement of Sir Michael Balcon. Let’s remind ourselves of the wonderful Ealing films which Birmingham ‘s film knight, Sir Michael Balcon, produced – HUE AND CRY,THE LADYKILLERS, PASSPORT TO PIMLICO, THE BLUE LAMP, THE LAVENDER HILL MOB, WHISKEY GALORE etc. And in an affectionate nod and a wink to his Birmingham up bringing, he named the policeman in the movie THE BLUE LAMP after his old school, the George Dixon School (later to materialise as the eponymous copper in the television series, DIXON OF DOCK GREEN.)
Oscar Deutsch became a leading cinema entrepreneur responsible in the late 1920’s and 1930’s for the iconic ODEON cinema chain, which revolutionised movie going in the UK . The name ODEON was colloquially understood as ‘Oscar Deutsch Entertains Our Nation.’ He opened his first Odeons in Birmingham and the West Midlands before designing and building several hundred more all around the country, bringing modern design, a distinctive architectural look in an art deco style and, above all, comfort to the nation’s cinema goers. The extensive Odeon circuit was very much a Birmingham enterprise – invented in and pioneered from Birmingham by Oscar Deutsch, designed in a modern style by Birmingham architects, Harry Weedon, and branded with that swish geometrical lettering in red and gold spelling out ODEON devised for Deutsch by the Birmingham firm, Pearce Signs
Victor Saville became a stylish and versatile film director, equally at home in the UK and in Hollywood , and equally capable as director and as producer. His career continued until the early 1960’s, and he is remembered both for his radical and progressive treatment of women (his leading ladies included Estelle Brody, Belle Chrystall, Edna Best, Madeleine Carroll, Jessie Matthews, Vivien Leigh and Rita Hayworth) and for his sensitive handling of working people (in films such as SOUTH RIDING, THE CITADEL etc).