Skip to main content
×
×
Home

BRITISH POLITICS AND CINEMA'S HISTORICAL DRAMAS, 1929–1938*

  • STEVEN FIELDING (a1)
Abstract

Inspired by the debate about the influence feature films exerted over popular political attitudes during the interwar period, this article explores how one of cinema's most popular genres, the historical drama, represented British politics during the 1930s. It concentrates on eight films that depicted leading figures from Britain's modern political past, ranging from Robert Clive and Pitt the elder to Queen Victoria by way of Benjamin Disraeli. The article emphasizes how this historiophoty was shaped by the movies' production context. For they were: created within a transatlantic culture, with a majority produced in Hollywood; depended on how stars associated with the genre, notably George Arliss, embodied their roles; and structured around conventions which privileged popularity over accuracy. Thanks to such influences, these movies articulated a strongly normative view of British democracy, showing how personable, paternalistic, and disinterested leaders had improved the people's welfare and advanced a benevolent empire. This picture of Britain's political past was clearly convenient to Stanley Baldwin's Conservative party. However, it owed its essential character less to the establishment bias of the interwar film industry and more to the irreducibly ‘cinematic’ nature of commercial cinema.

Copyright
Corresponding author
School of Politics and International Relations, Law and Social Sciences Building, University of Nottingham, University Park, Nottingham, NG7 2RDsteven.fielding@nottingham.ac.uk
Footnotes
Hide All
*

I would like to thank for their help Matthew Bailey, Jon Lawrence, Jeffrey Richards, and those who refereed the original draft of this article.

Footnotes
References
Hide All

1 Two recent attempts to put the interwar period into a wider context include: Marquand, D., Britain since 1918: the strange career of British democracy (London, 2008), and Overy, R., The morbid age (London, 2008).

2 For an assessment of the political dynamics of this period, see Lawrence, J., ‘The transformation of British public politics after the First World War’, Past and Present, 190 (2007), pp. 186216.

3 For the formation of the National government, see Williamson, P., National crisis and National government (Cambridge, 1992).

4 Garside, W. R., British unemployment, 1919–1939 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 5.

5 For these elections, see Thorpe, A., The British general election of 1931 (Oxford, 1991), and Stannage, T., Baldwin thwarts the opposition: the British general election of 1935 (London, 1980).

6 See, for example, Hamilton, C., Lament for democracy (London, 1940).

7 For an assessment of the significance of cinema, see McKibbin, R., Classes and cultures: England, 1918–1951 (Oxford, 2000), pp. 419–23.

8 Browing, H. E. and Sorrell, A. A., ‘Cinemas and cinema-going in Great Britain’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, 117 (1954), p. 134; Sedgwick, J., ‘Cinema-going preferences in Britain in the 1930s’, in Richards, J., ed., The unknown 1930s: an alternative history of the British cinema, 1929–1939 (London, 1998), pp. 23.

9 Armes, R., A critical history of British cinema (London, 1978), pp. 113–14.

10 Stevenson, J. and Cook, C., The Slump: society and politics during the Depression (London, 1977), pp. 8990.

11 McKibbin, Classes, pp. 419–22, 455.

12 McKibbin, R., The ideologies of class: social relations in Britain, 1880–1950 (Oxford, 1991), pp. 270–4.

13 Schwarz, B., ‘Politics and rhetoric in the age of mass culture’, History Workshop Journal, 46 (1998), pp. 137–8.

14 Miles, P. and Smith, M., Cinema, literature and society (London, 1987), p. 177.

15 Richards, J. and Aldgate, A., Best of British: cinema and society, 1930–1970 (London, 1999), pp. 14, 42, 51.

16 See, for example, Medhurst, A., ‘“Victim”: text as context, Screen, 25 (1984), p. 35, and 19Cunningham, V., British writers of the 1930s (Oxford, 1989), pp. 12.

17 Edelman, M., From art to politics: how artistic creations shape political conceptions (Chicago, IL, 1995), pp. 27.

18 Harper, S., Picturing the past: the rise and fall of the British costume film (London, 1994), p. 61.

19 See, for example, Harper, S., ‘A lower middle-class taste-community in the 1930s: admissions figures at the Regent Cinema, Portsmouth, UK’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 24 (2004), pp. 565–87; Poole, J., ‘British cinema attendance in wartime: audience preference at the Majestic, Macclesfield, 1939–1946’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 7 (1987), pp. 1534. For a heroic attempt to establish the relative national popularity of films, see Sedgwick, J., Popular filmgoing in 1930s Britain (Exeter, 2000).

20 Schatz, T., Hollywood genres (New York, NY, 1981) and Neale, S., Genre and Hollywood (London and New York, NY, 2000).

21 Williamson, P., Stanley Baldwin. Conservative leadership and national values (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 1516, 338.

22 Edgar, D., How plays work (London, 2009), p. 65.

23 Adams, W., Salzman, A., Vantine, W., Suelter, L., Baker, A., Bonvouloir, L., Brenner, B., Ely, M., Feldman, J., and Ziegel, Ron, ‘The power of “The Right Stuff”: a quasi-experimental field test of the docudrama hypothesis’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 49 (1985), pp. 330–9; Butler, L., Koopman, C., and Zimbardo, P., ‘The psychological impact of viewing the film “JFK”: emotions, beliefs, and political behavioral intentions’, Political Psychology, 16 (1995), pp. 237–57; Holbert, R., Tschida, D., Dixon, M., Cherry, K., Steuber, K., and Airne, D., ‘“The West Wing” and depictions of the American presidency’, Communication Quarterly, 53 (2005), pp. 505–22.

24 Feldman, S. and Sigelman, L., ‘The politics of prime time television: “The Day After”’, Journal of Politics, 47 (1985), pp. 559–60; Adams et al., ‘“Right Stuff”’, p. 335.

25 For the concept of the ‘mobilization of bias’, see Lukes, S., Power: a radical view (Basingstoke, 2005), pp. 113.

26 Pronay, N., ‘The political censorship of films in Britain between the wars’, in Pronay, N. and Spring, D., eds., Propaganda, politics and film, 1918–1945 (London, 1982); Robertson, J., The British Board of Film Censors: film censorship in Britain, 1896–1950 (London, 1985).

27 Richards, J., ‘British film censorship’, in Murphy, R., ed., The British cinema book (London, 1997), pp. 167–77.

28 Constantine, S., ‘“Love on the dole” and its reception in the 1930s’, Literature and History, 8 (1983), p. 234.

29 Miles and Smith, Literature, pp. 170–1; McKibbin, Classes, p. 426.

30 Balcon, Michael, Michael Balcon presents … (London, 1969), p. 27.

31 Moseley, R., Evergreen: Victor Saville in his own words (Carbondale and Edwardsville, IL, 2000), p. 61; Aldgate, T., ‘Ideological consensus in British feature films, 1935–1947’, in Short, K., ed., Feature films as history (London, 1981), p. 101.

32 Hollins, T., ‘The Conservative party and film propaganda between the wars’, English Historical Review, 96 (1981), p. 364; Kulik, K., Alexander Korda (London, 1975), pp. 254–5; Chapman, J., Past and present: national identity and the British historical film (London, 2005), pp. 41–2, 44.

33 Manchester Guardian (MG), 8 June 1934; McKibbin, Classes, pp. 426–7.

34 Richards, J. and Sheridan, D., eds., Mass-Observation at the movies (London, 1987), pp. 36–7.

35 Poole, ‘Attendance’, p. 30.

36 Sketch, 13 Feb. 1935.

37 Nicholson, S., The censorship of British drama, 1900–1968 (2 vols., Exeter, 2005), ii, pp. 120–4.

38 MG, 28 May 1941; Times, 30 May 1941; Daily Mirror, 30 May 1941; Observer, 1 June 1941.

39 Quoted in Murphy, R., Realism and tinsel: cinema and society in Britain, 1939–1949 (London, 1989), p. 249; Poole, ‘Attendance’, p. 21.

40 Quoted in Dickinson, M. and Street, S., Cinema and the state (London, 1985), p. 8.

41 Landy, M., British genres: cinema and society, 1930–1960 (Princeton, NJ, 1991), pp. 5386.

42 White, H., ‘Historiography and historiophoty’, American Historical Review, 93 (1988), p. 1193.

43 Sedgwick, ‘Cinema-going’, pp. 30, 34; Richards and Sheridan, Movies, p. 39; Poole, ‘Attendance’, pp. 18, 21–2.

44 Chapman, Identity, pp. 7–8.

45 Sorlin, P., The film in history (Oxford, 1980), p. 80.

46 Chapman, Identity, p. 45–63.

47 New Statesman, 11 July 1942; Mace, N., ‘British historical epics in the Second World War’, in Taylor, P., ed., Britain and the cinema in the Second World War (London, 1988), pp. 106–8.

48 MG, 8 July 1930 and 2 Jan. 1938.

49 Times, 4 Apr. 1936.

50 Quoted in Sargeant, A., ‘Do we need another hero? Ecce homo and “Nelson” (1919)’, in Monk, C. and Sargeant, A., eds., British historical cinema (London, 2002), p. 20.

51 Parker, L., Disraeli (London, 1916), p. ix.

52 Arliss, G., My ten years in the studios (Boston, MA, 1940), pp. 155, 204, 223, 275.

53 Harper, S., ‘Historiography and film: the Historical Association and the British Film Institute, 1934–1946’, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, 7 (1987), p. 249.

54 New Statesman, 11 July 1942.

55 Custen, G., Bio/pics: how Hollywood constructed public history (New Brunswick, NJ, 1992), p. 60.

56 Arliss, G., Up the years from Bloomsbury (London, 1927), pp. 240, 251.

57 MG, 22 Nov. 1929.

58 MG, 20 Oct. 1938.

59 Times, 5 Apr. 1916; Observer, 9 Apr. 1916.

60 Times, 22 Nov. 1929, 28 Jan. 1930, 4 Apr. 1936.

61 Richards and Sheridan, Movies, pp. 94, 96, 106.

62 Powdermaker, H., Hollywood: the dream factory (London, 1951), p. 13.

63 Lipkin, S., Docudrama performs the past (Cambridge, 2011).

64 Butler, A., Zaromb, F., Lyle, K., and Roediger, H., ‘Using popular films to enhance class room learning’, Psychological Science, 20 (2009), pp. 1161–8.

65 Mosley, L., Zanuck (London, 1984), p. 204.

66 McKibbin, Culture, pp. 455–6. For an account of the British influence within Hollywood during this period, Scott, I., From Pinewood to Hollywood: British filmmakers in American cinema, 1910–1969 (London, 2010), pp. 63106.

67 Campbell, D., Unlikely allies: Britain, America and the Victorian origins of the special relationship (London, 2007), pp. 226–33.

68 Lipscombe, W. and Minney, R., Clive of India (London, 1934), p. 5; Morley, S., The Brits in Hollywood: tales from the Hollywood raj (London, 2006), p. 139.

69 MG, 10 Sept. 1935.

70 Vidal, G., Screening history (Cambridge, MA, 1992), p. 39.

71 Tamarkin, E., Anglophilia: deference, devotion, and antebellum America (Chicago, IL, 2008), pp. 87177.

72 Campbell, Unlikely, p. 240.

73 Strout, C., The American image of the Old World (New York, NY, 1963), pp. 132–56.

74 Campbell, Unlikely, p. 239.

75 Roberts, P., ‘Underpinning the Anglo-American alliance: the Council on Foreign Relations and Britain between the wars’, in Hollowell, J., ed., Twentieth-century Anglo-American relations (Basingstoke, 2001); Leventhal, F., ‘Essential democracy: the 1939 royal visit to the United States’, in Behlmer, G. and Leventhal, F., eds., Singular continuities: tradition, nostalgia and identity in modern British culture (Stanford, CA, 2000), pp. 163–77.

76 House of Commons debates, 20 Dec. 1944, vol. 406, cols. 1910–11.

77 Glancy, H., ‘Hollywood and Britain: MGM and the British “quota” legislation’, in Richards, Unknown, pp. 60, 66.

78 Page, S., ‘Path dependence’, Quarterly Journal of Political Science, 1 (2006), pp. 87115.

79 This account is based on: Arliss, Bloomsbury, pp. 232–5, 238–40, and Fells, R., George Arliss: the man who played God (Lanham, MD, 2004), pp. 2733.

80 New York Times (NYT), 15 Apr. 1917.

81 Custen, Bio/pics, p. 61; Freedland, M., The Warner Brothers (London, 1983); Gabler, N., An empire of their own: how the Jews invented Hollywood (New York, NY, 1988), p. 317.

82 Arliss, Studios, p. 13.

83 Los Angeles Times, 27 Oct. 1929 and 9 Nov. 1929.

84 Behlmer, R., Inside Warner Bros. (1935–1951) (New York, NY, 1985), p. 12.

85 Arliss, Bloomsbury, pp. 242–5; Parker, L., Several of my lives (London, 1928), p. 234.

86 Carr, S., Hollywood and anti-Semitism: a cultural history up to World War Two (Cambridge, 2001), p. 202.

87 Washington Post, 10 Nov. 1929.

88 Carr, Anti-Semitism, p. 202.

89 Mosley, Zanuck, p. 194.

90 NYT, 22 Oct. 1937.

91 Charleston Gazette, 14 Mar. 1938.

92 Gabler, Jews, pp. 342–4.

93 Observer, 13 Dec. 1936, 3 and 27 Jan. 1937; Times, 12 May 1936.

94 MG, 16 July 1937, 1 Mar. 1938.

95 Moseley, Evergreen, p. 83; Balcon, Balcon, p. 88.

96 Times, 17 Oct. 1937.

97 See most especially Dyer, R., Heavenly bodies: film stars and society (London, 2004), pp. 116.

98 Daily Mirror, 1 June 1935.

99 Custen, Bio/pics, p. 61.

100 Times, 1 Dec. 1934 and 20 Dec. 1935.

101 McLean, A.Stardom in the 1930s’, in McLean, A., ed., Glamour in a golden age: movie stars of the 1930s (New Brunswick, NJ, 2011), p. 8.

102 Times, 16 Nov. 1936.

103 Greene, G., The pleasure dome, ed. Taylor, J. (Oxford, 1972), p. 42, 101.

104 Observer, 24 June 1934.

105 Daily Mirror, 9 Apr. 1936.

106 Times, 31 Dec. 1930; Daily Mirror, 30 Nov. 1934; Sedgwick, ‘Preferences’, p. 18.

107 Times, 18 May 1931.

108 Observer, 30 Sept. 1934.

109 Observer, 24 June 1934; Times, 1 Dec. 1934.

110 Observer, 27 May 1934.

111 Allen, D., Sir Aubrey (Chippenham, 2005), p. 149.

112 Arliss, Studios, pp. 240–1; Chapman, Identity, 53–4.

113 Custen, Bio/pics, p. 18.

114 Times, 8 June 1916.

115 Wilcox, H., Twenty-five thousand sunsets (London, 1967), p. 111.

116 MG, 20 Oct. 1938.

117 New Statesman, 25 Aug. 1937 and 2 Oct. 1938.

118 Times, 17 Sept. 1937; MG, 20 Oct. 1938.

119 Krukones, M., ‘Motion picture presidents of the 1930s’, in Rollins, P. and O'Connor, J., eds., Hollywood's White House (Lexington, KY, 2005) p. 156.

120 Williamson, Baldwin, pp. 179–80.

121 Richards, J., Visions of yesterday (London, 1973), p. 142.

122 MacKenzie, J., Propaganda and empire (Manchester, 1985), pp. 178–80.

123 Observer, 11 Nov. 1934; Times, 5 Mar. 1941.

124 Times, 21 Apr. 1930.

125 Shafer, S., British popular films, 1929–1939 (London, 1997), pp. 233–4; Hollins, ‘Propaganda’, pp. 366–9.

126 Wertheimer, E., Portrait of the Labour party (London, 1929), pp. viixii.

127 Williamson, Baldwin, pp. 83–7.

128 File (i), vol. 39, D.4. political and party affairs, Stanley Baldwin papers, Cambridge University Library.

129 For this view of the interwar electorate, see Lawrence, J., Electing our masters (Oxford, 2009), pp. 120–9; see also Lawrence, J., ‘Paternalism, class, and the British path to modernity’, in Gunn, S. and Veron, J., eds., The peculiarities of liberal modernity in imperial Britain (Berkeley, CA, 2011).

130 Fox, J., ‘Winston Churchill and the “men of destiny”: leadership and the role of the prime minister in wartime feature films’, in Toye, R. and Gottlieb, J., eds., Making reputations: power, persuasion and the individual in modern British politics (London, 2005), pp. 97–8.

131 Saward, M., The representative claim (Oxford, 2010), pp. 3, 14, 74–5.

* I would like to thank for their help Matthew Bailey, Jon Lawrence, Jeffrey Richards, and those who refereed the original draft of this article.

Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

The Historical Journal
  • ISSN: 0018-246X
  • EISSN: 1469-5103
  • URL: /core/journals/historical-journal
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *
×

Related content

Powered by UNSILO

Metrics

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed