‘I am sick of films’ – James Mason on the British Film Industry of the 1940s

Adrian Garvey, Queen Mary University of London

25 August 2017

Focussing on the 1930s to 1950s, my PhD examined the career of the actor James Mason as he achieved stardom in Britain, and then made a difficult transition to Hollywood. My primary aim was to explore the inter-relationship between performance, stardom and national identity, in what I believe to be a diverse and under-examined career. As with any star, part of this also involved considering the performance of the off-screen or ‘real’ James Mason during this time.

Although in later years he acquired more of the aura of a benign elder statesman, Mason had an enduring off-screen reputation as a ‘difficult’ actor – with one profile in the 1950s describing him as ‘the rudest man in Hollywood.’ This was probably most evident when, during the height of his stardom in Britain, he seemed intent on sabotaging his career. After eight years of limited success as a leading man he had become enormously successful as the eponymous Marquis of Rohan in the 1943 Gainsborough melodrama The Man in Grey. Further successes, in Fanny by Gaslight (1944), The Wicked Lady (1945) and, especially, The Seventh Veil (1945), quickly consolidated his status and created a distinct and unusual persona for a major star, that of a saturnine, charismatic, brute – while studio era male stars sometimes played anti-heroes, very few consistently played villains.

James Mason in The Man in Grey (1943)

A parallel off-screen image emerged during this time which established the actor himself as a truculent and opinionated figure. Unusual at a time when publicity material tended to stress a star’s dedication, modesty, and gratitude to the industry and their fans, this was at least in keeping with his on-screen persona. By contrast, a contemporary such as John Mills would have struggled with such an intransigent image. Mason was also an unusually prolific author of articles in this period, and used them to freely express his views about his career, and also about the British film industry and its perceived shortcomings. These pieces were not confined to fan magazines, and, with such titles as ‘I Hate Producers’ and ‘Why I am Going to America’ were far more opinionated and polemical than the standard, often ghosted, promotional material expected from film stars. Along with the drawings he frequently produced to illustrate these pieces, they can be read as a counter-narrative to the often negative accounts of Mason which began to appear in the fan, trade and lay press.

Mason was consistently forthright in his criticism of the domestic industry and his admiration of Hollywood, and became increasingly outspoken and intemperate during the decade. In ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?,’ a 1944 article for Picturegoer magazine, he defended those who had relocated to America, arguing that ‘most of the British actors in Hollywood had very little encouragement here.’ Comparing the two industries, he says ‘I have always had such immense admiration for American-made films and in the not so distant past found very few British which aroused a like enthusiasm.’[i]

Reviewing his career for Picture Post in 1947, he described the recent Odd Man Out as ‘the one completely satisfactory film of all the thirty I have been in.’ Among numerous criticisms of others, he finds that They Were Sisters ‘got progressively worse in the course of its making,’ says of Fanny by Gaslight that ‘I can’t say that I liked the finished product very much,’ and calls The Wicked Lady ‘an excellent story which contrived to appear extremely vulgar on the screen.’[ii]

Though more oblique in its message than such articles, Mason’s 1945 piece ‘Glamour’, for the miscellany magazine Summer Pie, proved the most controversial. Ostensibly, the piece is about how theatre and film have lost their magical aura as they have become more familiar to him. Saying that he finds ‘precious little glamour in British pictures,’ he pointedly envisions a ramshackle production in which the director is sacked and his ‘abysmally ignorant’ replacement has to film an actor from the waist up because he has broken his leg in a drunken fall. The piece ends on a rhapsodic mock-credo:

Tell me, if you please, that Hollywood is slipping, that it has made no outstanding films for the past four years, that Denham’s portentous product will presently wipe the floor…  I have faith. I have faith in the sacred permanence of an institution which fills my eyes … with such delight and my mind with the glorious company of Carmen Miranda, Lena Horne, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Orson Welles, Marlene Dietrich, Tallulah Bankhead, Jean Gabin.[iii]

James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, p. 83

Mason’s expansive paean to Hollywood was not widely commented on, but his belittling of British film-making practices brought a flood of condemnation from the industry and was widely reported and debated in the trade press. The actor was reprimanded by his former director Anthony Asquith, then head of the Association of Cinema Technicians, and the union itself threatened him with exclusion from the studios. He retaliated by offering to cancel his film contracts and withdraw from the industry. The issue resurfaced in the mainstream press the following year after an Express article ‘I am sick of films says James Mason,’ in which he claimed to be turning down Hollywood offers but unwilling to work in Britain. ‘When I see a film of my own on the screen, he was reported as saying, ‘I am pleased when I see myself but bored with the rest of it.’[iv]

Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3

The actor’s departure for America was now almost inevitable. By the time he left in 1947, the British film industry’s sense of anger and betrayal was especially acute because of the economic problems it faced in the post-war climate. J. Arthur Rank’s ambitions to challenge Hollywood had succeeded in an unprecedented US distribution deal for British films with the major studios and, after the great American success of The Seventh Veil, Mason’s name was a prominent part of the Rank portfolio being touted there. The plan collapsed within months, after the British government’s unexpected imposition of a 75% Import Duty on foreign films soured relations between the two industries and the studio refocused attention on domestic production.

Certain themes emerge from Mason’s sustained polemical attacks, most notably about the poverty of creative talent and ambition within an industry which he regarded as parochial and insular. However, some elements of humour and provocation, as well as strategic self-publicity, are also undoubtedly involved. While Mason’s articles and comments represent an unaligned, individualist stance, the critique of the national industry does echo some of the views of the ‘quality’ film critics of the time – who, for example, also found the Gainsborough films absurd – but his evident regard for Hollywood, for genre cinema, and for popular culture in general, also suggests a more nuanced position which was uncommon at the time.

Mason eventually found Hollywood to be an even more frustrating working environment than Britain. A protracted lawsuit with an agent meant that he was unable to work for any studio for the first eighteen months after his arrival in America; by the time that he could, he found that he had already become a less attractive proposition for the industry. His American career, which he later deemed a failure, but which included such films as The Reckless Moment, A Star is Born, Bigger Than Life and North by Northwest, would show him attempting to renegotiate his image as a transnational star.

[i] James Mason, ‘What encouragement is there for British Stars?’, Picturegoer, June 10, 1944, p. 11.

[ii] ‘James Mason Talks About His Films’, Picture Post, 1 February 1947, pp. 14-17.

[iii] James Mason, ‘Glamour’, Summer Pie, 1945, pp. 83-86.

[iv] ‘“I am sick of films” says James Mason’, Daily Express, 4 January, 1946, p. 3.

Dr Adrian Garvey is a Teaching Assistant at Queen Mary University of London, where he completed his PhD, Performance and Stardom in the Transatlantic Career of James Mason, in 2016. Recent publications include ‘Steely Velvet: The Voice of James Mason’, in the Journal of British Cinema and Television (January, 2015), ‘Ageing Masculinity in the Films of James Mason’, in Lucy Bolton and Julie Lobalzo Wright (eds.), Lasting Screen Stars (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), and ‘Stardom in Silent British Cinema’, in Ian Q. Hunter, Laraine Porter and Justin Smith (eds.), The Routledge History of British Cinema, Routledge, 2016).

NOT the British New Wave: 5 ‘kitchen sink’ dramas the critics never talk about

Laura Mayne, University of York

15 August 2017

The dozen or so films produced between 1959 and 1963 that we think of as belonging to the ‘New Wave’ cycle captured the intellectual spirit behind Lindsay Anderson’s Free Cinema movement of the 50s and seemed to hint to the continent that British cinema, to reference the famous quote by Francois Truffaut, was not, in fact, an oxymoron. Often adapted from popular novels and plays of the Angry Young Men of late 50s literature and theatre, these films brought jarring images of working class life to a stuffy and conservative national cinema. In a sea of cosy army comedies, high-handed historical dramas and predictable crime thrillers, they stood out. Room at the Top was followed by a series of aesthetically innovative, socially relevant dramas which are widely considered to be great classics: Look Back in Anger (1959), Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) A Taste of Honey (1961) A Kind of Loving (1962), L-Shaped Room (1962) Billy Liar (1963) and This Sporting Life (1963).

It goes without saying that the impetus behind the New Wave cycle was commercial, although it is also worth remembering that in the film industry the distinction between the commercial and the artistic is rarely clear-cut: producers are not just money-men, and by branding them as such we strip nuance from a complex industrial process. Nevertheless, for all its lasting cultural influence the New Wave can still be taken as an example of how the commercial film industry self-replicates. Room at the Top dominated the box-office charts in 1959 and showed that audiences wanted gritty themes, confrontational drama and intelligent social commentary.

The enthusiasm with which some producers sought to emulate the ‘kitchen sink’ style in response to this demand recalls that old saying about film being the only industry in which last year’s models are considered to be better that next year’s. A crass generalisation, sure, but here’s a brief example to illustrate the point: in 1962 the producer Raymond Stross was trying to convince the small distributor Garrick of the profitability of a new project titled ‘The Leather Boys’. In his correspondence to the company he wrote:

With every respect in the world …I believe that ‘you are not with it’! If you do not like this script you must have equally disliked the three big winners of recent time, “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning”, “A Kind of Loving”, and “A Taste of Honey”, the profits from which will substantially exceed one million pounds…  the world is crying out for teenage stories.

But as the film critic Alexander Walker noted, in that same year the phrase ‘New Wave’ had begun to enter industry parlance: always a bad sign. By 1963 it was all over. This Sporting Life, though considered to be one of the greatest achievements of the New Wave, was nowhere near as successful at the box office as its producers had hoped it might be.

In the canon of British cinema the New Wave films sit somewhere near the fuse: they are some of the most studied, most referenced and critically acclaimed texts of all time. But we shouldn’t forget how influential the cycle was then as well as now. In the early 60s the success of the New Wave rippled through the industry and its influence can be seen across a number of films at the level of production style. The following list offers examples of films which seem to emulate the defining characteristics of New Wave cinema, but were unsuccessful at the box office for a variety of reasons: some were just a little late to the party, some were seen as low-budget ‘programmers’ or B movies (and thus instantly forgettable), but none have managed to command very much in the way of column space or academic study.

1. The Leather Boys (Sidney J. Furie, 1963/4)

The timing of The Leather Boys was simply unfortunate. Scheduled for release in 1963, the film was held back by an industrial dispute and remained stuck in the distributor’s vaults until 1964, by which the social problem film was looking a bit ‘square’. The 60s was characterised by trends which exploded onto the scene and were passé within a few years and, given that a film could take two years from pre-production to the screen, some producers found it difficult to keep up.

Still, The Leather Boys is an exceptionally interesting film and had it been released in 1963 it could very well have become part of the New Wave cycle. The film follows Dot (Rita Tushingham) and Reg (Colin Campbell) a cockney young couple who get married and quickly become disillusioned with each other. Reggie grows close with his friend Pete, who begins to develop feelings for him and is revealed at the end of the film to be gay. Based on the 1961 book by Gillian Freeman (published under the pseudonym Eliot George) the film plays down the book’s homosexual romance storyline but perhaps it would still have been controversial enough to stir up a fuss if it had reached cinemas a few years earlier, around the time of Basil Dearden’s Victim (1961). Sadly, despite the presence of Rita ‘A Taste of Honey’ Tushingham as its major selling point, The Leather Boys never really found a wide audience.

2. This is My Street (Sidney Hayers, 1964)

Many of the films in this list are set in a pre-swinging London rather than northern England, but like the New Wave films they tend to rely heavily on location to conjure up a sense of claustrophobia and entrapment. This is My Street is set in Battersea and follows the story of Margery Graham, a working class housewife who feels crushed at the prospect of a tedious future in the place where she grew up with a husband she despises. She has an affair with her mother’s womanising lodger Harry (Ian Hendry) and then attempts suicide when his affections dissipate.

The film presents a London in the throes of post-war reconstruction, and the streets are littered with debris and half-bombed buildings. The Radio Times called it ‘a well-written, nicely shot squalor fest’ while Alt-Movie was more unfair, dubbing it an ‘unsavoury British programmer’. In reality this is a nicely shot film (and June Ritchie is always a delight), but it’s just a shame that its interesting social themes (prostitution, unhappy marriage, lack of social mobility) become subservient to the rather hysterical melodrama of the plot.

3. That Kind of Girl (Gerry O’Hara, 1963)

At this point I feel like I need to ask the reader to bear with me. Anyone who has had the dubious privilege of having seen it will know That Kind of Girl as an early sexploitation film rather than a ‘kitchen sink’ drama. But the low-budget exploitation flicks produced by people like Michael Klinger and Tony Tenser deserve a bit of attention for their willingness to tackle taboo social issues. That Kind of Girl was (I’m fairly sure) the first British fiction film to deal with the issue of venereal disease. An exotic European au-pair girl comes to (you guessed it) London and strikes up affairs with a couple of men before contracting syphilis and shamefacedly resigning her position.

Production company Compton was so keen to give That Kind of Girl the veneer of establishment respectability that they sought an endorsement from the British Medical Association (this appears in the first frame of the film, in large letters). The company used the same tactic with The Yellow Teddybears (1963), using that film (about underage sex and teenage abortion) to start a national debate about sex education. In a way, Compton was trying to tackle the same social issues evident in films like A Taste of Honey, just without the same budget, artistic finesse or cultural respectability.

4. The Little Ones (Jim O’Connolly, 1964)

Like Vernon Sewell’s The Wind of Change (1961) The Little Ones is a B movie which tackles themes of race and immigration at a time when both were hot political issues but virtually ignored on cinema screens. Unlike The Wind of Change, The Little Ones was never reclaimed from the bottom half of the British cinema programme, and has been virtually unseen for more than 50 years.

The film is about two young friends, Jackie and Ted, who decide to run away from home. Ted lives with his family in one room in a particularly decrepit part of London’s East End. His mother beats him regularly. Jackie’s prostitute mother treats him with ambivalence and his father, a Jamaican immigrant, left years ago. The boys spend their time dreaming of far away, exotic lands (‘why would anyone want to come here?’ Ted asks in disbelief). They decide to stow away in a removal van to Liverpool and from there catch the first boat to Jamaica.

This is a realist film shot in parts with a shaky handheld camera for that added bit of verisimilitude. This film moves from gritty, derelict London to Liverpool, and in a departure from the usual archetype Liverpool is shown here to be the more affluent city. When the boys go on a petty crime spree to obtain food for their journey they are painstakingly pursued and finally collared by a local police inspector who sits them down to give them a good talking to. The policeman loses his temper with Jackie and blurts out ‘don’t talk to me like that you little n…’. He then stops, and visibly deflates. This moment of racial intolerance is apparently at odds with the inspector’s view of himself as a progressive liberal. Jackie is nonplussed: he is used to this treatment. This is a powerful moment in a film which seems caught between being a serious social commentary and a whimsical comedy in the vein of a Children’s Film Foundation feature.

5. The Family Way (Roy and John Boulting, 1966)

Steve Hawley argues that The Family Way lies on the boundary between the kitchen sink and the Swinging Sixties, and in many ways more accurately reflects how the decade was probably experienced in the regions outside London. The Family Way was produced and directed by the Boulting Brothers and adapted for the screen by Bill Naughton (Alfie, Spring and Port Wine) who also wrote the play. Hayley Mills plays Jenny Fritton, a young girl newly married to the shy and sensitive Arthur. Arthur and Jenny are unable to consummate their marriage because both feel too pressured to have sex by their family and neighbours, and Arthur becomes a local laughing stock as a result.

This is far from a lost ‘B’ (and there’s a lot more to the production of the film than I have time to go into here!) but it isn’t as well-known as it could be. The film straddles what Robert Murphy calls the ‘mid-decade divide’ and falls somewhere between social realism and the more permissive sexual mores of the Swinging London films (this sort of makes sense when you realise that the play was actually written 5 years before the film was released).

Of course, this all begs the question of what exactly characterises a British New Wave film. One common tendency is to throw out labels like ‘gritty’ and ‘kitchen sink’, and these are problematic because they are so very vague (in general they refer to ‘real’ representations of working class domestic life, but this could be applied to a huge number of British films and TV dramas). The word ‘realism’ also has a multiplicity of meanings and is one of the most contested terms among humanities scholars.

But it’s worth noting that academics don’t hold the monopoly on how we define British New Wave cinema. In online criticism Sons and Lovers, the D. H. Lawrence adaptation set in a small mining town, is sometimes cited as being part of ‘New Wave’ and sometimes not. This is also the case with The Entertainer, the 1960 Woodfall film which stars Laurence Olivier as a third-rate music hall star. As part of their recent ‘The  Brit New Wave: From Angry Young Men to Swinging London’ season the New York Film forum screened The Entertainer, Girl With Green Eyes and The Leather Boys. They also screened The Pumpkin Eater, Jack Clayton’s wonderfully complex tale about a woman facing a mid-life crisis. The Wikipedia entry titled ‘British New Wave’ includes references to J Lee Thompson’s 1959 film Tiger Bay and Val Guest’s 1960 crime thriller Hell is a City (which seems like a bit of a stretch). I suppose what this tells us is that the British film canon is constantly shifting; its boundaries are continually being re-negotiated, and it is this process of negotiation which is important to a healthy film scholarship.

Dr Laura Mayne is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of York. She completed her PhD in 2014 as part of the AHRC “Channel 4 and British Film Culture” project, which was led by Professor Justin Smith at the University of Portsmouth. She is currently one of the postdocs on the AHRC Transformation and Tradition in Sixties British Cinema project, run between the universities of York and East Anglia. The project conference, “British Cinema in the 1960s: Histories and Legacies” will be held at the BFI Southbank next month. You can register for the conference here: [link]


How To Get Published In An Academic Journal

Emma Grylls, Taylor & Francis

10 August 2017

Submitting to an academic journal can be daunting if you have not done it before – or even if you have!

There are of course many other outlets for your work, including blogs, debates, conference panels and social media. But a journal with a good reputation is a recognized vehicle for research and will have a network of scholars around it (and you can still make use of other outlets if you choose this option).

This blog will focus on how to publish a journal article, and things to consider along the way…

1. Think about why you are doing it

Publishing a journal article can be a lot of work, so it’s a good idea to think first about why you are doing it. So why publish? Well, it enables you to stake your claim to your ideas and the importance of your work. This could be important for your future career. It’s also a way to join a conversation with other scholars in your field and to give others across the globe a chance to encounter your ideas.

2. Consider what you have to say

Think about your ideas and what you want to focus on. Do you have something new and original to say? Is it potentially useful? If the answer to one or both of these is yes, then it’s likely to be of interest to other scholars! If, on the other hand, you are already yawning as you set pen to paper, please rethink: remember, you could be working on this for quite some time, and you will have a hard time getting others engaged in your ideas if you are already boring yourself stiff as you write…

3. Choose the right journal

I’d recommend choosing your journal in the early stages. Check its reputation with your peers and your supervisor or mentor. Speak to people who have published in the journal – what has their experience been? Check that it has a robust peer review policy, too, as this is a key indicator of quality.

If in doubt, you can use Think. Check. Submit., a set of tools to help you check that you are submitting your article to a respected journal from a reputable publisher.

Overall, ask yourself: is this journal a good fit for your research, and will it help you reach your target audience?

4. Do your homework

Now it’s time to read some back issues, to familiarize yourself with the scope of the journal as well as points of style. This is in no way to dilute your own individual voice and perspective, but simply to ensure that your paper will be ‘in scope’ and to save yourself time re-formatting it further down the line.

All journals have an ‘aims & scope’ statement and an ‘instructions for authors’ or ‘instructions for contributors’ page. Do read these carefully to be sure you understand the remit of the journal and all the nitty gritty, such as word limits! For all Taylor & Francis journals, you can navigate to these pages from the journal homepage:

5. Keep the end goal in mind

Once you have chosen your journal and done your homework, it’s time to bring it back to the bigger picture again. What is your overall purpose for publishing? Who are you writing for? Keeping your audience in mind – whether that’s researchers, practitioners or the general public – will help you to stay focused and tailor your approach.

You may be reworking an existing piece of work, such as a blog post, a conference paper or a PhD chapter. Make sure you adapt your piece in terms of style, methodology and length as needed – don’t just copy and paste! A PhD chapter could be 15-20,000 words, whereas a typical journal article might be 8-10,000 words – that’s a lot of cutting down. If you are planning on adapting a chapter from your PhD thesis, be sure to check your institution’s guidelines first.

6. Check your author ethics

Always reference your own work (as well as anyone else’s work) if you have referred to it in your paper. The paper itself should not be a verbatim reproduction of something you have already published – it needs to be a piece of original writing.

Don’t send your paper to more than one journal at a time, as this could mean that several referees review the same paper needlessly, or it could even go through the publication process at two different publishers.

And, if you’re using any material owned by a third party, such as images or screengrabs, check whether you need to obtain written permission to use it, and if you do then get that done before you submit your paper. If in doubt, the journal editor and the publisher should be able to advise you.

Further guidance is available here: http://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/ethics-for-authors/

7. Understand peer review

Peer review is a collaborative process whereby authors can get constructive feedback from independent experts. The role of these experts – known as referees, reviewers or readers – is to check methodology, provide polite feedback and, ultimately, improve the quality of the published paper. As mentioned by James Chapman in his blog, “Publish or be Damned,” the process can take time so patience is key!

When you get the feedback on your paper, remember it is normal for revisions to be requested. Do allow some time to do further work on your paper at this stage. Try not to take feedback personally, but instead see it as an opportunity to learn and grow. If you do disagree with particular points then be sure to discuss it with the journal editor – but be specific and assertive (not defensive or aggressive!)

That being said, try to accept the suggested revisions where possible and to return your paper on time. Being gracious and professional will pay dividends in the long run.

8. Congratulations, you’re published!

Hopefully, your article will then be accepted and it will move into production, where you’ll proof your article and it will be typeset and copyedited and made ready for online and print publication.

After your article is published, you can promote it by posting a link to it on your departmental website or your accounts on social media and academic networking sites.

Taylor & Francis also offers 50 free eprints to every author, including co-authors (different publishers have different policies on this). More and more authors are posting links to this on social media or in their email signatures and this is a highly effective way of driving people to your article.

For more tips, visit: http://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/ensuring-your-research-makes-an-impact/

Go forth and publish!

Emma Grylls is the Managing Editor for the History journals at Routledge, Taylor & Francis. She has a Master’s in Comparative Literature from UCL and a Diploma in Translation (DipTrans) in French-to-English translation.

Please see the PDF below for Emma’s PowerPoint presentation on ‘Publishing in academic journals: Tips to help you succeed’, which she delivered during the ‘Publishing Workshop’ at the biennial IAMHIST Conference, ‘Media and History: Crime, Violence and Justice’, University of Paris 2, July 10-13 2017:

How to get published (Emma Grylls, Taylor & Francis)


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