May 11, 2008

British Cinema and Society: Chronology 1939–1951

British Cinema and Society: Chronology 1939-1951

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Preface: This page is still under development. Many of the film links are the same as an earlier page British Cinema of the Second World War which will be restructured. The grid system providing links and reminders of the context of developments in British cinema and politics and society in general seems to be a more effective way to proceed. It has also been decided to develop the chronology linked to changes in national government rather than by decades as this will better reflect the changing contextual moods within the country. 


This is one of a projected series of chronologies which provide visitors with the opportunity to gain a panotpical overview of developments within British Cinema from the outbreak of the Second World War until the present day. A key aspect of the project is to allow visotors to quickly cross reference the social attitudes expressed in films and references to responses from the audiences of the time as well as responses from critics. As other entries are developed links will be made to articles on the films. It is always important to get a quick overview of the course of events in gneral to contextualise the film industry in general and indvidual films within this. The years chosen cover the period of World War Two through the Atlee led Labour landslide visctory and subsequent Government. The start of the welfare state as well as the years of post-war austerity in a country nearly bankrupted by the war. 1950 saw the return of a Labour government but it only had a very narrow majority and was soon to fall to a Conservative party about 18 months later who in turn had 13 years uninterrupted in power. 

Chronology of course is not history films do need a context in which to be able to be able to devlop a fuller understanding of them, as Robert Murphy has rightly commented:

With film aesthetics are never enough. Viewed in isolation 'In Which We Serve', 'Brief Encounter',even 'The Red Shoes' degenerate into kitsch. Films need a context, whether as the work of a particular director, the product of a studio or... as a part of a cycle of films emerging from a particular society over a particular period.  (Murphy, 1992 p 233)

Chronology 1939-1951

Major Historical Events
Major Film Industry Events
Main films Produced

March: Czechoslovakia invaded by Nazi Germany. Britain made an alliance with Poland. 

August: Russia and Germany sign non-agression pact.

September third. Britain declares war on Nazi Germany after Nazis invade Poland.

'Phoney War' in western Europe starts. At sea the Nazi pocketbattleship Graf Spee is defeated at the Battle of the River Plate.

September: The Great Evacuation 

After the outbreak of war only 6 films in production were completed. another 11 were made in the rest of the year.

Immediate governmental response to the outbreak of war was to close the cinemas. When mass bombing raids didn't materialise they were reopened.  

British Cinema of the Second World War


Hitchcock: Jamaica Inn

Korda: The Four Feathers

Korda: The Lion Has Wings

Let George Do It

Powell and Pressburger: The Spy in Black

Reed: The Stars Look Down

Woods: They Drive by Night


April Hitler invades Norway

May 1940. 'Phoney War' ends as Nazis attack Belgium and Holland on 10th. 

Churchill takes over as British Prime Minister after the Nazis successfully invade Norway.  

28th May: Belgium surrenders.

26th May - June 4th British and French troops evacuated at Dunkirk.

22nd June: France surrenders. 

30th June - September: Battle of Britain

September London Blitz begins. 

51 British films released. 24 were comedy / comedy-thrillers. 

2/3s of the releases were from 6 companies (Gainsborough / Ealing / British National / Warner Bros / Butchers /Pathé)

Hitchcock: Rebecca

The Stars Look Down (1939 Released January 1940) Carol Reed

Britain at Bay: (1940) Harry Watt (Often attrubuted to J. B. Priestley) [Documentary]

Night Train to Munich (1940) Carol Reed [Nazi Opression in Central Europe]

The Thief of Bagdad (1940) Ludwig Berger /Michael Powell /Tim Whelan [Alexander Korda producer]

The Proud Valley (1940) Penrose Tennyson [Ealing]

Pastor Hall (1940) Boulting Bros [Nazi oppression in Central Europe]

Freedom Radio (1940) Anthony Asquith[Two Cities]

Let George Do It (1940) Marcel Varnel

Pimpernel Smith (1940) Leslie Howard

Britain at Bay (1940) Harry Watt [GPO Film Unit / sponsor MOI documentary]

Tomorrow is Theirs (1940) James Carr [Ministry of Information documentary]

They Also Serve (1940) Ruby Grierson [Gender & Work documentary]

Westward Ho! (1940) Thorold Dickinson [Documentary]


June 22nd Nazis attack Soviet Union

December: Japanese Fleet attack America at Pearl Harbour

47 British films released. 31 from the 6 studios mentioned under the 1940 entry)

Most popular film of the year was 49th Parallel.

Target for Tonight (1941) Harry Watt. [documentary]

The 49th Parallel (1941) Powell & Pressburger

Words For Battle (1941) Humphrey Jennings

That Hamilton Woman (1941) Alexander Korda 

The Young Mr. Pitt (1941)  Carol Reed

Ferry Pilot (1941) Pat Jackson [Documentary]

Cottage to Let (1941) Anthony Asquith 

Ships With Wings (1941) Segei Nolbandov [Ealing]

Love on the Dole (1941) John Baxter

Eating Out With Tommy Trinder (1941) Desmond Dickinson

Jane Brown Changes her Job (1941) Harold Cooper  [Gender & Work]

Ordinary People (1941) Jack Lee & J.B. Holmes


May RAF organise the first 1,000 bomber raid attacking Köln

June 1942. US win the Battle of Midway

October British Army wins Battle of El Alamein

Mass murder of  Jews at Auschwitz begins 

Massacre at Lidice  

The Beveridge report published. This was the founding document of post-war social policy.  

45 British films released. The majority were about the war. 13 / 16 comedies has war thmes. Several others were 'heritage' films. Independent companies like Two Cities make an impact. 

Independent Producers established by Arthur J. Rank

Howard: First of the Few

Went the Day Well (1942) Alberto Cavalcanti [Ealing]

Listen to Britain (1942) Humphrey Jennings [Documentary]

One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942) Powell and Pressburger 

In Which We Serve (1942) David Lean / Noël Coward [Two Cities]

The Foreman Went to France (1942) Charles Frend [Ealing]

The Goose Steps Out (1942) Will Hay, Basil Dearden [Ealing]

Thunder Rock (1942) Boulting Bros

The Next of Kin (1942) Thorold Dickinson [Ealing]

Night Shift (1942) Paul Rotha [Gender & Work, Documentary]

The Countrywomen (1942) John Page [Gender & the War Effort]

Men of Tomorrow (1942)  Alfred Travers


February German Army at Stalingrad surrender. First major Nazi defeat.

Italy surrenders to the Allies

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) Powell and Pressburger

The Silver Fleet (1943) Gordon Wellesley and Vernon Sewell [Produced by the Archers - Powell and Pressburger]

Fires Were Started (1943) Humphrey Jennings

The Silent Village (1943) Humphrey Jennings

The Bells Go Down (1943) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

The Demi-Paradise (1943) Anthony Asquith[Two Cities]

Millions Like Us (1943) Frank Launder, Sidney Gilliat [Gender & Work]

We Dive at Dawn (1943) Anthony Asquith 

Nine Men (1943) Harry Watt [Ealing]

San Demetrio London (1943) Charles Frend [Ealing]

The Man in Grey (1943) Leslie Arliss [The first "official" Gainsborough costume melodrama]

Journey Together  (1943) John Boulting [ RAF Film Unit in 1943 as a public information film]


D-Day invasion of Nazi occupied France

The 'Butler' Education Act

William Haley becomes director General of the BBC 

Rank takes over Two Cities production company

Batty: The Battle for Warsaw (UK / Poland)

Clayton: Naples is a Battlefield (Documentary)

A Canterbury Tale (1944) Powell and Pressburger

This Happy Breed (1944) David Lean [Two Cities]

Fanny by Gaslight (1944) Anthony Asquith [Gainsborough melodrama was made to cash in on the success of The  Man in Grey]

Love Story (1944) Leslie Arliss 

Henry V (1944) Laurence Olivier  [Two Cities]

Western Approaches (1944) Pat Jackson [Documentary Feature]

The Way Ahead (1944) Carol Reed [Two Cities]

The Eighty Days (1944) Humphrey Jennings 

Waterloo Road (1944) Sidney Gilliat

Two Thousand Women (1944) Frank Launder

The Halfway House (1944) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

Champagne Charlie (1944) Alberto Cavalcanti [Ealing / Musical]

Madonna of the Seven Moons (1944) Arthur Crabtree


May 7th: Germany surrenders.

July 5th: General election, Labour majority of 150 seats.  

August 24th: Japan surrenders after atomic bombs are dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  

Arliss: The Wicked Lady

Boulting: Journey Together

Crabtree: They Were Sisters

Lean: Brief Encounter

Powell & Pressburger: I Know Where I’m Going

The Way to the Stars (1945) Anthony Asquith [Last Wartime Feature Film: Two Cities]

Immediate Post-War films 

I Know where I'm Going (1945 December) Powell and Pressburger

Brief Encounter (1945) David Lean  

The Wicked Lady (1945) Leslie Arliss [Gainsborough  melodramas.]

They Were Sisters (1945) Arthur Crabtree [Gainsborough melodrama] 

The Seventh Veil  (1945) Compton Bennett

Homes for the People (1945) Kay Mander [Documentary]

Rationing in Britain (1945) Graham Cutts

Dead of Night (1945) Alberto Cavalcanti / Robert Hamer / Charles Crighton / Basil Dearden [Ealing] 


National Insurance Act

New Towns Act 1946 

Bank of England Nationalised

July 21st Bread Rationing introduced

Squatters settle in disused military bases 

39 films released

Jennings: A Defeated People

The Way We Live (1946) Jill Craigie [Postwar Planning - documentary: Two Cities]

The Way From Germany (1946) Terry Trench [Crown Film Unit - Documentary]

I See a Dark Stranger (1946) Frank Launder [Individual Pictures. Comedy Spy Thriller]

Piccadilly Incident (1946)  Herbert Wilcox  [This melodrama was the second most successful film of 1946 at the box office, after The Wicked Lady]

A Matter of Life and Death (1946) Powell & Pressburger ['Begun towards the end of the war as a propaganda exercise to encourage Anglo-American understanding']

Caravan (1946) Arthur Crabtree  [Gainsborough Melodrama]

The Magic Bow (1946) Bernard Knowles [Gainsborough, 'biopic': the end result is aimed far more at fans of Stewart Granger Gainsborough costume melodrama than to anyone seriously interested in Paganini's own work.]

Hue and Cry (1946) Charles Crighton [Ealing comedy]

Men of Two Worlds (1946) Thorold Dickinson [Two Cities]

Great Expectations (1946) David Lean [Cineguild Independent Producers. Literary Adaptation]


January-March. Extraordinary winter freeze combined with power cuts. Followed by serious floods in the thaw. 

April 1947: Raising of the School Leaving Age to 15.

Coal industry nationalised

August 1947: India receives its independence 

Government attempts to reduce imports lead to punitive taxes on Hollywood films

Hollywood boycotts UK market 

Rank restructures his interests to increase production 

Cavalcanti: They Made Me a Fugitive (Spiv)

Hamer: It always Rains on a Sunday (Melodrama / Social Real)

Black Narcissus (1947) Powell & Pressburger

Brighton Rock (1947)  John Boulting: Spiv

Fame is the Spur (1947) Roy Boulting  

Good-Time Girl (1947) David Macdonald [Gainsborough Melodrama]  

Jassy (1947) Bernard Knowles  [Gainsborough Melodrama]

The Odd Man Out (1947) Carol Reed [Two Cities]

Captain Boycott (1947) Frank Launder [ Individual Pictures. Biopic]

Holiday Camp (1947) Ken Annakin


February: Criminal Justice Act: abolishes hard labour / penal servitude / flogging

July 5th: Vesting day for the NHS. The new social security legislation also came into force.

21st July bread rationing ended 

Electricity industry nationalised 

24th June 1948 Blockade of Berlin. Berlin Airlift goes on until 1949.  

Lean: Oliver Twist

Children of the Ruins (1948) Jill Craigie [Documentary]

The Fallen Idol (1948) Carol Reed [ London Film Productions]

The Red Shoes (1948) Powell & Pressburger [One of Powell & Pressburger's best-loved films, 'The Red Shoe' , released in 1948, is perhaps the definitive ballet movie.]

The Winslow Boy (1948) Anthony Asquith [ London Film Productions, British Lion.  Based on real life story]

Daybreak (1948) Compton Bennett [ General Film Distributors. Brit Noir]

London Belongs to Me (1948) Sidney Gilliat [Individual Pictures. 'Never quite clear whether it's a suspense thriller, a psychological drama, a comedy or a slice of social realism.']


Sterling Crisis and devaluation of the Pound Sterling.

Gas industry nationalised 

NATO founded

96 films released

Harold Wilson President of the Board of Trade attempts national film policy

National Film Finance Corporation (NFFC) established 

The Third Man (1949) Carol Reed  [London Film Productions]

The Blue Lamp (1949) Basil Dearden

Boys in Brown (1949) Montgomery Tully

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Robert Hamer [Ealing Comedy]

Passport to Pimlico (1949) Henry Cornelius [Ealing Comedy]

Whisky Galore! (1949) Alexander Mackendrick [Ealing Comedy]

The Queen of Spades (1949) Thorold Dickinson [ABPC /World Screenplays. Pushkin short story]

The Spider and the Fly (1949) Robert Hamer [Mayflower Pictures Corporation. Thriller]

Diamond City (1949) David MacDonald [Gainsborough. Based on the Western but set in South Africa / Colonial Adventure?]


Feb 23rd 1950: General Election. Labour majority of 6 

Klaus Fuchs arrested as a spy

82 films released

Lee: The Wooden Horse

Deardon: The Blue Lamp (Social Problem Films)

Odette (Biopic / War)

The Happiest Days of Your Life (1950) Frank Launder

The Pool of London (1950) Basil Dearden [Ealing]

1951 Oct 25th 1951: General Election. Conservatives majority of 17. 

Boulting: High Treason (Anti-Communist)

Boulting: The Magic Box

Man in a White Suit (1951) Alexander Mackendrick [Ealing Comedy]

The Lavender Hill Mob (1951)  Charles Crighton  [Ealing  Comedy]

Hotel Sahara (1951) Ken Annakin [Comedy-Drama]

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