Balcon, Sir Michael Elias
- Philip Kemp
Sir Michael Elias Balcon (1896–1977)
Balcon, Sir Michael Elias (1896–1977), film producer, was born on 19 May 1896 at 116 Summer Lane, Edgbaston, Birmingham, the youngest son and fourth of five children of Louis Balcon (c.1858–1946) and his wife, Laura Greenberg (c.1863–1934). His parents, Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, had met in England. Louis Balcon described himself as a tailor, but seems rarely to have practised his trade. He preferred to travel, especially to South Africa, where his brother-in-law had settled, leaving his wife to bring up the children as best she might. Michael Balcon's childhood, in his own words, was 'respectable but impoverished' (Balcon, 2). Despite poverty, all the children were given a good education. Balcon himself won a scholarship in 1907 to George Dixon Grammar School in Birmingham, where his scholastic career, so he later claimed, was 'undistinguished' (Balcon, 5). Even so, he hoped to follow his elder brothers to university, but to his disappointment the family's financial needs obliged him to leave school in 1913 and work as apprentice to a jeweller. When war broke out he volunteered for service, but was turned down owing to defective eyesight. In 1915 he joined the Dunlop Rubber Company's huge plant at Aston Cross, known as Fort Dunlop, and he rose to become personal assistant to the managing director.
After the war a friend, Victor Saville, whose family was in show business, invited Balcon to join him in setting up a film distribution company. Together they formed Victory Motion Pictures; the chairman, and financial backer, was Oscar Deutsch, a rich scrap-metal dealer who later founded the Odeon cinema chain. In 1921 Saville and Balcon moved to London, opening an office in Soho, and in 1923, with backing from Deutsch and a prominent London distributor, C. M. Woolf, they produced their first feature film, a melodrama called Woman to Woman (1923). It starred a then popular Hollywood actress, Betty Compson, and was directed at Islington Studios by a leading British director of the period, Graham Cutts. The film was a screen hit. On the strength of it, Balcon and Cutts took a lease on Islington Studios and formed Gainsborough Pictures. The studio, recently vacated by the Hollywood company Famous Players–Lasky (later to become Paramount), was small but well equipped and fully staffed. The staff included an ambitious, highly versatile young man called Alfred Hitchcock.
That same year, 1924, Balcon married on 10 April Aileen Freda Jacobs, née Leatherman (1904–1988), daughter of Beatrice Leatherman, born in Middlesex, but brought up in Johannesburg. In 1946 she was appointed MBE for her war work. Their marriage was happy and lasted until Balcon's death. They had two children: Jill Angela Henriette Balcon (1925–2009) and Jonathan (b. 1931). Jill Balcon, who became an actress, married future poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis; their son, Daniel Day-Lewis, also became an actor.
Under Balcon's leadership Gainsborough earned a reputation for high-quality films, often with cosmopolitan themes. Several of them were shot at the giant Universum Film studios in Berlin, where Balcon established a good working relationship with the great producer Erich Pommer. In 1925 Balcon gave Hitchcock his first chance to direct with The Pleasure Garden, filmed in Germany and Italy. Gainsborough often featured matinée idol Ivor Novello in such films as The Rat (1925), directed by Graham Cutts, and The Lodger (1926), directed by Hitchcock.
In 1928 Gainsborough was relaunched as a public company. On the board, along with Balcon and C. M. Woolf, was Maurice Ostrer, one of the Ostrer brothers who controlled Gaumont-British, which was fast becoming Britain's largest film company. Gainsborough was now in effect an outpost of the Gaumont empire, and Balcon found his independence steadily eroded. In 1931 he was appointed head of production at Gaumont's Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd's Bush, while still overseeing production at Islington. In both capacities he reported to the Ostrers. It may have been the ambiguity of his status, as much as the pressures of running two studios, that contributed to a nervous breakdown late in 1931.
Over the next five years Gaumont and Gainsborough, under Balcon's guidance, produced some of the most popular British films of the period in a wide range of genres. Hitchcock, enticed away from Gainsborough a few years earlier, now rejoined his old boss and hit his stride with such classics as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), The 39 Steps (1935), and Sabotage (1936). There were musicals with Jessie Matthews, including Evergreen (1934) and First a Girl (1935); Ben Travers's Aldwych farces and the comedies of Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge; historical biopics starring the actorly George Arliss; stylish thrillers (Rome Express, 1932); romantic comedies (The Good Companions, 1933); horror vehicles for Boris Karloff, temporarily lured from Hollywood (The Ghoul, 1933); big-budget science-fiction spectaculars (The Tunnel, 1935); war movies (I was a Spy, 1933); and ambitious costume dramas such as Jew Süss (1934) and Tudor Rose (1936). Jew Süss, a project especially dear to Balcon's heart, represented a rare attempt to circumvent the stifling British censorship and denounce, under a historical guise, the antisemitic policies of Nazi Germany.
Many technicians and actors who were fleeing Nazi oppression found refuge at Gaumont-British, with Balcon's active encouragement. Among them were the brilliant, autocratic art director Alfred Junge, and the cinematographers Günther Krampf and Mutz Greenbaum, as well as director Berthold Viertel and the producer Hermann Fellner. The actor Conrad Veidt, under pressure from the Nazis to make films for the Reich, only escaped from Germany thanks to Balcon's direct intervention.
In the teeth of scepticism from the Gaumont board, Balcon backed the documentary pioneer Robert J. Flaherty to make Man of Aran (1934), although Flaherty's maverick working methods left the studio with little control over the production. The shoot, remote and uncontactable off the west coast of Ireland, went wildly over-schedule and over-budget, and the film never recouped its cost. According to the director Michael Powell, when faced with Flaherty 'Mickey Balcon, protesting feebly, was as helpless as the Wedding Guest with the Ancient Mariner' (Powell, 237). In the trade, Man of Aran became known as 'Balcon's folly', but Balcon always remained proud of having backed the film.
Though Gaumont and Gainsborough productions generally did well in Britain, they rarely found much favour in the USA. The Ostrers, noting the flashier successes of Alexander Korda, became obsessed with the perennial mirage that haunts British film producers—the dream of cracking the American market. In 1936 Balcon was sent to Hollywood for several months to scout talent and forge links with the big studios. Never at ease in the movie capital, he returned home with relief, only to find the Gaumont empire near collapse. The Ostrers' erratic financial policies and ambitious export drive had led to a financial crisis. The Lime Grove Studios were closed down, staff were laid off, and in November Balcon left to join MGM, who were setting up their British operation at Denham.
The eighteen months Balcon spent at MGM were probably the unhappiest of his career. He clashed with the autocratic Louis B. Mayer, and during his stint at Denham as nominal head of production he produced only one film: A Yank at Oxford (1938), an inanely Hollywoodized view of British university life. Luckily at this juncture his old friend Reginald Baker, an accountant who had helped him raise the money to lease Islington, invited Balcon to produce films at Ealing Studios. Baker and his colleagues on the board of Associated Talking Pictures, who owned Ealing, were dissatisfied with the studio's production head, the theatrical impresario Basil Dean, and were looking for a replacement. Balcon was offered the job, and he readily accepted.
At Ealing, a small, almost cottage-like studio, Balcon found his spiritual home. Under his benevolently paternalistic rule it developed into the nearest the British film industry ever came to a studio after the classic Hollywood pattern. Like, for example, Warner Brothers in the 1930s, Ealing had its roster of personnel—directors, writers, and technicians—on permanent salary, its pool of actors, its recurrent thematic preoccupations, and from all these there was derived a very recognizable house style of film-making that was to a large degree Balcon's own personal creation. Despite its tiny capacity—even at its most productive, the studio never managed to turn out more than six feature films a year—Ealing became the most famous British film studio in the world.
Balcon, who always liked to surround himself with a trusted team of associates, brought to Ealing several former colleagues from Gainsborough and Gaumont. Among them were his elder brother Chandos, who acted as his right-hand man, the technical expert Baynham Honri, the script editor Angus MacPhail, the screenwriter Sidney Gilliat, and the director Robert Stevenson. There was also a promising young assistant director, Penrose Tennyson, whom Balcon soon allowed to direct his first film. Regrettably, Tennyson died in a flying accident in 1941, having directed only three films.
With characteristic caution, Balcon initially produced a spread of films broadly similar to those made under Basil Dean. Among them were the studio's biggest moneyspinners, the George Formby comedies, though Balcon himself liked neither the films nor their star. But with the outbreak of war the character of Ealing began to change. Balcon brought in several of the film-makers who had worked with John Grierson in the British documentary movement of the 1930s, most notably Alberto Cavalcanti and Harry Watt. Under their influence Ealing's war films took on a downbeat, even truculent tone, devoid of flag-waving bombast and sceptical of the competence of the top brass. The Next of Kin (1942), a vivid dramatization of the slogan 'Careless talk costs lives', angered Churchill, but was released at the insistence of the War Office. Others in the same vein included The Foreman Went to France (1942), Went the Day Well? (1942), Nine Men (1943), and San Demetrio London (1943).
During the war Balcon himself adopted an embattled stance, tilting with unconcealed relish at the obstructive red tape of government ministries and fighting his corner against the ambitions of rival film companies. A frequent target for his barbs was the encroaching Rank Organisation, headed by flour millionaire J. Arthur Rank, which had grown in a few years to become the dominant force in the British film industry, swallowing among others Gaumont-British and the Odeon cinema chain. But Ealing, lacking distribution muscle, was too small to stand alone. In 1944 Balcon and Baker (who acted as the studio's financial head) performed a deft volte-face and struck a financing and distribution deal with Rank.
Backed by Rank's ample resources, Ealing entered into its finest period. Balcon expressly set out to make films 'reflecting Britain and the British character'. There was the occasional venture into national epic (Scott of the Antarctic, 1948), classic adaptation (Nicholas Nickleby, 1947), romantic costume drama (Saraband for Dead Lovers, 1949), and even once, brilliantly, the supernatural (Dead of Night, 1945). The studio also explored distant territory. The footloose Harry Watt shot The Overlanders (1946) in Australia and Where No Vultures Fly (1951) in east Africa. But Ealing, and Balcon himself, always seemed more at home with small-scale, realist films that followed the documentary-influenced tradition of the war years, such as the East End domestic drama It Always Rains on Sunday (1947); the archetypal police procedural, The Blue Lamp (1950), which first introduced the reassuring figure of Dixon of Dock Green; or Mandy (1952), a sensitive, unsentimental study of a deaf child and her parents.
In 1948, with Ealing at the peak of its creativity, Balcon was awarded a knighthood for his services to British cinema. From this period, too, date the films for which he and his studio will always be best remembered: the classic Ealing comedies. Starting with Hue and Cry (1947), in which a gang of boys hunt down crooks across the bomb-sites of post-war London, these films present a vision of controlled anarchy, often benevolent, as in Passport to Pimlico (1949) and The Lavender Hill Mob (1951). But from time to time a darker note tinged the humour, as in Robert Hamer's elegantly ruthless Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), or Alexander Mackendrick's sharp political satire The Man in the White Suit (1951) and his Gothic black comedy The Ladykillers (1955).
Hamer and Mackendrick were two of those who benefited from Balcon's policy of fostering young talent; others were the directors Charles Frend, Charles Crichton, Seth Holt, the screenwriter T. E. B. Clarke, and the cinematographer Douglas Slocombe. Throughout his career he believed in nurturing and encouraging promising young men (rarely women), giving them generous opportunities and leaving them free to develop their abilities within a supportive environment. Monja Danischewsky, Ealing's witty and gregarious publicity officer, referred to Ealing as 'Mr Balcon's Academy for Young Gentlemen' (Danischewsky, White Russian, 133). Production decisions were reached at the 'round table' conferences, attended by all the senior personnel with Balcon presiding benignly. He often let himself be overruled by majority opinion, with the standing joke, 'Well, if you fellows feel so strongly, on my head be it' (Fluegel, 7).
There were limits to his tolerance, though. Jokes about sex or religion, or any radical criticism of British institutions, were rarely allowed to creep into Ealing's films. In this, they reflected Balcon's own character. In many ways he cut an anomalous figure as a prominent film producer: an essentially shy man, he retained a strangely unworldly innocence in many matters (especially regarding sex), and a personal modesty almost unique in his profession. His politics were moderately left-wing, and though he enjoyed comfort, his lifestyle was anything but ostentatious. As he pointed out, 'I have never owned a yacht, a racehorse or even a swimming-pool. Neither do I smoke cigars' (Balcon, 220).
In the late 1940s J. Arthur Rank began to withdraw from the day-to-day running of his organization, handing over to his managing director, the far less sympathetic John Davis. The relationship between Ealing and Rank became strained, and in 1955 the connection was severed. Ealing Studios were sold to the BBC, and Balcon led his depleted team to a corner of the MGM studio at Borehamwood, where for a few years they lived out a shadowy afterlife as Ealing Films. The last Ealing film appeared in 1959.
Balcon's involvement with the British film industry was not yet over. In 1959 he became chairman of the newly formed Bryanston production company, and in 1964 of British Lion. Always open to new ideas, he was proud to be associated with the British new wave in such films as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960). But in neither company was he able to exercise the same hands-on control of production that he had enjoyed at Ealing, and at British Lion in particular he sometimes felt himself to be little more than a figurehead. In 1966 he resigned, and became chairman of the British Film Institute production board, funding low-budget experimental work. He remained in this post well past his seventy-fifth birthday, continuing his lifelong practice of helping and encouraging young film-makers.
In his private life, Balcon was an avid theatre- and opera-goer and he enjoyed travel, especially to Italy. He had a wide circle of friends, and loved to dispense hospitality at Upper Parrock, the fifteenth-century house set on a Sussex hilltop near the Kent border where he and his wife had lived since the Second World War. It was there that he died peacefully at the age of eighty-one on 17 October 1977. He was cremated and his ashes were buried at Upper Parrock.
- M. Balcon, Michael Balcon presents … a lifetime of films (1969)
- BFI, Michael Balcon collection
- M. Danischewsky, White Russian, red face (1966)
- M. Danischewsky, ed., Michael Balcon's 25 years in films (1948)
- G. Brown and L. Kardish, Michael Balcon: the pursuit of British cinema, ed. J. Fluegel (1984)
- C. Barr, Ealing Studios (1977)
- M. Powell, A life in films (1986)
- private information (2004) [family, friends, colleagues]
- b. cert.
- m. cert.
- d. cert.
- BFI, collection
- BFI, corresp. incl. memos with Ivor Montague
- University of Stirling, corresp. with John Grierson
- BFINA, ‘Speaking personally’, 27 Oct 1951
- BFINA, film profile, 12 Sept 1961
- BFINA, ‘Sir Michael Balcon—film maker’, 12 June 1969
- BFINA, documentary footage
- BL NSA, oral history interview
- J. Epstein, bronze bust, 1933, NPG
- H. Coster, photographs, 1936, NPG [see illus.]
- W. Stoneman, photograph, 1948, NPG
- W. Bird, photograph, 1961, NPG
- G. Argent, photograph, 1970, NPG
Wealth at Death
£272,880: probate, 3 May 1978, CGPLA Eng. & Wales