Alfred Hitchcock’s Collaborators: Michael Balcon

9 07 2010

Michael Balcon, the producer who gave Alfred Hitchcock his start

Michael Balcon may not be as familiar a name to fans of Alfred Hitchcock’s films as our previous collaborator, Alma Reville, but he had a vital role in Hitch’s career and an even greater one in the history of British cinema. As the man who first suggested that Hitch try directing, he put the Master of Suspense’s career into motion; later, as a producer at England’s Ealing Studios, he had a hand in a series of movies that reflected the nation’s spirit and pride in the post World War II era.

Born in 1896, Balcon was the son of Jewish immigrants, and was raised in poverty in Birmingham. He won a scholarship to a grammar school but had to leave in 1913 due to his family’s financial needs. His poor eyesight kept him out of World War I, and in 1915 he went to work for the Dunlop Rubber Company. His friend, Victor Saville, suggested that they go into partnership in the film industry with a small distribution formed in 1919. In 1921, Balcon and director Graham Cutts formed Gainsborough Pictures, which in 1923 released “Woman to Woman,” directed by Cutts and written by Alfred Hitchcock.

Seeing the multitalented Hitchcock at work as a title designer, writer, set dresser and assistant director, Balcon suggested Hitchcock try his hand at directing. Hitchcock later said that he had not really considered directing, and that he had been perfectly happy with his work up till that time. The earliest of Hitchcock’s directorial efforts were not particularly promising, starting with the unfinished “Number 13” and “The Pleasure Garden.” But Balcon had faith in his young director, and his film “The Lodger” was a sensation (once it had been re-edited by Ivor Montagu; it was released before “The Pleasure Garden”), while “The Ring” showed Hitch’s growing talent at storytelling.

Balcon continued on Hitch’s movies through his British period, usually uncredited, producing the aforementioned films as well as “The Mountain Eagle,” “Downhill,” “Easy Virtue,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “The 39 Steps,” “Secret Agent” and “Sabotage.”

In the late 1920s, Gainsborough was absorbed by Gaumont Pictures; Balcon continued producing, and in the 1930s helped individuals including the actor Conrad Veidt escape Nazi Germany. Balcon returned from a trip to the United States in 1936 to find Gaumont in financial ruin; he briefly worked for MGM, then joined Ealing Studios in 1938. He would remain a fixture at Ealing through the 1950s, working on dozens of well-regarded films that captured the British post-war spirit — its can-do attitude, a spirit of good-natured rebellion, and, visually, the nation’s slow recovery from the war. It was Balcon’s belief that before a movie could achieve international success, it had to possess a strong, identifiable national character. The best known of these films include the Alec Guinness comedies “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” “The Lavender Hill Mob,” “The Man in the White Suit” and “The Ladykillers,” as well as the adventure “Scott of the Antarctic” (later parodied on “Monty Python’s Flying Circus”). Balcon was knighted in 1948.

After Ealing closed its doors in 1957, Balcon formed Brynston Films, an independent production company. The last film he worked on as Executive Producer was 1963’s “Tom Jones.” Although officially retired after this, Balcon continued to encourage young directors and served as chairman of the British Film Institute. Balcon died in 1977. In 1989, his grandson, Daniel Day-Lewis, won an Academy Award for “My Left Foot” which he accepted “in honour of my grandfather, Michael Balcon.”

Interestingly, in the late 1930s Alfred Hitchcock was determined to leave England for Hollywood in part because he wanted to work with actors who were more natural on screen, playing ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances. That’s just what Balcon championed at Ealing Studios. It’s easy to imagine how different Hitchcock’s career might have been had he stayed in England, while in some ways, how similar to his Hollywood path.

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