Michael Balcon (1896-1977)

Philip Kemp writes on Geni.com:

“Balcon, Sir Michael Elias, 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’. 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’. (The school, named after a local politician, would lend its name to the character of Police Constable George Dixon in The Blue Lamp (1950).)

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…

On 10 April 1924, Balcon married 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 (1931-2012). Jill Balcon, who became an actress, married future poet laureate Cecil Day-Lewis; their son, Daniel Day-Lewis, also became an actor. (Their daughter, Lydia Tamasin, became a television chef and food critic.)

…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…

At Ealing, a small, almost cottage-like studio, Balcon found his spiritual home. (The film producer Will Barker bought two houses facing Ealing Green in 1902 where, at West Lodge, he made films out-of-doors, until he built his first covered stage in 1907. Basil Dean’s Ealing Studios were begun in 1931, and opened in three stages up until 1944.)

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…

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’… (including) the archetypal police procedural, ” The Blue Lamp ” , (1950), which first introduced the reassuring figure of Dixon of Dock Green.

…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 ’…”.

Rachel Cooke interviewed Jill Balcon for The Observer of 20.5.07, a couple of years before the actor’s death:

“…Jill Balcon met Cecil Day-Lewis in 1948, in a studio for the BBC’s Time for Verse.

Later that year, after only a handful of meetings, they fell in love and Day-Lewis left…his wife of 21 years, Mary…It was not the easiest start to a relationship: financially, Cecil was hard-pressed – he still had his children to keep…Plus, there was a divorce to be organised, a sordid business in those days. Then there was Jill’s father, who was implacably opposed to the relationship.

‘We started living together,’ says Balcon. ‘For a long time, we thought we’d never be able to marry. My father, who saw everything in black and white, was tremendously hostile. “There’s no reason why he’ll ever get a divorce,” he said. “What will she [Mary] gain?” Cecil was an older man, he was poor, and the idea that I should be working! My father thought Cecil was degrading me. The people who worked for him at Ealing, their private lives were in turmoil… the fact that for one night I appeared on the front of the Evening Standard as co-respondent in a divorce was so shocking for him…

When she and Cecil were married, her father attended neither the wedding, nor the reception upstairs at the Ivy. ‘I still mind about that,’ she says, softly. ‘He was a powerful man. My mother met me in secret. We used to sit in her car in Hyde Park.’

Things went from bad to worse. After Tamasin was born, neither of Jill’s parents came near her: ‘No flowers, no message, no mother at the hospital.’ Her father took it as a deliberate slight that, when Day-Lewis placed a birth announcement in the Times, he did not put the words ‘nee Balcon’ after Jill’s name. Years later, they did not even come to Cecil’s funeral.

Still, she does not regret any of it. How could she?…”.

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