Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the USA

Sarah Street,
Transatlantic Crossings: British Feature Films in the USA.
New York: Continuum, 2002.
ISBN 0 8264 1396 X
UK£18.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Continuum International Publishing Group)

Sarah Street has been a major figure in recent studies of the British cinema industries with well-known works such as Cinema and State (1985) and the 1997 British entry in Routledge’s National Cinemas series. Transatlantic Crossings deals with the distribution and exhibition of British films in the US, thereby emphasising that the national is always bound up with considerations of international influence.

National cinemas are generally involved to some degree in the export of imagery for recognition by extra-national groups. This observation is particularly apt in the British context where it has always been recognised that the possibilities for British production are vitally dependent on the ability to turn the flood of US films in a two-way exchange. These concerns about “reciprocity” are as old as British cinema itself.

Of course, debates about the need for nationalist authenticity as opposed to positioning films for international consumption continue to the present day – and in terms that have changed very little. Street’s analysis of the dilemma of British production, caught in a no-man’s land between the commercial mainstream and the international art cinema, might provide strong food for thought for Australian filmmakers and policy administrators (if any of them ever gave any thought to historical precedent.)

Beginning with the 1920s, Street looks at the factors which have influenced the export of British films to the irresistibly lucrative and English-speaking US market, as well as their reception there. The latter is reconstucted through a varied combination of press books, critical reviews, censorship records and box office figures. Each decade from the 1920s to the 1960s is given at least one chapter, while the post-1970s period is collapsed into a single chapter.

Street’s research is heavily reliant on the use of documents from archival collections. As a result her study is as densely detailed as it is partial. Given that the United Artists’ Legal Files are the most complete collection detailing with the activities of a major US distribution company, there is a heavy emphasis on films such as The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and Henry V (1946) which were distributed by UA. As the archival resources from UA and censorship records from the Production Code Administration dry up during the 1950s, the book changes to foreground more thinly speculative textual analysis which draws on sociological generalities such as those to be found in David Riesman’s The Lonely Crowd.

Prior to this, the study is rich in examples of producers such as Stoll, Wilcox, Korda and Balcon in their attempts to crack the American market with stars such as Ivor Novello and Jessie Matthews. As interesting as case studies are, they can also be misleading if not sufficiently balanced by the big picture. Raw numbers of films exported can disguise the marginal nature of their distribution in a market effectively controlled by a small number of companies. Hollywood’s dominance was not based on individual films, but rather on a sustained level of supply. Individual films, while suggestive of possibilities, often provide direction signs to dead ends. (Think of the recent example of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Taiwan/Hong Kong/USA/China, 2000) and of the thus-far unfulfilled hopes of Asian producers hoping to emulate its breakout success.)

At the other end of the research spectrum, Street shows that generalised observations about the big-picture context of Anglo-American relations need to be read carefully.

Relatively close cultural connections often go hand-in-hand with contentious trade relations. As nations have more to do with each other, there are more potential commercial adversaries endeavouring to construct trade relations to their advantage.

The history of British cinema exports shows that there is no one enduring solution to the question of what will travel internationally. The change from bawdy historical films in the 1930s to more realist works during the Second World War demonstrates the ways in which the international image of national cinema can be channelled through the association with genres, and that these genres are in a state of flux. Recognisable genres make the foreign familiar, but the aesthetic need for defamiliarisation and refamiliarisation is constantly in play. The appeal of British films in the American market played strongly on this dangerous game which mixed the familiar with contained doses of cultural difference. This process took place not simply in relation to earlier British films but also the changing face of American production.

The appeal of British films clearly varied among different US audience segments. Street’s use of exhibition reports allows her to foreground regional and urban/rural distinctions, though I suspect there is another story to be told about the differentiation of markets by age and gender. The emergence of a youth market was clearly decisive in the successes of Hammer horror films in the late 1950s, just as gendered demographics would be significant to an understanding of the appeal of Hugh Grant comedies today.

In concentrating on the specific actions of individuated agents, companies and regulators, Street provides a salutary antidote to the idea that cross-cultural communication is merely an ideological process in which texts and subjects endlessly re-construct each other. The book is at its best when its shows this to be a deeply material process in which a variety of institutions intervene. One of the key insights to emerge from the book is that cross-cultural, or cross-national textual transferability was only one aspect of a process which also involved fluctuating links between British producers and American distributors to initiate, position, and sustain flows of films. The history of the unstable links between Alexander Korda and United Artists, or between Rank and Universal, or between Working Title and Polygram and Universal remain important determinants in establishing the possibilities for films to be made and to travel across national borders.

Mike Walsh,
Flinders University.

Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 6-Dec-04

About the Author

Mike Walsh

About the Author

Mike Walsh

Mike Walsh is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University. He holds a PhD from the Communication Arts Department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is a contributing editor to national arts magazine RealTime and Metro.View all posts by Mike Walsh →