Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film

Steve Chibnall,
Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film.
London: BFI, 2007.
ISBN-13: 978-1844571550
US$28.95 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by BFI Publishing)

Steve Chibnall is a well-known and well-regarded film historian who specializes in British cinema, and here he tackles an area that has been ignored by many other film scholars, and does it magnificently. In Quota Quickies: The Birth of the British ‘B’ Film, Chibnall documents the rise of the Quota Quickie as a response to the protectionist Quota Act, which sought to keep American films from dominating the British market. The plan was to limit Hollywood imports, and require that a certain percentage of all films screened in cinemas had to be of British origin, but American producers quickly got around that hurdle by simply setting up ‘shell companies’ to make cheap, forgettable films on miniscule budgets, usually hovering in the 10,000 pound range for a complete feature film.

As producer Sidney Cole accurately noted, “Quota Quickies weren’t in any way serious. The American companies regarded them as a Tax as it were, on their right to import any real pictures into [the UK]” (p. 64). Running from 60 minutes at their least to 90 minutes at the most, they were often budgeted at “a pound a foot” as director Michael Powell, one of the graduates of the Quota Quickie regime, later recounted (p. 18). While many of the films were wretched, they offered a springboard for talent on the way up, including such later stars as Errol Flynn and Herbert Lom, and gave young directors a chance to prove their worth on projects that were often shot on tight, unforgiving six-day schedules.

Indeed, many of the films were so poor that while they were obliged to show them, theater owners often apologized to their customers in advertisements for their daily programmes, in one case admitting to audience members that “we know you cannot enjoy such films, but for the sake of patriotism we crave your indulgence for them” (p. 152). In such an atmosphere of frank commerciality, it is a wonder that anything of lasting worth emerged at all. Nevertheless, Chibnall tracks down the few films that really sprang out of their class and gives them detailed analysis, while clearly recognizing that the entire Quota Quickie experiment was both a governmental and artistic disaster, that in the end did more to harm the British film industry than further it.

And yet, Chibnall has an affection for these misbegotten films, much as one might appreciate, if that’s the right word, the output of Monogram or PRC studios in the United States during the same time period, as being authentic talismans of their era and values, shorn of all pretense. Quota Quickies at their best were entertaining, breezy, and unpretentious, and Chibnall’s encyclopedic knowledge of the genre suggests that he has spent many (perhaps too many) hours watching and analyzing them. Quota Quickies embraced all genres; melodrama, comedy, musicals, horror films (Tod Slaughter’s blood and thunder Grand Guignol exercises stand out in this category), and Chibnall’s book examines them all in considerable detail, the good along with the bad.

At the close of the book, Chibnall compiles a thorough listing of all British supporting or ‘second’ features made between 1928 and 1939, when the Quota Quickie began to fade from the public consciousness with the advent of World War II, although to be sure, the Quickies continued on for some time after that at such studios as Highbury, using the actors who participated in Rank’s ‘Charm School’, and young directors such as Terence Fisher, who would later make a name for himself with his Hammer horror films.

This listing gives the running time, the date on which filming commenced, the date of the film’s first trade show screening, the production company, director, distributor, and a brief generic synopsis of each title. This is, in itself, a massive amount of labour, and Chibnall’s expert taxonomy paves the way for future studies in this area with rigour and assurance. The book is also thoroughly indexed, profusely illustrated, and contains a mass of documentation that underscores the careful and methodical nature of Chibnall’s exhaustive research.

While the glossy ‘A’ films of the period are justly remembered with great fondness, the Quota Quickies have been consigned to veritable oblivion, were it not for the combined efforts of Chibnall and the British Film Institute, where the only remaining copies of many of these films reside. While they are cheap and in many cases quite embarrassingly awful, they offer a more authentic view of the working class values and virtues of the period than many of their more ambitious counterparts, and give the viewer a look inside the commercial consciousness of the era.

Recently, a number of these Quota Quickies have been screened on Turner Classic Movies in the United States as ‘lost films’, and indeed they are, sometimes for the better. But in the best of these commercially compromised films, one can detect a desire to succeed at all costs, to make something out of nothing, to rise above the compromised circumstances of their creation. Chibnall’s work on these films, while never sentimental, is nevertheless frankly open to the possibility that some, just some of these films might have something of value to offer, both to audiences of the period, and contemporary critics and/or historians.

Wheeler Winston Dixon,
University of Nebraska, Lincoln, USA.

Created on: Thursday, 31 July 2008

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon is the James Ryan Endowed Professor of Film Studies, Coordinator of the Film Studies Program and Professor of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. His most recent books are 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (co-written with Gwendolyn Audrey Foster, Rutgers University Press, 2011); A History of Horror (Rutgers University Press, 2010); and Film Noir and the Cinema of Paranoia (Rutgers University Press, 2009).View all posts by Wheeler Winston Dixon →