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The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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NFT bfi Pilgrims' Progress: Powell and Pressburger Revisited
'Quota Quickies'

The Night of the Party +
Red Ensign
The Night of the Party
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company:
British Picture Corporation
Producer: Jerome Jackson *
Assistant Director:
Bryan Wallace
Scenario: Ralph Smart
Original Play and Dialogue:
Ronald Pertwee, John Hastings Turner
Director of Photography: Glen MacWilliams
Art Director: Alfred Junge
Costumes: Gordon Conway
Recording: S. Jolly

Malcolm Keen (Lord Studholme)
Jane Baxter (Peggy Studholme)
Ian Hunter (Guy Kennioin)
Leslie Banks (Sir John Holland)
Viola Keats (Joan Holland)
Ernest Thesiger (Adrian Chiddiatt)
Jane Millican (Anna Chiddiatt)
W. Graham Browne (General Piddinghoe)
Muriel Aked (Princess Maria Amelia of Corsova)
Gerald Barry (Baron Cziatch)
Cecil Ramage (Howard Vernon)
John Turnbull (Inspector Ramage)
Laurence Anderson (Defending counsel)
Louis Goodrich (The judge)
Disney Roebuck (Butler)
Gordon Begg (Miles) *

United Kingdom 1934
61 mins
The Night of the Party
'It seems unfortunate that with the arrival of sound the motion picture overnight assumed a theatrical form'.(Alfred Hitchcock to François Truffaut, 1966)

'... the early talkies were nothing but filmed plays.' (Margaret Lane, Edgar Wallace - A Biography, 1939)

In their 1942 overview of documentary/realist cinema, Film and Reality, Alberto Cavalcanti and Ernest Lingren use a scene from the film adaptation of Frank Vosper's stage play Love From A Stranger (1937) in their section on 'Realism in the Story Film'. It is used as an example of films which are overburdened with dialogue, lacking in 'realism' and are acted and directed in a totally theatrical manner. In truth, they could have picked such a scene from many of the dozens of stage adaptations that proliferated in the British cinema throughout the 1920s and 1930s (and beyond). It is certainly true of Michael Powell's tenth film, The Night of the Party.

Although adaptations of novels and the use of stage actors and properties go back to the origins of the cinema, it was in the slump in British film production during World War I that this trend was to become more marked. At this time the cinema was already becoming much more 'novelistic'. The influx of American product came to dominate cinema exhibition in Britain on the heels of this slump. This resulted in an even greater emphasis on a cinema that was more lateral than forward looking; very few stories were actually written directly for the screen, and even when they were, they were often penned by established playwrights and novelists. Instead, for its source material, British film producers relied heavily on novels and increasingly, with the coming of sound, on stage plays.

Rachael Low's film list for the 1930s shows that at least forty films a year thoughout the decade were based on stage material. This reached an all time high in 1931 when fifty-one films were based on plays; this represented thirty-three per cent of all indigenous feature production. The second highest came in 1938, when forty-eight stage adaptations were made, but these in fact represented almost fity per cent of all British feature films made that year.

(1 April 1938 to 31 March 1939).

Red Ensign
Director: Michael Powell
Production Company:
Gaumont-British Picture Corporation
Producer: Jerome Jackson *
Dialogue: L. DuGarde Peach
Story: Michael Powell, Jerome Jackson
Director of Photography: Leslie Rowson
Art Director: Alfred Junge
Costumes: Gordon Conway
Recording: A.F. Birch

Leslie Banks (David Barr)
Carol Goodner (June MacKinnon)
Frank Vosper (Lord Dean)
Alfred Drayton (Manning)
Campbell Gullan (Hannay)
Percy Parons (Arthur Casey)
Fewlass Llewellyn (Sir Gregory)
Henry Oscar (Raglan)
Allan Jeayes (Emerson aka Grerson)
Donald Calthrop (MacLeod)
Henry Caine (Bassett)
John Laurie (Wages accountant) *
Fredrick Piper (Bowler-hatted man in bar) *

United Kingdom 1934
69 mins

Total running time approx. 130 mins


One of the reasons for this emphasis was undoubtedly geographical, since the studios at Elstree, Ealing, Walton-on-Thames, Denham and Shepperton were all, in Geoff Brown's words '... a short train ride form the railway termini and the West End' (All Our Yesterdays, Charles Barr, ed). This allowed actors to film during the day, and then return to the theatre for the evening's performance. Another was that it was so much easier to rely on the tried and tested conventions of the theatre when the future of the British cinema seemed so precarious. Roy Armes has put it thus:

'Lacking both credibility and artistic pretensions, film-makers of the period turned uncritically to the theatre ... but in search of reflected glory, not lessons in narrative economy.'

This was clearly exacerbated by the arrival of the talkies; initially, the novelty of sound was the main object of the films, so the theatre was a perfect place to start. With the advent of the 'quota-quickies', it proved to be the easiest option in a cinema that sought only these, at a time when the resources for recording sound were still severely limited. The net effect was that of putting cinematic technique back about twenty years, especially in the quotas, which were less interested in overcoming this than the more adventurous strands of British film-making, such as the documentary movement under the leadership of John Grierson.

Not all thought that the association with the theatre was a bad thing; in reviewing Powell's The Fire Raisers (1934) in The Tatler, James Agate noted with satisfaction that '... the cast was composed almost entirely of well-known English actors known to me through scores of plays.'

By 1933 the partnership of director Michael Powell and producer Jerry Jackson had made nine bona fide 'quota-quickies', some of which had even been favourably received by the critics, and also by producers who, however, were chiefly impressed, in John Russell Taylor's words, by '... his professionalism in bringing in his films on time and within their tiny budgets.' On the strength of these, they obtained a contract to make four films for Gaumont British, then run by Michael Balcon, who later became better known for his running of Ealing studios in the '40s and '50s. It and British International Pictures were at that time the two biggest companies in the British film industry, so this was a considerable step up for Powell and Jackson.

The team was meant to provide its own scripts and shoot them for a cost of around £12,000. In the event they only wrote two of their own films, The Fire Raisers and The Red Ensign, which were book-ended by two scripts based on stage plays which were released as The Night of the Party and The Phantom Light.

The Fire Raisers was the first of the four films to be released by Gaumont, but The Night of the Party was actually completed first: according to Powell, its release was held up because it was too short, and so three days' worth of extra scenes were shot after Banks and Powell completed their next project. Based on a play with the prototypical title of Murder Party (which was used for the American release of the film), the film is a whodunnit in which an after dinner game of 'murder' turns deadly shortly after all the lights are turned out. Needless to say, most of the guests have a good reason for hating the victim.


The Night of the Party is a most theatrical piece; in fact it practically never sets foot outside the studio, with the majority of the action confined to only four sets. To make it visually interesting Powell and his American cinematographer Glen MacWilliams used a number of shots with mirrors, to make the angles moe unusual and more efficient. The party itself is well handled, and the scenes in the dark for the 'Murder' game are atmospherically photographed, while Muriel Aked steals most of her scenes in her humorous portrayal of the Princes Amelia of Corsova(!). Powell was flattered to be offered a piece with a cast that included Malcolm Keen, Ian Hunter, Leslie Banks and Ernest Thesiger (as the wonderfully named 'Adrian Chiddiatt') who all give good value for money. None the less he later remembered it as 'a bad film from a bad script, from a very poor play and not very successful', and although it only got respectful reviews, the film represents several important 'firsts' for Powell. It was the first of the three films Leslie Banks made for him at Gaumont (he would later also appear in The Small Back Room); it as also the first of four 'quickies' that he made starring Ian Hunter (who later turned up in The Battle of the River Plate); it was also the first contact that Powell had with Art Director Alfred Junge, with whom he would later work on seven films and who would play a crucial role in the distinctive visual style of Powell's work as on half of the Archers with Emeric Pressburger.

Sergio Angelini, National Film and Television Archive


Red Ensign
The film starts with a montage of idle shipyards and a flurry of written titles 'For over 200 years the British Mercantile Marine has carried the Red Ensign to every port in the world. Today many of our ships lie idle for want of cargoes. Shipyards are deserted. The distress flag is flying. This is the story of David Barr, shipbuilder, and his fight to bring back prosperity to British ships.' The film thus announces a strategy in strong contrast to that of John Grierson's celebrated documentary movement, which was likewise concerned with social issues and with imperial trade (it was initially sponsored by the Empire Marketing Board) but which distrusted the use of the personal story to carry a propaganda message. In turn, Michael Powell was never slow to express his dislike of documentary methods and of the domentary hegemony in British film culture, and Red Ensign bears this out in the purposeful way it uses a triangular love affair to resolve its political story: David Barr fights the cautious businessman Lord Dean, both for the affections of heiress June MacKinnon, and for the use of her money to finance his construction programme.

Powell pointedly gives a minor character the name of Grierson and has him pointed out as 'the best riveter in the yard.' The film has some strong documentary footage, put together in a style that evokes Soviet montage, but is not afraid of embracing the theatrical in terms of sets and acting style. This blend, and the strong crusading tone of the film, prefigure the distinctive kind of patriotic work Powell would do in wartime in partnership with Emeric Pressburger, in films like 49th Parallel (1941) and A Canterbury Tale (1944). Red Ensign is of equal interest as an early Powell film and as a document of 1934, one which now seems to be as much about the British cinema as about British shipping. Barr campaigns to have the Board of Trade impose a quota on the shipping industry: this will support Biritsh shipbuilding by compelling British ship owners to buy a minimum proportion of their fleets from British yards. It is precisely the mechanism which the Board had been applying to the film industry since the Films Act of 1921 in the face of powerful opposition from many exhibitors and distributors. When Barr speaks out against the shortsightedness of his board's policy of 'internationalism', he is told that 'we're here to discuss business, not patriotism,', and replies that 'patriotism is good business, can't you see that!'. In the words of Geoff Brown (Monthly Film Bulletin, September 1981): 'the temptation to equate Barr's struggle to make an all-British ship with the emerging work of Powell (and indeed Michael Balcon, his executive producer) is irresistible.'

Charles Barr