Offscreen Notes

TCM (Turner Classic Movies) Celebrates 100 Years of Warner Brothers,” with a month-long tribute

April 8th, 2023

On Easter Monday morning, April 10, as part of their wonderful “100 Years of Warner Brothers,” month-long tribute, TCM (Turner Classic Movies) are showing four films “Shot at Teddington, Warner’s British Studios.”

In order to take advantage of the British Cinematographic Films Act, which came into effect in 1927, initiating a percentage quota of all films showing in United Kingdom cinemas to have been made in Britain, Warner Brothers (WB) rented a studio in Teddington, Midlesex County, on the banks of the River Thames in 1931. Through Jack L. Warner’s leadership, they hired Irving Lerner as production head. WB bought the studio in 1934, and continued to produce between 15 and 20 films a year until the advent of World War II. Production dropped considerably for various reasons, and operations ceased after the studio was hit by a bomb (V1 rocket) in July 1944. In total, 144 WB and First National feature films had been made, most of them “quota quickies,” which were produced cheaply and ran at 70 minutes in length, or less. Although it was initially intended for most cast and crew members to be British, gradually more Hollywood stars (e.g., Laura LaPlante) and directors (e.g., Ralph Ince, William Beaudine) were brought over.*

The four films showing on the cable channel are Something Always Happens (dir., Michael Powell, 1934), Crime Unlimited (dir., Ralph Ince, 1935), Mr. Cohen Takes a Walk (dir., William Beaudine, 1935), and Crown vs Stephens (dir., Powell, 1936). Interestingly, according to IMDb, they are four of the five most popular WB, Teddington films; the other being The Peterville Diamond (dir., Walter Forde, 1943), which has shown previously on TCM. Tragically, the vast majority of the 144 films have not survived. Indeed, when the British Film Institute initiated “The Great British Film Search,” they published a book, Missing Believed Lost in 1992 which provided details on 92 key films made between 1914 and 1945. Of these, no fewer than 59 were Warner Bros. – First National productions. Since then, nine films, in full-length prints, and seven in fragmented or truncated versions have been found, but only one of the former— The Hundred Pound Window (dir., Brian Desmond Hurst, 1943), on a 16mm print belonging to a good friend of mine—and a 100-foot fragment of the latter— Thank Evans (dir., Roy William Neill, 1938)—are WB titles.

After the book was published, the great Film historian and collector, William K. Everson told me that the BFI/National Film Archive was mainly responsible for such a huge loss because Warner’s had offered their materials to the archive, but were told that they didn’t have a high enough need in order to obtain the prints and/or negatives from them to store and perhaps restore. Subsequently, WB destroyed most of their British prints and negatives (probably to reclaim the silver content). Perhaps, it is not so surprising that when in 2020, the BFI compiled a new list of the “75 Most Wanted” lost British films, only seven of the 57 still missing WB titles from the original list were included, while a greater number—10 of 33—of the non-WB titles remained on the new list. To be sure, the BFI wanted to expand the scope of their search, and they cited 23 films made from 1945 to 1983. Happily, all but six of these have been found in some form or another. Unhappily, it is possible that only 20 of the 70 “most popular” WB British titles listed on IMDb have survived in some form, and only two or three of the rest, suggesting their survival rate is surely less than 20%. The BFI would only have listed the “most” wanted of the missing WB films, and chances are that double the number that were recognized are lost. Let’s hope that private collectors come forward to retrieve more of these “quota quickies,” some of which might be gems.

*See, Steve Chibnall, “Hollywood-on-Thames: The British productions of Warner Bros. – First National, 1931–1945,” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 39, Issue 4 (2019), 687–724.

Peter Rist

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