The English documentary provided a brief ray of hope. Under the General Post Office and producer/director John Grierson, such films as Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934) and Wright and Harry Watt’s Night Mail (1936) demonstrated a new spirit of adventurousness in documentaries, which could not only report but also interpret events. Night Mail, for example, depicted the progress of an overnight mail train through England, with commentary by W H. Auden and music by Benjamin Britten. As the war approached, Humphrey Jennings emerged as the leading light of the English documentary. Jennings and his associates created a memorable series of wartime films, from Harry Watt and Jennings’s response to Hitler’s nighttime bombings, London Can Take It! (1940), to Jennings’s and Stewart McAllister’s prescient slice of life, Listen to Britain (1942), a twenty-minute piece devoid of narration that simply shows everyday life in England at the height of the war. Jennings also directed a documentary feature, Fires Were Started (a k a I Was a Fireman, 1943), on the crews who cleaned up the damage from Hitler’s bombings, and A Diary for Timothy (1945), emphasizing the importance of family in the face of war.
Working in a different area of documentary filmmaking, Mary Field specialized in nature and children’s films. Born in Wimbledon, Field was a high school history teacher before she went to work for British Instructional Films in 1926, directing and producing the well-known series of shorts The Secrets of Nature. In 1933, Field began working for Gaumont-British Instructional Films, where she made educational films for eleven years. In 1944, she started up the Children’s Entertainment Division of the Rank Organisation, over which she presided as executive producer until 1950. Field was a devoted activist for children’s entertainment, and she argued for the establishment and development of the Children’s Film Foundation.
The foundation was ultimately set up by the British film industry to ensure the production of children’s films, and Field served as the executive producer of the organization. She also directed propaganda films for the British government during World War II. Film historians and scholars have generally ignored Field’s accomplishments as a documentarist, but her work touched the lives of British children for nearly three decades, and her many innovations, including popularizing the use of slow motion and telephoto (magnifying) lenses in nature films, merit attention.
Another important institutional shift took place in British cinema in 1938, when Sir Michael Balcon left Gaumont-British and became the head of production at Ealing Studios. Until then, Ealing had mostly been associated with musicals, but under Balcon’s leadership the studio began to make films more intricately tied to British sensibilities. Balcon brought in a number of directors from the General Post Office documentary unit such as Alberto Cavalcanti and Charles Frend, and created the memorable war films Went the Day Well? (Cavalcanti, 1942) and San Demetrio London (Frend, 1943). In 1945, the studio pooled the talents of directors Cavalcanti, Robert Hamer, Basil Dearden, and Charles Crichton to create the first British postwar horror film Dead of Night, using five separate plot lines and a linking story to create one of the greatest of all horror films. After the war, Ealing began to specialize in a brand of fast-paced, cerebral, action-filled farces, such that the films became collectively known as “Ealing comedies.”