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Sir Michael Elias Balcon (19 May 1896 – 17 October 1977) was an English film producer, known for his leadership of Ealing Studios from 1938 to 1955. He left after ownership had changed for a second time. Under his direction, it became the most notable British film studio.
Michael Balcon in 1949
Michael Elias Balcon
19 May 1896
|Died||17 October 1977 (aged 81)|
Aileen Freda Leatherman (m. 1924)
|Children||2, including Jill Balcon|
|Relatives||Daniel Day-Lewis (grandson)|
Tamasin Day-Lewis (granddaughter)
Balcon had earlier co-founded Gainsborough Pictures with Victor Saville in 1923; later working with Gaumont British, which absorbed their studio. Later still he worked with MGM-British. In 1956 he founded a production company known as Ealing Films, and later headed British Lion Films. He served as chairman of the British Film Institute production board to help fund and encourage new work.
Born in Birmingham, Balcon was the youngest son and fourth of five children of Louis Balcon (c. 1858–1946) and his wife, Laura (née Greenberg; c. 1863–1934), Jewish immigrants from Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire) who had met in Britain. Growing up in a respectable but impoverished setting, in 1907 Balcon won a scholarship to Birmingham's George Dixon Grammar School, but had to leave in 1913 owing to his family's financial needs. (A commemorative plaque was subsequently placed at George Dixon Grammar School, marking his notability as a film producer..) He worked as a jeweler's apprentice, was turned down for service in the First World War because of defective eyesight, and joined the Dunlop Rubber Company's huge plant at Aston Cross in 1915, rising to become personal assistant to the managing director.
Early film careerEdit
After the war, Balcon's friend Victor Saville suggested a partnership to establish a film distribution company for the new and growing industry. The company, Victory Motion Pictures, led to them settling in London, opening an office in Soho in 1921. In 1923, their first feature film was released, the successful melodrama Woman to Woman, starring Clive Brook and Betty Compson, and directed by Graham Cutts. They leased Islington Studios and formed the more long-lasting Gainsborough Pictures.
The studio, recently vacated by the Hollywood company Famous Players-Lasky (later Paramount Pictures) was small but well equipped and fully staffed. A young Alfred Hitchcock was one of its employees. Balcon gave Hitchcock his first directing opportunity, and Gainsborough gained a reputation for producing high-quality films.
By the late 1920s, Balcon's independence had eroded and Gainsborough became an extension of the Gaumont Film Company. Still, between 1931 and 1936, Balcon produced a number of classics, including a string of Hitchcock successes, such as The 39 Steps and Man of Aran; the latter was known as 'Balcon's folly' for going well over budget. He also helped individuals escape Nazi Germany as persecution of Jewish citizens increased, including the actor Conrad Veidt, who had starred in his 1934 film Jew Suss.
By 1936, Gaumont was looking for an entry into the American market. Balcon spent several months in the United States forming links with the big Hollywood studios. On his return, he found Gaumont in financial ruin and joined MGM-British Studios that November. The year and a half he spent there was a trying period for Balcon, who clashed frequently with studio head Louis B. Mayer. During this period, Balcon lived at 57a Tufton Street, Westminster. Today a commemorative plaque marks his former home.
When Balcon was invited by an old associate of his, Reginald Baker to head Ealing Studios in 1938, he readily agreed. Under his benevolent leadership and surrounded by a reliable team of directors, writers, technicians and actors, Ealing became the most famous British studio in the world, despite turning out no more than six feature films a year.
Went the Day Well?, Dead of Night, Undercover (1943), and of course the Ealing Comedies were released during his time there. Other films from the studio include Dance Hall (1950) with Petula Clark and Diana Dors; and The Blue Lamp (also 1950), whose lead character, George Dixon, was named after Balcon's grammar school. This character was later used in the long-running television drama Dixon of Dock Green. In his 1969 autobiography, Michael Balcon Presents... A Lifetime of Films, he wrote that his years at Ealing Studios were "the most rewarding years in my personal career, and perhaps one of the most fruitful periods in the history of British film production."[page needed]
Besides Hitchcock, Balcon worked with Basil Dearden, Michael Relph and many other significant figures of British film. He was knighted in 1948 for his services to the industry, which had developed only in the early 20th century.
In 1944, Ealing Studios was taken over by the Rank Organisation. In 1955 Rank sold the studio to the BBC. As a result, Balcon left Rank in 1956 and set up the production company Ealing Films, striking a distribution and production deal with MGM. Balcon's company would shoot films at MGM-British Studios in Borehamwood and MGM would handle the worldwide distribution of the films.
In 1959 Balcon became chairman of Bryanston Films, a subsidiary of British Lion Films. The firm went bankrupt in 1963. Balcon took over British Lion Films. He was proud to be associated with the British New Wave; the last film on which he worked as executive producer was Tom Jones (1963), after which he continued to encourage young directors, serving as chairman of the British Film Institute production board and funding low-budget experimental work.
A pub in Ealing, "The Sir Michael Balcon" is named in his honour.
The BAFTA for Outstanding Contribution to British Film is presented every year in honour of Balcon's memory.
On 10 April 1924, Balcon married Aileen Freda Leatherman (1904–1988), daughter of Max Jacobs and Beatrice Leatherman, whose families were Jewish immigrants from Poland. She was born in Middlesex, but brought up in Johannesburg, South Africa. The couple enjoyed theatre and opera, loved travel (especially to Italy), and had a wide circle of friends. They had two children: Jill (1925–2009), and Jonathan (1931–2012).
In 1946, Aileen was appointed an MBE for her war work. Their marriage was happy and lasted until Balcon's death.
Their daughter Jill Balcon became an actress. She met Anglo-Irish poet, Cecil Day-Lewis, and the two started a relationship, marrying in 1951. (He was twenty years older than she and married when they met. He had two teenage sons, and a mistress.) Michael Balcon was deeply unhappy about the marriage, and became estranged from his daughter as a result.
Day-Lewis later was appointed as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. They had two children together (Michael and Aileen's grandchildren): Tamasin Day-Lewis, who became a food critic and television chef, and Daniel Day-Lewis, who became an actor. He has won three Academy Awards in addition to many other awards.
In 1977, Balcon died peacefully at Upper Parrock, a 15th-century house set on a Sussex hilltop near the Kent border. He and his wife had lived there since the Second World War. He was cremated and his ashes buried there.