Strangers on the Shore: The Contributions of French Novelists and Directors to British Cinema, 1946-1960

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Between the end of the second world war and the start of the 1960s, there were several cultural differences between Great Britain and France. Some were more ephemeral than others. The most obvious, those of territory and language, remain virtually unchanged today. Others, such as the cultural and economic protectionism that underpinned the two nations' legal systems, have steadily changed as European economic integration has gathered momentum. Finally, national attitudes towards gender relations, sexual stereotypes and the boundary between the private and the public were all radically changed in both countries with the widespread arrival during the 1960s and 1970s of sexual liberation, feminism, and to a lesser extent psychoanalysis.

In this article, I shall consider first the legal framework that regulated British film production during the period. I will then examine the manner in which producers of British films adapted French novels and draw a distinction between those who made major changes and those who merely made minor adaptations, before I consider the different approach adopted by producers of large budget international productions financed by the major American distributors. Next I shall analyze the contributions to British production made by six film directors, Julien Duvivier, Marc Allegret, Jacques Brunius, Edmond T. Gréville, Réné Clément and Jacques Tourneur, who are generally considered to be French. Finally, I shall conclude by drawing general conclusions about the cultural contributions of French film-makers to British cinema during the post-war years.

The British Legal Framework

Two laws in particular, shaped French contributions to the British film industry. First, although British copyright law protected the economic rights of authors, it afforded no protection to their moral rights. Once he had acquired the rights to a novel, a producer of a British film could therefore amend and modify the story, from wherever it came, to suit his own creative and commercial judgement. But second, the 1948 Cinematograph Films Act, together with the Treasury's arrangements with the film industry for a self-regulated levy, were designed to encourage the exhibition and the production of British films.2

The legal definition of a British film was carefully drawn. In addition to being produced by a British company and shot in a British or Commonwealth studio, a sufficient proportion of the film's labour costs had to be paid to British personnel.3 One of the main aims of British film policy was to attract foreign investment into British films, and as film production became more international during the 1950s, the boundary between British and foreign films was frequently difficult to define. Thus the Board of Trade originally classified Night Of The Demon (Columbia, d. Jacques Tourneur, 1957) as a foreign film, but reclassified it as British a month later (Board of Trade Journal 1957,962 and 1156). And although two Americanfinanced films, that were adapted from French novels but shot in Britain, Bitter Victory (Columbia, s. René Hardy, d. Nicholas Ray, 1958) and Bonjour Tristesse (United Artists, s. Françoise Sagan, d. Otto Preminger, 1958), were both officially classified as foreign (Board of Trade Journal 1958, 241 and 972), both have subsequently been included in The British National Film Catalogue (Gifford 1986, no's. 12454 and 12495).

Even so, the official definition of a British film always allowed one or two foreigners to be employed on a picture. In practice, it was the producer who normally decided which foreigners should work on a production. Normally they were American, but occasionally they were French. The French contribution was small however. Out of over 1800 fiction films registered as British by the Board of Trade between January 1946 and December 1960, less than thirty had any significant French creative input: eleven were adapted from French novels and French scriptwriters worked on another three. …