The Golden Age of Hollywood movies, in terms both of quantity and quality, is considered by many old-time film buffs to have started about ten years before, and ended roughly twenty years after, 1939 (the year Hollywood may have reached its zenith with the likes of GONE WITH THE WIND, THE WIZARD OF OZ, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON, NINOTCHKA, STAGECOACH, WUTHERING HEIGHTS, GUNGA DIN, DARK VICTORY, DESTRY RIDES AGAIN and THE WOMEN).
But Hollywood wasn’t the only game in town during that period. Hollywood may have had the power and the glory, but England was quietly producing films every bit the equal of tinseltown in artistic terms, if not in numbers. Most of these films are relatively, if not almost entirely, unknown in America, with the exception of those directed by Alfred Hitchcock before he came to the U.S. in that watershed year 1939 (I do not include in this category movies made in Britain but financed by American studios, such as another acclaimed 1939 film, GOODBYE MR. CHIPS).
Here are my favorite British films from that era, starting with three Hitchcock classics:
THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH (1934). Hitchcock remade this thriller in the U.S. with James Stewart in 1956, but not nearly as well, in my opinion.
THE 39 STEPS (1935). Top flight Hitchcock, one of his best.
THE LADY VANISHES (1938). More great Hitchcock, with Dame May Whitty as the lady who vanishes and Naunton Wayne and Basil Radford as a pair of unintentionally funny British twits who almost steal the show.
EVERGREEN (1934). British cinema was hardly known for its musicals during this period. For one thing, it didn’t have Hollywood’s resources; for another, it didn’t have Hollywood’s wealth of musical talent (Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, etc.). But it did have Jessie Matthews, queen of 1930s British movie musicals who was the singing & dancing star of Rodgers & Hart’s EVERGREEN (top song “Dancing On The Ceiling”).
IT’S LOVE AGAIN (1936). This is the second of Jessie Matthews’ two best musicals, with this one being more of a musical-comedy but no less well done. Songs include the Rodgers & Hart standard “My Heart Stood Still” and an all-but-forgotten Harry Woods gem, “I Nearly Let Love Go Slipping Through My Fingers.”
SANDERS OF THE RIVER (1935). A dated film, but almost any movie starring the legendary Paul Robeson is worth a look. If you’ve heard his magnificent voice (perhaps in the original SHOWBOAT film), you know what I mean. Here he is singing “Deep River” from another British film, 1940’s THE PROUD VALLEY:
BRIEF ENCOUNTER (1945). One of my all-time favorite films, based on a Noel Coward play. Film critic Leonard Maltin calls it “intense and unforgettable. A truly wonderful film.” I couldn’t agree more. Incidentally, Coward of course wrote many great songs and plays, too few of which were made into movies. One play which was: the 1933 Academy Award winning CAVALCADE, but it was made in America and therefore doesn’t qualify here.
A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (1946). One of a number of unique and highly original films by the British writer-director team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, this love fantasy is perhaps the most one-of-a-kind of all.
THE LAVENDER HILL MOB and THE MAN IN THE WHITE SUIT (both 1951 & both starring Alec Guinness). Droll comedies produced by Ealing Studios which, along with the Rank Organization, rank among the top British film producers of the period.
No doubt there are other 1930-1960 British movies worthy of inclusion here, but if I didn’t see ’em, I didn’t include ’em….or maybe I just forgot a few I have seen, which would qualify me as The Man Who DOESN’T Know Too Much.