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The Magic of the (non-Hollywood) Silver Screen

THE CASE OF THE CHRISTMAS ANGEL (Carmen Radtke) A starring role as a sleuth is nothing new for Uncle Sal, but this time he has to go undercover in a boarding house without the help of Jack and Frances.

Ah! The magic of the silver screen!

The 1920s was a surprisingly diverse era – even if, on the surface, it might not seem so. So it’s certainly not surprising that there are so many different takes at it from different authors.

The Case of the Christmas Angel by Carmen Radtke is one such unusual take. I’ve read several stories that were diversely linked to Hollywood and its rising film industry, but Carmen? She chose to look at what else was happening in the film industry of the time. She focused her story on the London stage, which like other European film industries of the time, was doing very well on the international stage for reasons that Carmen explores in the articles. 

I loved her book, and I loved the setting, and so I asked Carmen whether she was up for a deeper look at the English film industry. 

And this blog is the result. 

It’s charming stuff you don’t often come across. 

I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I do!


The Magic of the Silver Screen

The stuff that dreams are made of: First silent, then talking pictures offered Great Britain a welcome escape from the harsh realities of life between the wars. Simply entering one of the new Art Deco cinema palaces that sprung up in London and other cities in England and on the continent was luxury indeed. And yet it was affordable for all but the most destitute.

The project has taken the Trafalgar back to its grand 1930s design. Photograph: Tom Lee
Trafalgar theatre in London West End – Photograph: Tom Lee

Inside waited plush velvet seats, stuccoed ceilings, concession stands, and sometimes even shops.

Because films in the 1920s and 1930s were shown intermittently, people could pay a few pennies for their admission – in 1936 the average price for a cinema ticket in the United Kingdom was five pence – and watch the programme again and again. Even if the show which usually consisted of a lesser film and the main event, was sometimes less than exciting, the cinema unfailingly offered another respite: It was warm and dry and comfortable, a luxury few people found at home.

What the English Silver Screen industry looked like

For the United Kingdom, or more correctly England, because London has soon become its film-making hub, the pictures were a vital industry. When the production had dropped from 150 feature films in 1920 to fewer than 40 in 1925, the parliament established the Cinematograph Film Act which included quotas for British films, to protect the market from too many foreign films – especially from Hollywood.

Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau (born Friedrich Wilhelm Plumpe; December 28, 1888 – March 11, 1931) was a German film director.
Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau

The results were promising, and when talking pictures revolutionised the entertainment world, British film production companies hurried to built sound stages, despite the enormous investment the new technology demanded.

British Gaumont Pictures, which has been established in 1898 as a subsidiary of French Gaumont, had been shooting moving pictures in their Lime Grove studios in London since 1915. In 1920 British Gaumont added Islington Studios, to accommodate their growing shooting schedule. Among their slate of directors was a young Alfred Hitchcock, who shot his first two films The Pleasure Garden and The Mountain Eagle here. Hitchcock’s style was heavily influenced by his work as an assistant director, art director and scriptwriter in Germany, where he studied FW Murnau and Fritz Lang on set and on the silver screen. When Islington Studios were sold in 1927 to Gainsborough Pictures, Hitchcock stayed with them until he left for Hollywood. His 1929 thriller Blackmail, where he sneakily added more sound scenes than originally agreed, is considered to be the first real British “talkie”.

In another part of London, Basil Dean was also busy adding sound stages to Ealing Studios. He’d acquired the lot which had opened in 1902 in the fateful year 1929, and with it what was to become the world’s oldest, continuously working film-making facility in the world. It took until 1931 until the first talkies could be produced in Ealing, but by then the filmmaking had changed immeasurably.

Transitioning from silent films to ‘talkies’

For some, the progress came at a hefty price. During the silent era, even small cinemas had at least employed a pianist, to play the hugely important film score. Bigger picture houses had a whole orchestra including musical director on their payroll. When talkies took over completely in the early 1930s, these musicians found themselves without a living.

Film actors too had to adapt. In the 1920s, British actors and their continental counterparts would easily cross the English Channel for work, and language barriers did not really matter when all it took for a picture to be sold in a different country was the translation of title cards. International co-productions saw British Gaumont and other studios team up successfully with the German Ufa, and foreign actors became well-known faces in British cinemas.

With the advent of sound, production companies had to find other solutions. In some cases, as with The Blue Angel which made Marlene Dietrich a star, each scene would be filmed in German and in English. Other films, like the 1932 German thriller F.P.1 which was distributed by British Gaumont in the UK, were shot with a German language cast, a British language cast, and a French language cast.

By then, German artists and intellectuals had already started to flee from a country on the way to fascism, and London was the centre of their hopes.

The Magic of the (non-Hollywood) Silver Screen by @CarmenRadtke1 – There wasn't just Hollywood in the silver screen industry of the 1930s #SilverScreen #Cinema Share on X
Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935), directed by Alfred Hitchcock.
Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll in The 39 Steps (1935), directed by Alfred Hitchcock. © 1935 Gaumont-British Picture Corporation

But despite the growing number of British films, and the ease with which stars of the stage like Ivor Novello, Charles Laughton, Laurence Olivier, Beatrice Lillie, and a young Madeleine Carroll who was to become the first “Hitchcock blonde” in his 1935 spy-thriller The 39 steps, could switch between the West End stage and the movie lot, British films never managed to rival Hollywood. Although it should have been easy enough, with a shared language that all but assured there were no added barriers, the Great Depression was one reason the US film industry limited competition for its own output.

For the creatives, that made the journey across the pond almost inevitable. For the audience, the economy behind their pastime proved less obvious. They could still relish the fact that two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Charles Chaplin and Cary Grant, were born in England, and that Madeleine Carroll, the world’s highest paid film actress in 1938, had begun her career with the silent picture The First Born, written by Hitchcock’s wife Alma Reville.

As long as there were talking pictures and glamorous cinemas, the dreary world could be forgotten for a few hours, for the price of mere pennies. That in itself was during the Great Depression the stuff that dreams are made of.


Carmen Radtke is author of historical fiction series and a cosy mystery series set in the 1930s

Carmen Radtke

Carmen Radtke has spent most of her life with ink on her fingers and a dangerously high pile of books by her side.

She has worked as a newspaper reporter on two continents and always dreamt of becoming a novelist.

When she found herself crouched under her dining table, typing away on what was to become “Walking in the Shadow” between two earthquakes in Christchurch, New Zealand, she realised she was hooked for life.

She’s the author of the cozy historical mysteries “The Case of the Missing Bride”, “Glittering Death”, both featuring Alyssa Chalmers, and the Jack and Frances historical cozies,  “A Matter of Love and Death”, “Murder at the Races”, “Murder Makes Waves”, “Death Under Palm Trees” and “The Case of the Christmas Angel” . She’s busy writing the next Jack and Frances adventure.

“Let Sleeping Murder Lie” is her first contemporary mystery.

When Carmen is not writing, reading or dreaming of travel, she is busy acting as resident cat servant or tap-dancing (badly). What she does not do (or indeed approve of) is committing acts of violence or cruelty, although she once swatted a fly. Once, and regretted it.

If anybody would like to have a taste of Jack and Frances’s world, they can sign up for my newsletter on www.carmenradtke.com and receive a free quick read, updates and exclusive content. False Play at the Christmas Party is set in 1928 and introduces Jack Sullivan as he opens the Top Note, Adelaide’s best nightclub.

You can also download it here.

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Jack and Frances 1930s Cosy Mysteries

The Magic of the Silver Screen - In the 1930s, Hollywood was rising, but it wasn't the centre of international cinema yet. Other nations had flourishing silver screen productions. London was at the forefront.

4 Comments

  • J Lenni Dorner (he/him or they/them)
    Posted December 23, 2021 at 08:09

    Wow! I never thought about British cinema having such deep roots back in the early day. Usually I just hear about MGM coming on the movie scene.

    I’m enjoying #WRiTECLUB2021 over at DL Hammons blog. The entries are fun to read and vote on with feedback.
    Plus, I’m currently reading Patricia Lynne’s Being Human.
    And I’m scheduling debut author interviews at Operation Awesome.
    I hope you have some fun plans for the rest of 2021. ⛸✉⛄ May your days ahead be merry and filled with positive experiences.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted December 24, 2021 at 09:12

      Hi Lenni 🙂
      May the new year be a lot more serene than the last ones have been.

  • Steven Malone
    Posted December 26, 2021 at 15:54

    Great article. Thanks.

    Have a great New Year.

    • Post Author
      jazzfeathers
      Posted December 27, 2021 at 21:25

      Thanks Steven. Happy you enjoyed it. Give a go to the series, if you have a chance, it’s great fun. And the novella is free 😉
      Have a serene and safe 2022.

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