Michael Balcon

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Michael Balcon
Becky Sharp (1935) 8.jpg
Rouben Mamoulian, Miriam Hopkins, visitor Michael Balcon, and Kenneth Macgowan on the set of the film Becky Sharp in 1935.
Michael Elias Balcon

(1896-05-19)19 May 1896
Died17 October 1977(1977-10-17) (aged 81)
Occupation Film producer
Aileen Freda Leatherman
(m. 1924)
Children2, including Jill Balcon
Relatives Daniel Day-Lewis (grandson)
Tamasin Day-Lewis (granddaughter)

Sir Michael Elias Balcon (19 May 1896 – 17 October 1977) was an English film producer known for his leadership of Ealing Studios in West London from 1938 to 1955. Under his direction, the studio became one of the most important British film studios of the day. In an industry short of Hollywood-style moguls, Balcon emerged as a key figure, and an obdurately British one too, in his benevolent, somewhat headmasterly approach to the running of a creative organization. He is known for his leadership, and his guidance of young Alfred Hitchcock.


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.

Balcon was described in his obituary in The Times as a "pioneer of British films" who "had courage, energy and flair for showmanship". [1]


Born at Edgbaston, 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), Lithuanian Jewish immigrants from Latvia (then part of the Russian Empire) who had met in Britain. His father described himself as a tailor, but rarely worked in that capacity; he "preferred to travel", including to South Africa, where his brother-in-law had settled. His wife was left to raise the children as best she could, but the family experienced poverty. Despite what he called a "respectable but impoverished" childhood, in 1907 Balcon won a scholarship to Birmingham's George Dixon Grammar School, where he had an "undistinguished" academic career, and 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. [2] He worked as a jeweller'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. [3]


Green plaque on Balcon's house in Tufton Street, Westminster Green plaque Michael Balcon.jpg
Green plaque on Balcon's house in Tufton Street, Westminster

Balcon began his career in filmmaking during the 1920s and, together with Victor Saville and John Freedman, he formed Balcon, Freedman & Saville. 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.

Balcon and Hitchcock

In 1924, he and Graham Cutts founded Gainsborough Pictures, which he presided over for twelve years, as director of production for Gaumont-British from 1931. During this time, Balcon oversaw Alfred Hitchcock's very first production titled The Pleasure Garden. The film was followed by Hitchcock's The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog as well as The Ring showing that Hitchcock's talent was growing and diversifying. At first, Balcon was doubtful about 'The Lodger' but after a re-edit by Ivor Montagu, he became confident in the production.

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 ; directed by Robert J. Flaherty 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. [4]

Ealing Studios

English Heritage blue plaque on the front wall of the White Lodge at Ealing Studios, Ealing Green. Michael Balcon blue plaque.jpeg
English Heritage blue plaque on the front wall of the White Lodge at Ealing Studios, Ealing Green.

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.[ citation needed ]

Went the Day Well? , Dead of Night , Undercover (1943), and 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.

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. [6] The firm went bankrupt in 1963. Balcon took over British Lion Films. [7]

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.

Famous Ealing Studios films

Balcon's Writings

Balcon published one book and many articles, including:


A pub in Ealing is named in his honour. [8] The BAFTA for Outstanding Contribution to British Film is presented every year in honour of Balcon's memory. [9]

In 1938, Balcon wrote an article in The Cine-Technician, the journal of the filmmakers union, titled 'I wish I could join' in which he criticised the working condition under which films were made and was instrumental in improving these conditions and increasing the salaries of people working on film sets. [10]

Balcon was knighted in 1948. [1]

Personal life

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. Lady Balcon was one of a series of society beauties photographed as classical figures by Madame Yevonde. [11] They had two children: Jill (1925–2009), and Jonathan (1931–2012).

In 1946, Aileen was appointed an MBE for her war work. [12]

Their daughter Jill Balcon became an actress. [13] 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 already 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. [14]

Day-Lewis later was appointed as Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom. [15] 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. [16]

In 1977, Balcon died at Upper Parrock, a 15th-century house set on a Sussex hilltop near the Kent border. [1] He and his wife had lived there since the Second World War. He was cremated and his ashes buried there.

He was a life-long friend of director Charles Frend with whom he collaborated on a number of Ealing Studio films. [17]

Selected filmography


1933 I Was a Spy
1933 Leave It to Smith
1933 The Constant Nymph
1934 Princess Charming
1934 Evergreen (uncredited)
1934Along Came Sally(uncredited)
1935 The 39 Steps
1935 Stormy Weather
1935 Things Are Looking Up
1936 The First Offence
1936 Secret Agent
1936 Tudor Rose
1937 Doctor Syn (uncredited)
1938 A Yank at Oxford
1940 The Proud Valley
1941 The Ghost of St. Michael's
1941 Turned Out Nice Again
1942 The Foreman Went to France
1942 Went the Day Well?
1944 For Those in Peril
1944 Champagne Charlie
1944 The Halfway House
1945 Dead of Night
1945 Pink String and Sealing Wax
1946 The Captive Heart
1946 The Overlanders
1947 Hue and Cry
1947 It Always Rains on Sunday
1948 Saraband for Dead Lovers
1948 Scott of the Antarctic
1949 Whisky Galore!
1949 A Run for Your Money
1949 Kind Hearts and Coronets
1949 Passport to Pimlico
1950 The Magnet
1950 The Blue Lamp
1951 The Lavender Hill Mob
1951 The Man in the White Suit
1952 Mandy
1953 The Cruel Sea
1954 The Maggie
1955 The Ladykillers
1955 The Night My Number Came Up
1956 The Long Arm
1957 The Shiralee
1957 All at Sea
1958 Dunkirk
1959 The Siege of Pinchgut
1959 The Scapegoat
1961 The Long and the Short and the Tall

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  1. 1 2 3 "Sir Michael Balcon". The Times . No. 60137. 18 October 1977.
  2. Plaque #1615 on Open Plaques
  3. https://www.oxforddnb.com/display/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-30787
  4. 1 2 Plaque #3069 on Open Plaques
  5. Plaque #111 on Open Plaques
  6. p. 220 Barr, Charles. Ealing Studios, University of California Press, 1998
  7. "BFI Screenonline: Balcon, Michael (1896-1977) Biography". screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 12 February 2024.
  8. "The Sir Michael Balcon". J. D. Wetherspoon. Retrieved 4 January 2010.
  9. "Curzon | Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema". bafta.org. 31 January 2017.
  10. "Letter: Sir Michael Balcon". The Times . No. 60145. 27 October 1977.
  11. "Madame Yevonde's Goddesses - in pictures". The Guardian. 7 May 2011. Retrieved 26 October 2022.
  12. "(April) Aileen Freda Balcon (née Leatherman), Lady Balcon - National Portrait Gallery". npg.org.uk.
  13. "BFI Screenonline: Balcon, Jill (1925-2009) Biography". screenonline.org.uk.
  14. "Obituary: Jill Balcon", The Guardian
  15. "C. Day-Lewis | British poet". Encyclopedia Britannica. 26 February 2024.
  16. "Daniel Day-Lewis | Movie and Film Awards". AllMovie.
  17. "BFI Screenonline: Balcon, Michael (1896-1977) Biography". screenonline.org.uk. Retrieved 8 June 2021.

Further reading