Sir Michael Balcon, the pioneer British film executive and producer, best known for the outstanding series of comedies made under his supervision at Ealing Studios in the late 1940s and early '50s, died Sunday at his home in Sussex.
Sir Michael, who was knighted in 1948, was 81. His career spanned five decades and his name became virtually synonomous with quality in British motion picture production.
Born in Birmingham, Sir Michael began his career there in the early 1920s as a film salesman. He and a former school friend, Victor Saville, who would become a sucessful producer and director, collaborated on severaladvertising shorts before breaking through with their first feature, "Woman to Woman." It was directed in 1923 by Graham Cutts, with a young man named Alfred Hitchcock as his assistant, and Clive Brook. Betty Compson and Victor McLaglen in the leads.
In 1924, Sir Michael formed his own production company. Gainsborough Pictures.The following year he gave Hitchcock his first directing opportunity on a British-German coproduction, "The Pleasure Garden."
In 1932, Sir Michael took over the moribund Gaumont-British studio at Shepherd's Bush and served as production director at both Gaumont and Gainsborough until 1936. When he joined MGM's new British studio at Denham. One of his early films there was "A Yank at Oxford," which started Robert Taylor.
In 1938 he left MGM to join the board of Ealing Studios, where he began assembling and training the talent that eventually made the company world-famous in the postwar period with such productions as "Dead of Night," "The Overlanders." "It Always Rain on Sunday," "Kind Hearts and Coronets," "The Lavender Hill Mob" "Whisky Galore" (known as "Tight Little Island" in the United States) and "The Man in the White Suit." Many of these starred Sir Alec Guiness.
After Ealing ceased operation in 1955, Sir Michael was a director of the Rank Organisation for four years. In 1959, he formed a film production consortium, Bryanston, which released pictures through British Lion, and encouraged such important works of the early 1960s as "Saturday Night and Sunday Morning," A Taste of Honey" and "The Entertainer," which starred Sir Laurence Oliver.
Sir Michael served as chairman of the board ofBritish Lion until his retirement in 1968. He was also government of the British Film Institute and chairman of the BFI's production board.
In 1969, he published an autobiography, "Michael Balcon Presents a Life-time of Films." Among his more notable productions are Robert Flaherty's "Man of Aran," Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps," and the historical adventures, "Rhodes of Africa" and "Scott of the Antarctic."