Mary Field (1896-1968)

Born: Agnes Mary Field; also known as Mrs Gerald Hankin

Sector: Media (Film & TV)

The glass ceiling in the FTSE-100 is mirrored by a celluloid ceiling in the world of film-making: while women continue to make progress, given the industry is over 125 years old, the journey has been slow, slow, slow. With back-to-back wins by women in the Best Director category at the Oscars and BAFTAs in 2021 and 2022, it might be tempting to think the problems are over but no British woman has ever won a major best director award and the percentage of the top 100 grossing films in the U.S. in 2021 directed by women fell to 12% from 16% in 2020.

Where women, including British women, have had much more success is in documentary film-making. You might not recognise the names of Lucy Walker, Molly Dineen, Penny Woolcock or Sophie Fiennes but they are all busy making innovative, award-wining work while their counterparts in feature film making take the lion’s share of the limelight.

Making a path for all of them was Mary Field. Born in Wimbledon on 24th February 1896, the same year that a film was first screened in Britain at the Regent Street Cinema, then part of the London Polytechnic, Mary Field was one of the first women to make her mark on the British film industry. If her area of focus has been fictional films for an adult audience she would probably be much better known, but instead she made short documentaries and children’s films and this has contributed to her being largely forgotten.

Mary attended Surbiton High School and then read History at Bedford College. One of her contemporaries was Irene Barclay, later the first woman to qualify as a chartered surveyor, and they became firm friends.  Mary went on to study for an MA in Commonwealth History, writing on the subject of 17th and 18th Century Atlantic fishing grounds and gaining a distinction.

With this background, teaching was the obvious career choice and Mary joined the staff at a Wimbledon girls’ school.  Then in 1926 her MA tutor was doing some work for British Instructional Films (BIF) and asked her if she could check the inter-titles for a series of travel documentaries they were making.  She became fascinated by the potential for film as an educational medium and joined the company as education manager.

Within a year, the company’s founder, Harry Bruce Woolfe, decided to move her into production.  Mary had a comprehensive induction, working in continuity, adaptation and editing before going off to Greece and Spain to work as an assistant director and finally director.  In 1929, she became the series producer of ‘Secrets of Nature’, a revolutionary documentary series developed by Bruce Woolfe and Frank Percy Smith. Percy Smith had been making films since the late 1900s and was a pioneer of close-up photography and stop-motion techniques.  Bruce Woolfe recruited him in 1922 and together they developed a new approach to combining entertainment and education. Working with experts in ornithology, biology and zoology they made short films showing how birds reared their young or all the different ways in which animals used their limbs or how plants distributed their seeds.

L-R: Sir Edward Salisbury; Mary Field; Winifred Cullis by Howard Coster
half-plate film negative, 1937 © National Portrait Gallery, London

When Mary came on board, cinema was transitioning from the silent era to the age of sound, a change that affected documentary film-making as much as feature films. She soon discovered that technical knowledge was important but being able to work well with a wide range of people – carpenters, electricians, stage hands and artists – was vital.  A career in film was not for everyone: the hours were irregular, there was little work that could be regarded as routine, there was lot of travel as well as lots of standing around; but Mary clearly enjoyed it.  

She tried her hand at feature-film making in 1931, teaming up with Jacqueline Logan, an American silent film star, to make ‘Strictly Business’.  It was the first such undertaking for both of them: Jacqueline wrote the script and they co-directed the 45-minute film about the escapades of an American heiress in London. However, it was not a huge success and for the next ten years Mary focused her attention on documentary work, the area in which she was becoming an authority. 

Women in film in the 1930s
In 1934, many of the BIF team moved to Gaumont, including Mary, where a new division was created, Gaumont-British Instructional Films (GBI Films).  Her role there was commercial as well as creative, travelling abroad to make the case for educational films and strike sales deals.  The team collaborated with government departments and public associations to make public information films but it was their nature series that people loved, now called ‘Secrets of Life’. Mary continued to innovate, using montage and interspersing moving diagrams, but always kept the story-telling central.  Across the two series the team made over 250 shorts. Millions of people would have seen films like ‘The Tough un‘, ‘Mixed Bathing’, ‘Babes in the Wood’ and ‘A Day at the Zoo’ at their local cinema before the main feature rolled.

Female role models in British film making were few and far between but Mary was a huge fan of Lotte Reiniger, describing her as ‘a splendid artist. She has produced a number of moving silhouettes which are positively delicious. I have rarely seen such beautiful workmanship or such perfect technique as this woman has shown in the production of her films.’ 
As the 1930s progressed women gradually made their presence felt behind the camera in Britain, writing scripts, designing sets and costumes and directing and producing films.  Non-fiction film-making was particularly fertile ground. While Mary was leading the charge at GBI, other women were coming up through the ranks. Margaret Thomson, who worked in the UK and New Zealand, trained at GBI in the 1930s. Muriel Box got her start at British Instructional Films in 1929 – in 1946 she won an Academy Award together with her husband, Sydney, for Best Original Screenplay, and directed 13 feature films in the 1950s and 1960s.  Her sister-in-law, Betty, was also a prominent film producer. 

Over at John Grierson’s GPO Film Unit Marion Grierson was making sophisticated films to promote tourism for London, seaside resorts and the countryside.  This was also where Evelyn Spice got her start before returning to Canada where she headed up the agricultural unit of the National Film Board, making 128 films in a ten-year period.  Meanwhile Ruby Grierson, Marion’s sister, made a number of social documentaries for Strand Films.

However, Mary was the most prolific and best-known female director during this period. She was frequently interviewed and profiled and wrote careers columns where she made the case for women in the industry.  When it was suggested that men resented working for women or that women were unable to work together, (both ideas that persist today despite the lack of supporting evidence), she rejected the theory out of hand: ‘I know of nothing better than the products of the massed brains of women’.  
War-time changes
When war broke out, while many studios were requisitioned for alternative usage, Gaumont-British was able to keep making films and the focus of GBI’s work shifted towards war propaganda and related info-mercials. There was more change in 1941 when J Arthur Rank bought Gaumont-British Pictures along with its subsidiary company, Gainsborough Pictures, and then with the acquisition of Odeon Theatres in 1942 added 251 cinemas to his ever-expanding empire. 
Rank ran Children’s Cinema clubs that were extremely popular but the films they saw were made for adults.  The only country making films specifically for children at this point was Russia.  J Arthur Rank decided that it was time for a change: he saw film as a force for good and if no-one else was doing it, his company should start ensuring children were properly served.  Since he was the Chairman, no-one was prepared to disagree with him, whatever their private views on the potential success of such a scheme.  The task was given to the GBI team and in September 1943 work began on ‘Tom’s Ride’.  Mary recalled that ‘the director discussed the treatment with other members of the GBI staff, all of whom were openly congratulating themselves that this unpleasant job had not fallen to them. No one was more pleased not to be implicated than myself.’  After some judicious re-balancing of the content towards action and away from moralising, the film was finally finished. 
Everyone drew a sign of relief and returned to making films for adults but when ‘Tom’s Ride’ was released in the spring of 1944, it proved to be a great success.  Two months later, Mary was summoned to Arthur Rank’s office and told that now he had proved his idea was a good one, she should be the one to lead its further development.  Saying no was not an option.   
Children’s Entertainment Films
So began the work of establishing the Children’s Entertainment Film (CEF) division. Mary set up a new office in Golden Square and brought on board the writers Mary Cathcart Borer and Patricia Latham.  Together the team decided on the policy, selected film scripts and worked with independent producers to make them.  The CEF was not set up as a profit-making venture – money raised from ticket sales re-invested in the film-making – but Rank was only too aware of the benefit of building a new generation of regular cinema-goers.

To understand what children really wanted, Mary ran special screenings in different parts of the country with a range of different content – cartoons, episodes from serials, different kinds of feature films – and then used infra-red photography to capture the reactions of children with around 400 images each time and identify at what point their attention started to wander.  

Capturing the reactions of children to different films

She also set up an Advisory Council, made up of seventeen organisations and chaired by Lady Allen of Hurtwood.  Margery Hurtwood (1897-1976) had built a successful career as a landscape architect in the twenties and thirties.  In 1930 she suggested that Selfridges make a roof garden on top of their Oxford Street store and subsequently designed it. This was largely what resulted in her being elected the first fellow of the newly-established Institute of Landscape Architects. During the war and post war period she became heavily involved in the care of children who were displaced and orphaned and her research into the conditions in children’s institutions led to the passing of the Children’s Act in 1948.  She went on to champion the concept of adventure playgrounds and was the founder president of the World Organisation for Early Childhood Education.  Mary could not have found someone better to help her manage the political complexity inherent in a body containing so many different agendas and perspectives.  

Despite the initial scepticism, the CEF was game-changing and made around 200 short and long films over the next six years, the best-known probably ‘Bush Christmas’, about four children trying to outwit a group of horse thieves set in Australia.

Big screen success
While the industry was sitting up and starting to take notice of this new group of consumers, the wider Rank empire was struggling, primarily as a result of a series of disastrous government decisions.  In 1950 Arthur Rank decided to shut down the CEF and four of the four main film industry associations came together almost immediately to fill the gap.  They established the Children’s Film Foundation (CFF) with Mary as Chief Executive and Rank as the first Chair.  The CFF made around six films a year over the next thirty years and as well as entertaining millions of children proved to be a valuable training ground for countless British actors and directors. 

Britain’s status as a leading children’s film-maker was now gaining wide recognition, with a number of programme and film prize wins at the Venice Film Festivals in the 1950s. In 1956 Mary stepped down from her role at the CFF and started doing more work with UNESCO. She was made Chair of the International Centre of Films for Children in Brussels, setting up an international festival to draw attention to cinematic work made for children. It was during the 1950s that her contribution to British film began to attract a host of honours. In 1951, she was awarded an OBE in 1951 for her services to child education. In 1955 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and an Honorary Fellow of the British Kinematograph Society.  In 1957 she was made a Fellow of the British Film Academy (now BAFTA).

Mary’s final role in the industry was as a children’s programme consultant for A.T.V. and A.B.C. Televisions, a role she took on in 1959.  She was excited about moving in this new field: ‘it represents something new to tackle.  That is always a stimulant’ and would enable content made for children to reach a much wider audience.  

Life beyond the cinema
In 1944, Mary married Gerald Hankin, a civil servant but was widowed eight years later.  She was always supportive of women in business and a consistent advocate for equal rights.  Like her friend Irene Barclay, she was an early member of the Soroptimists and fitted in around her work speeches at events and conferences organised by women’s groups in the UK and abroad.  She was good friends with Caroline Haslett, writing to her when she was created a DBE in 1947 that ‘I feel my congratulations must be the last but they are certainly not the least. I know of no Honour which has given such general pleasure.’ In 1950, when Caroline Haslett took over as leader of the International Federation of Business and Professional Women, Mary stepped into the role as President of the British division with its 90,000 members.  

Mary retired in 1963. When she died five years later on 23rd December 1968 her work as a pioneer in children’s films was widely praised but her documentary work from the 1930s was less celebrated.  ‘While Bruce Woolfe could interest himself in themes as diverse as film histories of the great war and [John] Grierson became the great exponent of realism, Mary Field restricted her work to the small, quiet world of animals and flowers’, said The Times, the implication clear that it was subject matter was the defining factor in assessing both her expertise and innovation. However, John Grierson himself praised this ‘long and brilliant line of nature films’ where ‘here, if anywhere, beauty has come to inhabit the edifice of truth’.  Perhaps as part of the ongoing wider re-evaluation of women’s work in the creative industries, Mary’s contribution to British film, as well as the role she played in cracking the glass ceiling, will get more of the recognition it deserves.

‘You can find out more about the two ‘Secrets of Nature’ series in this dedicated blog

If you are interested in other women working in documentary film during this period, there is a project dedicated to raising visibility of the Grierson sisters. In 2022, the BFI issued ‘The Camera is Ours’, a 2-DVD set featuring documentary shorts made by British women film-makers between 1935 and 1967 including Mary Field as well as Jill Craigie, Kay Mander, Marion and Ruby Grierson and Sarah Erulkar.

Sources include:

Kinematograph Weekly 26/4/1928; Lincolnshire Echo 17/10/1930; ‘Careers for the Modern Women’ Western Mail 9/9/1932; The Vote 9/9/1932; The Era 1/7/1937; Northampton Mercury 23/6/1939; International Woman Suffrage News 4/4/1941; The Tatler 1/11/1944; Birmingham Gazette 11/5/1950; Kensington Post 29/8/1952; The Stage and Television Today 15/10/1959; Kinematograph Weekly 10/5/1945; The Stage 26/2/1959; Kinematograph Weekly 31/12/1959; The Times 24/12/1968

‘Secrets of Nature’ by Mary Field and F Percy Smith (1939); ‘Good Company’ by Mary Field (1952)

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