When classic movie fans discover a new source of old movies, it’s like we hit the lottery.
So I feel like I’ve won the big one after finding a treasure of movies from Renown Pictures, a distribution company that specializes in British cinema and television, predominately from the 1930s to ‘60s.
More than 100 of Renown’s titles – mysteries, dramas, horror, sci-fi, detective stories, romance and documentaries– are streaming for free on Amazon Prime.
I almost made the mistake of bypassing these films when they first popped up as suggested viewing on my Prime account. They were packaged with the same blue artwork with four black and white photos. The titles, actors and directors were not familiar, so I didn’t pay attention. (Felix Aylmer? Wolf Rilla? Jane Hylton?)
Shame on me and obvious lessons learned: Don’t judge a movie by its cover – or unfamiliarity – because you’ll miss out.
Getting to know Renown
First a bit about Renown, which bills itself as the “largest independent distributor of the British ‘B’ films” with one of the world’s largest privately-owned collections of film rights.”
It’s nice to learn Renown is a family business run by founder Noel Cronin, his daughter Sarah Cronin-Stanley and her husband, Neill Stanley. Noel Cronin worked his way up through the Rank Organisation to become a film editor at the Central Office of Information. He started his own distribution company called Dandelion Films and later, Renown. The object: to maintain the history of British cinema.
So outside of film distribution, Renown is like the British counterpart of our beloved Turner Classic Movies.
Like TCM, Renown has an online shop selling DVDs (single and sets) and fun goodies like a Terry Thomas “You Absolute Shower” folding wash bag and a makeup bag with the faces of British actresses. It has a very informative newsletter and is active on social media, including Facebook, where it celebrates the lives of stars, directors, films and those who worked behind the scenes.
In 2015, Renown launched Talking Pictures TV, a 24-hour independent U.K. channel airing movies and TV series from the 1930s to ‘80s.
Events, like Renown’s Festival of Film, brings fans and stars together. (The event on March 22 in St. Albans, Hertfordshire, is sold out. Another has been announced for Oct. 4 at the Stockport Plaza in Stockport, UK.)
Though it took me a while to dive into Renown, I’m hooked. I even binge-watch Renown titles, which is easy to do since many of the titles hover around 60 to 80 minutes. Many were filmed on location, so I feel like I am getting a look at a time gone by as I did watching “Born of the Sea” which was made using locals in the fishing village of Coverach in Cornwall.
I found a 1934 Merle Oberon film called “Broken Melody” (pictured above and as the main photo) that was filmed at Twickenham Studios. The plot was familiar: a long-suffering and devoted person (Oberon) is in love with a talented man (composer and singer) who is foolishly blinded by the bright shiny new object (a world-renowned opera singer). The film opens with an opera by a “mystery composer singer” and then the story unwinds from there detailing this triangle fraught with sacrifice and sadness, a trip to Devil’s Island (oh, yes it goes there) and the possibility of redemption. Narration moves the story along, a device in many of the Renown films I watched. (I didn’t mind).
I also watched “Castle Sinister” (1948), a moody mystery about a phantom figure committing murders in a castle.
My watch list is now brimming with Renown films.
Some I am drawn to simply by enchanting titles like “Where I Live The Dream of Olwen,” a 1947 drama about a spinster obsessing over her sister’s death and the amnesiac who might be the sister reincarnated. I was excited to find a 1950 version of “Fall of the House of Usher” and two Terence Fisher-directed crime dramas “Final Appointment” and “Gelignite Gang.” Then there’s the Boris Karloff 1940 crime drama “Mystery at Wentworth Castle.”
I love big creature B-movies so “Behemoth the Sea Monster” (1959), also available elsewhere, is at the top of the list.
If those don’t interest you, there’s plenty more.
“Society Sensation” (1918) is a 20-minute version of the silent film starring Rudolph Valentino as a society playboy who falls for the daughter of a poor fisherman.
“Admiral’s Secret” (1934) is a 61-minute comedy starring Edmund Gwenn as a retired admiral who has a valuable gem crooks want.
“The Avenging Hand” (1936) is a 63-minute drama starring Noah Berry as an American gangster trying to solve the murder of an old match seller.
“The Scamp” (1957) and “SOS Pacific” (1959) were two early films by a young actor named Richard Attenborough, long before he became an Oscar-winning director.
“The Boys” (1962) stars Richard Todd and Robert Morley in a courtroom drama directed by Sidney J. Furie.
And that 1958 film with the fun title of “Trollenberg Terror” – you probably know it under its U.S. name of “The Crawling Eye.”
If you’re like me, you can’t help but want to watch a 1934 film called “Once in a New Moon” that comes with this unique description:
“When the small town of Shrimpton-on-Sea is dragged out into space by the force of a ‘dead star’ passing Earth, the populace try to organise a local government based on equal rights for all, but conflicts arise between the local aristocracy and the villagers.”
So trust me and dig in anywhere. Find an interesting title, perhaps a familiar name and start watching. You’re bound to find your own classic movie treasure.