Searching for Jack Cox

Lucie Dutton's picture

If you watch British films made between 1920 and 1959, it is almost certain that you have seen the work of Jack Cox. From Hitchcock thrillers like Blackmail (1929), via wartime factory workers in Millions Like Us (1943), Margaret Lockwood and James Mason raising temperatures in The Wicked Lady (1946), to laughs with Norman Wisdom and Honor Blackman in The Square Peg (1959), Cox photographed many major movies. My particular research interest is in the work of Maurice Elvey, and in the 1920s Cox advertised himself as ‘Maurice Elvey’s cameraman’. While many of their films are now lost, their partnership survives in the Sherlock Holmes mystery The Sign of Four (1923) and the magnificent Hindle Wakes (1926).

Sadly, we don’t hold an interview with Jack Cox. But stories of him can be found in other interviews in our collection. He was clearly very highly respected, and he seems to have been a significant support and inspiration to his younger colleagues.

To camera operator Len Harris, Cox was ‘a marvellous chap’. At Gainsborough, when he was starting out, Harris remembered, ‘a film would finish but then they'd do some more scenes […] I very often got the job of lighting these extra scenes. And sometimes Jack Cox would be working on a picture on the next stage and they'd say, officially, “Could you just go and have a look at it?” Well old Jack, he would come in, look around and say, “Yes that's fine, yes, yes, yes, yes they're fine. Shoot it, shoot it! Turn over!” And he'd walk away and, as he was going, he'd say to me, “I should flood that a bit more if I were you.” You know, so nobody else heard!’ Once, Cox witnessed Harris in difficulty and afterwards advised, “Look if you're ever asked and you're not ready, say you're not ready. If you are ready, say you're ready.” He said, “You're perfectly entitled to say you're not ready, unless you're being very slow.” And I've always remembered that, ever since that day.’

Director of Photography Eric Cross remembered that Cox ‘had a weird camera called a Willard which was an American sort of sewing machine with wooden boxes on top […] Jack's Willard had a handle on the back and we used to judge its exposure through the film and when he went over to a Bell and Howell he used to have a special little viewer with a piece of film in it which judged the exposure.’ Once again, Cox took the time to help his junior colleague. When asked ‘What cameramen with whom you worked gave you the greatest assistance and help?’ Cross responded, ‘Well, I think Jack Cox really. Although he was an early cameraman he was very efficient, I learnt quite a lot from him.’

Director Roy Ward Baker described Cox as a ‘very formidable figure’ and ‘a man of status and stature’ with ‘a dry, sardonic sense of humour. I met him once in Piccadilly towards the end of war and by that time I was in the Army Kinematograph Service and I was very excited and I'd become a director. I bumped into him in the street and I was delighted to see him and full of what I was doing and how marvellous it all was. He looked at me straight into the eye and said “who's teaching you then?” That rather punctured my ego. He was right of course. We were teaching ourselves and falling over each other like a basket full of puppies.’

These are just three of the interviews in which Cox is mentioned - and there are others. To me, this helps demonstrate the value of the British Entertainment History Project: even when we don't have an interview with a particular individual, they may well be found in the words of others. I would love to hear Jack Cox himself talking about his life and career - particularly his time with Maurice Elvey. This isn’t possible, but he has a presence in the collection through the warmth with which his colleagues remembered him.