British actors have always done well out of the generosity of the American film industry. Many of them have made a healthy living in Hollywood and, in the 30s and 40s, the British colony was an important part of the social life of the town. George Arliss, Leslie Howard, Ronald Coleman and many others became huge stars thanks to the opportunities they were given in Hollywood and British actors got to appear in some of the greatest films ever made. The traffic in the other direction was not always as successful.
Before the talkies arrived there were some stars who crossed to this side of the Atlantic but the numbers were few. Many were just here on promotional visits or taking extended holidays in Europe in order to spend the fabulous wealth they were amassing. During W.W.I, D.W. Griffith brought the Gish sisters over to Britain to film Hearts of the World but with the collapse of our industry after the war there was no reason for Americans to come over here.
Two things changed that: the Talkies and the Quota. The coming of the talkies shook a lot of stars out of Hollywood. It also fuelled demands in Britain and the Commonwealth for films in which actors spoke proper English instead of Yankee slang (even though the "proper English" spoken in these early films bears no resemblance to any variety of English spoken anywhere). This demand was being met by the Quota which was introduced in 1927 in order to support production in this country. It forced cinemas to show a percentage of British-made films and many personalities crossed the pond in order to help fill that quota.
These fell into three main types. There were the faded stars like Corinne Griffith or Laura La Plante who couldn't survive the onslaught of the talkies in Hollywood but who hoped to continue their careers in England. They all failed. Then there were Ann May Wong and Paul Robeson who were well-known film personalities but because they weren't white would never be allowed to star in Hollywood. The films they made here were not always classics and were sometimes demeaning but they were the stars and at least they rarely had to play some white folks' servant.
The third category contains stars who came here for one or two prestige productions or because they were between contracts or doing a West End run. Therefore we got Fay Wray for Bulldog Jack and The Clairvoyant and Richard Dix for The Tunnel. We also nearly got Bette Davis.
She was on the run from her Warner's contract which was working her half to death and which gave her no artistic control. It also gave her a lot of money. Warners took her to court here. When the court heard just how much she was earning ($1000 a week) she lost. This cut off the only avenue of escape Hollywood players might have had and we had to rely on stars imported by the major studios in order to spend the profits which were trapped here (such as Robert Taylor in A Yank at Oxford).
Then came the war. There were plenty of American stars over here, such as Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart, but they had Hitler to fight and we couldn't have afforded them anyway. Instead the British Industry concentrated on making truly British films. Where Americans were used, their use grew naturally out of the story and we helped develop American stars of our own such as Kim Hunter and Bonar Colleano.
After the war, Hollywood began to loosen its control over production and films began to be made on location in exotic places. Britain was one of the more popular destinations, particularly for period productions. So we got Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Taylor in Ivanhoe, Ava Gardener in Pandora and the Flying Dutchman and we even got Marilyn Monroe in The Prince and the Showgirl.
We also got a steady stream of has-beens and never-weres. Bette Davis finally got here to do Another Man's Poison but shouldn't have bothered, Lana Turner did Another Time Another Place during a dip in her career, and Van Johnson made several films here. Few of these films were worth a damn. They were, however, better than the endless flow of low-budget thrillers which, in order to improve their minimal chances of an international release, featured no-name American actors in the lead.
Gone With the Wind, Wuthering Heights, North by Northwest, From Here to Eternity, A Star is Born, Frankenstein: just a few of the many classics produced in Hollywood containing prominent roles for British actors. What did we have to offer in return? Blithe Spirit for Constance Cummings, Night of the Demon for Dana Andrews, and of course The Third Man. Hardly a fair exchange even considering the different sizes of the two industries.
Hollywood has been accused of sucking other film industries dry of talent, but at least they hired foreign nationals on the basis what they could do. Too often British producers have hired actors because they thought their nationality would make it easier to sell the film in America. On rare occasions they got it right (though I would maintain that Andie Macdowell is the worst thing about Four Wedding and a Funeral) but more often than not they ended up making a turkey with a mis-cast star who couldn't sell tickets. American actors deserved better treatment than that, and so did British audiences.