Carol Reed was born into a family with some of the best artistic/theatrical credentials of any film director who ever lived. His father was Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1853-1917), the leading actor of his day and, among many other credits, the stage's first Henry Higgins, and his mother was Tree's mistress, May Pinney Reed. Born in London, Carol Reed was educated at Kings School, Canterbury, just slightly ahead of his fellow future filmmaker Michael Powell. Reed's father passed away when he was ten years old, leaving his mother to raise him with help from a small bequest. He was drawn to the theater from an early age and wanted to become an actor, but his mother had little confidence in his ability to earn a living in that field, and encouraged him to try farming.
Reed made his stage debut at age 17 as a member of Sybil Thorndike's theater company, and at 20, joined Edgar Wallace's company, where he advised the author on the adaptations of his books into plays and also served as a stage manager as well as an actor. Reed turned to movies in the early '30s, joining Associated British Talking Pictures in 1932 as a dialogue director and assistant to the studio's founder, director/producer Basil Dean. Reed made the jump to the director's chair in 1935, initially in association with Robert Wyler on It Happened in Paris. This period in Reed's career, characterized by low-budget productions, saw him making as many as three feature films a year. These were successful films, and often stood out for what style Reed was able to manifest in them, beginning with the comedy Laburnum Grove (1936). He also directed Talk of the Devil (1936); the film was co-written by Reed and future director Anthony Kimmins (who collaborated on Reed's first five movies). Reed's most distinguished early movie was The Stars Look Down (1939), starring Michael Redgrave, a drama dealing with the plight of impoverished Welsh coal miners. The film that put Reed on the map as a popular stylist was Night Train to Munich (1940). Written by Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, the future writer/director/producer team, it was a follow-up to their script for Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes (1938).