Educational Cigarettes Teach Film Production – Part 2

The Lime Grove Studio (also called the Shepherd’s Bush Studio) started out making silent films and ended up as a TV production center for the BBC. Some of the stages illustrated on these cigarette cards were used in both Alfred Hitchcock’s best-known British sound films, including The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The Thirty-Nine Steps (1935) …as well as the first Dr. Who episodes starring William Hartnell.

They put quotations around the film title “Rome Express,” but could have put them around “In the Station” as well. Lime Grove was a huge place, according to British writer-comedian Frank Muir, quoted in the Radio Times: “My prevailing memory of it was getting lost. You would keep meeting the same people every few minutes in the corridor, all looking for different rooms. No matter what time you arrived, you only reached the studio in the nick of time.”

Let’s hope these two stagehands stayed above their snowstorm. Naphtha, cited as an ingredient in “studio snow” on the reverse of this card, was later found to be a carcinogen.

The fact that they also used soap flakes to impersonate snow provides sweet vindication for a friend of mine who put on puppet shows in his youth. One memorable show had a soap-flake blizzard scene unexpectedly interrupted by fits of soap-flake inspired uncontrollable sneezing that left the puppets speechless for quite some time.

“If you are working in the studios, you usually labor all day in an ill-ventilated, dusty studio,” according to director Ken Annakin, who worked at Shepherd’s Bush early in his career. And no one is safe from the fray. “Supported by my very expert crew,” Annakin says of one of his pictures, “the studio shooting went smoothly, apart from the Swimming Pool set, which developed a leak and soaked all our costumes stored in a room below.” Maybe that’s what the “needlewoman” at her sewing machine is worried about.

Ah, optical sound being captured. And what wonderful optical sound it must have been: it’s The Good Companions, a 1933 musical featuring Jessie Matthews teamed with John Gielgud (appearing in his first film). A reviewer on IMdb attempts to summarize the plot, saying “Four separate people in provincial Britain are on the tramp to somewhere…” which made me think about another film made the same year – “Hallelujah I’m a Bum,” an Al Jolson musical. Well, of course, in the UK, “bum” means “butt,” and who wants to see a movie called “Hallelujah, I’m an Ass.” So for the UK release, the Jolson feature was retitled “Hallelujah, I’m a Tramp.” Which would suggest something quite different to an American audience, of course.

Leave it to those movie guys. Who would have thought that they simulated rain by using water?

How many otherwise great movies have been ruined by inserted scenes using back projection? The jarring note of artificiality absolutely kills the comedy in a couple of Laurel and Hardy movies (County Hospital, for one). I guess contemporary audiences didn’t notice, but the frequently washed-out look of the background practically screams “they’re on a set!”

“Shewing?” That’s archaic British usage. As a matter of fact, by the time they printed the other side of Card 17, nobody was saying “shewing” anymore. The more contemporary “showing” was used instead.

British Film Studios – An Illustrated History,
by Patricia Warren, covers over 90 filmmaking establishments, some of which lasted just a year or two, while others, like Lime Grove in Shepherd’s Bush, spanned decades. Some studios were converted or repurposed when they outlived their usefulness; others went up in flames; and at least one (Teddington) was bombed out of business during World War II. But only temporarily: Teddington was rebuilt and occupies a warm spot in the hearts of those who have spent their life savings buying the complete Avengers TV series, which was shot in and around Teddington.

Alas, after serving as a TV studio for many years, Lime Grove was decommissioned in 1991. It was torn down and replaced with residential housing. The advent of “virtual sets” means there’s less and less need for huge studio spaces. Models and props are also likely to be “built” using computer software. They don’t make ‘em like they used to.

Frank Capra shot the final scenes for “Meet John Doe” in a refrigerated warehouse so that the breath of his actors could be seen; James Cameron digitally added visible breaths, one at a time, to Titanic during post-production. There are easier ways to do nearly everything today, and my guess is that the befogged figures of card 20 would have been happier without those smoke-pots just out of camera range. It so damn foggy, in fact, that I’m not quite sure whether there are two or three actors in there.

The man responsible for the demise of Lime Grove as a film studio was John Davis, an argumentative accountant who somehow managed to sneak his way up to become head of the J. Arthur Rank Organisation. Decommissioning was his specialty; when he married Dinah Sheridan, he ordered her to give up her acting career, even turning down offers on her behalf. (It would have been Dinah Sheridan rather than Glynis Johns as the princess in Danny Kaye’s The Court Jester, had Davis not intervened). Only after they were married did “J.D.,” as he was known, admit to Dinah that she wasn’t actually his third wife… but rather his fifth.

According to Dinah, ” When [Davis] came [home] he would go upstairs to bathe and change his clothes. He would lie in the bath and through the house we would hear an absolute satanic chortle. “What is Daddy laughing about?” The children would ask. “I don’t know,” I told them, but I did. I had learned what made John chuckle like that. I was quite sure that he was remembering some ghastly thing he had done to somebody or a plan he was working on to make someone either physically or mentally uncomfortable.”

To rectify the situation at Lime Grove, Davis decided to “slash budgets and sell off everything that did not immediately affect the survival of Rank’s Pinewood Studio,” according to Patricia Warren. He also fired scores of long-time employees, which must have given him many bathtub chuckles.

Didn’t realize I’d be writing about Dinah rather than the clapper boy, but so be it.

When Dinah asked J.D. for a divorce, he told her that his organization couldn’t stand the bad publicity such an event would create. “The solution is for you to sign a contract to remain a housewife, mother and hostess – no longer considering yourself my wife. I will get the contract drawn up. Go to Ronnie Leach (the Rank Organization’s financial brains) and he’ll tell you the name of a solicitor. We have to do this properly.”

Dinah finally got her divorce from Davis, but it was a battle. She immediately returned to acting and to the London stage, and much of her best work (including her favorite film, The Railway Children) was still ahead of her.

Having been a celebrated film studio, Lime Grove also went on to greater things in its subsequent incarnation as a BBC Television studio. In fact, Lime Grove logged more years as a TV studio than it did as a film studio.

There are some great pictures of the original silent studio here. Lime Grove looked more like a greenhouse than anything else – most studios did in the early days. A complete history of the BBC’s use of the facility for TV can also be found at the link above. There’s a great little 8mm ‘behind the scenes’ film shot by a TV crew member here.

The show being taped when the ‘home movie’ was shot included a performance by the Temperance Seven. Remember them? Well, then, I’ll send you off with my favorite Temperance Seven song, which appropriately blends two distinct musical eras.

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