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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Educational Cigarettes Teach Film Production

British cigarette cards are colorful, interesting, plentiful, and reasonably priced. How so many of them survived is anybody’s guess, but you’ve got to be glad they did. This set, How Films Are Made, is especially interesting, taking us behind the scenes at Gaumont-British Picture Corporation Ltd.

There’s only so much room on the back of a card 1 and 3/8th inches wide by 2 and 9/16th inches long, so a little additional information about Gaumont-British is in order. The facility illustrated on the cards is the Lime Grove Studio in Shepherd’s Bush (later also known as the Gainsborough Studio), as it appeared in the mid-1930’s. A film mentioned on Card 10, Rome Express (1932), was the first big production shot at Lime Grove and may account for the fact that many of these cards feature railroad scenes.

In the early days of cinema, 1898, to be precise, Leon Gaumont hired two men – the Bromhead brothers – to function as the English distributors for the films Gaumont made in France. The brothers did well with Gaumont’s films, but soon realized that the real money was in production.

So the Bromheads started producing animated cartoons and, in 1910, began the Gaumont Graphic, one of the earliest British newsreels. Thanks to their connections with Gaumont, the brothers were were able to film some of their subjects in sound and/or color (Gaumont’s Chronophone and Chronochrome processes).

Slowly, the brothers’ film distribution office in Shepherd’s Bush added production capabilities, and by 1915, they had built a true studio, named it Lime Grove, and moved into feature film production.

No, they’re not shooting a cowboy movie in England; that’s a tri-corner, not a Stetson.

Between 1915 and 1926, Gaumont-British made some well-received films at the Lime Grove studio: they adapted Gaumont’s wildly successful French Fantomas franchise into a British version.

Can’t resist a slight detour to consider the Fantomas books, which are a precursor to both E.C. Comics and Al-Qaeda. You won’t find anything involving nuns that’s nearly as unusual as the the shoot-out over an empty coffin in Le Cercueil Vide… at least until Peter Cook invented the Order of the Leaping Beryllians, placing nuns on trampolines in the mid-sixties.

According to the Fantomas Lives website, Fantomas is “…the Lord of Terror, the Genius of Evil, the arch-criminal anti-hero of a series of 32 pre-WWI French thrillers written by Pierre Souvestre and Marcel Allain. He carries out the most appalling crimes: substituting sulfuric acid in the perfume dispensers at a Parisian department store, releasing plague-infested rats on an ocean liner, or forcing a victim to witness his own execution by placing him face-up in a guillotine. A rebellious henchman is hung in a huge bell as a human clapper, smashing from side to side and raining blood, sapphires and diamonds onto the street below. Masked bandits brandishing revolvers crash a city bus through the walls of a bank, sending money flying everywhere. Under grey Parisian skies, a horse-drawn cab gallops down the road, a wide-eyed corpse as its coachman. “

Gaumont-British made a four-part serial titled Ultus: The Man From The Dead (1916), which is the only silent British ‘chapter play’ that survives (and it’s not complete). Also filmed were Ultus and the Secret of the Night (1916), Ultus and the Grey Lady (1916) and Ultus and the Three Button Mystery (1917).

Note that the Gaumont-British Continuity Girl seems quite unhappy. This is because she knows what results when she fails to perform her job well: Bad Continuity.

And speaking of continuity, we’ll finish the remaining 15 cards of our Gaumont-British Lime Grove Studio tour – and the rest of the of the G-B story – in our next post.

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Filming Shakespeare With And Without Words In Settings Familiar And Unfamiliar

Kenneth Branagh (whose full-length version of Hamlet was released on DVD recently) characterized playing Hamlet on stage as “…three hours of dialogue and then a sword fight when you’re exhausted.” What, then, of playing Hamlet on film? How about in silent film?

Sarah Bernhardt portrayed the melancholy Dane in a French version from 1900, Le Duel d’Hamlet, and one is tempted to infer that the adaptation focused on the action of the duel simply because film was silent in 1900. That inference would be wrong, however, since Le Duel d’Hamlet was a sound film that shipped to theaters with an accompanying Edison cylinder recording. Take that, Al Jolson.

There were many silent Hamlets, however, like the one produced in Denmark in 1910, now lost, and others that still survive intact or in fragmentary form.

It is not impossible to create a silent Hamlet. As recently as last June, a 90-minute mime and movement version was presented wordlessly at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. Sarah Kaufman of The Washington Post wrote of the silent performance that “… the suspicions [and] shadows… blare like sirens though the actors, who convey them only through a glance, a gesture and a particular way of moving across the stage.”

The 1916 silent film Hamlet Up To Date, shot by the Lubin Studio in Florida, was perhaps the first film version to recast the story in a modern setting. The trend cotinues: the Ethan Hawke version from 2000 was set in modern-day New York. A 2000 TV adaptation starring Campbell Scott updated the setting to 19th Century New York (and was shot right here on Long Island).

Given the critical attention these productions garnered, it seems unfathomable that arguably the boldest adaptation, a silent film, shot in upstate New York at a time when most film production companies had long since departed for Hollywood to escape the restrictions of Edison’s Motion Picture Trust… remains largely unknown.

That may change, however, since the lone surviving print has now been painstakingly transferred to video and become available for critical reevaluation. Kerry Decker’s decision to set the story in fifteenth century Greece at first seems counterintuitive, but perfectly suits his Hamlet, John Hopkins. Hopkins’s startling performance as the tragic prince is matched in subtlety and nuance by Alan Chapman’s Claudius. The silent Decker version takes extreme liberties with the story and eschews the violence endemic to nearly all productions, on stage or screen, silent or with sound, taking its cue from Claudius’s reaction to the madness of Ophelia, spoken to Queen Gertrude in Act Four, Scene Five: O, this is the poison of deep grief/ it springs all from her father’s death/ O Gertrude, Gertrude/ When sorrows come, they come not single pies/ but in battalions.

Link to Decker’s silent Hamlet.

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