London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years – review

London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, by Gary Chapman

This is a guest post by Henry K Miller for Silent London. Henry K Miller is the editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and has taught film at the University of Cambridge.

Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.

FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.

Woman to Woman (Graham Cutts, 1923). Photograph: BFI
Woman to Woman (Graham Cutts, 1923). Photograph: BFI

Three of them – Herbert Wilcox, Michael Balcon, and Victor Saville – would become leading figures in the industry, but it is probably fair to say that this early part of the Poole Street story is best known through the career of one of their underlings, a Famous Players-Lasky studio worker who stayed on as part of a skeleton crew after the Americans left. Alfred J Hitchcock, as he styled himself, had joined as a title-designer in 1921, but seems to have done a lot more besides (Jesse Lasky remembered him as “our $15-a-week prop man”). He was noticed – or so the story usually goes – by Balcon and Saville, who first teamed him up with Graham Cutts on Woman to Woman in 1923. Chapman, however, is correct in arguing that Hitchcock is likely to have worked with Cutts earlier, on the 1922 Wilcox–Cutts films Flames of Passion and Paddy the Next Best Thing, the latter of which was adapted by Hitchcock’s future screenwriter Eliot Stannard.

Gainsborough proper came into being in 1924, founded by Balcon and Cutts, but it didn’t – couldn’t – stay still for long, scrabbling for finance and facilities everywhere from Munich to New York. It was not the only company to use Islington, and one of its most expensive productions, The Blackguard (1925), was made in Berlin. Gainsborough was lucky to keep going. For a while it was indeed “London’s Hollywood”: Balcon and Cutts, following the example set by Cutts with Wilcox, leaned heavily on the appeal of American stars. Somehow they managed to buy the studio from FP-L at the start of 1926, and Gainsborough’s first production as owner-occupier, Hitchcock’s all-British The Lodger (1926), with Ivor Novello, was hailed as a turning point in British cinema. Here Chapman is right to defend Cutts’s earlier achievements against the Hitchcockians, who have repeated Hitch’s gossip against him. Cutts’s The Rat (1925), also with Novello, was almost as much of a critical sensation as his former assistant’s first films.

The Lodger (1927)
The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)

It might be wondered whether the 1926-model Gainsborough, which had managed to get Novello under contract, could have prospered under the still difficult conditions confronting it; but almost as soon as The Lodger had been released, a profound change swept the industry. The prospect of the 1927 Cinematograph Act (or “Quota Act”), which did much to prevent the Hollywood majors’ iniquitous booking practices, and all but guaranteed an income to British producers, led to an investment spike, and also to the consolidation of the industry, once the dust had settled, into the two Hollywood-style vertically integrated combines that would dominate British cinema into the 1950s. Wilcox played no small role in the origins of the lesser of them, British International Pictures, later ABPC; Balcon, meanwhile, was somewhat reluctantly brought into the other, Gaumont-British, later part of the Rank colossus.

After its incorporation into G-B in 1928, Hitchcock having departed for BIP, Gainsborough rather lost what identity it had managed to build up; according to Chapman, Balcon lost “the continuity of repeatedly working with specific directors”. And within months the studio – the whole industry – was thrown into a secondary crisis with the coming of synchronized sound. Chapman’s book ends in January 1930, when a great fire consumed much of the building, before a full talkie had been made there. Before long Balcon had moved over to Gaumont-British’s new complex at Lime Grove, where he was soon to be reunited with Hitchcock and Saville, and Islington became something of an overspill site.

Tribute to Hitchcock at the site of the Gainsborough Studio, now a block of flats
Tribute to Hitchcock at the site of the Gainsborough Studio, now a block of flats

Chapman’s book is comprehensive. He has culled from the trade papers and secondary sources almost all that can be profitably known about some of these mostly forgotten films, though on occasion a greater distance from the sources is required. The verdict of the trade papers, which had a tendency to breathless hyperbole, is too often repeated without interrogation. It will however be an invaluable resource for students of the period.

By Henry K Miller

Gary Chapman, London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years by Gary Chapman, is published by Edditt Publishing, RRP £14.99 in paperback, £8.99 on Kindle and £27 in Hardback. Read more and order a copy here.

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