Book Reviews

PINEWOOD STUDIOS – 70 YEARS OF FABULOUS FILMMAKING

By • Jan 14th, 2009 •

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Although Pinewood Studios -70 Years Of Fabulous Filmmaking aspires to be the ultimate movie coffee table book, you may need to buy a new coffee table in order to display it. Weighing in at 12 plus pounds, the book packs a prodigious heft in both information and beauty of presentation, making it the literary equivalent of a Renaissance cabinet-vitrine. Simply thumbing through the pages of this book is impressive, as the reproduction quality of the photographs are stunning. Also, special inserts are interspersed throughout, giving one a sense of tradition at Pinewood, which continues to this day. One gets profiles and interviews with the famous, like Richard Attenborough, to the more specialized, such as Gerry Anderson, producer of UFO and SPACE 1999, who began as a Pinewood sound editor, and Billy Welles, the bare-chested gong ringer seen in the opening credits of all Rank Organization films through WW II. (J. Arthur Rank was the founder of Pinewood and the owner of more than 600 cinemas in the UK, including London’s prestigious Odeon.)

Over the years, whenever a film was particularly imaginative in its sets and photography (such as the “James Bond” series, SUPERMAN or SWEENEY TODD) there was usually a credit at the end stating, “This film was made at Pinewood studios.” What I didn’t know, however, is that Pinewood has a history that goes even farther back then filmmaking. Morris Bright, the author, tells us that “the late Sir Dirk Bogarde stood at the very spot that the Irish Free State treaty had been signed [in the manor house that constitutes the studio’s main entrance] waxing far more lyrically about the history of where he was standing than any film he had ever made as a Rank star.” I’m uncertain whether Mr. Bright approves of film stars waxing lyrically, but a photo of the plaque commemorating that event is included in the front of the book.

Although it’s hard to believe, Pinewood, officially opened in 1938, was the first British studio to have both the shooting stages and the make-up and production offices centrally located and connected by central heating. Before this, actors had to trek outside in inclement weather wearing pancake and mascara. J. Arthur Rank was instrumental in having Pinewood built this way. (The settings are fairly luxurious, including a formal garden, which was used for the pre-credit chase sequence in FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE.)

In addition to innovative studio design, Mr. Rank formed a group of film directors after WWII (including Anthony Asquith, Sidney Gilliat and Michael Powell) called “The Independents” specifically for the purpose of initiating projects without any budgetary constraints. Although this ultimately led to the studio’s near bankruptcy in the early 1950’s, it also produced some of the most honored British films ever made, such as GREAT EXPECTATIONS and BLACK NARCISSUS.

The sound stages at Pinewood have been a witness to some of the most memorable moments in British film history, including the overhead tracking shot across a dance hall into a close-up of a man’s twitching eyelid from Hitchcock’s YOUNG AND INNOCENT, Wendy Hiller and Leslie Howard’s tempest-tossed chemistry in PYGMALION, the faces of ordinary citizens during the London blitz from Humphrey Jennings’ visionary war documentaries LISTEN TO BRITAIN and FIRES WERE STARTED (edited at Pinewood), Deborah Kerr sequestered in a Himalayan monastery for BLACK NARCISSUS, the staging of THE RED SHOES ballet and Sean Connery’s first intoning of the immortal words: “Bond. James Bond.” One could go on, and Mr. Bright does, in my opinion, to excess, but the over-the-top quality of his prose certainly matches his subject.

For an American, leafing through the book is also like being on the other side of the looking glass. Expecting rare production stills and lots of anecdotes on the Archers (directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger) and David Lean, whose best films, including THE RED SHOES and OLIVER TWIST, were all made at Pinewood, I was surprised to find that Lean and Powell/Pressberger’s films were only allotted a few pages of pictures each, with very little text. (Lean is at least given a page-long profile.) Instead, almost a third of the book – 100 pages, to be exact – is devoted to the “Carry On” series, the DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE comedies, and especially the films of Norman Wisdom.

“Who’s Norman Wisdom?” an American might ask. To be fair, Norman Wisdom was an accomplished actor – he stole THE NIGHT THEY RAIDED MINSKY’S from Bert Lahr, no mean feat – but his roles as a comic Everyman in these flatly directed John Paddy Carstairs films – Mr. Carstairs only came into his own as a distinctive stylist in the 60’s on THE SAINT tv series – featured in Mr. Bright’s book do not do him justice. Looking at thirty pages of stills of Norman Wisdom with the same, slightly hangdog expression reminds me of a time in my life when I couldn’t sleep and stayed up late watching television. Some 50’s British comedy produced at Pinewood (often starring Mr. Wisdom) would invariably appear on WPIX at 3 AM. The sets and costumes were so slapdash, the pacing so funereal, the actors so resolutely unfunny – at least to an American sensibility – that the films were utterly fascinating.

Part of the pleasure of a movie coffee table book is to vicariously re-live the experience of a beloved film by immersing oneself in the confluence of pictures and text. Unfortunately, when it comes to many of my favorite British films, Mr. Bright merely tosses out a smattering of stills and brief descriptions of such enduring classics as GREEN FOR DANGER, THE BROWNING VERSION and THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST with the unfocused rush of a suburban commuter attempting to catch an express bus.

Then again, one might argue that Pinewood classics of the late 40’s have been praised to the skies, while the intricacies of a Norman Wisdom comedy or CARRY ON CLEO from 1964 have been never written about, and represent an important, and generally underappreciated, aspect of British cinema. (Mr. Bright seems to have a particular fondness for CARRY ON CLEO, a parody of CLEOPATRA, stating : “Kenneth Williams’ classic exclamation: ‘Infamy! Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!” now even appears in some dictionaries, in such high comedy regard is the line remembered.”) At the very least, these inexpensive if somewhat lackadaisical comedies, the cinematic equivalent of boiled beef and mashed potatoes, were extremely popular in the UK, and kept Pinewood studios from going under.

Though fairly silly, I have fond memories of the “Carry On” series as they were the first films I saw to give the impression that sex between consenting adults was a positive and mutually satisfying experience. Because of their slightly risque nature, the “Carry On” series was exhibited as art films in the US. In fact, I remember CARRY ON, REGARDLESS being the follow-up feature to Fellini’s LA DOLCE VITA at my local theater in Syracuse, NY.

Mr. Bright’s prose style is an odd mixture of the decorative and self-consciously ironic, as he anoints some low-budget Rank comedy of the 50’s as an icon of cinematic art, all the while giving one the literary equivalent of a wink, as if to imply it’s all in good fun. Still, as Claude Rains said in some Warner Bros. film, the title of which I no longer remember, “He knows his stuff!” All the information, much of it never published before, is what makes this book so entertaining to read.

The book is also a feast for the eye, making one want to grow up all over again in England so one can work in such a fabulous place. Pictures of the studio under construction and in full operation can be found alongside production stills stretching from the mid-1930’s through last year. ( For instance, one gets a glossy black and white of Alec Guinness drinking tea in full make-up as Fagin, as well as a color photo of Shirley Eaton being gilded for her scene in GOLDFINGER.)

An area where Mr. Bright excels is his chapter on the Army Film and Photography Unit based at Pinewood during WW II. Here Mr. Bright uses a talent for narrative and the illuminating detail in order to tell the story of the documentary cameramen who were flown into combat zones in order to wrest footage – often at risk of their lives – to inform the public as well as soldiers about to enter the same areas.

Many of the editors and directors who shaped this raw footage into film later became known for their postwar work at Pinewood, such as Roy Boulting, Richard Attenborough and Bryan Forbes. Therefore, the story of the AFPU is also essential to the larger narrative of the British cinema. Still, this chapter is fascinating in itself. I only wish Mr. Bright could take this material and expand it into a separate book.

Fortunately, many of the cameramen and editors of the AFPU are still with us. Mr. Bright seems to have interviewed almost everyone, incorporating their spoken words and still fresh memories into his narrative. This has the chilling yet mesmerizing effect of immersing one in the daily life of a working documentary unit during the Battle of Britain. I must also commend the extraordinary eye of the book’s designer, who places photographs alongside the text so that one supports the other in the manner of a well-made film.

I myself had the pleasure of knowing Hans Barnystyn, one of the documentary cameraman based at Pinewood during the Second World War. When I met him he was a movie theater manager for Trans-Lux Corporation on the cusp of retirement. He told me a story (partially seen in the film SOLDIER OF ORANGE) about how he and a group of Dutch cameramen working with the resistance were parachuted into Holland in order to capture footage of enemy locations. Unfortunately, one of their number was a traitor and I believe that Hans was one of the few that managed to survive.

This book will please those people at the New York Film Festival who ask incessant questions about budgets, as Mr. Bright has included a great deal of information as to how much these films cost, as well as the ratio between box office receipts and the budget. (In this regard, Mr. Bright finds THE RED SHOES sorely lacking, for not only did the film go way over budget, but it was a box office failure in the UK.)

Mr. Bright is so resolutely gushy when dealing with what I consider the most dreadful examples of British films of the 50’s and 60’s that these sections of Pinewood Studios-70 Years might have been conceived as an elaborate practical joke. At least it would explain Mr. Bright’s enthusiasm for Ralph Thomas, director of the inept DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE series in which the only interest lies in the ever increasing lushness of James Robertson Justice’s beard (a young Dirk Bogarde, Kay Kendall and a freshness of characterization makes the first one a winner); as well as a wretched remake of Hitchcock’s THE 39 STEPS in which one isn’t sure who did what to whom, let alone why the camera seems to be focused at pigeons on rooftops (Is it possible Mr. Thomas mistakenly thinks he is remaking THE BIRDS?) while someone is being murdered offscreen; SOME GIRLS DO, a murky bargain basement Bond spoof featuring a catatonic Sydney Rome in white go-go boots who simply stands there (no doubt waiting for her closeup); and most notoriously, PERCY, a sluggishly paced string of smirky non-sequiturs about the world’s first successful penis transplant. Add to the mix grainy, washed-out photography, flimsy looking sets and actors who spend most of their time walking aimlessly down nondescript streets or fumbling in their pockets for keys and you’ll understand why I’m sent into a trance-like state by Mr. Thomas’ oeuvre similar to that induced by the films of the Canadian minimalist Michael Snow.

In reading these stories about producers and personalities that Mr. Bright has set before us, one wonders how any films at all were made, let alone such a large number of enduring classics. In particular, let’s consider GENEVIEVE, director Henry Cornelius’ transcendent 1952 comedy about a man, a woman and the antique car that initially separates, and then unites them during a cross-country race. Watching GENEVIEVE is like living through one’s favorite birthday parties simultaneously, all wrapped up in an 86 minute Technicolor portrait of perhaps the oddest yet happiest of nuclear families. Mr. Bright, after rushing through the 40’s, slows down some and spends a marvelous six pages on Henry Cornelius’ film, brightly illustrated with color stills of Kay Kendall and Kenneth More (who were third and forth billed, but ended up stealing the picture, Mr. More receiving an award as the best British performer of the year). It’s also a nice touch to include a photo of Larry Adler, the expatriate American harmonica player who composed GENEVIEVE’s score but was uncredited in the film.

Two years before GENEVIEVE, Pinewood tottered on the edge of bankruptcy, and a bureaucrat from Baton Rouge, LA, Howard St. John, had taken control of production, limiting each film to a budget of 100,000 pounds. The money for GENEVIEVE had mostly come from the British government, so Mr. St. John had no complaint there, but he had a particular dislike of Kenneth More and Kay Kendall, and after the film was finished, decided (along with J. Arthur Rank) that GENEVIEVE was box office poison and put the film on the shelf. 18 months later the Christmas attraction at the London Odeon cinema bombed, and Mr. St. John, filled with trepidation, was forced to put GENEVIEVE in its place. GENEVIEVE quickly became the top British box office attraction of the decade, made stars of Kenneth More and Kay Kendall and saved Pinewood from going under. (Mr. St. John also did everything in his power to stop DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE from being made, the other bright spot along with GENEVIEVE, both artistically and financially, in Pinewood’s production history of the early 50’s.)

There’s a lot more I could tell you, as the book goes on for over a 100 pages beyond what I’ve described, starting with a detailed and lavishly illustrated chapter on the entire “James Bond” series, from Sean Connery to Daniel Craig, continuing with the sci-fi and comic book films of the 70’s and 80’s, such as the “Alien” and “Batman” series, as well as lots of information on Stanley Kubrick and Tim Burton. A detailed 30-page filmography at the back of the book lists over 300 movies, from CROSS MY HEART, directed in 1938 by one Bernard Mainwaring, to Tim Burton’s SWEENEY TODD. Seeing as I have recently reviewed two collections of Hammer films, and therefore have a special interest, the only Hammers made at Pinewood were THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN from 1957, and DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE from 1968. Mr. Burton mentions the latter in his effusive and informative introduction.

RECOMMENDED.

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