As we research the many maps, plans, images and contemporary accounts of the studios it becomes clear that as well as being factories of film production they were complex social communities employing a large, varied workforce. As well as practical workspaces including stages, workshops, stores and dressing rooms, many studios housed canteens, bars and restaurants. In this blog post we describe examples of such facilities in France, Italy, Germany and Britain, giving a rare glimpse into the studios’ social spaces, the people who were and were not permitted to eat in them and some of the culinary delights on the menu.
Whether it satisfied a practical need by providing a complete meal every day to all the studio crews or whether it just allowed them to have a drink and a sandwich, the ‘bar-restaurant’ was always a central place in the French studios that had one. As a dining area, waiting or reception room, it was the ideal place to feel the pulse of the studio. There you could meet the stagehands as well as the stars, the producers as well as the dressers, and the journalists enjoyed talking to the waiters who generally knew the latest studio gossip.
Just like the editing rooms, the carpenter’s workshop or the power station, the restaurant was an integral part of the ‘studio services’. While most of the major French studios had their own bar-restaurant (like in Joinville, Francœur, Billancourt, Saint-Maurice, Buttes Chaumont, Nice, Marseille or Saint-Laurent-du-Var), some quite important ones, such as the Eclair and Tobis studios in Epinay-sur-Seine, the Studios Photosonor in Courbevoie, or the ‘Studios de Neuilly’, strangely did not. The generic term ‘restaurant’ tended to reflect very different realities from one studio to another. Whereas the Saint-Maurice and Joinville Studios could serve a hot meal to nearly 200 people, many studio restaurants looked more like small bars and were far from able to feed all the film crews. In Billancourt, for example, the ‘Bar du personnel’ did not exceed 40m2 with a small adjoining kitchen of 15m2, which meant the technicians, actors and extras had to regularly visit the neighbourhood’s restaurants, especially Le Père Alix, also frequented by the workers of the Renault car factories located just opposite the studios.
In the Pathé studios in Joinville, the restaurant (a 350m2 space, equipped with a vast kitchen and a cellar) consisted of a 96-seat canteen for workers and extras, a 40-seat room for supporting actors, employees and technicians (secretaries, props, designers, draftsmen, etc.) and a 36-seat room for stars, directors and their close collaborators (cinematographers, set-designers, production managers). The 12-seat dining room was only accessible by invitation from the management and reserved for a few selected stars, directors or authors.
Although these restaurants were open to all studio workers and therefore constituted a privileged meeting place, social barriers were not totally abolished, each professional category having its own space. In December 1937, Pour Vous published a photo of extras sitting at a table in a large room and a photo of Albert Préjean – also eating – captioned: ‘while in the next room, a glory of the screen, who may be Albert Préjean, is enjoying the same menu…’ So, even if an extra shared the same menu as the French star Albert Préjean in the same studio restaurant, it was very unlikely that they shared a table!
Beyond their functional character, the restaurants and bars in the studios sometimes became meeting places or reception areas. Welcoming all categories of staff in a small area, they reflected the atmosphere of the studio, and journalists liked to go there and feel the pulse of the production. Depending on the number of people, the way the groups of workers mixed or not, the way they lingered at the end of the meal or, on the contrary, the way they quickly returned to the workshops and sets, the attentive observer would be able to deduce that the studio was either running at full speed or in slow motion, working in a convivial atmosphere or in strict observance of hierarchies.
As many journalists noted, lunch in a studio restaurant seemed the best way to start a report on the level of activity in French cinema. As Odile Cambier noted in Cinémonde in September 1932: ‘Last Tuesday, wanting to spend an hour in the arc lamp atmosphere, […] I decided to have lunch at the Billancourt Studios’. The restaurant also served as a social area where the stars and directors would address the press. For an interview with the actor René Lefèvre in the summer of 1932, Cinémonde journalist Odile-D. Cambier was received ‘in the small country restaurant of the Pathé-Natan studio in Joinville’, while Maurice Tourneur received Suzanne Chantal, editor of the same newspaper, ‘in the rustic dining room of Pathé-Natan’ to talk to her about her latest film, Au nom de la loi. As for the bar – open all day long and sometimes even quite late in the evening in case of late shooting – it was open to everyone and more conducive to informal meetings that encouraged the strengthening of professional ties between experienced technicians, making connections and even planning future productions.
While the bar-restaurant was a place for socialising on a daily basis, it also served as a setting for more exceptional and formal receptions. In Joinville, Pathé’s management regularly organized cocktails, receptions and lunches with the stars of the house, and invited the press for special occasions, such as the Legion of Honor party for its director René Nadal in November 1937, or the ‘gold medal for sports education’ awarded to the head of the Pathé Compagny Bernard Natan in December 1932. More broadly, the studio restaurants regularly welcomed political personalities and foreign delegations who came to visit the jewels of the French film industry. In 1931, in the space of a few months, the restaurants of the Joinville and Saint-Maurice studios welcomed: a delegation of French senators, the Undersecretary of State for Fine Arts, the Ambassador of Argentina, the Consul General of China and his family and the Consul General of Egypt.
Symbolizing the centrality of the restaurant in the studio’s image, the first prize awarded to the winner of the 1932 Cinémonde contest was a lunch ( see below) at the Pathé-Natan Studio’s restaurant, in the presence of some of the studio’s stars.
In Italy, a study of the design and spatial organization of the studios’ dining areas also helps us get a sense of the labour and social dynamics that governed life in the studios. In its heyday, Italy’s most famous complex Cinecittà (inaugurated in 1937) attracted a large number of high-profile film personalities as well as politicians and diplomats, visiting Rome for business or leisure. The studios’ modern restaurant and bar were aptly designed to cater to these illustrious guests. Described by Cinecittà’s architect Gino Peressutti as a ‘spacious, airy [environment] characterised by effortless and practical sophistication’, this sociable space was located on top of a green terraced area and tucked away from the main action for ‘a cool and pleasantly restful’ experience (Cinema 1937: 306).
Cinecittà’s general workers and extras ate elsewhere, in a canteen located not far from the stages. This communal space was also ‘furnished with all the comforts necessary to eat and rest’ while at the same time ‘designed to meet essential disciplinary criteria’ (Cinema 1937: 305).
This functional separation was found elsewhere, at Cines for example. The first in Italy to be equipped with sound, thehistorical Roman studios received during the early 1930s a generous amount of press publicity. The lively atmosphere of its (main) restaurant was also paid tribute to. An illustrative example is given below. Standing centre of picture is Cines’ restaurant manager Tullio Pascucci, dubbed by the film magazine columnist as the ‘legendary lunch designer’ (Cinema Illustrazione 1936: 4). The impromptu shot also captured a glimpse of some of his celebrity guests: sitting at the table among others renowned director Carmine Gallone and emerging actor Amedeo Nazzari, bread and fork to mouth respectively.
Cines’ main restaurant was located nearby the gardens, in a two-floor building readily accessible from the studio’s principal entrance of via Vejo. The ground floor of the ristorante included an area reserved for the direzione (the owner, the management). Judging from its more descriptive name, the cantina ristorante, on the first floor, would have likely accommodated the studios’ full-time regular staff (perhaps the sound technicians, the camera operators, the projectionists) as well as providing further seating capacity at busy production times. Another smaller restaurant, situated at the opposite side of the studio complex, catered for the operai [labourers] and extras. This dining area was located on the first floor of the scenography and property building, in the vicinity of stage 3, the carpentry workshop and other warehouses and not far from the ‘back’ entrance of Piazza Tuscolo.
A glimpse at the menu is found in the film La stella del cinema (Mario Almirante, 1931), set in Cines, in which we see that actors’ dressing rooms contain a board with that day’s offerings.
In Germany the studio canteen at Babelsberg was an important place to eat and meet. The positioning of the Ufa-Kantine to the left of the main entrance at Neubabelsberg signifies its importance in the layout of the compound. As a location bringing people together and punctuating the working schedule, the canteen goes beyond its functional purpose as a place to eat, acting as a space to recuperate, to discuss work … and to gossip! It is also cited as somewhere aspirant filmmakers and actors might enjoy the company of film stars or have a drink with Pabst, Murnau or Korda (Sunday Mail, 1953: 25).
During the 1920s, the Ufa canteen at Babelsberg was leased to Kempinski. A document dated 1943 indicates the lease changed to Aschinger, the rival that had taken over Kempinski in a move reflecting the Aryanisation of the industry. Aschinger had established itself early in Berlin’s cultural life, portrayed in Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and much later in the crime novels of Volker Kutscher which in turn gave impetus to today’s Babelsberg with the highly successful Babylon Berlin.
There is only occasional mention of the food, but genuine Wiener Schnitzel are served, alongside Möhlspeis, a sweet pastry. If the menus matched those in the centre of Berlin, the fare was predominantly Central/Northern European.
The contemporaneous accounts are drawn from diverse sources, many from abroad. This is a time when Ufa was still making films in other languages, and the diners reflect this diversity: ‘We are surrounded by a medley of languages. Because Ufa is currently producing Spanish, French and German films, we are sitting amid a strange chaos of sounds. At the next table, the French are ordering lunch; the Spanish are noisily settling their bill.’ (Mein Film, 636, 1938: 5) Although these accounts provide only fragmentary information, they allow an outline of the Babelsberg canteen to emerge.
The editors of an Austrian film publication offered the winner ‘[lunch] in the studio canteen, the same one in which Ufa’s prominent film artists tend to take their lunch’, Mein Film (628, 1938: 2). A few months later, Fräulein Niel, was able to enjoy “lunch time in the studios, [… ] sitting at a comfortable table in one of the cheerful and brightly coloured dining rooms’ (Mein Film, 636, 1938: 5). The image on the left shows Johannes Heesters, Fräulein Ingenieur Niel and Otto Richter (Mein Film, 636:5), and the image on the right shows Gary Cooper and Zarah Leander (Mein Film, 1938).
The canteen was also where visiting film stars and magnates took their lunch and Fräulein Niel missed Gary Cooper by a few months. Although there is little to suggest social separation between canteens and restaurants – the studio appears to have had only one canteen – there are nevertheless pointers that internal divisions existed. While in costume the actor, Paul Hartmann, describes being redirected by a waiter: ‘the table for the extras is over there …this one is for the soloists’. (Mein Film, 1935: 4)
Some British studios included multiple spaces for people to eat, differentiated in large part according to the occupations of those using them. At Denham, there were no fewer than three separate dining rooms: an executive restaurant (where lunch might set you back 3s. 6d, and where you might expect to run into all manner of stars and industry big-wigs). Here is Alexander Korda entertaining Mary Pickford and Charles Laughton in Denham’s VIP restaurant.
There was also a more moderately priced restaurant (1s. 9d.), and a cafeteria (10d.) (Stargazer 1938: 12). Although at Ealing a corner of the dining room was partitioned off for use by company directors, site plans for Sound City (Shepperton), Pinewood and Denham (see images below) show that canteens for workmen were housed in a separate building to the restaurants and cafeteria used by executives, administrative staff and actors.
At Denham, this reflected the layout of the studios, where the noisier and dirtier trades (carpenters, plasterers, etc.) were housed as far from the stages as the site and workplace efficiency would allow, but it also functioned to distance these trades from other studio employees: the workmen’s canteen (possibly the cafeteria mentioned above, possibly an entirely different building) was, when the studio opened in 1936, at the extreme south-east of the site, whereas the restaurants used by executives, office staff and actors were at its most north-westerly point. This kind of spatial segregation, of course, speaks to wider issues of class distinction in British society, and it is interesting to note that the supposed egalitarianism of the dining facilities provided by some French and American studios was noted approvingly in British fan magazine Film Weekly (Whetter 1931: 24; Foster 1932: 12).
The provision of on-site catering facilities had the potential to benefit both staff welfare and studio efficiency. Employees having to leave the lot for food might result in longer lunch breaks and tardier returns, but also forced staff to move through environments outside their studio’s control. There was no canteen at the British & Dominion lot at Elstree, and local residents were said to have become ‘quite used to the spectacle of painted men and women, in every kind of costume, trudging through the mud’ to get something to eat at either the adjoining BIP lot ‘or at Blattner’s [studio], across the field’ (Kirk 1931: 10-11). Soiled costumes could not be put before the camera, and cleaning them could therefore delay shooting, whereas when it rained, make-up might need to be reapplied and hair re-dressed. If, as Napoleon is popularly supposed to have said, an army marches on its stomach, then those working in a film studio needed to be similarly well-provisioned if they were to meet their creative objectives in an efficient manner.
So far, the information turned up by our research into the types of food available in British studio canteens is quite fragmentary, but the following details provide a taste (ho ho) of what was on offer:
- Denham: fish cakes for lunch-boxes; curries for the 500 extras appearing in the Technicolor version of The Four Feathers’ (Stargazer 1938: 12).
- Ealing: pheasant; sausages (Newnham 1949: 13).
- Pinewood: roast beef, steak and kidney pudding, apple pie; Peter Orton, the catering manager at Pinewood, was also responsible for ‘putting food on film’, from custard pies (it ‘must make a magnificent squelch’) to fake ‘raw fish’ made from hundreds-and-thousands-coated jelly (M.J. 1956: 3).
Bon Appétit from STUDIOTEC!
Bundesarchiv R109-I/75 / Aschinger AG, Berlin, wegen der Ufa-Kantine in Babelsberg, 1943 / 1920 – 1947.
Bundesarchiv R109-I/75a /Kempinski & Co., Kantine Babelsberg, Pachtvertrag.
Foster, Iris, ‘Twelve hours in wonderland’, Film Weekly, 2 December 1932, p. 12.
Kirk, Muriel, ‘The City of Illusion’, Film Weekly, 14 February 1931, pp. 10-11.
Martin, Sara, Gino Peressutti. L’architetto di Cinecittà (Forum: Udine, 2013).
Mein Film, Paul Hartmann verläßt uns, 472: January 1935.
Mein Film, Gratisflug nach Babelsberg, 628: 1938.
Mein Film, Gary Cooper in Babelsberg, 676: 1938.
Mein Film, Eine Wienerin fliegt nach Babelsberg, 636: 1938
M. J., ‘What the stars eat at their own canteen’, Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette, 14 December 1956, p. 3.
Newnham, John K., ‘Lunch with the mad hatters’, Picturegoer, 26 March 1949, p. 13.
Peressutti, Gino, ‘Cinecittà’, Cinema, 2:20, 1937, pp. 302-306.
Sabatello, Dario, ‘Tullio, l’uomo che mette in scena il pranzo degli attori’, Cinema Illustrazione, 11:41, 1936, p. 4.
Stargazer, ‘Stargazer’s advance studio news’, Uxbridge and West Drayton Gazette, 26 August 1938, p. 12.
Sunday Mail (Brisbane), ‘A Girl of Good Family’, 13 December 1953
Whetter, Laura, ‘In a Parisian film studio’, Film Weekly, 24 October 1931, p. 24
All translations from original language sources are by the authors unless otherwise stated.