Publicising the studio: Cigarette cards – ‘How Films are Made’

By Richard Farmer

Cigarette cards have a long association with the entertainment industries, and some of the earliest British cards, issued in the 1890s, sported images of popular stage performers (Hilton, 2000: 141).  During the ‘hey-day of [cigarette] card issues’ in the 1920s and 1930s, tobacco manufacturers were continually on the look-out for subjects that reflected changes in popular culture, and in the interwar period ‘series on actresses and beauties gave way to series on film stars, recording the dominance of the cinema as the most popular mass entertainment in place of the music hall’ (London Cigarette Card Company, 1982: 13).

The tobacco companies’ tendency to focus on film stars reflected the way in which much cinema advertising functioned in this period, where actors and actresses were usually very much to the fore.  In 1934, however, the London-based B. Morris and Sons adopted a different approach, issuing a series of cards entitled ‘How Films are Made.’  This series was founded on a belief that British smokers and card collectors would be as interested in learning about the production of films as they were in watching them.  Providing information about some of the people and processes involved in filmmaking, the cards provide glimpses of particular spaces within the studio.  Each card has a colour illustration (not a photograph) on one side – artist unknown – and an explanation of a job, piece of equipment or creative process on the other.

As acknowledged on each of the cards, the ‘How Films are Made’ series was produced with the assistance of the Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, which appears to have granted access to its studios, and/or provided stills or other kinds of information useful to the cards’ creators.  Six of the company’s films, shot between May 1932 and November 1933, are mentioned in the series.  Of these, five (Rome Express, 1932, and The Good Companions, I Was a Spy, Channel Crossing and Turkey Time, all 1933) were made at G.-B.’s main studio at Shepherd’s Bush – the only facility mentioned by name on the cards – and one (Friday the Thirteenth, 1933) at the company’s studio at Islington, although exterior sets for I Was a Spy, the subject of one of the cards, were built at Shepherd’s Bush and then transported to British Instructional’s studio lot at Welwyn.

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Building the exterior set for I Was a Spy, and how it appeared in the film

The promotion of Shepherd’s Bush is understandable; when the cards were issued, the studio had only recently been rebuilt and expanded at a cost of approximately £750,000, finally reopening in 1932 with ‘imposing’ new buildings, six new sound stages and various workshops ‘all fully equipped with the latest innovations in mechanical aids to human craftsmanship’ (Anon., 1930: 33; Anon., 1931: 48; Pritlove, 1932: 146).  The publicity campaign that attended the opening of the expanded Shepherd’s Bush facility, evident not only in these cards but also in publications such as the Meccano Magazine and in replicas of the studios exhibited in the foyer of G.-B.’s cinemas, show that film studios were not only spaces that produced popular culture, but were an element of that popular culture, too.

Of the films mentioned on the cards, the five made at Shepherd’s Bush were all produced after the first part of the studio’s reconstruction was completed in mid-1932, with Rome Express, starting production on the day of its re-opening (Buchanan 1932: 15).  Although the ‘How Films are Made’ series does not mention the renovations, there is considerable overlap between many of the features covered in, for example, Kine Weekly’s glowing portrait of the new Shepherd’s Bush studio, published on 11 January 1934, and the twenty-five subjects discussed in the cigarette cards (see appendix for full list of card titles).

The ‘How Films are Made’ series afforded an enviable opportunity for Gaumont-British to show-off the cutting-edge nature of its new facility.  Although some of the technologies explored seem a little obscure – card no. 7 informs readers that ‘The studio is fitted all round with air pressure pipes’ which allowed set dressers to use a ‘pressure gun’ to make ‘anything from beautifully traced spider webs to masses of dirty cobwebs’ – the focus on the recording of synchronous sound is rather more predictable. ‘The talkies’ were still a relatively new phenomenon when the cards were released in 1934, and even more so when they were being researched, illustrated and written in 1932-33.  The first all-sound British film, Blackmail, had been released in July 1929, but at the end of 1930 almost 40% of British cinemas remained unequipped to show sound films and there were still six ‘silent’ cinemas in the UK as late as November 1934 (Gomery, 1983: 82; Anon., 1934: 216).  A major reason for the renovation and expansion of G.-B.’s Shepherd’s Bush studio was to make it more suitable for sound-film production, so it is unsurprising that four cards deal directly with sound – Nos. 4: Recording of Train Noises, 6: Microphone “Boom”, 14: The Sound Control Room and 23: Clapper Boy – whilst four others refer to sound or sound recording equipment in passing (Nos. 2: “Dolly” in Action, 15: Rain, 16: Back Projection, No. 25: Snow Scene).

Not all of the cards relate to technological innovations, however, and there are a number that focus on established behind-the-scenes spaces in the studio, presenting these as peopled by adept and specialised workers whose labour is essential to efficient film production.  The cards take the viewer to the wardrobe department, where a ‘skilled needlewoman’ is shown using a sewing machine whilst surrounded by variously styles hats and brightly-coloured dresses, no doubt produced in consultation with a historical consultant ‘versed in the details of the dress of many periods’.  ‘Specially skilled’ make-up artists are shown working in their department before shooting begins and on set between takes, and are said to be capable of transforming the appearance of actors with ‘Plastic noses, foreheads, chins, etc.’  In the model department, an accurate scale model of a station set is built, allowing the director and cinematographer to feed into its final design, and carpenters and set designers to work out the type and quantity of materials needed to make the full-size version on the sound stage.  Four carpenters, members of another ‘very important department’, are shown building a wooden howitzer for use in I Was a Spy: their workshop is clean and spacious, and light is provided by a number of large windows.   In another shop, plasterers are shown building a scaled-down copy of the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster, for use in Friday the Thirteenth.

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Plasterers at work making a replica of the clock tower of the Palace of Westminster for use in Friday the Thirteenth, and how it appears in the film

The celebration of the filmmakers work is, however, pretty understated.  Hyperbole is rare, and glamour is largely absent: no stars are named, and actors are shown as the beneficiaries of their off-screen colleagues’ work, not the reason for it.  The cards’ explanations are worded, and the illustrations drawn, in a simple, matter-of-fact manner, subtly directing attention to the studio’s modernity by showing employees confidently utilising its marvellous technologies as they go about their work.  Similarly, words such as “shot,” “prop,” “set” or “supers” (i.e. extras) are placed in inverted commas but often remain undefined.  Here, the self-consciously casual use of specialist slang – even as mediated by the cards’ (unnamed) author(s) – evokes the highly technical nature of this workplace, whilst their casual deployment suggests the easy mastery that the labour force had over it.

This workforce, though, is shown to be almost exclusively male.  Other than actresses, only two women appear on the ‘How Films are Made’ cards.  One is shown at work in the wardrobe department.  The other is a continuity supervisor, described as a girl on the illustration, and as a lady, albeit with a ‘very important job’, in the description.  This, of course, reflects the highly gendered nature of the film industry in this period – membership records for the ACT union (accessible via the BECTU Membership Database, login required) do not appear to show any male continuity supervisors joining the union before the end of the Second World War – in which jobs were considered more or less (read un-) suitable for women based on their supposed ‘natural’ aptitude for certain kinds of labour, and the unwillingness of male colleagues to work under them.

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Taken as a whole, the ‘How Films are Made’ series speaks to the prominence of cinema within British popular culture.  It is difficult to know how widely circulated this particular set of cards were, let alone how those who consulted or collected them responded to the images and information that they contained, although the fact that the theme does not appear to have been revisited might suggest its relative lack of popularity relative to other film related series.  Nevertheless, it has been estimated that by 1939 a single series of cigarette cards might comprise somewhere in the region of 300 million individual cards (Anon., 1948: 5), so even allowing for the fact that there were twenty-five ‘How Films are Made’ cards, as compared to 50 in Player’s 1934 film stars series, there might still have been hundreds of thousands, and possibly several million, of each card printed.  Even today, it is not difficult to purchase complete sets from specialist dealers or online auction sites.  The astounding number of cards in circulation represented a potentially significant promotional boon for Gaumont-British.  But the cards also acted as a means by which information about the British film industry more generally was disseminated, making visible the often unseen spaces of cinematic production, the modernity of the techniques and equipment used therein, and the talents of studio employees.

It seems fitting that cartophilists were encouraged to collect twenty-five cards to complete the set.  Just as the cards show the film studio as a place of collective endeavour, and a finished film as an inherently collaborative product, so the series can only be considered complete when the different trades and spaces of the studio are brought together, too.  There is, of course, an irony in all this: smoking was strictly prohibited in many studio spaces due to the highly flammable nature of film stock and other materials used in film production, meaning that the cigarettes produced by B. Morris and Sons could not be consumed at work by those whose labour was featured in the ‘How Films are Made’ series.

Appendix – Card titles

1) Battery of Cameras; 2) Dolly in Action; 3) Battery of Lights; 4) Recording Noises; 5) Plasterers’ Department; 6) Microphone Boom; 7) Making Cobwebs; 8) Perspective Scenery; 9) Engine and Station Built on Set; 10) Continuity Girl; 11) In the Station; 12) Making a Snowstorm; 13) Wardrobe Department; 14) The Sound Control Room; 15) Rain; 16) Back Projection; 17) White Lines Shewing Camera Range; 18) Model Department; 19) In the Carpenters’ Shop; 20) Making Fog; 21) Make-up Man; 22) Make-up Man on Set; 23) Clapper Boy; 24) Erecting a Set for I Was a Spy; 25) Snow Scene on Set.

References

Anon. (1930), ‘New Gaumont stages’, Kine Weekly, 30 October: p. 33.

Anon. (1931), ‘New Gaumont studio’, Kinematograph Weekly, 13 August: p. 48.

Anon. (1934): ‘Equipment and technique in 1934’, Kinematograph Year Book 1935 (London: Kinematograph Publications): pp. 214-263.

Anon. (1948), ‘The Cartophilist’, The Times, 3 March: p. 5.

Donald Buchanan (1932), ‘Behind the Screens,’ The Stage, 2 June: p. 15.

Douglas Gomery (1983), ‘Economic Struggle and Hollywood Imperialism: Europe Converts to Sound,’ Yale French Studies, 60: pp. 80-93.

Matthew Hilton (2000), Smoking in British Popular Culture, 1800-2000: Perfect Pleasures (Manchester: University of Manchester Press).

London Cigarette Card Company (1982), Catalogue of International Cigarette Cards (Exeter: Webb & Bower).

B. Pritlove (1932), ‘New sound-film studios at Shepherd’s Bush’, Architects’ Journal, 27 January: pp. 146-8.

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