By Morgan Lefeuvre
And here I am in Paramount’s European studios. […] hustle and bustle everywhere. A huge bus has just spilled a whole army of employees into the courtyard… typists, translators, draughtsmen, technicians… a swarm of smiling, cheerful young people… Stagehands in overalls hurry towards the studios, carrying things, heavy ‘cameras’ on their shoulders… The make-up artists are in their white coats… the dressers… the extras arrive… the artists… the stars…. the cameramen and directors… […] All are feverish, agitated, busy at their work (Ciné-magazine, Jan 1931: p. 20).
This description of the Saint-Maurice studios, chosen from dozens of more or less similar press reports, gives the impression of frenetic, intense and continuous activity. A daily ballet of workers who, in a permanent whirlwind, work tirelessly to keep the dream factory running. A closer look reveals that work in the studios is made up of alternating moments of activity and hiatus. ‘Waiting’ is an essential part of film workers’ lives and a key element in understanding the daily workings of a film studio.
Michèle Morgan having a break with dancers and extras on the shooting of La Belle que voilà directed by Jean-Paul Le Chanois (Joinville studios December 1949 – photos by Roger Parry).
In this large collective that is a production team, everyone seems to be waiting for something or someone. The many shooting reports that I consulted in the French archives for the 1930s testify to the various waiting times that punctuate the daily life of a film shoot. Here are a few examples taken from the report for Raymond Rouleau’s film Le Messager, shot during April and May 1937 in the studios of Nice, Joinville and Francoeur (Albatros 289 B25). On 8th April, the whole team waits for the cinematographer Jules Krüger who finally indicates by a call at 6:25 pm that he will not be able to come, held up on another shoot. April 12th: 55 minutes of waiting during the installation of the set. April 14th: 70 minutes of waiting for the installation of travelling tracks, then 15 minutes of waiting for it to be dismantled. On April 22nd, three work stoppages due to camera malfunctions. On 5th and 6th May, there were countless interruptions in filming to wait for the passage of a plane or a train, Gaby Morlay’s dress change, the adjustment of a dolly, or the actors and operators who extended their lunch break. Although these breaks, which are not anticipated in the shooting schedule, are sometimes used to work out the details of the next scene, to answer a journalist visiting the set, or to take promotional or crew photos, most of the time, everyone has to be patient while waiting for work to resume.
Françoise Rosay as Empress Catherine II, reading Paris-Soir during a break in the filming of Jean Dréville’s Le Joueur d’échecs (Gaumont Studio, May 1938 – Photo by Walter Limot, coll. Cinémathèque française).
While all studio professionals have to deal with breaks imposed by technical difficulties or human failures, there is one professional category for which waiting in the studio is truly an integral part of the work: actors in general and extras in particular. During the 1930s, the corporate press published a large number of articles on the recruitment and working conditions of extras. They all emphasized the interminable wait that was part of the daily life of these aspiring stars. If the most fatalistic among them were content to wait in the cafés of the Grands Boulevards for a casting director to come and offer them a job, the most determined would set off across Paris for a long wait at the doors of the studios in Joinville, Epinay or Billancourt in the hope of finding a commitment for the day. Once the doors open – when they have not been told ‘we are full for today, come back tomorrow’ – a long day of waiting would begin.
That’s right… I’m waiting… the job of extra sometimes involves a quarter of an hour of real work a day. The other hours you wait… you wait… you wait… you wait for the sun to shine… you wait for the star to arrive… you wait until the sequence of images has reached the point where your very small intervention is necessary… So during this waiting time you fill the minutes, either by closing your eyes to dream or by looking for company (L’Intransigeant, 30 July 1931: p. 6).
Thus, begins the story of a day’s work in the Epinay-sur-Seine studios, told by an extra who then evokes the long discussions between colleagues and the interminable card games between takes. Whether they are simple extras or have been lucky enough to secure a speaking part, the actors try to occupy the long hours of waiting in the studio. Some, like Jean Gabin, take advantage of the breaks to sleep in a corner of the set, in the grass of the courtyard or on the banks of the river at Billancourt or Joinville (Cinémonde, 1st Aug 1935). Others prefer reading, card games or chess, hobbies most often mentioned in the press or testimonies. Iconographic sources also show that embroidery and knitting are among the pastimes prized even by famous actors, if we are to believe this report on the shooting of Yves Mirande’s film Messieurs les ronds de cuir. During a break, the very popular actor Pierre Larquey ‘takes the opportunity to go and sit in a corner under the admiring eye of two dressers and take out his knitting […]. It’s a scarf, he announces. But I’m like Penelope’, he admits, ‘I’m never done with it!’ (Cinémonde, 22 Oct 1936: p. 752).
Extras knitting, reading and sleeping, waiting for acting on the shooting of Croisières sidérales directed by André Zwobada (Francoeur studios, December 1941 – photos by Roger Parry).
While the leading players have their own dressing rooms where they can go and rest during the waiting times, this is obviously not the case for supporting roles, let alone extras. Waiting often take place in uncomfortable conditions, on the fringes of the sets, in the courtyard or possibly at the studio bar if one exists. The poor health conditions in which all film workers were working in the 1930s and 1940s were the subject of many trade union protests and were regularly denounced in the press. Here is what Le Reporter du studio wrote in its editorial of 8 January 1938 entitled ‘Open letter to the studio directors’:
Have you ever thought that the artists working in your studios might be tired or suffering? […] There are long days in the studio, hard scenes, empty hours too, during which no one can get away, likely to be called at any minute.
What do they do during these forced breaks? They wander lamentably in the corridors, in the courtyards, in the cold, in the rain, anxious above all not to damage their clothes, their evening gown, their beautiful costume – because it is often their livelihood – and it is worth several daily fees – and never, never a chair, a bench to rest, a shelter to put themselves in!
No studio has ever had the humanity to think that ten… or three hundred extras could be brought together and might also feel like sitting down…
Joinville, Billancourt, Eclair, Tobis, Neuilly, Courbevoie? Nothing, nothing! In Paramount a reserved room called ‘Foyer des artistes’ yes, four or five chairs and a small space… the idea was there… but how insufficient! (Le Reporter du studio, 8 Jan 1938)
Roger Parry’s photo reports in the studios of Saint-Maurice and Francoeur confirm this lack of comfort. We see the extras waiting between two shots sitting on piles of rostrum, carts, scenery elements or sitting directly on a dusty floor.
Extras waiting during the shooting of Madame Sans-Gêne directed by Roger Richebé (Saint-Maurice Studios, June 1941 – photos by Roger Parry).
Extras waiting for acting on the shooting of Croisières sidérales directed by André Zwobada (Francoeur studios, December 1941 – photos by Roger Parry).
However, the archives indicate that efforts were made in some studios to accommodate studio staff in a more suitable manner. As early as the late 1920s, the Cinéromans studios in Joinville had a vast restaurant, numerous and comfortable dressing rooms for actors and extras, and a waiting room. In a letter addressed to L’Union des artistes (the main actors’ union), a certain Fernand Saint-Allier thus congratulates Jean Sapène, director of the Joinville studios, for the efforts made to welcome film workers with dignity. At the Joinville studios, he writes, ‘there is a waiting room with chairs and a doorman to welcome you […] everything is pleasant and spacious. The dressing rooms are pretty and practical, there are washbasins, showers, a make-up room, etc… a bar and a restaurant where you can have decent meals at reasonable prices without having to get back into your street clothes and go out in bad weather, and that’s just between us, at home’ (Union des artistes, 175 J 200). Indeed, if the most substantial studios make the effort to equip themselves with reception areas and in particular a bar-restaurant, it is not only for the comfort of the actors, technicians and studio workers, but also to facilitate the task of the stage managers and make important efficiency gains. In the absence of reception areas within the studios, it was not uncommon for teams to disperse in the lunchtime break, leaving the stage manager to do the rounds of the local bistros to gather up his recalcitrant crew and extras. Now it would be the turn of the technicians to wait, with their lights and camera angles worked out, on the deserted set ready for shooting.
While some people would go fishing, actor Jules Berry preferred to spend his time at the racetracks near Joinville or Epinay-sur-Seine, adding his winnings to his already impressive salary. As a journalist from Pour Vous wrote, ‘Berry has acquired a surprising skill in the art of calculating the length of scenes he will not be in. When others go out for a breath of fresh air or a cup of tea, he guesses “I have time to watch the second race!” And he leaves. And he comes back on time without missing a beat’ (Pour Vous, 4 Jan 1939: p. 11).
While actors and extras found hundreds of different ways of passing time, for workers and technicians waiting was rarely dead time. The permanent studio teams (carpenters, painters, grips, propmakers, etc.) would use down time to maintain their equipment, tidy up the workshops or improve the tools. As for the contract technicians, down time gave an opportunity to talk to colleagues, exchange on various aspect of the profession, ensuring they were always up to date with work going on in other studios. For them, the studio was the perfect place to socialize and strengthen their professional network essential for any career. In the studio professions, word of mouth has always been the best way to find out what projects are in the pipeline, and how to get taken on.
For younger and less experienced technicians, breaks were also a time to learn the craft. Indeed, in the absence of film school, most studio professions were then learned ‘on the job’ according to the logic of the workshop. Breaks created valuable space for apprentices to learn from master craftsmen in the industry. During the down times, the director of photography could finally give some technical indications or advice to his assistants, the stage manager could explain the tricks of the trade to the propman and the key grip could explain to the stagehand how to correctly install dolly tracks. The memoirs of technicians often evoke these precious moments of exchange with more experienced colleagues who, through their benevolence, taught them the rudiments of the profession between two shots. This is how Alain Douarinou describes one of his first experiences as second assistant to the cinematographer Nicolas Hayer, his task consisting mainly of developing test shots in the small laboratory adjoining the set:
In reality, these various works, although they required a certain amount of attention and a minimum of skill, left me quite a bit of freedom. As soon as I had nothing more to do in the lab, I would go straight to the set, where our team was working to give a hand to the stagehands or Grisha [the first assistant camera], but above all to watch the filming process, the preparation of the shots, the adjustment of the lights and the actors’ rehearsals. […] If I wasn’t needed for a hand or work in the lab, I was free to go and drag my boots around in the many outbuildings of the studios to see what was going on. (Douarinou, 1989, p. 20).
Whether they are used to learn a craft, to play cards or to knit, waiting times are an integral part of studio life, and were sometimes used as a commercial argument in the 1930s. As in this advertisement for the vitamins Phosférine, which claim to help actors fight exhaustion caused by ‘hours of waiting in uncomfortable studios [that] end up undermining even the strongest constitutions’ (Le Progrès de la Somme, 11 Jan 1932: p. 3). Or again for the portable radio Sonorette, presented as a ‘faithful companion for the long hours of waiting in the studio’ (L’Intransigeant, 24 Oct 1933: p. 12) that stars (including Arlette Marchal and Rosine Deréan) take ‘everywhere with them, in the studio and on their travels!’
Advertising for portable Sonora radio sets, published in L’Excelsior, 11 January 1934.
Advertising published in Le Progrès de la Somme, 11 January 1932, p. 3.
Advertising published in L’Intransigeant, 24 October 1933, p. 12.
Anon., ‘Lettre ouverte à MM. Les directeurs de studios’, Le Reporter du studio, n°52, 8 January 1938.
Anon., ‘Les histoires de Jules Berry’, Pour Vous, n°529, 4 January 1939, p. 11.
Archives Cinémathèque française, fonds Albatros 289 B25
Archives départementales de la Seine Saint-Denis, fonds de l’Union des artistes, 175 J 200
Odile D. Cambier, ‘Actualités joinvillaises’, Cinémonde, n°354, 1st August 1935.
Odile Cambier, ‘A Saint-Maurice, sous la direction d’Yves Mirande on a commencé Les Ronds-de-cuir’, Cinémonde, n°418, 22 October 1936, p. 752.
Michelle Deboyer, ‘La faune du studio’ L’Intransigeant, 30 July 1931, p. 6.
Guy Dornand, ‘Artistes à la journée’, L’Image, 1st January 1933, p. 25.
Alain Douarinou, Un homme à la caméra, Paris, éditions France Empire, 1989, p. 20.
Ralph Lowell, ‘En flânant dans Paramount City’, Ciné-magazine, n°1, January 1931, p. 20.
Anne-Gabriel Reuillard, ‘Les chômeurs du théâtre cherchent à s’engager comme figurants de cinéma mais sont éliminés par des amateurs. Un collaborateur d’Excelsior figure… et enquête’, Excelsior, 23 September 1932.
Gilbert Stiebel, ‘Les Figurants’, Lectures pour tous, September 1933.
Anne-Marie Thaire, ‘Journal d’un figurante’, La Volonté, 26, 27 February, 1st, 3, 4, 5 and 6 March 1933.