Exit, pursued by a bear: Animals in film studios

You last read about Scruffy, this time Richard Farmer, Eleanor Halsall and Carla Mereu-Keating investigate the wider use of animals in British, German and Italian studios.

Britain likes to think of itself as a nation of animal lovers, and the numerous stories in the trade and lay press would appear to give some credence to this cliché.  Indeed, British film fans could read about animals in other countries’ film industries, from how much it cost to rent a cow in Hollywood (£2 a day, since you ask) to the exotic inhabitants of the Ufa menagerie in Berlin (Weir 1936: 5; M. G. H. 1932: 110-11).   

Articles on domestic cinematic fauna tended to dominate, however, and whilst we see numerous stories about studio cats and the stars’ dogs, other discussions of the place of animals in British studios throw light on the spaces and processes of film production in the UK.  For example, we get a sense of the sheer range of employment types that came within the orbit of the studios.  Professional trainers successfully prepared various kinds of animals for their time before the cameras.  The Munt family started supplying horses to British film studios in the silent era and kept more than 150 horses ready for acting duties, with members of the family sleeping in the studio with their charges and also sometimes appearing either atop or alongside them in films such as The Wicked Lady (1945), shot at Islington (Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947:13).  Agents were often responsible for sourcing and getting animals to the studios, as Constance Sparks explained: ‘I know parrots that will whistle any tune or speak certain words; men with dogs that perform amazing tricks, and I have filed information that enables me to get talking ravens, cats of all colours, and even performing fleas!’ (Sparks 1933: 6).  Someone, presumably, was also responsible for cleaning up after the animals. 

Working with animals could be extremely dangerous, and a trainer was mauled by a leopard during the filming of Duel in the Jungle (1954) at Elstree (Walker 1954: 12) whereas cameraman Hone Glendinning had to be ‘housed for safety in a camera booth’ during the filming of Sexton Blake and the Hooded Terror (1938) at Shepperton because the pythons featured in the film ‘streaked across the studio floor’ and ‘darted at members of the company and technicians’ (Anon 1937b: 44).  Animals could act unpredictably when they found themselves in unfamiliar surroundings, and cows ran amok during the filming of a farmyard scene in the George Formby comedy Keep Fit (1937) at Ealing, smashing a pigsty, breaking furniture and tipping over a camera (Anon 1937b: 9).  The producers of The Thirty-Nine Steps had the opposite problem, as sixty-two long-haired sheep felt so at home on the artificial Scottish Highlands built by the Gaumont-British art department at Shepherd’s Bush that they immediately put their jaws to work, quickly accounting for ‘the tastefully arranged heather, bracken, bushes, ferns, and even “property” grass’ so that ‘by the time that the stars of the production, Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat arrived they had hardly a set to stand in’ (Anon 1935b: 7).   

The desire to include animals in films demonstrated both the opportunities and drawbacks associated with new studio technologies.  The coming of sound, for instance, allowed engineers to add auditory realism to sequences featuring animals, and the sound of the gulls in Cape Forlorn (1931), for instance, was carried down a telephone wire from Eastbourne to the BIP studio at Elstree, where it was amplified and recorded (Vigilant 1931: 7).  Yet there was such a thing as too much realism: Dobbin, a horse engaged to appear in Me and Marlborough (1935), caused engineers at Shepherd’s Bush ‘some trouble’ as ‘the champing of a horse’s jaws is a most penetrating sound, and sounds terrifying when reproduced by the recording apparatus’ (Anon. 1935a: 3).  At Denham, the desire to make the River Colne an idyllic but suitably quiet background for filming led to the introduction of ducks ‘guaranteed not to spoil recording with their clamour.’  Unfortunately, the ducks ‘all perished miserably – pursued by the swans and held relentlessly underwater until drowned’ (Dixon 1936: 12), a brutal metaphor, perhaps, for the financial problems that would eventually force Alexander Korda to relinquish control of the studio. 

Illustrative of some of the more unusual hazards facing actors and performers in German film studios, Theo Lingen, in the role of an English journalist, was attacked by his ursine partner during the 1935 shooting of Der Kurier des Zaren (The Tsar’s Courier). Lingen himself was quickly rescued, but the tamer who intervened bore the brunt of the bear’s anger, suffering serious injuries. (Filmpartner, Mein Film, 1935: 18). 

The prolific German film star and director, Harry Piel, frequently worked with all manner of fauna including major predators. This was mostly, but not entirely, without incident. Piel’s advice (should you ever feel inclined to enter a cage full of lions) is to grasp a chair in one hand and a metal pole in the other. With luck, this circus trope may be useful in deflecting swipes from large, exceptionally powerful paws. Or perhaps not. 

Harry Piel’s Panik (1928) 

Piel warned further never, ever to turn your back on a lion and to always be bold: the scent of fear signals opportunity to a predator (Tiere als Filmpartner, Mein Film, 1935: 17). On another occasion Piel cautioned that, should you ever find yourself too close for comfort to a polar bear, the only hint of an impending attack might be a gentle sneeze… 

Yet Piel himself could be taken by surprise. In a widely reported incident during shooting at Babelsberg in 1927, he was standing on a staircase when a tiger was released from its cage. In one leap, the animal landed on the stairs, planting its paws on Piel’s shoulders and causing the structure to collapse, graphically illustrated by Le Petit Journal Illustré. Piel plunged more than three metres to the ground and was carried off in an ambulance, severely injured. Nothing was written about the health of the tiger. (“Harry Piel,” Arbeiterwille, 1927:3; Les dangers du cinéma, le petit Journal illustré, 1927: 2.) 

Germany’s Ufa achieved global recognition for its educational films: short and feature-length documentaries striving to bring the natural world to the cinemagoer. Some of these nature documentaries were made on location, but many were shot in the studio at Babelsberg. To supply the studios, as well as to host animal stars for feature films, Ufa kept its own zoo on site under the watchful eye of cameraman and assistant director, Wolfram Junghans. 

Mein Film described the enthusiasm of a large crowd gathered outside Ufa’s centre on Berlin’s Krausenstrasse (“Mungo,” Mein Film, 1932; 10). One of Ufa’s cultural films was playing on the screen as spectators ‘jostled and japed as they cheered on the deadly battle between a cobra and a mongoose.’ Mungo – one of Ufa’s stars – won the day; the anonymous cobra dying in the pursuit of realism. Animals will be animals, however, and on another occasion when Junghans was preparing a pair of tarantulas who were to be filmed eating a grasshopper, the latter, having failed to study the script, bit off the male tarantula’s left hind leg, instantly altering the narrative. (“Schakale,” Illustrierte Wochenpost, 1930). 

Among the Ufa-Zoo’s other exotic inhabitants were a wolf named Wolfi and his close friend Ali the monkey; Barzi and Gabo, a pair of unruly jackals; spiders, scorpions, alligators and, of course, snakes. Wolfi and Ali achieved fame beyond Germany, and much was written about their symbiotic friendship as well as Wolfi’s appetite for helping to round up animal actors when required. 

Wolfi and Ali

Filmed on location or within Cinecittà’s extensive backlot, the animal world had its fair, and unfair, minutes of fame on Italian screens too. 

Italian Neorealism enthusiasts may remember the dog Flike (also spelled Flaik) acting alongside Carlo Battisti, the university professor turned actor who played the title role in Vittorio De Sica’s drama Umberto D. (1952). The ‘profoundly moving’ relationship between the desperate elderly man and his faithful dog ‘fill us with a desire to help make things right for these people’, commented Roger Manvell, director of the British Film Academy (The Film and the Public 1955: 183-84).  

As is well known, Christian Democrat politician Giulio Andreotti, at the time undersecretary of the Italian government at the performing arts office (Ministero dello Spettacolo), had not been equally enthusiastic about the film’s unflattering representation of Italian society (Sanguinetti 2014). And unsurprisingly so, if we consider how the human-animal relation is dramatized throughout the entire film, the little dog symbolising the only anchor in life for the elderly man made vulnerable by the long-term consequences of war and left behind by the promises of the economic miracle.

Images from Umberto D.  

Long before the rise of computer-generated imagery, production of historical films required the shooting of scenes with live animal gatherings. Large cavalry units, for example, were employed in the battle scenes of historical war epics produced during the fascist regime, such as Cavalleria (Alessandrini, 1936), Condottieri (Trenken, 1937) and Scipione l’Africano (Scipio the African, Gallone, 1937). The co-operation of Italian armed forces was often sought-after for the manpower, for example, thousands of infantry and cavalry soldiers were required to shoot Scipio’s final battle of Zama (Bianco e Nero, 1937: 9). All of these grand cavalry scenes were, however, shot on location while the Cinecittà studios were being built. 

Until the early 1960s, when other large studios were constructed outside of Rome (e.g., De Laurentiis’ Dinocittà), Cinecittà was the only film production facility capable of accommodating this type of outdoor setup because of its vast backlot space. Roman chariot racing in Hollywood’s sword and sandal colossal productions such as Quo Vadis(LeRoy, 1951) and Ben Hur (Wyler, 1959) were shot there.  

Ben Hur’s chariot race, 1959

Horses and other wild animals such as lions, tigers, giraffes, camels and elephants required for filming historical, mythological and adventure films were usually outsourced from Italian zoos and travelling circuses. Some archival sources suggest that Angelo Lombardi’s zoo at Salsomaggiore was the main source of supply for wild animals kept in captivity. Yet providing the requirements of large productions often proved a hard task for resource managers who had to look outside of Italy.  

An illustrative case is the imperial propaganda film Scipio, which cost the fascist regime the staggering sum of about 12.6 million lire (Sciannameo, 2004: 36). The iconic elephants of the Carthaginian army had been particularly hard to find because of the large number requested by the script. Press sources indicate 50 elephants had been used (Bianco e Nero 1937: 9), 18 as front line ‘actors’ able to trumpet, lift the trunk upwards, run and march at their trainer’s signal; and around three dozen only ‘able to act as extras’ (Cinema Illustrazione 1937: 7). 

Elephants in SCIPIO

To our present understanding of animal welfare, however, one cannot ignore the exploitative use of elephants in Scipio. To appear in this ambitious spectacle of war, the elephants were transported by train from the circus Amar, based in central France, to the Tuscolana station in Rome, a long journey which made them ‘nervous’ at arrival (Cinema Illustrazione, 1937). With the exception of a poorly elephant, who had given birth to her little one on the train journey from France to Rome, all the other elephants were forced to walk over 80 km to get to their destination, the Pontine marshes, an area recently reclaimed from malaria and chosen for the filming of the final battle of Zama for internal propaganda purposes (Caprotti 2009). Because these elephants were circus animals, they were not used to walking long distances (an 18 hour walk according to today’s road conditions); at some point along the way, their delicate feet were wrapped in interwoven straw to avoid injury (Cinema Illustrazione, 1936). During shooting, the elephants were asked to march in line, straddled in towers and mounted by two actors impersonating the Carthaginians.  

Animals clearly made important contributions – if at times undervalued and exploitative – to the films made in studios and on location. As these examples have illustrated, they were key to the many spectacular, entertaining and empathetic scenarios in which they featured.  


Anon., ‘They supply the horses’, Kinematograph Weekly, 1 May 1947, p. 13.

Anon., ‘Me and Marlborough’, Eastbourne Chronicle, 19 Jan. 1935a: 3. 

Anon., ‘Government whips puzzled’, Belfast Telegraph, 15 Feb. 1935b: 7. 

Anon., ‘Cows run amok at ATP film studios’, Middlesex County Times, 19 June 1937a: 9. 

Anon., ‘Detectives aid King in Sexton Blake subject’, Kinematograph Weekly, 18 Nov. 1937b: 44. 

Anon., ‘Harry Piel verunglückt’, Arbeiterwille, 5 Dec. 1927: 3. 

Anon., ‘Gefährliche Filmpartner‘, Mein Film, 1935, 517: 18. 

Caf., ‘Gli Elefanti Di Scipione’. Cinema Illustrazione, no. 51, Dec. 1936: 7. 

Federico Caprotti, ‘Scipio Africanus: Film, Internal Colonization and Empire’. Cultural Geographies, 2009, no. 16: 381–401. 

Campbell Dixon, ‘Britain’s new film city’, Daily Telegraph, 28 April 1936: 12. 

René Gauthier, ‘Les dangers du cinéma’, Le petit journal illustré, 1927: 602. 

M. G. H., ‘Actions speak louder than words’, Picture Show Annual, 1932: 110-11. 

W.H. (1932), ‘Mungo‘ kämpft vor einem Stehparkett, Mein Film: 1932, 341: 10. 

Roger Manvell, The Film and the Public (1955, Penguin, Middlesex). 

Donatello Serri Meers, ‘Come Ho Trovato Gli Elefanti Di Scipione’. Cinema Illustrazione, no. 32, August 1937: 3. 

Peter Pau, ‘Schakale, Bären und Taranteln als Filmstars’, Illustrierte Wochenpost, 2 May 1930: 5.

Harry Piel, ‘Tiere als Filmpartner‘, Mein Film, 1935, 483: 17. 

Tatti Sanguineti, ‘Giulio Andreotti. Il cinema visto da vicino’ (2014).

Franco Sciannameo, ‘In Black and White: Pizzetti, Mussolini and “Scipio Africanus”’. The Musical Times, vol. 145, no. 1887, Summer 2004: 25–50.

Constance Sparks, ‘Finding stars for the talkies’, Lancashire Daily Post, 30 Nov. 1933: 6. 

‘Ermietung von 2 Pferden‘, Ufa-Vorstandsprotokolle, 23 February 1944, BArch R 109-I/1716.

Vigilant, ‘Flotsam and jetsam’, Hastings and St Leonard’s Observer, 31 Jan. 1931: 7. 

Derek Walker, ‘Was their journey all that necessary?’, Picturegoer, 24 July 1954: 12. 

Alan Weir, ‘The animals of Hollywood’, Leeds Mercury, 4 July 1936: 5.  

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