Studios in the Festive Season

As the nights draw in and 2021 approaches retirement, this STUDIOTEC bumper blog looks at how the festive season was acknowledged by film studios in Germany, France, Italy and Britain.

In Germany Seasons’ Greetings regularly appeared in film magazines listing a studio’s biggest films.   Here are two examples from 1930, illustrating the significance of Munich’s Emelka and Berlin’s Ufa in these New Year and Christmas greetings:

Christmas and New Year was a time to release new films, a tactic that continues to this day. In 1931, Karl Lamac’s Die Fledermaus premiered on Christmas Day across 36 German cities, as well as in Vienna and Copenhagen. Quite an undertaking, suggesting cinema as a popular draw for family outings after the Christmas Eve celebrations. 

Promoting Christmas with the stars has long been a diet for film fans around the world, a peek into their homes affording an opportunity for studios to promote the glamour of their major stars. An article entitled ‘Christmas in Hollywood’ – actually an account of Ernst Lubitsch’ career difficulties in America – includes this illustration of Ufa’s Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch, complete with a suitably large tree, Santa Claus and animals, perhaps two of which may be destined for the table…!

The same edition of the magazine ran an article on how to shoot winter scenes without snow. Who needs real snow anyway, when it can be made in the film studio, that workshop of artifice and illusion? Nikolaus Sandor’s 1929 patent application (DE 488567) claimed to create ‘snow landscapes’ and a 1950 patent from Grünzweig & Hartmann (DE 1611199) listed ‘artificial snow for film, stage and shop windows’. Striving to find the ideal form for winter decorations, Max C. Baumann (DE 643566, 1932), boasted the superiority of his invention over existing compounds which he cited as using cotton wool, ground gypsum, glass, mica, magnesia, starch and … asbestos. Wait a minute – did he really say asbestos?! 

The cinema side of film business was clearly hard at work on Christmas Day, but what about activity in the studios? A board memo from 1937 noted that operations at Babelsberg and Tempelhof would close at 13:00 on both 24 and 31 December and remain closed on 2 January 1938 (BArch R 109-I/1032a). Meeting records indicate that Ufa’s board often met on Christmas Eve, and were already back around the table by the 27th – clearly there was no time for slacking! Christmas Eve being more significant in Germany than Christmas Day, one might assume that board discussions were concluded promptly in order to get home in time for the night’s celebrations to begin – or perhaps for a quick Glühwein in the Babelsberg bar? 

In 1937 an allowance of RM 2,000 was granted for Christmas presents for the 700 children of workers at Babelsberg and Tempelhof, or a little under RM3 per child. 

Gifts which Santa duly handed out!

Other indications of how employees were treated show that Christmas bonuses (at least from 1934) were given to lower paid staff, carefully calibrated to take into account marital status and number of children. This was the arrangement for 1934:

StatusBonus
Single, with a monthly income of RM150 or lessRM20
Single, with a monthly income between RM150 and RM225RM30
Married with 1 child or married with no children with a monthly income of RM250 or less RM45
Married with 2 children with a monthly income of RM300 or lessRM60
Married with 3 children with a monthly income of RM300 or lessRM75

(BArch R 109-I/2420) 

Straining to turn the hands, who better to herald in the New Year than Emil Jannings, ready to welcome 1930, the year our STUDIOTEC project begins?

From the beginning of the 1930s, Christmas was an important feature of the French industry calendar. Cinema frontages were lavishly decorated, seasonal programmes announced, and the cinema press was full of signed photographs of stars sending festive wishes to their public. The Christmas season was also a moment for studios and production houses to bring employees and their families together around the traditional Christmas tree. The biggest companies, like Pathé and Gaumont, would hold their events sometimes away from the studio workplace, usually in cinema halls belonging to their group. One such event for ‘children of employees and workers of the Joinville and Francoeur studio’ was held at the Lyon Pathé cinema in Paris on the 19th December 1937. After a show featuring puppets, clowns, and singers, the children were treated to a screening of colour cartoons and received individual gifts. The singing and dancing that took place around the tree in the foyer was of course captured for posterity by the cameras of Pathé-Journal

During wartime, such events had a more social purpose, offering some comfort to children whose fathers were either mobilised or at the front. From as early as December 1939, dedicated aid committees for mobilised soldiers, their wives and families (the ‘Comité central d’aide aux mobilisés du cinéma’ and the ‘Comité d’aide aux femmes de combattants’ chaired by the actress Françoise Rosay), arranged for a Christmas tree to be displayed in the premises of the magazine Cinémonde. But after the defeat of France in June 1940, Christmas events took on a more overtly political dimension. At Francoeur studios in December 1941, 700 children of absent fathers had to endure a speech by Georges Lamirand, the Vichy Minister for Youth. Under the patronage of the Pétainist weekly paper Jeunesse, and popular actors like Paulette Dubost, Pierre Larquey and Jean Tissier, the event served as a showcase for the promotion of Pétainist family values, and a public statement of the Vichy régime’s support for the children of French prisoners. Three days later, it was the turn of the Régent cinema in the affluent Neuilly district to host a children’s party, this time in the presence of Raoul Ploquin (the director of the Vichy organising committee for cinema, the COIC) and Dr Dietrich, head of the German propaganda services for the cinema. 

In spite of the economic and material hardships of the post-war years, the studios were quick to embrace their Christmas traditions again, and to host family events that were festive rather than political. On 6th January 1946, The Gaumont Buttes Chaumont studio organised a great party in the set of a film they were currently shooting (Jeux de femme by Maurice Cloche), and distributed cakes and other delicious treats to more than 100 children. But the wave of redundancies that hit the studios in 1947-48 put an end to this tradition, as film technicians lost their connection with a particular studio or production company.

In Italy, the jewel in the cinema production crown, Cinecittà, was often visited by dignitaries, and a 1953 clip from the Istituto Luce shows Undersecretary of State Teodoro Bubbio distributing Christmas gifts to children inside the studio. The newsreel emphasises how Cinecittà functioned as a kind of ambassador for both the Italian cinema industry and the for the state itself as generous benefactor. Popular Italian film stars were often recruited to appear at these philanthropic Christmas events, as if to remind ordinary people that the stars were not so distant after all: a 1952 Christmas dinner for the poor in Milan featured comic stars Walter Chiari and Nino Taranto providing festive cheer to the hundreds of children eating their free meal. 

The fact that the cinema is a space of festivity and joy is also shown by other charity Christmas events held in cinemas, such as a distribution of gifts to children of state employees in Rome’s Supercinema in 1953. 

Film magazines liked to do features on what the stars were doing for Christmas, picturing them at home with their Christmas trees and talking about the gifts they would like. And as a 1950 report in Film d’Oggi made clear, the Italian industry downed tools for several weeks in December, with stars departing for the Dolomites or Capri, and few remaining in Rome. However, the magazine ends the piece with a disapproving mention of rather rotund noted comic star Aldo Fabrizi, spotted out dancing at a nightclub at a Christmas party. Fabrizi, and the readers, are reminded that Christmas dinners can put on weight, so for the stars there is to be no respite from the pressures of the film industry, even during the festive season.

British studios also celebrated the festive season. In October 1946 Pinewood’s Music, Art and Drama group was preparing for their pantomime production of Cinderella, to be performed in one of the studio theatres’ smaller stages. Some interesting Pinewood employees were involved, including Geoff Woodward of the Art Department who wrote the script and lyrics, and a few years later worked as frame supervisor on several films produced using The Independent Frame, a time-saving production technique developed at Pinewood. The pantomime was produced by Adele Raymond, a casting director who had cast several of Powell and Pressburger’s films. Film publicist Lillana Wilkie played the Prince, in addition to assisting Valerie Turner in directing the pantomime, and production secretary Cynthia Frederick acted the part of Cinderella. The pantomime encouraged staff to try their hand at doing a job they were unfamiliar with: ‘Although many of the people taking part are “professionals”, it can truly be said that Cinderella is a show in the best tradition of amateur theatricals – as the distribution of parts and jobs has been so arranged that no professional takes part in his or her own professional field’. This would appear to be the case although the décor and costumes were by Bill Holmes, an assistant art director on In Which We Serve (1942), and draughtsman in the Art Department for Great Expectations (1946). The production was the most ambitious undertaking by the recently formed Group which had J. Arthur Rank as its President and D&P Studios’ managing director Spencer Reis as Vice-President. The Group had 100 members, or 10% of studio personnel, and as well as performances activities included gramophone recitals held fortnightly in one of the studio theatres when free and exhibitions of drawings in the picture gallery of the Club House. Members included well-known names such as musical director and composer Muir Mathieson; cinematographer Ronald Neame; art director Teddy Carrick, and film stars Deborah Kerr and Valerie Hobson.

The December 1946 issue of the Pinewood Merry-Go-Round studio magazine featured a Christmas cover credited to still photographer Charlie Trigg and others. 

The same issue reported that due to scheduling issues the ‘Pinewood Pantomeers’ had to put forward their performance by a week to the end of December. The shorter preparation time meant that ‘production had to be speeded up, rehearsal efforts doubled – and everybody put generally on their toes to get the show knocked into shape’. Even though the emphasis was primarily on fun and enjoyment, there was clearly more than a touch of professionalism evident when the ‘enthusiast’ ballet dancers were taken as part of their training for the pantomime see the Ballet Rambert perform Giselle. This outing clearly made an impact since in January 1947 during the ‘revelry’ of the Pinewood’s New Year’s Ball, ‘the Pinewood Ballet took the floor to give a repeat performance of their excerpt from the Pantomime, and earned unstinted applause’. The piano accompaniment was provided by Vivian Shaw of Cineguild’s Art Department, which he followed up with an impromptu selection during the band interval. The ballet was choreographed by sketch artist Ivor Beddoes. The pantomime’s audience consisted of members of the Music, Art and Drama Group, other Pinewood employees and their friends. Valerie Hobson and her mother attended, along with Spencer Reis and his wife. Illustrations were drawn of ‘Baron Nobubble’, played by Bill Holmes, and ‘The Talking Picture’ on a wall by Phil Shipway (who had been second unit assistant director on Great Expectations). 

A report in the Kinematograph Weekly noted how working in a film studio was incorporated into the production: ‘No one in the studio escaped the wit in Geoffrey Woodward’s script, which this art department man made to follow a film business background. First crack was about studio manager Hector Coward and Cinderella’s turkey was naïvely labelled: “Shot by Rank”’. Below is a ‘behind-the-curtain’ shot of the cast and the audience in the ‘stalls’.

We have recovered other traces of how British studios celebrated the festive season, including a children’s parties at Shepperton in 1952 and 1953 that featured London Films’ managing director Harold Boxall as Santa who ‘stepped from a huge pillar-box in the centre of the stage’ and handing out presents after the show. 

And of course the season was celebrated at Denham Studios, as seen here when Scruffy, canine star of British studios as reported in a previous blog, partied in style to wish everyone a happy time and all the best for 2022, as do we all from STUDIOTEC!

References

Anon. ‘L’arbre de Noël des enfants du personnel des studios Pathé-Natan’, Le Reporter du studio, 1er janvier 1938, p.1.

Anon. ‘L’arbre de Noël des enfants de mobilisés du cinéma’, La Cinématographie française, n°1105, 6 janvier 1940, p.6.

Anon. ‘Sous la présidence de Georges Lamirand, Chef de la jeunesse, 700 gosses de prisonniers ont participé au Noël de Jeunesse’, Jeunesse, n°52, 28 décembre 1941, p.1.

Anon. ‘Un arbre de Noël aux studios des Buttes Chaumont’, La Cinématographie française, n°1140, 19 janvier 1946, p.10.

Film-Magazin, 22 December 1929, p. 9; 29 December 1929, p. 3.   

Kinematograph, 25 December 1928, p. 3; 24 December 1930, p. 6; 31 December 1930, p. 15; 18 Dec ember 1931, p. 2. 

Kinematograph Weekly, 9 January 1947, p. 26; 1 January 1953, p. 24; 31 December 1953, p. 15.

Licht-Bild-Bühne, ‘Der Weihnachtsmann bei den Ufa-Kindern’, 22 December 1939, p. 3.

Gianni Padoan, ‘Cinecittà e dintorni’, in Film d’Oggi, 20 December 1950, p. 2.

Pinewood Merry-Go-Round, October 1946, p. 16; November 1946, p. 16; December 1946, p. 16; January 1947, pp. 2, 8-9.

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