‘Who wouldn’t want to have a peek?’ Studio Tours in Britain and Germany

Sarah Street and Eleanor Halsall

Inspired by our visit to the Bottle Yard Studios, we wanted to know more about previous occasions when film studios opened their doors to outsiders. Studios entertained important guests such as film executives, financiers, critics, members of the civil service, royalty etc., but some visitors had less obvious importance to business, publicity, studio networking or status. While keen not to destroy the illusory magic of the movies, studios occasionally showed off their facilities and celebrated the technical feats accomplished in workshops and on stages. A search in the trade press and local newspapers showed up some interesting cases of people who were allowed to see inside studios in Britain.

The British and Dominions studios, Elstree, were visited in September 1935 by some 700 film fans from Coventry, including staff at local cinemas (Kinematograph Weekly [KW], 12 Sept 1935, p. 28). The large party travelled in two trains direct to Elstree and on arrival the manager gave them an ‘exhaustive’ tour of the studios, and they were treated to a screening of the latest films’ rushes in the private theatre.

A visit by French film pioneer Leon Gaumont in February 1936 to the Gaumont British Studios, Shepherd’s Bush, was a momentous and moving occasion. He toured the large studio buildings which stood on the actual spot where the old ‘glass house’ Gaumont studio was built in 1911. Gaumont immediately recognized Mr Hobbs, a lab technician who’d started work with him there in 1911. He also met Alfred Hitchcock and told Michael Balcon, head of production: ‘I am a little envious. If only all this had happened while I was still active!’ Clearly quite overcome by his visit, Gaumont is also reported as saying: ‘It is marvellous! That I should have lived to see such development, such progress! You are doing wonderful work; the growth and expansion of the firm has been truly magnificent’ (KW, 27 Feb 1936, p. 45).

Some tours were extensive and detailed. Teddington Studios welcomed visitors from the London Court of the Guild in February 1937. They went first to the studios’ preview theatre where aspects of soundtracks, recording and re-recording were explained, with bits of equipment passed around such as an electric light valve. Then they were shown a set which replicated a deck of a cruise liner, cocktail bar, the use of mirrors to give the illusion of distance, and the details of the lighting equipment. The tour even included a visit to the power-house (KW, 11 Feb 1937, p. 53).  

In October 1944 leaders of a Russian Trades delegation visited Denham. They were entertained by Spencer Reis, managing director of D&P Studios, and visited many of the stages. They saw rushes from Henry V and extracts from films demonstrating synchronization with sound. They visited other productions in progress as well as studio trade union members (KW, 21 Oct 1944, p. 32).

A Film Criticism competition organized by Gaumont-British and Gainsborough in February 1944 rewarded prizewinners with a visit to the studios. Entrants had to write a ‘frank criticism’ of The Man in Grey (1943), and say which stories, stars and presentations should be prioritized when the war was over. Star of the film Stewart Granger gave the lucky prizewinners a tour which ended up in the studio canteen. At the head of their table was none other than Phyllis Calvert, another star of The Man in Grey, who answered ‘innumerable questions from a score of delighted listeners’. After lunch they went on the stage floors and inspected sets. They watched film tests being made and witnessed shooting scenes from Love Story (KW, 3 Feb 1944, p. 37). 

In December 1944 a party of ATS women went to Islington Studios and met George Formby. They had a tour and showed ‘keen interest’ in the building of the sets, cutting rooms, technical departments, and the make-up room. The party was accompanied by a lecturer in adult education who specialized in early motion pictures (KW, 21 Dec 1944, p. 29). 

Sometimes the studios went out to the people…

In July 1946 Elstree Studios were reported as ‘going on tour’ (KW, 11 July 1946, p. 6). As a result of a tie-up between British National and Lewis’s (the shop with branches in many places), British National Studios went on tour, starting in Birmingham and then going to stores in Glasgow, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool and Leicester. The exhibition’s major feature was filming a sequence from Meet the Navy: ‘A huge mass of studio equipment will move to the various centres in a fleet of big motor vans, carrying cameras, lights, sets, movieolas, microphones, sound apparatus, and all the other paraphernalia that go to the making of movies. Each store will be turned into a studio, with technicians, to the number of some 20, in attendance’. Actual filming was then carried out ‘when the lights will go up against a background of the Coney Island scene from Meet the Navy, with a troupe of actors reproducing the ‘Lydia’ numbers from the picture. Every detail of film making, from the initial script conference, the casting, planning, shooting, and final editing and screening, will be shown either by diagrams and stills or with the actual equipment demonstrated and operated by Elstree technicians’. Scripts, costumes, stills, set design stills and souvenirs from a dozen British National films were also shown. A cartoon (KW, 18 July 1946, p. 14) captured the incongruous spectacle of this somewhat unusual event.

Visits to German Studios

Acquiring and maintaining a high profile with the public was an obvious objective for film studios. In the case of Germany’s Babelsberg, this meant carefully managing access to busy working studios while attempting to retain an air of mystique around the process of movie production. The 1929 construction of the nation’s first sound film studio – the so-called Tonkreuz at Babelsberg – stoked interest in Germany and abroad. Nevertheless, offering every interested person the opportunity to visit the new studio was clearly neither practical nor desirable.

Visitors came via a number of conduits – from official government requests, to magazine competitions offering a lucky winner the chance to see the studios and meet the stars (see, for example, our blog on Eating in the Studio). Educational visits were aimed at teaching the public about film production, along the way triggering interest in those who might aspire to a film career. And there were visits by foreign dignitaries and reporters, as well as stars from other film industries. One such foreign visitor was Film India’s editor, Baburao Patel who, in the spring of 1939, went on a world tour of film industries. Having originally planned a two-day visit to Berlin, he extended this to ten days, spending much of it at Babelsberg, so fascinated was he by what he discovered there.

‘We were first taken to the Lehrschau,’ wrote Patel, ‘The museum or rather the exhibition of the Ufa Studios. Here in a pretty big room, every activity of Ufa is seen either in a pretty model or in a precise paper drawing.’ (Film India, September 1939, p. 30.) Located at Babelsberg, the Lehrschau was an educational centre, archive and library providing visitors with the chance to see cameras in close up as well as models of film sets. Accounts were kept of all visitors and a snapshot from May 1938 includes 13 Chilean scientists and artists; one Swedish journalist; and two of Agfa’s Indian clients from Calcutta who expressed particular interest in cinematography. The lists of visitors were long and varied, carefully documenting the totals for this particular month: 210 visitors, of whom 36 were foreigners. (BArch R109-I/5268).

As gleaned from archived meeting minutes, Ufa took steps to create public enthusiasm and educate visitors, while holding the inquisitive majority at bay. One way it did this was to offer a proxy visit by film with Der Schuß im Tonfilmatelier/The shot in the sound film studio (Zeisler, 1930). The film’s action is set in the new studio, using the sets, the stars’ dressing rooms, and the vertiginous lighting bridges, and making good use of the building’s interconnected spaces. ‘Who wouldn’t want to have a peek?’ asked the Berliner Film Zeitung in its review of Schuß (30 July 1930). The film’s dual purpose was to show off this architectural marvel of modernity but also to explain the wonder of sound film creation, adding a dose of artistic exaggeration along the way to enhance the plot! While the film was in production Ufa permitted Eugen Szatmari from the Berliner Tageblatt to hold an on-set interview with Gerda Maurus, the film’s leading actress; this was then screened in Ufa’s cinemas alongside the feature film (Mein Film, June 1930, p. 6).

Wall detail

Ufa’s board frequently discussed and approved studio visits. For example, on 26 February 1935, a request came from 50 students from the University of Lund who wanted to see the Lehrschau. Their visit was approved, on the condition that they were not allowed to see anything of the production of Das Mädchen Johanna (Uckicky, 1935). One wonders what might have led to this decision? (BArch R109-I/1030a).

On 19 May 1937, the board approved up to 120 members of a Hungarian business trip to visit the Lehrschau and Babelsberg (BArch R 109-I/1032b) which must have been quite an undertaking. But it was perhaps the request that came in September that year that allows the imagination to run wild. The board discussed and approved a request by the newly elected state president of Colombia who wished to visit Babelsberg completely incognito (BArch R 109-I/1032b). One wonders whether he might have achieved this via a quick visit to the costume and make-up department on the way! 

We’ll be looking at occasions when French and Italian studios allowed visitors through their doors in a future post.

References

Baburao Patel, ‘German Film Industry’, Film India, September 1939, p.p. 27-37.

Bundesarchiv, Berlin files: BArch R109-I/1030a; BArch R 109-I/1032b; BArch R109-I/5268.  

Ceha, ‘Von deutscher Tonfilmarbeit: sechshundert Presseleute aus aller Welt in Neu-Babelsberg’, Mein Film, June 1930, p. 6.

FS, ‘Der Schuß im Tonfilmatelier’, Berliner Film Zeitung, 30 July 1930.

Kinematograph Weekly, 12 Sept 1935, p. 28; 27 Feb 1936, p. 45; 3 Feb 1944, p. 37; 21 Oct 1944, p. 32; 21 Dec 1944, p. 29; 11 July 1946, p. 6; 18 July 1946, p. 14.

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