Simanaitis Says

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IN 1950S’ CLEVELAND, a TV station not showing the Browns game would entertain us on Sunday afternoons with British cinema. Given it was before frozen TV dinners, my dad would move our little rabbit-ear set into the kitchen for viewing these flicks, the most memorable of which were Ealing comedies. They featured the likes of Alec Guinness, Margaret Rutherford, a pre-Alfred Doolittle Stanley Holloway, a pre-Clouseau Peter Sellers, and pre-Chief Inspector Herbert Lom. All in good fun, and more than enough to prompt me to acquire the book Forever Ealing. 

Forever Ealing: A Celebration of the Great British Film Studio, by George Perry, foreward by Peter Ustinov, Pavilion, 1981.

Here in Parts 1 and 2 today and tomorrow are tidbits about Ealing Studio and the film industry in general, gleaned from Forever Ealing as well as my usual Internet sleuthing. 

Why Ealing? Why Hollywood? George Perry explains, “When the twentieth century began, Ealing was a prosperous middle-class suburb on the western edge of London. Beyond it lay the yet undeveloped fields of Greenford and Heston, still unmistakably country villages with farms, cows and muddy lands under the oaks and elms of rural Middlesex. The prevailing wind blows from the south-west, and in those days of coal fires the thick smoke pall which usually hung over the dense inner London districts and the East End rarely offended the resident of the pleasant western suburbs.”

America’s nascent film industry was in Fort Lee, New Jersey, though its year-around climate was hardly as salubrious as sunny Southern California’s.

Indeed, there were other reasons, but both Ealing and Hollywood offered clean air.  

Edison and the Lumière Brothers. August and Louis Lumière perfected the Cinematograph invented by Léon Bouly in 1892. Their device could project a moving image viewed by an audience, superior to Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope, which offered solo viewing through a peephole eyepiece.

Above, a Cinematograph Lumière. Image by Victorgrigas from Wikipedia. Below, a Cinematograph in projection mode. Image by Louis Poyet from Wikipedia.

Both the Lumière and Edison devices evolved. American film makers, especially on the East Coast, had to contend with (or ignore) Edison’s U.S. patents. By contrast, neither Edison nor the Lumières sought international patents, which played a role in the earliest Ealing Studio.

Will Barker’s Lumière Purchase. Perry describes that Will Barker, a pioneer in British film, “had begun as an amateur in 1896, the year that the Lumière brothers exhibited their moving pictures in London for the first time. He obtained one of their cameras for £40, and for the next five years had amused himself and his friends with displays.”

Barker went pro in 1901 and bought Ealing property in 1902. Perry writes that he “continued to film out-of-doors until in 1907 he built his first covered stage, a glass construction like a greenhouse. The first Ealing Studio eventually consisted of three such stages.”

Short Shorts. “In the early days,” Perry notes, “films were only fifty feet in length, the capacity of the magazine in the Lumière camera, and were sold outright to showmen and ‘penny gaff’ (converted shop) owners at a guinea a time.” Wikipedia refines this, noting, “Each of these early films was 17 meters long (approximately 56 feet), which, when hand cranked through a projector, ran approximately 50 seconds.”  

Barker’s Ambitious Flick. Before long, films grew in length and ambition: Perry says that in 1912 Barker “made the first screen version of Hamlet, taking all of one day to film the twenty-two scenes.” 

Extra points: Choose 22 scenes to convey the Hamlet tale.

Perry notes, “The sets were built one inside the other, and as each scene was shot its set was peeled away to reveal the next. The film cost £180, but its satisfactory profit was £600.” 

Hamlet, 1948.

I recently watched Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet on Turner Classic Movies. This film’s budget was £527,530 in 1948. Its U.S. box office was $3,250,000. I suspect its sets were more elaborate than Barker’s.

Tomorrow in Part 2, we’ll see how Ealing Studio contends with The Talkies. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022 

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