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EALING TIDBITS PART 2

YESTERDAY’S TIDBITS GLEANED from George Perry’s Forever Ealing focused on the earliest days of this British film studio. Today in Part 2, Ealing adds sounds to the moving images, which leads to new production gizmos and, not incidentally, B movies. A Prince approves.

Cinema Finds its Voice in 1927. Perry writes, “It is hard, more than half a century after the event, to grasp the extent of the upheaval in the film industry brought about by the advent of sound. It took more than two years from the New York premiere of The Jazz Singer in October 1927 for manufacturers to reach a joint agreement standardizing sound equipment, so that all films could be shown regardless of how they were recorded.”

“Inevitably,” Perry notes, “the Vitaphone system using synchronized discs [as used in The Jazz Singer] was jettisoned, and in 1930 Western Electric, a Bell Telephone subsidiary, and RCA (the Radio Corporation of America) came to terms with the German Tobis Klangfilm company, and with a compatible sound-on-film process divided the world into territories.” 

Double Features and…. Perry observes, “The arrival of the ‘talkies’ brought about changes in exhibition practice, such as the introduction of second features to enable the backlong of silent films to get a screening, coupled with talkies as top bill.” 

“When the silents were all used up,” Perry says, “audiences still demanded a second film, which meant the arrival of the ‘B’ picture, or the dreaded British variant, the ‘quota quickie,’ so called because the Cinematograph Act of 1927 had introduced a minimum percentage of British programming to protect the home industry. The outcome in the Thirties was minimal films in every sense, just to fulfill the law.”

The new Ealing Studios. This and other images from Forever Ealing.

New Ealing Studios, 1931. Perry says, “The new Ealing Studios were the first to be built in Britain with talkies in mind…. They planned to fit RCA Photophone equipement, and to take advantage of the company’s new Noiseless Recording system which had eliminated much of the unpleasant background hiss that marred early soundtracks.”

“The core of the studio,” Perry continues, “was the power house, where all the electricity needed was generated independently of the public supply.” Cavity walls and rubber foundations insulated the generators’ whine and vibration from the sound stages.

Early Ealing Talkies. Not all the Ealing talkies were resounding successes. “Even Escape” [1930], Perry notes, “the first wholly-talking British film to feature the English countryside, was not a success.” Others were rather more memorable.

Above, Arthur Wonter as Sherlock Holmes in The Sign of Four, 1932. Below, preparing a shot for Perfect Understanding, 1933, starring Gloria Swanson and Laurence Olivier. 

The seventh Ealing talkie was The Sign of Four with Arthur Wontner as Sherlock Holmes. Also in 1932, The Impassive Footman (U.S. title: Woman in Bondage) was honored by a royal visit. 

The Prince of Wales and “The Organ.” Perry describes, “The Prince of Wales, still four years from his accession to the throne had been invited by Jack Courtauld, and was particularly fascinated by one of Ealing’s best-known technical innovations, the mobile control board nicknamed ‘the organ.’ ”

“At the beginning of a take,” Perry describes, the organ “could start the camera turning, mark the film for synchronization, shut down the noisy air-conditioning or heating system, sound a bell, light up the ‘Silence’ sign outside the stage, turn on the red light, switch off the telephones, and lock the doors. In 1932, it was a very impressive piece of apparatus.”

The Prince examines the organ.

Perry writes, “The Prince visited the cutting rooms, and then went on to ‘The Inn,’ as the studio restaurant was known. Dean later recalled how, once ensconced in the directors’ dining room, he offered the Prince some tea, but was somewhat abashed when his royal guest demanded a whisky and soda, as alcohol was not consumed on the premises. Luckily a bottle was found in somebody’s office.”

Perhaps not the only such office at Ealing. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022

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