January 2, 2017

Studios

Aerial photograph.

In 1913, Percy Nash and John East reconnoitred London’s green belt in search of a fog-free zone which had a good train service to London, beautiful scenery for location work, and most important of all an excellent site for a film studio. They discovered Elstree, or rather Borehamwood, an area adjoining the old village of Elstree. The two men purchased seven acres of Hertfordshire countryside and with Arthur Moss Laurence as the guiding force founded Neptune Films in 1914.

The new studios at Elstree were the finest in England at the time, purpose built, they resembled a row of alms-houses incorporating a projection theatre, dressing rooms with running water, administrative offices, generating plant and processing facilities. Between 1915 and 1920, Neptune leased or rented their studios to other companies. In 1925, American film entrepreneur J.D. Williams came, saw, and was conquered; he decided Elstree would become the British Hollywood. By 1925, J.D. Williams new studios were almost complete, and he had formed British National Pictures with W. Schlesinger and Herbert Wilcox. Discord soon arose between Williams and Schlesinger and the conflict developed into litigation, this allowed John Maxell to step in and gain control of both the company and studio. Having lost a considerable amount of money, Williams returned to the States and Wilcox left to form a new film company with Nelson Keys; The British and Dominion Film Corporation. Wilcox leased from Maxwell the studios that adjoined British International Pictures; the same studios he’d helped Williams build. Herbert Wilcox christened his new studios with his production of Madame Pompadour in 1927, but the first under the new B.I.P. banner was White Shark during the same year.

From the inception of B.I.P., John Maxwell had planned that it should be an international company, and set about surrounding himself with people he felt could understand this concept. Accordingly, in 1927 he acquired the services of a twenty-eight year old director called Alfred Hitchcock for a three-year, twelve-picture contract. Hitchcock’s first picture for B.I.P. was The Ring, which received particularly excellent notices. Maxwell’s next move was to appoint Walter Mycroft as head of studios, Mycroft became known as the ‘Czar of the Rushes’ due to his striking appearance and eye for detail. By 1928, Maxwell had acquired German company Sudfilm, with the aim of making and distributing films in Germany.

Walter Mycroft undoubtedly possessed the same eye for talent as John Maxwell, and in 1929 enrolled three men onto the B.I.P. payroll who were to become renown throughout the industry; Val Valentine, Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder. By mid-1933 the Associated British Picture Corporation (A.B.P.C.) had been formed by Maxwell as the holding company to takeover the capital of B.I.P., B.I.F., Wardour Films, Pathe Pictures and his original A.B.C. circuit of 147 cinemas, but the studios were still to be known as B.I.P. until 1939. Catastrophe struck in 1936, on a chilly February morning fire swept through the British and Dominion studio belonging to Herbert Wilcox, leaving only smoking wreckage. Only valiant work by the local fire brigade prevented the fire from spreading to the B.I.P. studios literally yards away. Elstree was badly shaken by the loss of B&D studios. Maxwell was also twice outmanoeuvred when trying to expend his empire; firstly Maxwell believed he’d secured the take-over of Gaumont-British only for Twentieth Century Fox to strike a deal with Isidore Ostrer, and then in 1937 J. Arthur Rank secured Amalgamated Studios simply to prevent Maxwell acquiring them. War was declared on September 3rd, 1939 and John Maxwell was to die in 1940. An era had come to a close.

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