October 2008 | Home
Stand outside the Fishbowl and Mason Hall, and you're right where U-M began. Take a trip through time in this slideshow.
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Britain's legendary Pinewood Studio has produced some of the world's best and, alas, worst films.
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Pine vs. Holly
October 14, 2008
In my July column I wrote about how India's Bombay-based cinema came to be labeled Bollywood because of its resemblance to the entertainment-for-the-masses traditions of Hollywood. As in Hollywood, Bollywood films have drawn heavily on star-system strategies and on eye-pleasing production values.
Well, it seems that Hollywood also inspired the name for Britain's Pinewood Studios, surely the greatest of that country's production institutions. For the past several months the Brits have been celebrating Pinewood's iconic 70-year history of filmmaking with a photographic exhibition at the Getty Images Gallery in London. The history of Pinewood's creation, born in a spirit of competition with Hollywood, is a fascinating one. So, too, is its legacy for turning out memorable film art.
Pinewood's founder, the wealthy British real estate baron Charles Boot, went into the film business determined to build a studio equal—even better—to any in Hollywood. Boot made a surveillance trip to Hollywood in the early 1930s, and he is said to have chosen the name Pinewood because he thought the pine tree stronger and more stately than the "lowly" holly bush.
In another strike at Hollywood, J. Arthur Rank, a Pinewood co-owner, producer, and primary distributor of the studio’s films, introduced his films with a half-naked man striking a huge gong. Rank saw this image/sound gimmick as a suitable response to the roaring lion that introduced MGM’s motion pictures.
Clearly Boot had grand expectations for Pinewood. And those expectations would prove to be more than wishful folly.
Boot built Pinewood Studios on a hundred acre estate, centered around a Victorian mansion he had bought in rural Buckinghamshire, about 20 miles from London and a short drive from the Piccadilly line's final stop at Uxbridge. The mansion—Heatherton Hall—set a grand tone for filmmaking at Pinewood, with its elegant restaurant, cocktail lounge, art gallery, and luxurious suites on the upper floors.
The unique appeal and achievement of Pinewood would be in the efficient design and inner workings of the production complex. Five studio sound stages with smaller adjoining wardrobe, costume and set shops were compactly located so that each could be easily reached by connecting sidewalks. The studios, completed in 1936, contained the latest in electrical, sound and lighting technology—establishing Pinewood from the outset as a place for innovative filmmaking where top-notch production values and special-effects capabilities could be taken for granted. The studios' technicians would have no equals. In the time before George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic Company, Pinewood served as cinema's center for magical filmmaking, and it continues to set high standards to this day.
Since its first full year of production in 1937 Pinewood has been the production site for some of cinema's most memorable films. One is my favorite dance film, "The Red Shoes" (1947) where Pinewood's gifts for stunning production values and special-effects cinematography are fully on display. In this ballet film, filled with brilliant colors and stunning fantasy sequences, the beautiful ballerina Moira Shearer is captured in a pas de deux with a dancing figure that has morphed from a floating newspaper. The effect was achieved through Pinewood's perfection of the traveling matte shot, a process whereby two separately recorded moving images are combined into a single shot.
Some of film's most memorable literary adaptations were made at Pinewood: "Great Expectations" (1946), "Oliver Twist" (1947), "A Tale of Two Cities" (1957), "Romeo and Juliet" (1965), "The Hours" (2002), "Atonement" (2007).
The James Bond films' action and chase sequences were realized by Pinewood's gifted traveling matte and rear-screen projection technicians. Along with James Bond, Pinewood also welcomed Superman and Batman; Stanley Kubrick used Pinewood for "Full Metal Jacket" (1987) and "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999).
One of the studios most enduring staples was the long-running, inimitable "Carry On" comedy series, beginning in 1958 with "Carry On Sergeant" and running through the 1970s. Characterized by irreverent low-humor and situational farce, the "Carry On" films stand as one of Britain's most memorable popular culture phenomena—as well as a godsend to Pinewood during cinema's transitional 1960s, '70s. Altogether there were 29 "Carry On" films made at Pinewood between 1958 and 1978.
And lest we forget, Pinewood was the site of the movies' most publicized disaster: "Cleopatra." The film began production in 1960 and through a series of professional and personal setbacks (including a tracheotomy for star Elizabeth Taylor) didn't get completed and released until 1963. "Cleopatra" received terrible reviews, but did earn the distinction of being the most expensive film made to that time. (As one might expect, a spoof of the film appeared in 1964 in "Carry On Cleo.")
Among the many captivating pictures in the Getty Images Gallery exhibition is one of a svelte, costumed Elizabeth Taylor chatting with young daughter Liza Todd on a Pinewood back lot, taken during a shooting break from "Cleopatra." Hooray for Pinewood!
Film historian and critic Frank Beaver is professor of film and video studies and professor of communication.