MGM Studios vintage brochure reveals secrets from the past
Film and Furniture acquired a fascinating piece of film history recently – a vintage promotional brochure from MGM Studios (located in Borehamwood, Hertfordshire, UK). Dating from the late 1950s, the brochure contains detailed information on all its facilities at the time including MGM Studios’ art department and film props. Brighton Rock, Invitation to the Dance, The Prisoner, 2001 A Space Odyssey and Man’s Fate were all filmed here and the brochure is a significant find as the studios closed down in 1970, 11 years after it was produced and soon after the filming of 2001: A Space Odyssey had wrapped.
We are fortunate to have made acquaintance via F&F’s Facebook page with Anthony McKay, a researcher specialising in the history of British Film studios. He talks us through the contents of this brochure and reveals how it relates to the history of MGM Studios and the filming which took place there. Take it away Mr McKay…
This brochure was produced in 1959 when the studio was undergoing a change in direction. There had been a shake-up of the M-G-M organisation in the United States and the future of the studios had been in doubt – closure was a possibility.
Throughout the late 1950’s M-G-M had been unable to produce a profitable film at the studio and had relied on the income from other film companies renting the facilities. It was this income stream combined with the tax break for British films provided by the Eady Levy and income from a farm that the studio owned that saved the studio from being axed.
In order for the studio to survive it was important that it promote itself to potential clients when not being used for in-house productions.
The cover of this brochure is a pedant’s nightmare – the in-house rule for the abbreviation of “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer” was to retain the hyphens; “M-G-M’. The official name of the studios is “British Studios Ltd.”
The History of MGM Studios
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer British Studios, on the outskirts of the Hertfordshire town of Borehamwood, began production in April 1947. The studios had been built as ‘Amalgamated Studios,’ on a greenfield site in 1936, in response to a period of financial speculation in the British film industry. The studio was designed as four independent blocks which could be rented out individually to film producers. When the financial bubble burst, the magnificent Art Deco buildings were left empty and unused without a single foot of film having been shot there.
During the war the space was used for document storage and aircraft manufacture, the luxurious dressing rooms gutted and turned into offices and air raid shelters. One of the four stages lost a wall when hit by a German bomb.
M-G-M had started to make films in the UK through a British subsidiary in 1937, operating out of Denham Studios. During the war M-G-M struggled to make films in the UK while American films made huge profits from wartime British audiences – money which was not allowed out of the country.
In 1943 M-G-M announced that film mogul Alexander Korda had joined the company and would be in charge of M-G-M British productions. Although Korda had originally built the Denham Studios, he too had been caught by the pre-war financial crash and was merely a tenant at the studio, competing for stages with other producers – it was Korda who persuaded M-G-M to buy the Amalgamated Studios site with its frozen funds. Korda then he bided his time until he could take possession of the site once the British Government no longer needed it for aircraft manufacture.
M-G-M started to move into the site in late 1945. The buildings were in a sorry state, but the Government had high expectations of the British film industry earning much need export dollars and treated the refurbishment and re-building of the studio as a priority. The roofs of three of the studio blocks had were raised to allow space for powerful Technicolor lighting. The new steel roofs ruined the clean lines of the original Deco buildings – the ‘tin top’ stages became a distinctive feature of the studio. The fourth block, that received bomb damage during the war, was re-build to its original dimensions.
Alexander Korda used M-G-M’s cash to increase the size of the site by purchasing adjacent farmland; at one time Korda’s ambitious plans included the possibility of building four more stages.
After taking two years to produce one lacklustre movie at Denham, M-G-M got wise to Korda’s spendthrift ways and Korda was dismissed.
The largest new building was the scene dock which covered an area equal to that of all the sound stages combined. In addition to this eight army surplus Romney huts were installed for extra storage and workshop space. Production at the studio began in 1947 when renovations of all but two of the stages were finished.
MGM Studios Art Department
The photos in this spread about the Art Department are mostly continuity records taken in case a scene had to be re-staged. The Art Department had been set up under Alfred Junge who had been employed by M-G-M after completing Black Narcissus – Elliot Scott, took over the department upon Junge’s retirement in 1956.
Top right, middle left and bottom left: Beau Brummel (1953), Middle right: Edward, My Son (1948), 3rd right: The Barretts of Wimpole Street (1956), Bottom right: Tom Thumb (1957)
MGM Studios Property Department
The antique vessels shown in the Property Department spread are electrotype copies of items, mostly, from The Victoria and Albert Museum made by Elkington and Co. of Birmingham from 1850 to 1870. Elkington made reproductions of items from other collections for display in the V&A as well as copies of items from the V&A itself. The intention was that these reproductions would act as teaching aids to students of art and design.
M-G-M had acquired a collection of over 300 of such items representing the Roman period through to the 18th Century. This included suits of armour, ironwork, bowls, tankards, religious items, etc. etc.
The ivory details on the tankards illustrated are recreated using a mixture of ceramic and wax. Some of the original items and some Elkington copies are still to be found in the V&A collection.
The ornate cup shown in the brochure top right is easily spotted when it appears on screen:-
Although the studio had to start its collection of props from scratch in 1945, useful items were easily purchased as M-G-M had reserves of cash to spend. Indeed Sam Eckman Jr., the well-paid head of M-G-M’s distribution company in the UK, was able to literally fill his country house with valuable antiques acquired at knock-down prices during the war and post-war period. The sale of which provided a nest egg when he retired and moved back to his native New York.
The above photos are from the MGM property store in 1966 with a display of ‘painting created for films – the collection includes portraits of David Niven and Peter Sellers from Lady L and The Millionairess.’
MGM Studios Stills Department
The photo on the left above in the MGM Still Department spread is of Ava Gardner taken on the set of Little Hut – actually filmed at Cinecittà Studios in Rome, not Borehamwood although the British studio did provide technical support for the film.
MGM Studios Estate Department
The brochure tells us that “In 1950 a castle was built on the lot for Ivanhoe. This became such a local trademark that the British Transport Commission included details about it one of their conducted tours of the British countryside. The castle, modified, was subsequently used in six productions.”
Other productions that used the castle were Knights of the Round Table (1953), The Dark Avenger (1954), Around the World in 80 Days (1955) and Tom Thumb (1957). Other than the moat, which continued to be used as a water feature, the castle we demolished in early 1958 to make way for Inn of the Sixth Happiness.
The structures built for Inn of the Sixth Happiness were also completely cleared away after the production was completed to leave green fields. It was only in the mid-1960s that large concrete pads were poured so that permanent outdoor sets could be built.
MGM Studios Construction Department
There was a large plaster store which held a stock of items such as fireplaces and decorative mouldings. Two clay modellers were employed by the studio, who could make patterns so that any additional items required could be cast in fibrous plaster.
“There is no doubt that our studio is the best equipped and most modern in Europe and that our service is second to none.” said Matthew Raymond in Variety, April 1958.
The studio would continue with this slogan until it went dark in 1970.
Anthony McKay is a New Zealand based researcher specialising in the history of British film studios. He is best known for researching and curating A Guide of Avengerland a web site which documents the locations used in 1960s filmed television series. He is currently researching the M-G-M British Studios and the history of Metro Goldwyn Mayer, within the United Kingdom.