Ealing Studios is a television and film production company and facilities provider at Ealing Green in West London. Films have been made on the site ever since Will Barker bought the White Lodge on Ealing Green in 1902 as a base for film making. It is the oldest continuously working studio facility for film production in the world, and the current stages were opened for the use of sound in 1931. It is best known for a series of classic working-class film musicals and comedies produced in the pre- and post-WWII years, often starring such personalities as George Formby, Gracie Fields, Alec Guinness, and Stanley Holloway. The most popular films of this era include PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949), KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949), SING AS WE GO (1934), and THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951).
The Masterminds Behind Ealing Studio’s History
Established in 1902, Ealing Studios is the oldest continuously working film studio in the world. English cinematic entrepreneur Will Barker first purchased the White Lodge on Ealing Green, then the West Lodge on adjacent property. The first stages built at Ealing were large glass buildings, similar to greenhouses, which let in the maximum amount of light. Having made enough money as a travelling salesman to indulge in his hobby for photography, Barker began making short topical films around the turn of the century and charging the pubic for viewings. By 1912, Barker had succeeded in establishing the largest film studio in Britain. Barker’s character has often been described as similar to his trademark logo the bulldog. Like many of the classic Hollywood moguls of his day, Barker was an eccentric businessman with big dreams – wild, sometimes reckless, tough, pugnacious, and thoroughly British. Barker retired from filmmaking at the close of the First World War.
“Barker‘s style was simple: big stories, big actors, and big battles with lots of people in them.” (BFI ScreenOnline)
Basil Dean was a theatre director who formed the Associated Talking Pictures film company, which made it’s films at Ealing Studios. Dean is responsible for adding several more stages on Ealing Green. These additions were modelled after the studios Dean had seen in America, and many of them are still in use today. Although Dean’s filmmaking efforts have not always been popular with the critics, he was a shrewd businessman. Basic Dean’s ATP was responsible for launching the careers of George Formby and Gracie Fields, both of whom became famous for their films championing the working class. As Britain’s socio-political strains of the late 1930s began to plague the studio, a series of dramatic failures turned Dean back to his career in the theatre.
When Michael Balcon came from MGM in 1938 to replace Dean, films made at the studio were issued under the Ealing Studios moniker. Before becoming head of Ealing Studios, Balcon had already worked with renowned suspense/thriller director Alfred Hitchcock and with the head of MGM Louis B. Mayer. He had also co-founded Victory Motion Pictures and Gainsborough Pictures and had been head of production at Gaumont-British. The son of Jewish immigrants himself, Balcon helped some of his friends escape Nazi Germany, including Conrad Veidt, the star of the philo-Semitic JEW SUSS (1934) (not to be confused with Veit Harlan’s anti-Semitic JUD SUSS (1940)). Under Balcon’s direction, Ealing Studios swiftly became the most internationally successful film studio of the WWII and post-war era. Balcon’s reign marks the official era of the classic “Ealing comedy,” beginning with HUE AND CRY (1946) and ending with BARNACLE BILL (1957). The BBC took over the studios in 1955, bringing many classic shows to the small screen, including Dr. Who and Monty Python’s Flying Circus. (Ealing Studios chronology)
“When the studio was sold in 1955, [Balcon] erected a plaque there proclaiming: ‘Here during a quarter of a century many films were made projecting Britain and the British character.’ This was the most fruitful period of his long career, marked by his capacity to assemble a creative team of writers, directors, actors and others, perhaps unparalleled in British film history.” (BFI ScreenOnline)
The Stars of Ealing Studios’ Golden Age
George Formby was the son of a noted stage comedian, and he used his late father’s material when he first started treading the boards in the early 1920s as the stumbling bucktoothed Lancastrian John Willie. Formby then learned how to play banjo and ukele, props that would become synonymous with the Formby image. Formby had a successful stage and music career before entering the motion picture business in the mid-1930s. Under Basil Dean’s production, Formby found notable success in his ATP film debut NO LIMIT (1935), followed by KEEP YOUR SEATS, PLEASE (1936), and FEATHER YOUR NEST (1937). Formby’s typed character was often a witless urban class little man who succeeded in winning the girl next door by humorously attempted trades for which he had no training (cyclist, jockey, etc.). Here’s George playing his signature tune “I’m Leaning on a Lamppost” from FEATHER YOUR NEST (1937).
Like Formby, Gracie Fields was another music hall performer who was persuaded into films by Ealing producer Basil Dean. “Our Gracie,” as she was affectionately known by her compatriots, always portrayed a working class girl who was never too good to buckle down and get a job done – always with a smile and a song, of course! Fields’ performances, on the screen, on the stage, and in the trenches, saw Britain through social and political unrest, economic turmoil, and a world war. In the late 1930s, Gracie Fields was the highest paid film star in the world, and she reigned as the most popular British actress from 1937 until after the war.
“In the films, she creates the same solidarity with her working-class audience but also functions as the bridge to a national community which crosses class boundaries… The films are sentimental and reassuring, but they also tap into real social anxieties, and the sentiment is sometimes laced with vinegar. As the 1930s progressed, the national interest asserted itself and the films, while retaining their class roots, increasingly served the needs of a cheerful patriotic consensus.” (BritMovie.co.uk)
This clip is the ending scene from SING AS YOU GO (1934).
Alec Guinness was a classically trained theatre actor during the 1930s, but it wasn’t until after his service in the Royal Navy during WWII that he became a household name through the medium of film. Guinness was famous for his elaborate character transformations, often choosing roles with extravagant makeup and costuming. He once claimed he didn’t feel comfortable playing characters too like himself, and most of his Ealing films allow physical disguise to complement the inner obsessions (BFI). Although Ealing was responsible for moulding Guinness into one of the great character actors of his day, he also enjoyed notoriety in the films he made with directors David Lean and Ronald Neame. Guinness hated being known for his role in STAR WARS (1977), so I won’t say anything more about that here (even though I secretly love him in STAR WARS!). His most popular Ealing comedies include KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949) (personal favorite), THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951) (my mother’s favorite), and THE LADYKILLERS (1955) (my brother’s favorite).
Here is the trailer for KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS (1949). Guinness plays all eight victims, even the women! No matter what costumes he’s wearing, you still can’t disguise that distinct silky British aristocratic purr.
Stanley Holloway: Not Just Eliza’s Father
Stanley Holloway was born into a working class London family. After joining a boys choir in his youth, he considered persuing an opera career – but the First World War put a stop to that. After serving in the infantry, Holloway started performing across the country in variety, pantomime, and musical revues. His two most famous stand-up characters were Sam Small and Albert Ramsbottom. During WWII Holloway performed frequently for the troops
and made propaganda films for Pathé and the British Film Institute (BFI). It wasn’t until after the war that Holloway started acting in films. His most famous films for Ealing were the tremendously funny PASSPORT TO PIMLICO (1949) and the Alec Guinness Classic THE LAVENDER HILL MOB (1951). Here’s a clip of Holloway performing “The Lion and Albert.”