Shepperton, Pinewood and Ealing are all familiar names in the history of British cinema, but have you ever heard of Isleworth Studios? Established in 1914, its inaugural production was Britain’s first Sherlock Holmes movie – A Study in Scarlet. Hundreds of films were made in the intervening years, including large sections of The African Queen (1951), filmed at the studio during its final moments of existence. This is a history you probably don’t know.
Britain’s Forgotten Film Factory: The Story of Isleworth Studios by Ed Harris is a fascinating read for cinephiles who wish to understand more about early British films and their creation. It not only gives us a recollection of cinematic times past but also shows the issues that the emerging technology faced when creating these new moving pictures, as well as the audience’s reactions and their overall cultural relevance. These include stories about the ‘commoners’ seeing movies at picture houses to occasionally bizarre revelations about government ministers attending screenings of films made locally, as much as they attended those graced by an increasing number of Hollywood stars. The history covers the coming of sound in British cinema as well as the stars of early UK films – both on-screen and behind the scenes. So we are introduced to Britain’s answer to Clara Bow, early films featuring Cary Grant, directorial pieces by Lee Garmes, more renowned as the cinematographer for Josef von Sternberg in Shanghai Express (1932), and cinematography by Jack Cardiff as he developed his craft. There are also stories concerning the late film career of Buster Keaton which are both fascinating and moving, depicting of one of the great film stars/comedians/creators at a tragic end to his life as he struggled with alcoholism. We learn of Alexander Korda’s involvement with the studio in the 1930s – he purchased it for £35,000 and invested significant sums in improving its technical facilities.
Another fascinating aspect to the book is the discussion about World War 1 and the way that war affected productions as well as the political implications of the government recognising the propaganda potential of the cinema format. Some of the studio’s cameramen filmed the battle of the Somme during the war’s most awful moments, in order to get footage shown back in Blighty and increase public awareness of the war effort.
The interest in The Story of Isleworth Studios is manifold. Primarily this is the story of a film factory that you’ve probably never heard of before but it is fascinating because of the way that its films link to elements of cinema history that you were likely to be aware of, at least in part. So many names are so familiar; the book covers a plethora of films that you might not have realised were made there. A genuinely interesting book for any cinephile, particularly if you are interested in the development of the format during its early years.