London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Film Studio’s Silent Years

  • Film historian Gary Chapman delivers definitive study of seminal British film studio’s illustrious beginnings
  • Originally called the Islington studio, it’s a fascinating glimpse of its history and magnificent silent-era output
  • Featuring a cast of hundreds, including Betty Balfour, Betty Compson, Alfred Hitchcock and Ivor Novello
  • Gary tells us exclusively how he came to pen such a detailed yet compelling book

London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years by Gary Chapman book cover

 The Glamorous Dolly Tree

I started my journey exploring British silent film many years ago because of my interest in the costume designer Dolly Tree (1899-1962). She was famous on both sides of the Atlantic for her extravagant creations that appeared in stage shows, cabaret, couture and film in the glamorous 1920s and 1930s.

I discovered that at an early age Dolly Tree appeared in several silent films from 1915-1918 and initially worked for British and Colonial Films (B&C) and then under Maurice Elvey for the London Film Company. She had a leading role in the Dave Aylott and A.E. Martin production of Two Lancashire Lasses in London (1917) and her last known appearance was in Maurice Elvey’s original Hindle Wakes (1918), playing the part of Mary Hollins.

Dolly Tree at the height of her fame in 1925

Dolly Tree at the height of her fame in 1925

Her mother, who was known as Madge Tree, also appeared in over 20 films from 1914-1925. Since she was aged about forty when she commenced her film career, it naturally meant she could only play older, more mature character parts in supporting roles and her last screen appearance was in the Violet Hopson vehicle A Daughter of Love (1925), directed by Walter West.

In 1923, at the height of Dolly Tree’s fame in London and Paris as a designer for the London Hippodrome and the Folies Bergère, she landed the plum job of costuming the Balcon-Saville-Freedman movie Woman to Woman (1923). It was directed by Graham Cutts and filmed at the Islington studio.

Betty Compson (middle) in Woman to Woman (1923)

Betty Compson (middle) in Woman to Woman (1923)

It was my research into these aspects of Dolly Tree’s career that brought me into the fascinating world of British silent movies. At the time the internet did not exist and I spent ages looking at Kine Weekly, The Bioscope and many other journals at the BFI library and the British Library Newspapers Collections, then situated at Colindale. It felt as if I was dipping my toes into a secret hidden world. I got rather side-tracked into finding out about the formation and history of the Islington studio and deeply absorbed in trying to find out about specific film actresses, though often unsuccessfully.

Betty Compson wearing a feather dress in Woman to Woman (1923). There are 200 ostrich feathers and 1,000 pearls in that Dolly Tree creation!

Betty Compson in Woman to Woman (1923). There are 200 ostrich feathers and 1,000 pearls in that Dolly Tree creation!

As someone who had spent all their professional career in book publishing, I was amazed that so little had been written about the rich and fascinating subject of British silent film. I made notes to write books about the Islington studio, the stars of the British silent screen and costume design for British silent film, amongst others. Needless to say, life and work constantly got in the way. Thankfully, over the intervening years great strides have taken place with regard to accessibility of information. This is largely due to the internet, home video versions of many films and the general upsurge of interest in British silent film due to the passion of a great many people. The awareness-raising of the British Silent Film Festival, seasons of screenings of British silents by the BFI, the recent ‘Hitchcock 9’ restorations and the success of modern silent The Artist (2011) have all helped too.

I have finally got the time to write and the technology to publish without being constrained by a traditional book publisher and as a result I published London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years.

London’s Hollywood

From its creation in 1919 to the suspension of activity due to a fire just as sound became established, the Islington studio presented a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era. Of all the studios in the UK, Islington became the most iconic of its day.  Many of the most important films of the silent era were filmed there and many of the leading luminaries of the film industry – directors, technicians, actors and actresses – swept through its doors.

Of course it cannot be overlooked that the early history of the Islington studio encompasses the emergence of Alfred Hitchcock as he made his first steps toward becoming an internationally renowned director. It also charts the early career of Graham Cutts, a somewhat shadowy figure, and later much maligned by Hitchcock and others. In my opinion he is still deserving of more recognition for his talent and achievements.

Betty Balfour in her wedding dress in Squibs Honeymoon (1923)

Betty Balfour in Squibs Honeymoon (1923)

There are four important themes running through my book. The first is the battle against American influence, the second the advent of the 1927 ‘Quota Act’, the third the creation of large-scale film combines and finally, the arrival of talkies. The most poignant theme is the struggle faced by the British immediately after World War I to revive the film industry against overwhelming American competition. This dilemma continued throughout the 1920s despite some clever and effective strategies to circumvent the stranglehold of Hollywood’s movie moguls.

Despite early optimism immediately after the war, production was hampered by a lack of finance, facilities, equipment, good stories and most importantly, vision and commercial savviness. The adverse trading conditions and eventual slump weeded out many of the old-style methods of working and producers but a new breed rose to prominence in their place.

Ivor Novello signs his contract with Gainsborough Pictures under the watchful eye of Michael Balcon (c.1926)

Ivor Novello signs his contract with Gainsborough Pictures under the watchful eye of Michael Balcon (c.1926)

None were more significant than Michael Balcon and Herbert Wilcox. Both men looked beyond the confines of the UK and struck deals with American and German companies for distribution and finance. Right from the outset they used key American stars to attract attention and interest globally. They did not opt for the ‘sausage factory’ approach of churning out multiple films in quick succession, but instead carefully chose subjects and spent considerable time, care and effort in making them well-made productions, all geared towards each generating maximum income. They also employed the top technicians and performers of the day and appear to have had their fingers on the nation’s pulse. And yet, like many others they were slow to adapt to changing conditions and the challenge of the talkies. As always, it became a battle between creativity and artistic expression versus big business and profit making.

Exterior of the Gainsborough-Islington studio

Exterior of the Gainsborough-Islington studio

Balcon was shrewd in basing himself at the Islington studio. It was the most technically advanced studio in the UK, built and fitted out with all the latest advanced equipment by the American company, Famous Players-Lasky in 1919. After forming Gainsborough Pictures he eventually purchased the studio and became one of the most imaginative and energetic of British producers. Without doubt it was Balcon and Wilcox who rose to the challenge and confronted the problem of how to make British pictures successfully with vigour, verve and creativity, demonstrating it could be done and thus inspiring a whole new generation of filmmakers.

Commonly called ‘Hollywood by the Canal’ and even ‘Los Islington’, it cannot be forgotten that although the studio was originally owned by Famous Players-Lasky and simply referred to as ‘the Islington studio’, it was bought by Gainsborough Pictures Limited in 1926 and thereafter also called ‘the Gainsborough studio’. Nowadays it is more commonly known by the latter name, hence the subtitle of the book. However, for ease, I have tended to refer to the Islington studio rather than the Gainsborough studio throughout.

Objectives in writing London’s Hollywood

My aim has been to provide a complete history of the Islington studio and the films that were made there. However, there are a few anomalies. I have taken the liberty of discussing certain films that were not made at Islington but nevertheless are important to the overall narrative.

Ivor Novello in The Return of the Rat (1929)

Ivor Novello in The Return of the Rat (1929)

I cite, for example, The Wonderful Story and Cocaine (both 1922), directed by Graham Cutts before he began work at Islington, and some Gainsborough films that were filmed in Germany and America. There are also a few films that were made by Gainsborough and should have been filmed at Islington but whose filming was forced to take place elsewhere, such as The Sea Urchin (1926) and The First Born (1928). Since Gainsborough bought the studio in 1926, the inclusion of all these films is vital as Gainsborough and the Islington studio were interlinked and it is necessary to place everything in clear perspective. For the purpose of continuity I have also mentioned the films that Graham Cutts made after he left Gainsborough in 1927, as he did return to direct The Return of the Rat (1929) at Islington for Gainsborough.

Studio no. 2 of the Gainsborough-Islington Studio

Studio no. 2 of the Gainsborough-Islington Studio

I have tried to follow a broadly chronological pattern, dividing up the book largely by each film. Everything is grouped together, including the development, filming, trade shows and reviews despite the fact that often this spanned up to a six-month period. Formatting the text to fit this chronological perspective was a challenge but I felt this would be neater and easier to follow. However, for clarity I have grouped some films together out of strict chronological order, for example George Pearson’s films with Betty Balfour, Gainsborough’s adaptations of Noël Coward’s plays and Cutts’ later movies.

This kind of approach, examining one particular studio and its evolution and output, has been a fascinating personal experience. Finding out what films were made at the Islington studio and all the various developments that took place there was a real voyage of discovery.

I hope that my efforts will help spread the word in bringing British silent film alive to many more people.


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Gary has worked in the book publishing and marketing industries for over 30 years. He is an expert on Jazz Age (1920s–1930s) culture and nightlife, and runs the thriving Jazz Age Club website. Gary has an enduring fascination with the period and is an avid collector of related ephemera, focused largely on fashion, cabaret, silent film, music hall, dance, theatre and costume design. In addition he has authored several acclaimed books about the films and personalities of the era. He is currently working on various others, all with a 1920s theme.

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