Hollywood in Hertfordshire - the MGM studios in Borehamwood
- Credit: MGM British Studios
The closure of MGM British Studios 50 years ago ended a golden period of filmmaking in Herts. Its legacy continues
October 1969 and Hollywood director Fred Zinnemann had good reason to feel confident. Fresh from winning his second Oscar for A Man For All Seasons, the Hollywood veteran had just completed casting for his current project, Man’s Fate. On November 10, David Niven, Peter Finch, Liv Ullman and Max Von Sydow started rehearsals at MGM British Studios, the Borehamwood site where MGM had produced films for two decades. It would be the studio’s top production in 1970.
Costumes made, sets built and a construction crew hard at work on location in Singapore, Zinnemann would start filming in three days when a cable arrived on November 19 from MGM in Culver City, California. The film was cancelled and the stranded crew were to make their way back to Borehamwood as best they could. By February 1970, all but 192 staff from a total of more than 900 were gone. MGM British Studios closed its doors. Dogged efforts to resolve the closure – part of a raft of cuts brought on by declining cinema attendances in the States and the UK and an overly ambitious production programme – proved fruitless and a unique era in the history of UK filmmaking had ended.
Why did MGM and its stars trek to quiet, leafy Herts from the glamour and sun of mid-20th century Hollywood in the first place? Income from UK cinema attendances was vital to Hollywood, and in 1944, with the war in its final stages, MGM was looking for a permanent base of operations here. Famed director and producer Sir Alexander Korda already knew the studios of Borehamwood well (studios had sprung up here since 1914, attracted by the space, easy access to London yet away from the pea-souper fogs of the capital), having directed Oscar-winning The Private Life of Henry VIII at British & Dominions Studios in 1933.
Korda discovered Amalgamated Studios was for sale. Opened in the summer of 1939 but then closed almost at once on the outbreak of war, it had been pressed into war-time service, storing top secret Cabinet papers and then manufacturing parts for Handley Page bombers.
MGM bought the 30 acre site and 85 acres of adjoining farmland. The flock of sheep it acquired safely grazed at MGM British for years under the watchful eye of their shepherd, an MGM staff member.
After extensive modernisation, by 1947 MGM British Studios was ready. The fully refurbished studio started by filming Dream Of Olwen, then Herbert Wilcox directed his wife, local actress Anna Neagle, and Michael Wilding in Spring In Park Lane. With around 4,500 cinemas in the UK, weekly attendances averaged nearly 26 million and this film gained the record for the greatest number of cinema seats ever sold in the UK.
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The next summer MGM launched its own post-war production programme, importing Hollywood acting legend Spencer Tracy and A-list director George Cukor for Edward My Son. Ingrid Bergman, Joseph Cotton and Michael Wilding followed. Their British director, Alfred Hitchcock, was no stranger to the studios of Borehamwood; years before he had visited to make the UK’s first sound film, Blackmail. Hollywood had truly come to Hertfordshire, and over the next 20 years many other MGM stars followed.
Ivanhoe became the most famous film to come out of the studio in the 1950s and no expense was spared. MGM failed to entice Laurence Olivier and then Errol Flynn to take on the title role before signing long-serving MGM actor Robert Taylor to star in the ‘medieval western’. His co-star, a young Elizabeth Taylor, was less keen. Another co-star, Joan Fontaine, was also underwhelmed, commenting that during five months’ filming the director ‘was more interested in the horses than in the actors’. Hollywood veteran stuntman Yakima Canutt directed all the Ivanhoe stunts, including the memorable jousting scenes. But for many the true star of the film was the castle. Work started on the set in 1950, needing 25,000 tubular fittings to construct the wooden framework. A source of pride for locals, the castle drew visitors and stood for years until it was demolished in 1958 to make way for a Chinese village.
And then to Herts arrived the ‘King of Hollywood’, Clark Gable. World famous for Gone With The Wind, he had been with MGM since the 1930s. Staying at The Dorchester in London, Gable starred in Never Let Me Go with Gene Tierney. Soon after followed Glenn Ford (Time Bomb) and then legendary song and dance man, Gene Kelly (Invitation To The Dance). This being the 1950s Kelly was issued with a ration book, entitling him to one-and-three-quarter pounds of sweets each week.
Borehamwood drew perhaps its starriest cast for the big film of 1953, Mogambo with Clark Gable, Ava Gardner, Grace Kelly and director John Ford. 1953 also saw Robert Taylor back in chain mail for Knights Of The Round Table with Ava Gardner. The first British feature film shot in Cinemascope, it marked a welcome return to cinema screens of the Ivanhoe castle.
In his final film under contract to MGM, Gable joined Lana Turner and Victor Mature in Betrayed. The castle was back again in The Dark Avenger, sharing the screen with swashbuckler and Hollywood bad boy Errol Flynn, while Elizabeth Taylor and Stewart Granger appeared with Robert Morley and Peter Ustinov in period piece Beau Brummel.
The next few years saw a procession of talent from Hollywood – Robert Mitchum, Rita Hayworth and Jack Lemmon filmed Fire Down Below, while Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman joined veteran Oscar winner Helen Hayes in Anastasia. Not in quite the same league was Fire Maidens From Outer Space, a remarkable film in so many ways.
The decade closed with Inn Of The Sixth Happiness (Ingrid Bergman, Curt Jurgens and an ailing Robert Donat), Tom Thumb, with Russ Tamblyn and dastardly duo Peter Sellers and Terry Thomas, and the memorable horror, Village of the Damned, filmed in the nearby villages of Letchmore Heath and Aldenham. A drink at The Three Horseshoes in Letchmore Heath is essential before wandering around the village, spotting scenes from the film.
‘The international years’ of the 1960s were just as busy as the ’50s. Sophia Loren and a smitten Peter Sellers duetted in The Millionairess and in 1963 an all-star cast assembled for The VIPs. Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rod Taylor, Orson Welles and Margaret Rutherford clearly enjoyed themselves filming in Borehamwood.
Although films were moving from being studio-based to the added realism of location shooting, in 1966 a French chateau was created for Lee Marvin and his companions in The Dirty Dozen. Night-time backlot explosions kept local residents awake at night.
By now MGM British was home to such popular television series as Danger Man, the Gerry Anderson classic UFO and cult series The Prisoner, with Patrick McGoohan.
Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece 2001: A Space Odyssey was shot in 1966, while the studio’s last great blockbuster Where Eagles Dare with Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood winning the Second World War was filmed in 1968, the year before work started on Man’s Fate. And then fate intervened.
In these uncertain times it’s more important than ever to celebrate and take inspiration from great achievements. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the sudden closure of MGM British Studios, ‘the jewel in the crown’ of all the many film studios to open in Elstree and Borehamwood.
Before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, local volunteer group Elstree Screen Heritage had planned to celebrate MGM British Studios as part of Hertfordshire’s ambitious Year of Culture. Those plans, including a summer-long free exhibition at Elstree and Borehamwood Museum, are now on hold.
However, publication of Paul Welsh’s book to mark the anniversary, MGM British Studios: Hollywood In Hertfordshire, has not been delayed. A film historian, author and columnist, Paul was uniquely placed to record the genuine voice of local film and television veterans, adding their tales to his comprehensive account.
Many of the American stars who came to Herts were under contract to MGM, but they worked with actors, directors, cameramen and skilled craftsmen from other Hollywood studios, as well as with some of the greatest British film and television talent. Since 1914 this corner of Hertfordshire has been home to many ‘film families’, in which one generation after another has worked in the local film studios. Watch any of the MGM British films and remember they were shot right here in Herts with some of the best and most famous talent in the world. It is a fabulous legacy that deserves celebrating and it continues to this day, with plans for the expansion of Elstree Studios and Sky’s £3bn scheme for a new studio here. A new golden era seems likely.
Paul Welsh’s book, MGM British Studios: Hollywood in Hertfordshire, takes you behind the scenes of this iconic film studio. At over 300 pages and with more than 400 photos and drawings, the book costs £20 (plus postage and packing). To order a copy, visit ElstreeScreenHeritage.org