Eighty years ago, on the 18th September 1934, ‘The Times ’reported that Twickenham Film Studios was about to spend £500,000, that’s over £30 million in today’s money, on film production. Opening a modern sound stage on the site, producer and studio owner Mr Julius Hagen announced a list of films that would be shot in this new facility. These included ‘The Morals of Marcus’ starring ‘The Mexican Spitfire’ – Miss Lupe Velez, ‘Vintage Wine’ with Seymour Hicks and Claire Luce and ‘Squibs’ featuring Betty Balfour and Stanley Holloway. Mr Hagen told reporters that the new sound stage, 125 feet long and 70 feet wide, featured all the very latest acoustic properties and air-conditioning systems.
Scarcely a year later, in the early hours of Tuesday 29th October 1935, a fire swept through the studios causing between £80,000 and £120,000 of damage including props valued at £7,500, camera and back projection equipment worth £10,000, drapes valued at £3,500, a ‘jewelled Buddha’ worth £3,500 and publicity photographs for every film made at the studio since “White Cargo” in 1929. All were completely destroyed. Only the new sound stage survived the flames…
“Surveying the ruins themselves it is difficult to imagine how such destruction could have been wrought in little more than an hour. Of a sound truck which stood alongside the recording rooms… scarcely a trace exists. Its remains and the remnants of the valuable equipment are inextricably entangled with iron girders from the roof.”
RICHMOND AND TWICKENHAM TIMES – 2nd Nov 1935
The fire brigade’s greatest fear was the fire reaching the film vaults. Chief Officer Woods said, “Within a few yards of the film vault door were several reels of film that blazed like fury. If the flames had got through that door there would have been no stopping them, and the whole building would have become involved. The vault, which contained over 600 tins of film, was only saved by the operation of the sprinkler system.”
The effects of the fire were felt far beyond the studio itself. Shops backing onto the site suffered severe scorching and their windows were broken by the heat. Sections of studio roof were blown off, some landing 150 yards away on the far side of ‘The Barons’. There was also some minor damage done to railway property, including a wooden telephone pole which surprisingly was burned from the inside out! A brick wall separating the studio from the adjacent railway line had to be pulled down as it was feared it would collapse onto the track.
Julius Hagen had built his business and reputation on the production of ‘Quota Quickies’ — cheap and rapidly produced ‘B Movies’ that Warner Brothers required in order to exhibit their American-made films in Britain — their most important foreign market at the time… and it was this ‘cut the corners’ policy that drove the studio on. Within days — and by using other studios like Ealing and Shepperton, reducing the size of sets and improvising their way around problems — production continued. On Wednesday, the day after the fire, worked started again on “She Shall Have Music” starring Jack Hylton. The film’s main set — the Paris Opera House — was rebuilt but at half its original size. Finding themselves unable to use the destroyed back projection equipment for a street sequence in the racy thriller ‘Broken Blossoms’ the crew shot the scene outside, knocking down parts of the original set to get the wide shots they needed.
“A large number of London Fire Brigade chiefs… have visited the scene of the disaster, and all have expressed the warmest admiration of the work of Chief Officer Woods and his men. Neither must the work of the police be forgotten in controlling the huge crowds which assembled…
While it is impossible to ascribe any definite reason for the outbreak, Chief Officer Woods believes it has been due to a fuse in one of the electric supply cables near the Stills department."
RICHMOND AND TWICKENHAM TIMES – 2nd Nov 1935
In 1936 Julius Hagen decided to switch from profitable “Quota Quickies” to high budget all-star main features. Although leading Hollywood celebrities like D.W. Griffiths, Edward Everett Horton, Cedric Hardwicke and Boris Karloff came to St Margarets to make films Julius was unable to secure adequate distribution for his output. Without free access to either the British or American markets, some of Hagen’s expensive productions were barely able to earn any money at all. On 8th January 1937 Twickenham Studios went into receivership forcing Julius Hagen into retirement. He died in February 1940.
She Shall Have Music
Here is a 9.5mm clip from “She Shall Have Music” made at Twickenham Studios after the fire in 1935:
— from Martyn Day