Elstree - the launch pad of great film careers

Just over 80 years ago, two great film talents met as young men working at the newly-built Elstree Studios. Today, one is still a household name and the other is half forgotten, but such is the strange way of fame.

Elstree had just employed the new “wonder kid” film director Alfred Hitchcock, who had grown up in the East End and had already made a name for himself as an “up and comer”. The other talented youngster was Charles Laughton and he was at the studio making a fleeting extra appearance in the film Piccadilly, but he was soon spotted as a potential star.

In fact, in 1933, Charles returned to Borehamwood to star in The Private Life Of Henry VIII and won the best actor Oscar and a Hollywood contract.

He married actress Elsa Lanchester, best known by film buffs for her role opposite Boris Karloff as The Bride Of Frankenstein, although in fact, Charles was gay and had boyfriends throughout their marriage.

Charles was to later say: “Borehamwood and Elstree Studios was where my career really started and I owe the place my utmost gratitude, although I will say it had a terrible studio restaurant.”

He enjoyed a successful Hollywood career in such films as Advise And Consent, Sparticus and the scene-stealing role of Captain Bligh, in Mutiny On The Bounty.

Charles sometimes had the tendency to chew up the scenery, but was always watchable and sadly, had a long drawn-out death from cancer in 1962.

In 1996, I invited actor Ralph Fiennes, best known as the nazi commander in Schindler’s List and for The English Patient, to unveil a plaque honouring Charles at the studio.

Ralph told me: “I am a great admirer of Laughton’s films and he certainly had screen presence.”

I wonder how many readers remember this Oscar winning actor today ?

As for Hitch, he left Elstree a few years after directing the first British talkie Blackmail there and had hits with such films as The 39 Steps.

He returned to Borehamwood to direct Laughton in Jamaica Inn, in 1939 and then left for Hollywood where he was put under contract by the Gone With The Wind producer David O Selznick. Perhaps their best remembered film together was Rebecca.

After they parted company in the late Forties, Hitch returned to Borehamwood to direct Ingrid Bergman in Under Capricorn, at MGM, and Marlene Dietrich, at Elstree Studios, in Stage Fright. Neither was a great hit. In fact, the male lead in the former, Joseph Cotten, told me the cast renamed it “under corny crap”.

Hitch returned to Hollywood and in the Fifties, had success with such movies as North By Northwest with Cary Grant and a hit TV series called Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

My favourite Hitchcock movie was Psycho in 1960, which he made for the cinema but with a television crew and on a small budget.

I got to meet the great man briefly on the set of one of his last films, Frenzy, which he filmed in London in the early Seventies.

He told me he storyboarded his films in advance and tended to “cut in the camera”, meaning it would be very difficult for any producer to re-edit his films from spare footage later.

This meant he did not find the process of actual filming very interesting and he tried to avoid directing actors as he employed them with the knowledge they could perform the role.

Sadly, the film industry often celebrates the work of a great movie maker only when it is known they are at the end of their life.

Hitch never won an Oscar and by the time the American Film Institute gave him a special award evening in the late Seventie,s he was already far gone with alcohol and senile dementia.

Just before his death in 1980, the British Government awarded him a knighthood, which had been delayed until the end as he had taken out American citizenship in the Fifties.

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