Sunday, April 19, 2009

When my grandfather met Miriam Hopkins


In his army pay book, when he was ‘released to the reserve’ after the end of the Second World War, my grandfather’s trade is listed as ‘carpenter and joiner’.
It was one that led to various forms of employment through his life. He built coffins for an undertaker’s, worked in a London hotel, ran his own hardware shop, and for a few years in the nineteen-thirties, he worked on the sets of the most important films being made in Britain.
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Fernley Arthur William Brock, Arthur to those who knew him, was in his late teens when he applied for work at Alexander Korda’s London Film Studios, by far the most prestigious filmmaking company in Britain, at a time when it was brimming with confidence. It had been a Korda film of 1933, The Private Life of Henry VIII, that had suddenly made Hollywood sit up and take notice of British movies, rewarding it with unprecedented box-office and Oscar success. With the world profits of the film, the ambitious and imaginative Korda constructed Denham Studios in Buckinghamshire, establishing himself as Britain’s only true Hollywood-style movie mogul.
The studios were finished in 1936, and it was the first general call for skilled craftsman that my grandfather successfully answered.
John Aldred, a young man who worked in Denham’s sound department, recalled that as he arrived for work every morning he would pass a long line of carpenters, plasterers, electricians and labourers hoping for casual daily work. Those like my grandfather who had received permanent contracts were therefore fortunate indeed.
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These were the golden years for London Films, and Arthur worked on many of the company’s most prestigious productions.
The Denham studios were by far the largest in Britain, with seven separate stages totalling 110,500 square feet. There were fully equipped electricians’ galleries to facilitate state of the art lighting effects and any conceivable camera angle, the most up to date sound equipment, a private water supply and the largest private electric power plant in the country. My grandfather was one of a permanent staff of two thousand technicians and craftsmen.
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At the time, he was engaged to my future grandmother and would regularly drive to and from Plymouth where she lived in his Austin Seven. Before motorways this was no small trip; it took about eight hours. On his visits he would tell of the experience of driving through London’s famous pea-soup fogs; so thick that you could only crawl, as the car in front would be literally impossible to make out.
But of far greater interest to my grandmother was the autograph book he kept for her, where, sitting nonchalantly alongside friends and members of the family, were the signatures of many of the biggest names in films at that time.
How many other prospective suitors could bring her Robert Taylor’s autograph?
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Looking at it now, the autograph book is especially useful; because it shows us exactly which films my grandfather worked on. The signatures of Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton (the latter helpfully dated 22/8/36) mean that he worked on Rembrandt, the film Korda hoped would equal the success of Henry VIII. Robert Donat and Marlene Dietrich (who signs herself simply ‘Dietrich’) place him on the set of Knight Without Armour (1937).
Men Are Not Gods (1936), a wonderful if largely forgotten comedy drama, must have been his opportunity to approach firebrand Miriam Hopkins.
For some reason the thought of my granddad going up to Miriam Hopkins (more even than Dietrich) and asking for her autograph amuses me no end. If ever two people lived in totally separate universes it is they. Imagine your grandfather blithely plucking up a conversation with Miriam Hopkins, and you may get a sense of some - though I fancy not all - of the comic incongruity of mine doing so.
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The art department for which Arthur worked was internationally recognised for its excellence. It was under the control of Korda’s brother Vincent, whose “period as a painter in France,” writer John Halas has noted, “made an imprint on both his personal set designs and those produced under his charge in the studio, while his strongly persuasive character and impatience dominated the work of those around him, from his fellow designers to carpenters and decorators who carried out the finished sets.” A demanding and irascible employer, it was said that in those pre-unionised days he sometimes worked his crews through the night to ensure the work was completed on time, though my grandfather never complained of this himself. The results, however, spoke for themselves: “Even when the film itself failed to gain acceptance, the set design received acclaim.”
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One of the most ambitious films to which Arthur contributed was Things To Come (1936), Korda’s adaptation of HG Wells’s futuristic novel. This elaborate production gave him a chance to work not just on sets but also special effects. The film was pioneering in its use of models and false perspective to give the illusion of great size and distance.
He recalled to me the experience of sitting in the audience at the film’s premiere, and noting the excited gasps of the crowd as the film unspooled – an excitement entirely lost on him, because he knew exactly how the sights they found so amazing were achieved.
In particular, a shot of planes flying in perfect formation he knew all too well to be miniatures, the exact formation simply attained by having them all linked together on a metal frame. He told me to look closely if I ever saw this scene, because he swore that, once you knew the trick, the wires were plainly visible. Perhaps on a big screen and luminously clear nitrate film stock they were: but I’ve never spotted them on television.
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He also gave me some fascinating behind the scenes photographs of the films being made, appearing here for the first time.
One shows him with the submarine set he helped construct for the film Dark Journey (1937). Clearly visible on its side is a gash from a scene in which the submarine was supposedly breached and flooded, a sequence he watched being filmed.
The effect was simply achieved. A small section of the submarine’s interior wall was cut away and covered with stiff paper. This was then linked to a large tank connected to the studio’s private water supply. On the director’s signal, the water was released and came crashing through the paper, while the actors on the receiving end of this deluge were tossed about like ninepins.
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Dark Journey: the submarine completed...

... and still under construction: note the hole in the side to allow for the flooding effect. Arthur is stood in the centre of the back row.
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The most interesting of all the pictures are the ones showing the galleon constructed for the Elizabethan seafaring adventure Fire Over England (1937). They reveal that not only did the vessel never go to sea; it was in fact only ever built as a cross-section.
Only one side was ever seen by the cameras, and was beautifully designed and painted - the other was a hollow wall of twentieth century scaffolding. Needless to say, the vessel was entirely stationary, and all the stirring maritime action achieved through studio trickery.
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Fire Over England: set construction

The side of the galleon audiences saw...

... and the side they never saw!
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I don’t know if it was Arthur’s intention to continue working at Denham, or if he imagined his long-term future as being part of the film industry. In the event, Hitler made the decision for him. He signed up immediately war was declared, eventually joined the 6th Airborne Division and on 6th June, 1944, he landed in Normandy in the first wave of D-Day landings.
But that’s another story…