Leslie J Wheeler and MGM at Borehamwood

David Sharp's picture

A brief Memoir from a member of the sound department at MGM Borehamwood which sheds a little light on the earlier part of the studio's history.


RED LIGHT AND BELL, by Leslie J Wheeler Hon FRPS., FBKSTS.

[A memoir, focusing on MGM Studios at Borehamwood, re-keyed with minor corrections from a faded typescript. DS]

In the recent grip of winter and with the snow many inches deep on the ground, it has been pleasant for us oldies to reminisce – particularly with the aid of the flames and coals of a (practical) fire provided by the modern equivalent of the Gas, Light and Coke Company! And to gaze intently into those red coals and conjure up so many memories of those pictures in the fire.

In my own case the pictures went leaping right back to 1947, and when MGM opened their first British studios in Borehamwood, next to Elstree in Hertfordshire. Right from the start MGM British was chaired by Ben Goetz – a very fatherly figure indeed although he was always known as ‘Uncle’ Ben. A certain D.P Field quickly composed a little ditty which ran ‘Uncle Ben, Uncle Ben, surrounded by unusual men’, but more about D.P. and his ditties later.

What is very certain is that Uncle Ben opened MGM with a very carefully hand-picked staff of the highest order.

In charge of the Camera Department was none other than Freddie Young. In Special Effects he had Tommy Howard and as Director of Sound Recordings was A.R.Watkins. Lora Wright was in charge of production and Irene Howard looked after casting – and she was sister to the late lamented Leslie Howard. I could go on and on – it seemed that the MGM firmament was now studied with stars, and by no means were all of them appearing in front of [i.e. on] the silver screen!

Really big Heads of Departments were big enough to have well-known people as their assistants: thus Freddy Young had Skeets Kelly as his camera operator and he may well have stayed there all the years MGM British existed, but for his untimely death whilst filming from a helicopter.

A.W.Watkins actually had two right-hand men, but his better claim to fame concerned his rather flashy car he used to drive to the studios in – and which it was always rumoured that he won outright one day whilst playing poker with some of the lads behind the ‘flats’ on the set of one of London ‘s Film Productions at Denham Studios. When MGM opened their British studios all sound was Photophone[?] and it was either the RCA variable area type or the Western Electric variable density system. At MGM it was always the variable density system produced by passing light through two tightly ‘strung’ ribbons. They weren’t the only things which were highly strung at MGM – because the aforementioned D.P.Field was the Senior Electrical Engineer working for A.W. Watkins and, and DP was the most highly strung fellow I have ever known.

I suppose I cannot hope to leave the Sound Department without saying that the MGM system of recording was so advanced for its time that it was officially known as the ‘200 mill push-pull variable density’ and that it was so exacting that it required someone in charge of ‘sensiometric control’ to liaise with the laboratories and ensure that everything was absolutely perfect every time the lion roared!

It so happens that I was appointed ‘sensiometric control engineer’ with a contract at MGM to form A.W. Watkin’s ‘other’ right-hand man. Thus D.P.Field and myself were more or less level-pegging under A.W.Watkins, who was known by everyone as ‘Watty’ . He was always a quiet man, immaculately dressed and with perfect manners at all times – quite the reverse of D.P. Field. And ‘Watty’s’ final fade-out was playing a round of golf with Tommy Howard on the course at Moor Park.

But back to my ‘pictures in the fire’, and once Uncle Ben had selected all his staff, just what pictures did they really make there.

Well like all prudent producers they didn’t open with pictures of their own, but with a number of ‘renters’ who came into the studios and rented both studio space and technicians with which to make their own epic.

Thus we started with Edward Dryhurst’s [screenwriter] picture entitled Whilst I Live, still famous for the theme tune [The Dream of Olwen] but hardly remembered for Tom Walls who played the gardener [?] [Nehemiah, a faith healer] although he was almost totally deaf at the time and took all his cues by lip-reading.

Another of our early renters were always known as The Boulting Brothers, and they together with a very young Dickie Attenborough, who …made The Guinea Pig. This was made at MGM at a time when the studio was going through a great safety scare – and the gate-keeper had to ensure that everybody was properly accounted for. This particularly annoyed D.P.Field although it was pointed out to him that the Fire Chief needed to know if D.P. was in the studio so that they could save his life in the event of a fire!

Dickie Attenborough got to hear that D.P and the Fire Chief did not see eye to eye, and on one particular day when all the gates were bolted and barred during a fire-drill, a very young Dickie, egged on by D.P. was seen to be climbing over the main gate, still of course in his school-boy’s uniform, and complete with school cap firmly on his head!

One day Ben Goetz was seen to be walking along with Herbert Wilcox on the road between Stage 1 and the Theatre Block. Herbert was heard to say “Tell me Ben, how many people do you have working for you?”, to which Ben, quick as a flash replied “Oh, about half of them, I reckon!”  Now it may or may not have been his original remark – and he may have been hoping for the immortal fame of Sam Goldwyn at the time, but he did say it, and I was walking just behind them and heard it for myself almost, you might say ‘straight from the horses’ mouth’.

Naturally it became known as one of the famous sayings of ‘Uncle Ben’. Even so it did nothing to put Herbert Wilcox off, because he made his next two pictures at MGM. Firstly, was Spring in Park Lane, with Anna Neagle and Michael Wilding - and the couple were so successful that they followed it with Maytime in Mayfair.

By then it was rumoured that the days of renters were nearly over and, and surely MGM were going to make a picture of their own, and so it proved to be.

Spencer Tracy and Deborah Kerr came along to make Edward, My Son – one of the very few pictures Spencer Tracy made without Katherine Hepburn, but it was a great success once Tracy had hit upon the idea of setting light to the furniture store he and his partner owned together, and then collecting the insurance money. But as he went from strength to strength it drove his wife to drink! I mainly remember this film for the shot when Deborah Kerr – almost paralytic with drink – turns to mount an enormous staircase and says as she reaches a squeaking stair – “That’s the funny one” – only a little point but very much worth it’s keep.

And that was one of the first stages in my introduction to post-synchronisation. The Americans at this time were great ones for post-synch and didn’t seem to mind very much if they couldn’t record first-class sound on set – because it could always be post-synched and re-recorded in the dubbing theatre afterwards. This required the artist to repeat the offending line many times over; and we in the sound department often couldn’t help learning special lines just as well as the artistes themselves. As for example when the Black Knight was talking to a very young Elizabeth Taylor, who played Rebecca in Ivanhoe, because he had to say to her: “when next you come to me, come with desire in your heart and fire in your bosom, or no man’s life is saved”. It was the sort of line we would say to any likely secretary, and just watch her reaction!

Another favourite from Ivanhoe was when, at the jousts, the king said to Robert Taylor, observing George Sanders (playing the Black Knight): “Black from head to foot, the ill-gotten knave.”, only to receive the reply “He’ll soon be red with blood, my lord.” Such post-synch sessions could produce no end of laughter if reproduced at the right place and the right time.

I could go on and on, but what has this to do with red lights and bells? Well, one thing I am sure of is that it certainly has nothing at all to do with the more questionable ladies of Soho – but relates to the fact that when shooting interiors at MGM, that was the first statement made by the second or third [assistant] director on the floor to bring everyone to order and to start preparing to shoot the next shot.

The command called for the warning red light to start blinking, for the electrically operated stage doors to be closed and locked and then for him to shout the magic word “Quiet!” This was followed by “roll ‘em” and the camera operators reassuring observation of “running” and then “speed”, so that the clapper-boy could follow the instruction to “mark it”, and finally, the all- important word “Action!” by the Director himself.

Oh, and by the way – thank goodness for the coal fire to stare into – even if it was an imitation!

Copyright by Leslie J Wheeler