The newest issue of Finest Hour explores “Churchill at the Movies” and includes both studies of his involvement with the film industry and an analysis of depictions of Churchill on film. Winston Churchill visited Hollywood only once. This was in September 1929 as part of a grand tour of North America Churchill made in the company of his son Randolph, brother Jack, and nephew Johnny. His visit coincided with the period when the motion picture industry was making the transition from silent film to “talkies.” At the end of the year Churchill published a description of what he found in Hollywood in an article for the Daily Telegraph, which we reprint below.
Here we enter a strange and an amusing world, the like of which has certainly never been seen before. Dozens of studios, covering together thousands of acres, and employing scores of thousands of very highly paid performers and technicians, minister to the gaiety of the world. It is like going behind the scenes of a theatre magnified a thousand-fold. Battalions of skilled workmen construct with magical quickness streets of London, of Chine, of India, jungles, mountains, and every conceivable form of scenery in solid and comparatively durable style. In a neighbouring creek pirate ships, Spanish galleons and Roman galleys ride at anchor.
This Peter Pan township is thronged with the most odd and varies of crowds that can be imagined. Here is a stream of South Sea Islanders with sweet little nut-brown children, hurrying to keep their studio appointments. There is a corps-de-ballet which would rival the Moulin Rouge. Ferocious brigands, bristling with property pistols, cowboys, train robbers, heroines in distress of all descriptions, aged cronies stalk or stroll or totter to and fro. Twenty films are in the making at once. A gang of wild Circassian horsemen filters past a long stream of camels from a desert caravan. Keen young men regulate the most elaborate processes of photography, and the most perfect installations for bridling light and sound. Competition is intense; the hours of toil are hard, and so are the hours of waiting. Youthful beauty claims her indisputable rights; but the aristocracy of the filmland found themselves on personality. It is a factory in appearance the queerest in the world, whose principal characteristics are hard work, frugality and discipline.
The apparition of the “talkies” created a revolution among the “movies.” Hollywood was shaken to its foundations. No one could challenge the popularity of these upstarts. Their technique might be defective; their voices in reproduction rough and unmusical; their dialect weak; but talking films were what the public wanted; and what the public wants it has to get. So all is turned upside down, and new experts arrive with more delicate apparatus, and a far more complicated organization must be set up. Everywhere throughout filmland the characters must be made to talk as well as act. New values are established, and old favourites have to look to their laurels. Now that everyone is making talking pictures, not only darkness but the perfect silence must be procurable whenever required, and balloons float above the studios to scare away the buzzings of wandering aeroplanes.
Alone among producers Charlie Chaplin remains unconverted, claiming that pantomime is the genius of drama, and that the imagination of the audience supplies better words than machinery can render, and prepared to vindicate the silent film by the glittering weapons of wit and pathos.
On the whole, I share his opinion.