Hammer - the Birth of a Studio
Created | Updated Jun 3, 2020
Though they would become famous with lurid and grisly horror movies of the 1960s and early '70s, the Hammer studio's beginnings were somewhat less sensationalist. The story of Hammer begins with two men, William Hinds and Enriqué Carreras. Businessman William Hinds had spent some time as one half of the vaudeville double-act 'Hammer & Smith'1 and, indeed, for most of his life he remained 'William Hammer'. In the early 1930s, William Hinds set up Hammer Productions, a small-scale film company that had limited success with films such as The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935), The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1936) starring Bela Lugosi - star of Universal Studio's Dracula, and The Song of Freedom - starring the singer Paul Robeson.
At around about the same time, Hinds came into contact with Enriqué Carreras. Carreras had been born in Spain, but had moved to Britain in 1907 and set up a small empire of cinemas - the first of which was based in Hammersmith - which he ran with the help of his son, James. In 1935, Carreras and Hinds founded Exclusive Films Ltd, a film distribution company, which was run from a small office in Wardour Street in Soho, London. As Exclusive Films grew, taking up residence in larger offices in Wardour Street2, the Hammer production side slowly disappeared. Exclusive Films secured the rights to several British Lion pictures and distributed them in addition to the old Hammer films.
In 1938, Carreras' son James joined the company prior to his enlistment in the army. William Hammer's son Anthony also joined the business briefly before he too went off to war. In 1945, with both Anthony Hinds and James Carreras back with the company, James's son Michael was brought in as 'director of publicity' - in reality, this grand title meant he was responsible for sending out posters and publicity stills to their cinemas.
The Cinematograph Film Act of 1921 had been brought in to protect the interests of the British cinema industry against an influx of titles from America. It stated that all British cinemas must screen a percentage of British-made films as part of their programme. Cinema chains such as Associated British Cinemas struggled to meet their quota, and so companies such as Hammer became an important part of their business. In 1946, encouraged by this demand for low-budget British support features3, Exclusive Films made the move from distribution back to production with River Patrol. They achieved considerable success in licensing the popular BBC radio production Dick Barton, Special Agent for the first of a series of film adaptations. Later, they also negotiated for the rights to The Man in Black - the radio thriller series in which tombstone-voiced Valentine Dyall4 narrated spine-chilling stories. These BBC acquisitions led to the creation of Exclusive's film production wing and the name 'Hammer' was resurrected, with James Carreras being appointed managing director of the company around about the same time.
The Move to Bray
The first release under the new Hammer banner was Dr Morelle - The Case of the Missing Heiress (much of their output tended to fall into the low-budget crime thriller bracket) which was shot in Dial Close, a private house in Maidenhead. To save the cost of kitting out a full studio, Anthony Hinds came up with the idea of hiring country houses and shooting films in the rooms and grounds of the locations. After permission was refused to use Dial Close for a second film, Hinds moved the crew to Oakley Court, in Bray, Windsor, and, some years later, to Down Place, which would be renamed Bray Studios and provide a home for the company for 16 years.
In 1951, Hammer joined forces with an American company, Robert Lippert Productions, which gave the British company their first break in the USA. With William Hinds seemingly less interested in film production, both Michael and James Carreras worked hard to build the company's reputation. James began to promote the company abroad, while Michael managed to secure American actors for their films which would, in turn, improve their chances at the box-office across the Atlantic. Later he succeeded in setting up distribution deals with major American studios such as Columbia, Warner Bros and Universal. Meanwhile Michael Carreras and Anthony Hinds produced the films, alternating responsibilities with each release. Eventually, while Hinds remained at Bray to produce pictures, Carreras returned to their Wardour Street offices to become Hammer's executive producer.
Having already had some success with adapting BBC productions, it was natural that, with the advent of television, Hammer would move to adapting TV dramas to the big screen. In 1953, one such show had held Britain in a grip of terror - The Quatermass Experiment, a six-part science fiction thriller broadcast live. Hammer's version, released two years later (billed as The Quatermass Xperiment in Britain and the more B-Movie-style name The Creeping Unknown in the USA), pared down the three-hour drama to 82 tense minutes and provided the studio with their first major international success5. Keen to exploit the horror movie genre further, the team adapted Mary Shelley's classic Gothic novel in the form of The Curse of Frankenstein, directed by Terrence Fisher and based on a script by Anthony Hinds under his pseudonym John Elder. The stars of this film, both relatively unknown at the time, would become forever linked to the Hammer brand - Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. The team reunited for Dracula (known in the USA as Horror of Dracula) with a script by Jimmy Sangster. It was the success of these two productions that made the name Hammer synonymous with the horror genre.
Other Entries in this Project
- The Hammer Filmography
- Hammer Stars
- Hammer Horror
- What Makes a Hammer Horror Film
- Hammer Television
- Hammer Films - the Final Years
- Hammer Today