Posted by Moira Finnie on July 22, 2009
My eyes were misting over at the sight of Robert Donat, that most “beautiful loser” in the cut-throat world of moviemaking, as I watched the end of The Magic Box (1951) on TCM earlier this month. That actor could break this sap’s heart with a change in the inflection of his voice, but the somewhat romanticized portrayal of cinema pioneer William Friese-Greene in the all star John Boulting-directed film was very well done. Still, it made me think about another pioneer in British movie history, Cecil M. Hepworth (1875-1953).
In Kevin Brownlow and David Gill‘s documentary series on early film pioneers across the pond, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1995), the film historians called their chapter on the British film industry, “Opportunity Lost”. Unlike the flourishing Swedish, Italian and French cinemas of the early years of the 20th century, English movies struggled from inception, with little government protection from foreign filmmakers, and constant copyright violations occurring among the hardscrabble film companies. This outpost of the British cinema was little more than “a cottage industry”, based in the 8 room house of the of Cecil Hepworth in Walton-on-Thames. Hepworth‘s movies may have had their hand-crafted limitations, but they were also innovative, had charm, and definitely had an off-hand, singular British humor. And their creator was one of the most influential figures in movies internationally–if one of the most obscure today. Since many of this filmmaker’s few existing, brief movies are in the public domain, I hoped it might be interesting to gather many of them together here for readers who might enjoy these, as I have. None of the movies here are any more than a few minutes long.
In 1896, Cecil, (seen at the right), established his own lantern show, using the considerable knowledge he’d gathered from his father and from his own research about projection and burgeoning film technology. That same year he began working with fellow British-based film pioneers. Hepworth invented a new arc lamp for Robert Paul, worked with the innovative Birt Acres, and struggled–along with just about every other British film developer–to compete with the arrival of Edison‘s the Kinetoscope in 1894. Hepworth made history in 1898 when he published Animated Photography or The ABC of the Cinematography, a book that was the first to outline filming techniques that were adapted by filmmakers worldwide.
By 1899, after working for other film studios, (and being fired for various causes), Hepworth had set up his own film lab and was producing over a hundred little movies. These were largely along the lines of “actualities”, a quasi-documentary use of motion pictures first associated with the glimpses of everyday life famously captured by the French brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière.
Over a half century before the words “Monty Python” were ever uttered, and while notions of surrealism and dadaism were still percolating, Hepworth adapted some of the special effects and editing techniques that the Lumiere brothers had used in a couple of brief movies that have a quirky, and darkly British sense of humor about impending disasters in the modern age. Note the general indifference and determined efficiency of the policeman (played by Hepworth himself) in Explosion of a Motor Car (1900), which mocks the new automobiles and their consequences:
In that same year, the Hepworth studio took the threat to life and limb to another extreme, with How It Feels To Be Run Over (1900), perhaps one of the earliest “disaster” films:
After these amusing oddities, Mr. Hepworth‘s first big success came in 1901, when his crews caught the funeral of Queen Victoria on film, an outstanding achievement in its day, though only about 23 seconds of grainy film still exists of this event that ended an era:
Though this historic occasion helped to build his company’s reputation, Hepworth and his staff soon realized that children and animals were boffo with their Edwardian audiences. Reportedly making about three films a week, Hepworth, who worked with such associates as Percy Stow and Lewin Fitzhamon as his directors, while Cecil tended to do just about everything else, including producing, writing, casting, set design, and occasionally appearing on camera.
Another vignette from real life captured a very tolerant baby girl getting one heckuva scrub-up and doing nip-ups with a no-nonsense nurse, who doesn’t seem to waste much time on the niceties of child care, (note the baby’s understandable reaction when lowered onto what is probably a cold metal scale). Btw, despite the title, Baby’s Toilet (1905) has its share of wholesome nudity, but there’s nothing in it to offend anyone, (including anything to do with diapers, and all that goes with them).
Working in his modest rented home on Hurst Grove in Walton on Thames for his projects, (seen below in a sketch by Hepworth from his autobiography, “Came the Dawn”), the movie maker used natural light for most of his movies; the various rooms for editing, film processing and staging scenes throughout the eight rooms of the house. This makeshift studio was the setting for the movie maker’s most ambitious project, which was believed to be the first screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland (1903), which Hepworth is credited with co-directing with Percy Stow.
With Alice played by May Clark, a local girl who worked in the cutting room and ran errands for the studio, Hepworth played a Frog and his wife was the The White Rabbit and the Queen. This then spectacular movie, which was reportedly very popular, doesn’t tell the story of Alice down the rabbit hole, but assumes that viewers know the details of the tale, making it both fun and strange viewing simultaneously. The longest film of its time, at around eight whole minutes–if only our contemporary filmmakers could make a return to some sort of brevity too!–the movie was made just a five years after the death of Charles Dodgson aka Lewis Carroll. The production design, which was quite ambitious, was explicitly based on the famed illustrations of Sir John Tenniel, (though Miss Clark‘s robust Alice is not quite the girlish blond sylph, as she appears at right in one of Tenniel’s drawings).
The revelatory narration of the British Film Institute copy of this very rare film is provided by Simon Brown. I particularly like the sequence when Alice meets the children dressed as playing cards. There is something ominous yet funny about that scene, especially as Alice realizes that she can’t control the unruly crowd of extras who flood around her.
I also like Alice’s growth spurt, when the actress and camera lens came closer together, until the edit when we see Alice’s sturdy branch-like arm lolling out of a play house size window. Btw, exhibitors in Hepworth‘s time could purchase individual scenes of this film, such as the tea party, rather than the entire, 800 feet of film that made up the movie, making it possible for even small timers to afford a piece of this then major motion picture for their audiences.
My favorite Hepworth film may be among the first “blockbuster” movies devoted to the antics of a dog, whose mute eloquence, and considerable street smarts, especially when compared to the dullard humans around him, might make a patient Lassie or Rusty sigh with canine commiseration and admiration. Rescued by Rover (1905) is, in the true Hepworth spirit, pretty much a family affair, with Lewin Fitzhamon co-directing, while the boss merely produced and photographed the story, which was allegedly written by the Missus. Hepworth plays “harassed father”, “mother” is naturally played by Mrs. Hepworth (whose first name is never mentioned in any of the Hepworth archives or his autobiography. I suppose this reflects the manners and reticence of the time, though I find it odd). May Clark was once again recruited to play a role as the lollygagging baby nurse who stops to flirt with a soldier. Clark‘s neglect allows a ragged “gypsy woman” (Lindsay Gray, who some sources suggest may have been a man in drag) to snatch the baby (played by the Hepworth’s own baby, Barbara Hepworth–no relation to the fine 20th century sculptor) from the carriage in the park. Fortunately, the family dog, Rover (played by–yes–the Hepworth’s fido, Blair), is on the case.
The movie belongs to Rover from the moment that the dog takes off from the living room of the worried but utterly passive parents. This film, which in a sense is a prototype for the mystery genre, incorporated a series of shots of the dog, racing purposefully down a series of apparently real streets of his neighborhood, crossing a river three times, and pushing open tenement doors (without a warrant!), looking for the tyke. While this is going on, we see via a cut to a scene where the gypsy woman enters what looks like an artist’s studio in a slum, strips the baby of her clothes down to her underwear, whereupon the woman swills some hooch from a bottle, and takes a snooze, ignoring the infant lying on a pile of clothes on the floor.
No motivation for this inexplicable kidnapping crime is suggested, nor is Dad Hepworth‘s character particularly quick on the uptake when Rover returns to alert him to Baby’s hiding place. It’s all pretty trivial sounding, and the film cost about 7£, 13 shillings and ninepence, (approximately the equivalent of $37 in 1905 money). The movie was a sensation with movie audiences. Hepworth had to make the film frame by frame twice, since after selling about 395 copies of the movie, the original negative wore out.
Yet, because the short developed a continuity of the action via logical cuts from one scene to the next, creating transitions that flowed along smoothly in the simple story, and with the camera panning to follow action, allowing movement to remain within a frame, a truly fluent piece of film was created and an influential piece of the puzzle in narrative development on film was made. While some sources assert that Hepworth “apparently originally edited about one second of black between successive shots under the theory that cutting directly from one shot to another was “visually disruptive” for the audience, contemporary prints have omitted this now jarring feature.
As a story, there was very little suspense, and the lack of clear logic behind the gypsy beggar woman’s action is matched by the conclusion, when the father’s recovery of the baby is not followed by any swift justice being meted out to the kidnapper. She merely looks satisfied to have scarfed up some of the baby’s finery, takes another pull from her bottle of hooch, and goes back to sleep again! Again, I’m struck by the possibility of an off-hand British humor behind this action, (even though I realize that I may be reading just a tad too much into Hepworth‘s comical movie).
Thanks to the international reputation of this and Hepworth‘s other films, he helped to put the British film industry on its feet. D.W. Griffith was said to have been influenced by Hepworth’s innovations when the American director made his first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908). Eventually, Hepworth went on to create more ambitious movies, and even tried to make a human star (after canine star Blair appeared in a few other films for his master’s company) of Alma Taylor, an actress who appeared in, among many other films, as “Tilly the Tomboy” in about twenty of the genuinely amusing movies for Hepworth. You can see Tilly the Tomboy Visits the Poor (1910) and the torments visited on some unsuspecting charity case by the surprising liberated Tilly and her friends. Perhaps part of the reason the anarchic Tilly was so popular with Edwardian audiences had something to do with early cinematic wish fulfillment for the straitlaced viewers?:
He introduced attempts to add synchronized sound to movies as early as 1910 with his attempt to promote the Vivaphone, and later filmed versions of prestigious projects such as David Copperfield, Hamlet (1913) with noted stage actor Johnston Forbes-Robertson, (which you can see a portion of here). However, due to the competition from both America and France and the popularity of their products in England, his films–and those of his compatriots–were increasingly outpaced narratively, technically and cinematically by the end of World War One.
Despite some surprise hits that he produced and sometimes directed, and ambitious plans to build a very grand studio, by 1924, Hepworth was compelled to declare bankruptcy. Later in life, he railed against what became the Hollywood classical style of narrative film that he had helped to create, unwittingly. He finished out his career directing movie trailers and advertisements. In a sense, the early movie “mogul” had a style of presentation that never quite left the magic lantern world behind. That may be part of the reason for his failure, but also for the simple pleasures that can still be derived from his movies.
Bottomore, Stephen, Shots in the Dark – The Real Origins of Film Editing, Early Cinema: Space – Frame – Narrative, Elsaesser, Thomas ed. London: British Film Institute. 1990.
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