Remembering Britain’s Silent Past

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by Silent Film Quarterly contributor Olivia Gilmer

From the birth of the British film industry in the early twentieth century to the end of the silent era, Britain frequently struggled with establishing itself as a major distributor of notable, critically acclaimed films, as well as successfully promoting native film stars. Britain was constantly overshadowed by the might of Hollywood, and any attempt to prove its own creative significance was often futile.

Cecil Hepworth began his film career in 1899, in a small, £36 per week house in Walton-on-Thames. It is here where Hepworth Studios—the birthplace of the British film industry—would be started. Hepworth was of remarkably astute and imaginative character—the son of a magic lantern showman, Hepworth first gained interest in film after seeing Robert Paul’s 1895 Kinetoscope exhibit in Earl’s Court. Hepworth worked on a somewhat successful invention called the Vivaphone, a device which attempted to introduce sound into film as early 1905. The Vivaphone worked like a gramophone record; the actors in his films would record their lines onto a shellac disc, and the disc would then be played to an audience. Naturally, matching the recording to the picture was crucial—and this often resulted in a farcical display of out-of-sync dialogue, many times more humorous than the films themselves.

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1913 advertisement for the Vivaphone

Regardless, Hepworth was hugely successful, and by the turn of the 20th century his studio was producing more than 100 films a year. Hepworth’s 1905 film, Rescued by Rover, was a pivotal success—Hepworth had to re-shoot the entire film twice in order to keep up with the demand for prints. Rescued by Rover was also profoundly revolutionary in its production—it was the first film to use paid actors, and Hepworth was the first producer to repeatedly use the same actors and actresses in his productions. Arguably, it was Cecil Hepworth who invented the concept of the “Hollywood” starlet. Rescued by Rover has recently been quoted by one BFI expert as as “possibly the only point in film history when British cinema unquestionably led the world.”

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Rescued by Rover (1905)

By 1922 Hepworth’s legacy began to fade, and his films were quickly falling out of favour with the public, who considered them too old-fashioned. Hepworth’s films were simple, slow, and wholesome depictions of life in Edwardian England—but it was no longer the Edwardian era. With the American film industry more prosperous than ever, a desperately hopeful report from 1922 captures Hepworth’s poignant positivity but subsequent failure to keep up with the times:

“The latest Hepworth shows were reached like a pleasant oasis through a desert of American super-productions, there seems nothing extravagant in the hopes and ambitions of the colony at Walton. Past and present are rich in promise for the future. The pictures it produces are clean English stories, shown in a peculiar leisurely way which is quite individual; there is no hustle, no melodrama, no exploited emotion.”

A mere year after this extract was written Hepworth studios had closed, declaring bankruptcy. Hepworth’s entire catalogue of 2,000 films were subsequently destroyed for their silver content in order to pay off his debt—a tragedy which resulted in the loss of an astonishing 80% of British films made between 1900 and 1929.

The British film industry continued to rapidly decline, the public favouring the grandeur and excitement of American pictures and distinguished stars. By 1924, the percentage of British films being screened in British cinemas was a pitiful 5%. American film had much that British film lacked—a pivotal difference being the American push of the film star. There was undoubtably as much of a desire among British filmmakers as anywhere else to capitalise on the concept of stardom, but little effort was taken to deliberately build up the personality of native film stars. In fact, the most successful British stars, be it few, were paid on average £10 a week in contrast to their American counterparts, with Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin on a salary of around £20,000 a week. Britain’s incompetence in creating memorable stars seems somewhat ironic when we consider that the original concept of the star was likely created by Hepworth, an Englishman.

Another factor in Britain’s lack of success was the expense of British film (and the lack of desire for it). The much-favoured American film companies, after clearing their profit at home, were able to sell their productions cheaply to British cinemas, earning the cinemas a healthy profit. But why didn’t the British public flock to see their own productions? The answer may be, although as a Britisher myself it is painful to admit—they just weren’t very good. One extract from a report 1928 captures the public distaste and the economic factors in the aversion to English film quite perfectly;

“The British exhibitor is quite willing to be patriotic, and show the British film, but he isn’t going to pay five or ten times as much in order to do so. Quite apart from finances, it is claimed, there is some justification for the remarks of critics, who say the majority of British films are ‘quite hopelessly mediocre.’”

As an attempt to help English producers meet the American competition, Parliament introduced a new quota law: The Cinemograph Act of 1927. Under this law 20% of films shown in English theatres had to be British-made. On the surface it appeared a good opportunity for English film makers, but the scheme was quickly discredited by what was soon known as the “quota quickie.” Many of the films produced to comply with the quota were criticised as being poor quality, cheaply made and visibly rushed. As a report on the states;

“The quota quickie is not only described by the people of England as bad, but there seems to have been no real attempt to make it good. Cheapness appears to have been the sole aim.”

However, the act did appear to have some success. A report from 1928 stated that there had been “remarkable progress” since the act, and “British film studios have never been so busy.” Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had even acquired a list of British films to be shown in America. The list mainly consisted of several films directed by Alfred Hitchcock, one of the first major British talents to emerge in the silent era. The most successful and memorable star of the British silent era, Betty Balfour, starred in Hitchcock’s 1928 film Champagne; although not favoured with critics, the film was successful enough to be well received in both Britain and America. The combination of an exceptional director with a new approach to film making, along with a revered starlet, was perhaps the combination British film had previously lacked and needed in order to be an international success. Hitchcock’s influence was monumental in the eventual international success of British film, and in 1927 alone, Hitchcock had triumphed in both England and America with productions such as The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog, The Farmer’s Wife, Downhill, and The Ring.

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Downhill (1927)

In 1927, another director made his mark in British silent film history—Anthony Asquith. Asquith worked at the British Instructional Studio in Welwyn, Hertfordshire, which was active between 1919 and 1932. By 1928 the studio appeared to be one of the most successful in England and was regarded as “the most progressive in the industry.” Many young and creative figures played a part in the success of the studio—Frank Wells, son of science fiction author H.G. Wells, was the art director at the British Instructional Studio, and had a reputation as the scenic artist on set. The British Instructional Studio was a studio which had finally captured British filmmakers imagination and allowed them to express their originality, as this report suggests:

“This Studio, probably more than any other, is striving to capture the overseas people. It refuses to be tied to the precedents of Hollywood, but is trying to build up British art in cinematography.”

Asquith made his debut in 1927 with Shooting Stars, an important and commercially successful film which secured his place as one of the most successful British film makers of all time. In 1928 he followed with the widely successful and artistically significant Underground, and in 1929 he released his final silent film, A Cottage on Dartmoor, an expressive and consequential film to which the BFI’s Simon McCallum wrote, “A straightforward but beautifully realised tale of sexual jealousy, the film easily counters the entrenched criticism that British cinema in the silent era was staid, stagy and lacking emotion…it is perhaps most rewardingly viewed as a final, passionate cry in defence of the silent aesthetic in British cinema.” Critic David Kehr echoed this sentiment in his modern reevaluation for the New York Times, where he held the film up as proof that “there was more to the British silent cinema than the youthful works of Alfred Hitchcock.”

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A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929)

It may be that by the time Britain had finally found the key to its international success, it was too late. “The Golden Age” of British silent film was arguably 1927 to 1929, running parallel to the years in which silent films were beginning to quickly fall out of favour with the advent of talkies. However, it cannot be denied that British silent film, from Hepworth to Asquith and everything in-between, is of monumental cultural, historical, and artistic significance. Despite the favouring of American silent film and American silent film stars even to this day, British silent film still holds its own strong merits and must be preserved. British silent film is more and more in danger of being disregarded, with almost every trace of every major British film studio from the 1900s to the 1920s having either been demolished, forgotten, or laying in disrepair—a drastic difference from the exhaustive preservation efforts overtaken in America, from the Lasky-DeMille barn in Hollywood or the (reconstructed) Edison’s Black Maria in New Jersey. Hepworth’s historically significant Walton Studios were demolished in 1961 to make way for housing developments, and the British Instructional Studios lay derelict, boarded up, succumbing to the elements.

If the journey of British silent film can teach us anything, it’s that we must, as British, appreciate our own ability, individuality, and cultural beauty, and preserve it with every effort.

Despite silent Britain’s turbulent silent past, it must never be forgotten.

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