Movies and Film: The Beginnings

The Beginnings

In the closing years of the nineteenth century and the earliest years of the twentieth, England's film industry got off to a bouncing start with showings by the Lumire brothers in London in 1896 and the efforts of the country's own pioneer, Robert Paul.

Short Cuts

Sir Alfred Hitchcock got his start during the silent era, getting his big directorial break as an assistant to Graham Cutt for Woman to Woman (1923), one of England's rare international successes in these years.

Paul was the first to present short films to a paying English audience, and he went on to become a highly successful director and distributor of some of the world's first newsreels and short comedies.

But the presound era wasn't all roses for Gaunt's "sceptered isle." In fact, by 1910 competition from the United States and France was driving the fledgling industry into the ground. The story of England's first 40 years of cinema is a story of native ambition coupled with foreign incursions that constantly threatened to overshadow whatever advances British filmmakers made. Of the few prominent figures to emerge from the United Kingdom's earliest malaise, the most important was the filmmaker whom many historians see as England's answer to the great American director D. W. Griffith.

England's Griffith: Cecil Hepworth

Cecil B. Hepworth's family starring in his own Rescued by Rover (1905)

Cecil B. Hepworth's family starring in his own Rescued by Rover (1905).

The towering figure of early British cinema is Cecil Hepworth, whose childhood had exposed him to the wonders of light-and-image apparatuses by virtue of his father, who traveled the country with a magic lantern show, son in tow. Cecil began his own slide and film show in 1896, a pursuit into which he channeled his considerable knowledge of projection and film technology.

By 1899 Hepworth had set up his own film laboratory; at the turn of the century, he was producing more than 100 films a year, sponsoring many of the country's earliest and most important silent directors, and virtually launching the British film industry in its first incarnation. Hepworth's most famous work, Rescued by Rover (1905), starring his own family members, is an early comic masterpiece, featuring innovations in narrative continuity and especially in editing, of which he was the undisputed master before Griffith. Other comic shorts from this period included How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900), The Glutton's Nightmare (1901), The Other Side of the Hedge (1905), and That Fatal Sneeze (1907).

Hepworth's pre-World War I feature films as a director were generally successful, and it's undeniable that he was almost single-handedly responsible for making British film competitive in the international arena in the first two decades of the new century. These features include, among many others, The Basilisk (1915), The Canker of Jealousy (1915), Sweet Lavender (1915), Comin' Thro' the Rye (1916), and Nearer My God to Thee (1917).

Unlike Griffith, though, Hepworth wasn't able to keep up with continually advancing film techniques. By 1924 he was bankrupt, and he spent the remainder of his career directing commercials. Ouch!

Director's Cut

Cecil Hepworth wrote and published what most historians regard as the world's first bona fide textbook on the art and technology of motion pictures. Animated Photography, or The ABC of the Cinematography was published in 1898, just as Hepworth was becoming a household name among turn-of-the-century English movie audiences.

Those Bloody Americans

Hepworth's films were big hits in the 1900s and 1910s, and there were other directors who made some wonderful and even innovative pictures during the silent period: W. G. Barker (Henry VIII, 1911), George Pearson (A Study in Scarlet, 1914; Love Life and Laughter, 1923), Maurice Elvey (Hindle Wakes, 1918), Graham Cutts (Woman to Woman, 1923; The Rat, 1925), Herbert Wilcox (Decameron Nights, 1924; Dawn, 1928), and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock (The Pleasure Garden, 1925; The Lodger, 1926).

Second Take

Despite England's status as a world imperial power in the early part of the twentieth century and its victory in World War I, by 1925 only 5 percent of films shown on British screens were actually made on the island.

By the end of World War I, though, the situation was dire. Now even the government got involved in trying to come up with ways of protecting England's film industry from the flood of American products being shown on its screens, which represented a huge portion of what got distributed throughout the country.

Filmophile's Lexicon

Quota quickies were low-budget, low-quality films that English studios shot, edited, and released in record time to satisfy the strict requirements of the Cinematograph Act of 1927.

The government's contribution was the Cinematograph Films Act, passed by parliament in 1927. The legislation established a firm quota system that demanded an increasingly large percentage of films released and shown in England to be English-made productions. While the immediate results were positive (the nation's film production shot up by 500 percent within a few years), the long-term effect was a steady decline in film quality as studios churned out low-quality productions just to meet the act's demands.

The coming of sound might have helped matters some. With the rise of directors like Anthony Asquith (The Battle of Gallipoli, 1931), Walter Forde (Condemned to Death, 1932), and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock (the United Kingdom's first talkie was Hitchcock's early suspense film, Blackmail, 1929), it looked like the '30s would be something of a cinematic boom for England. While a number of very good films were made during this decade, the nation's film culture descended into a long period of mediocrity from which it only gradually recovered.

Director's Cut

As film historian John Hawkridge has pointed out, one of the major factors contributing to the dominance of the American film industry over its British counterpart even in the silent era was the absence of a "star system" in the United Kingdom. While Hepworth made a few actors and actresses famous in his films, there was no Lillian Gish in England, no Florence Lawrence or Buster Keaton.

In an exasperated slam of the British film industry, the Russian-born American mogul Joseph M. Schenck, writing in 1925, said the following about England's lack of star figures:

"You have no personalities to put on the screen. The stage actors and actresses are no good on the screen. Your effects are no good, and you do not spend nearly so much money."

In short, at least from the American perspective, early British cinema got very little respect.

Alexander the Great

It took an immigrant to inject some momentary life into the flagging British industry after years of French and American domination. In the early 1930s, a Hungarian-born journeyman director and producer named Alexander Korda came to England after a wide-ranging career in his native country as well as Austria, Germany, and France. Cobbling together financing from a variety of sources, Korda built what was then the largest English studio and thereafter became the country's most prominent producer.

For the English public, Korda's most important accomplishment was his behind-the-scenes launching of numerous acting careers. Charles Laughton and Robert Donat, for example, were both made into international stars with their performances (Oscarwinning in Laughton's case) in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Korda's contributions to the culture of British film were recognized in 1942 when he was knighted and became Sir Alexander Korda (though there have always been rumors that it was spying for his adopted country during World War II that won him the sword tap).

Director's Cut

Though most famous and influential in England as a producer, Alexander Korda was also a virtuosic if flamboyant director. The dozens of films he made in his native Hungary have been lost; in Hollywood, his most notable success was the sexually suggestive The Private Life of Helen of Troy (1927).

In England, Korda's career soared into the stratosphere with The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), an instant international sensation that helped finance his future directorial efforts. Among these, Rembrandt (1936) and An Ideal Husband (1948) are the best, combining Korda's legendary flair for spectacle with quite poignant examinations of the challenged faced by artists and the pressures of social constraints.

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Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Movies and Film © 2001 by Mark Winokur and Bruce Holsinger. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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