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The Rocks of Valpré, UK 1919

Posted by keith1942 on December 20, 2015

Dell cover

This film was directed by Maurice Elvey and adapted from a popular novel by Ethel M. Dell. The film was produced by Stoll Picture Productions. I am fortunate in having seen the film from a 35mm print at both Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 1997 and the British Silent Film Festival [Leicester 2015]. I was impressed on both occasions. Curiously there is little written on the film. Even the BFI monograph on Elvey only mentions the film in passing.

Elvey’s output as a director is uneven. But when the story or themes catch his attention this seems to focus his direction. Certainly this film has a melodramatic plot, but it also offers some interesting settings and the opportunity to present conventional scenes in a distinctive manner.

Ethel Dell was a popular novelist though her work did not garner much critical praise. This novel was filmed again the 1930s. I have not seen it but details suggest that it was one of the less pre-processing ‘quota quickies’. This version was adapted by Byron Webber. He scripted a number of films in this period and also acted. I have not seen any of the others. In this film I thought what was distinctive was more to do with direction and scripting. A colleague at Leicester stated that the film follows the plot of the book fairly closely.

I thought there was some extremely well executed staging and cinematography. The latter was done by Paul Burger. Burger was a Belgium who worked for Stoll and appears to have been the regular cameraman in this period on films directed by Elvey. One of these was At the Villa Rosa adapted from a novel by A. E. W. Mason, which I also thought was pretty good.

“Elvey’s narrative skill sustains the complex structure of this detective mystery. … Paul Berger’s marvellous photography of the Riviera provides a rich, often almost “gothic” setting.” (Il Giornate del Cinema Muto Catalogue, 1997).

The Art Direction is listed by Dallas Cairns, an Australian. He certainly acted in several of the films directed by Elvey. And he also directed films and possibly also produced films. I have not found any other design credits for him.

The film used actual locations in Torquay, standing in for France. One sequence used Corbyn Head. These locations are some of the best sequences in the film. Elvey would seem to have thrived on location filming. His later Hindle Wakes (1927) has some fine location work in Blackpool, filmed by Basic Emmott.

The rest of the film was shot at the Surbiton Studio of Stoll Picture Productions. The company was the largest production firm in this period. In 1921 they moved to larger studios in Cricklewood. The basis for the film company was the Stoll Theatrical Empire. There is certainly a sense of that in some of the films of the period.

Il Giornate Catalogue comments on this film,

“With his usual skilfully chosen cast, Elvey does handsomely by Ethel M. Dell’s melodramatic novel of heroic sacrifice, turning it into a human and ultimately very moving story.”

The plot is complicated but full of generic elements. Trevor Mordaunt (Basil Gill) is a young French inventor who meets and begins a romance with Christine Wyndham (Peggy Carlisle), staying on the French coast with her Aunt (Winifred Sadler). Things go wrong when a rival, Captain Rudolphe (Humberston Wright), steals the plans of Trevor’s invention, a new design of a breechblock gun. This aspect of the plot appears to have been influenced by the Dreyfus affair. Trevor is accused of theft by the military, wrongly convicted and sent to Devil’s Island. He later escapes and has to both track down Rudolphe and clear his name. He also, like Jacob, has to serve time before he can be re-united with Christine.

Some of the most memorable sequences in the film are those using location filming. So Trevor and Christine meet on a rocky beach. On a later tryst Christine’s dog runs off and in rescuing it Trevor and Christine find themselves cut off by the rising tide.

“prisoners till morning”

In a happy touch the dog recurs right throughout the film rather than disappearing as soon as his/her plot function is over.

Trevor and Christine have to pass the night in his secret cave where he works on his invention. The film uses a title from the book,

“The Knight of the Magic Cave”

This is a studio set, but full of shadows, which give it an evocative, almost expressionist feel. Trevor and Christine are innocents but local gossip deems otherwise.

“Christine’s indiscretion”

In a double-whammy this is the occasion on which Rudolphe purloins the plans of the invention.

The filming on the beach and the rocky inlet where the couple sit and talk and romance is well filmed. The changing shots and angles produce a sense of place and freshness.

The comments regarding Christine lead to Trevor and Rudolphe fighting a duel with sabres on a cliff top overlooking the bay. The sequence includes shots from the point of view of Christine, watching from a distance. These include long shots and iris shots and the editing suggests the emotions felt by Christine as she watches.

“You fought on my account!”

However, her aunt takes Christine back to England whilst Trevor suffers a court martial and then prison.

“Stone walls do not a prison make.”

He escapes but faces an even more complicated future. When he finally finds Christine she is married. And Trevor is in debt to the man who is her husband, Bertram de Montville (Cowley Wright), who rescues him from his poverty stricken existence as a street musician.


Rudolph re-appears and there is another plot complication involving a misappropriated cheque and the blackmailing of Christine. Trevor resolves these and Bertram, recognising their love, does the ‘decent thing’,

“I release you from your vow or duty, go to him.”

But the complications continue. Trevor encounters Rudolphe one more time, in Paris. Dying the rival confesses and Trevor is able to clear his name. Meanwhile Bertram has fallen ill and conveniently dies.

“Through the long day the tide slowly ebbs away.”

Trevor and Christine are finally together, their problems left behind.

“The other was a dream .. this is reality.”

There is less location work in the latter part of the film, though we get a return to Valpré and the Torquay location for the passing on of Bertram. The cinematography and settings continue to work very effectively. And the performances, especially of the lead couple, are very good. When I saw it at the British Silent Film Festival we had an accompaniment by Neal Brand, he provided both dramatic and lyrical passages of music to set off the film.

The BFI print is 5938 feet in length, in black and white; the original release was probably 300 feet longer. The original film had tinting. At the both screenings the film was projected at 18fps, running for 79 minutes.

Posted in British film in the 'teen', UK pioneers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Would You Believe It! (UK 1929)

Posted by keith1942 on November 26, 2015

Walter Forde in What Next?

Walter Forde in What Next?

This film was the main feature in a silent film presentation during the Leeds International Film Festival. There was this feature and two earlier shorts, introduced and accompanied at the piano by Jonathan Best.

Would You Believe It! was a comedy feature co-scripted, directed and starring Walter Forde. Forde, born in Bradford, started out in the Northern Music Halls. He moved into film in 1919, first as a writer then as a comedy lead. He made several two reel comedies, produced in a converted hangar in Hertfordshire and then a converted drill-hall in Devon and all marketed under Zodiac Comedies. He, as was the  case in the silent era, played a stock character Walter, well meaning but innocent. He then made six two-reelers at the Windsor Studios. This was followed by two years in Hollywood at the Unviersal Studio. When he returned to the UK he joined the Nettlefold Company who had taken over Cecil Hepworth’s old Studio at Walton. There he made four comedy features, all using the Walter character and playing opposite Pauline Johnson as a romantic lead. The films were co-written by James B. Sloan with Walter also directing. Sloan is also credited as director on a number of comedy shorts that Forde made on his return to the UK.

Would You Believe It! was the final comedy feature silent made by Forde, as this was the point that the introduction of sound film occurred in the British film industry. Rachel Low comments on the film:

“His last silent comedy, Would You believe It! (Trade Show May 1929) was directed and written by him, and this time reviewers, slow to recognise comic ability unless already established either in America or on the stage, at last began to take notice. But by this time sound film had become the fashion and even a Vocalion music recording could not save a comedy so essentially silent in technique. The [four] films were slight comedies with timidly darting style, dabbling politely in romantic farce, slapstick and a playful use of the medium. Forde himself appeared as a burly amiable and innocent young man engaged in suburban misadventures, somewhat puzzled but hopefully dogged.

He was too late for a career as a silent film comedian, but the direction and editing of the film show a considerable talent, which was fortunately to find expression in the thirties.”

Low is likely accurate on the context and Forde’s general approach, but she probably underestimates the quality and popularity of the film. The BFI Screen Online is quoted in the Festival Catalogue:

“He resumed the ‘Walter’ series, this time in collaboration with James B. Sloan and by the late 1920s, had become recognised as one of Britain cinema’s major comic talents, the director and star of a number of very popular comedies for Nettlefold …”

In the film Forde plays Walter, a would-be inventor. After trials and failures he comes up with a remote-control system with military potential. At this point the invention and Walter become the target of foreign spies. Whilst this conflict continues Walter is also developing a relationship with Pauline (Pauline Johnson), who coincidentally works for the Ministry of War.

The film  opens when Walter’s experiments force him to leave home. He obtains a job as an assistant in a toy shop. There are several very funny sequences involving, first as baby, then balloons and finally mechanical toys. The balloons at one point form a phallic shape which I assumed was intentional and rather risqué for the period. The mechanical toys go berserk in a marvellous sequence, scattering customers round the shop.

It is at the shop that Walter meets Pauline. As their relationship develops she also arranges for him to demonstrate his invention to the Ministry of War. At this point the foreign spies enter the picture. The chief seems to be modelled on a caricature of Lenin: an unidentified reference to a Soviet threat?


There are a number of sequences where the less than competent spies attempt to steal the invention or kidnap Walter. There is a fine long sequence on the London Underground involving a spiral staircase and a lift. This is really fine comedy and the humour increases as there are repetitions both on the stairs and in the lift.

“All are seen from a simple, single camera angle, but by rapid cutting of repeat shows of this section with the hero, the villains, and then the case itself sliding down on its own, the illusion of a chase up and down the staircase is created … The comedy effect of this simple sequence is successfully created by using the juxtaposition of shot …” (Rachel Low).

The film develops to a final climax when Walter’s invention is tried out on an actual tank. Once again the spies are plotting to steal the invention. This is a fairly long sequence but it develops both the drama and humour with real skill. It is also a fairly destructive sequence, demolishing cars and  whole houses in a chase sequence. You might guess that there is a positive outcome for Walter and Pauline.

Low’s comments on the filmmaker and the film sequence are apt. This was an extremely well made silent feature. The cinematography is excellent: by Geoffrey Faithful. And equally well done was the Art Design by W.G. Saunders and the editing by Culley Forde. Both the underground and the toy shop sequences were really effective. And the finale, though drawn out, is full of extremely well presented action. Forde himself obviously has an eye for the distinctive comedy sequence: there is another ingenious scene when he goes to the wrong venue for his War Office interview.

The film was accompanied at the piano by Jonathan Best. This was a enjoyable and appropriate score, adding to but not overpowering the film’s drama and comedy. Jonathan also offered a short introduction to the film and to the accompanying  two short films. He explained that the three films represented three early decades  in the British silent cinema and among other aspects offered a comparison of the development in comedy in that period.

Motor Pirates or The Modern Pirates, a black and white film  produced by the Alpha Trading Company. They operated from 1903 until about 1910. The film was approximately 500 feet in length and ran for about nine minutes at 16 fps. An armoured car terrorises the countryside but is finally bought to book. The film is rather violent but the action is presented in long shot: there is little sign of motivation. There are a couple of ingenious set-ups with the police before an extended chase ends in a river.

Blood and Bosh (1913) is from the Hepworth Company. It is just on 650 feet in length, running for about running for about 11 minutes at 16fps. The plot synopsis gives little idea of the actual film.

“A baby, the beneficiary of a will, is kidnapped, thrown through a window, trample don, and finally rushed to hospital to be re-inflated.” [LIFF Catalogue].

The characters, including a hero, heroine, villains, mother and child, surgeon and sawman, are performed in stark melodramatic fashion. The cuts are frequently abrupt as the audience is taken on a erratic narrative. And the action  is violent, bizarre but often very funny. The films seems to be the product of a premature British member of the Dada.

The 35mm prints, in pretty condition, were provided by the British Film Institute. They do not seem to have a practice of recording frame rates? The projectionist, at the Hyde Park Picture House, had to experiment, eventually they settled on 18 fps for the programme. This was slightly fast for the early films. It seemed OK for the Forde feature, though there was a slight flicker from that frame rate.

Still a very entertaining programme. More please, soon.

Rachel low’s The History of British Film 1918 – 1929 is part of the seminal five-volume study: Geoffrey Allen and Unwin Ltd, 1971.


Posted in Britain in the 1920s, Silent Comedy, UK pioneers | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

The Louis Le Prince Leeds Trail

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2015

Le Prince Map In late 1888 Louis Le Prince shot moving pictures in Leeds on a camera of his own design and construction. These are the earliest recorded films, as opposed to multiple photographs. And they precede the achievements of other cinematic pioneers like Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. Now a documentary film has been released that traces the career of Le Prince and his film actitivies in C19th Yorkshire, The First Film. To celebrate this milestone we are publishing an informal trail of the historic spots in Leeds that are associated with Le Prince and his pioneer achievements. The starting point is in Leeds City Centre, from where all the spots indicated can be accessed by the local bus services: note the relevant bus stops are spread out around the Headrow, Vicar Lane, Boar Lane and the Bus Station. But you can also walk between a number of the sites in the Centre..   Lds Centre Map The trail can be followed in varied ways, depending on your interests and mode of transport. We are suggesting that you start with the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills in Canal Street. It can be accessed by Service number 5 from F7. [If you follow an alternative route then there is a page on le Prince on Wikipedia you can consult first].   Armley Mills Ent. The Museum has a display on le Prince; copies of one of the cameras that he designed and video copies of the short surviving films from 1888. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Returning to the City Centre by no. 5 to T1; we suggest that you continue with the site of Le Prince’s Workshop in Woodhouse Lane, [then at number 160]. Here Le Prince built his several cameras and [it appears] also a projector or ‘deliverer’. Service number 1 from Z1 stops opposite the University Broadcasting Place and alongside it the old BBC Building. The plaque is sited on the city-side end of that new University building. This plaque replaced an older brass plaque which now hangs in the foyer of the new BBC building on Quarry Bank [passed later]. Univ. build and plaque You can enter the open space in the front of the building and read the plaque … Workshop plaque To to continue you need to walk to the nearby pedestrian traffic lights, turn right and catch any bus to the city centre, alighting at J6.  From N2 Service numbers 2, 3 and 3A all run from the City Centre through Chapeltown. Alight by the Library complex and Sholebroke Avenue is a few yards further on. there are no signs on is Prince in the Avenue but at number 16, halfway down the street, Le Prince bought the land and may have had the house built?. No 16 He also resided for a time father up Chapeltown Road at Brandon Villas. That building has been knocked down but you can see the site, now Housing a Sikh Temple. Return to the bus stop but now only service 2 is relevant. It passes the Sikh Temple site in a couple of hundred yards and proceeds to the Oakwood Clock. Oakwood clock The Clock, a local landmark, has recently been restored and there is now a display panel in front of the clock showing local sites of interest. This includes Oakwood Grange where Le Prince shot two strips of film in the garden. The display has a map which shows how to reach the location, about ten minutes on foot.  Oakwood display The Grange building no longer survives but the garden is sill there. It can be viewed from the street end, but the Occupants of the new building [a Training Centre] seem happy when asked to let people view the actual garden. The two short sequences on film of Le Prince’s family and in-laws in the garden still survive.   Roundhay garden Return to Oakwood Clock and there are several buses to the city centre and to Leeds Bridge: it is easiest to walk from K4 [alongside the Market] to the Bridge and back again. Leeds bridge side A Blue Plaque records the building from which le Prince shot his film of Leeds Bridge. In 1988, at the Leeds International Film Festival, the event was celebrated with a re-enactment. Plaque on bridge From T12 you can return to the New Market Street, V2 and walk down to the Bus Station. The BBC Building is on Quarry Bank right opposite the Bus Station. The original brass plaque that marked Le Prince’s Workshop hangs in the foyer of the building. At the Bus station [beyond the Market] you can catch the X6 to Bradford Interchange, this takes just over half-an-hour but it is worth it to visit the National Media Museum. If you leave by the main entrance/exit of the Interchange there are local signs including for the National Media Museum, abut 7 to 8 minutes walk. national-media-museum The Museum, open daily from 1000 to 1800,  has a number of media and film exhibitions. The Louis Le Prince single-lens camera is on Floor 5, alongside the Animation displays: along with examples of other pioneer cinematic technology. In addition the Museum’s Insight Collection has a large range of early cinematic material. There are conducted tours of the collection Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you can also arrange visits in the third week of every month. And there are a number of illustrated pages on Louis Le Prince on the Museum Website. The Museum also has two cinemas and an Imax screen programed by the Picture House circuit, with afternoon and evening screenings. So it is worth checking the programme of screenings. Before or after a film, you can return to Leeds on the X6 from the Interchange: the service only operates until about 6 p.m., but there is the alternative but slower service 72 throughout the evening. Back in Leeds, after all the exertions, you may wish for refreshments. We have not been able to identify a hostelry patronized by Le Prince himself, but there are several Public Houses which were plying their trade in his time. There is the Victoria Hotel in Great George Street, opened in 1865. Then you can indulge your cinematic pleasures by visiting the Hyde Park Picture House. Service 56 runs from J1 and passes the cinema. hydepark The Picture house is currently celebrating its Centenary, November 2nd 1914. The auditorium is still very much as it was when the cinema opened. So this is one of the most delighful venues for watching films across the UK. And the Picture House still has 35mm projection [as well as digital], and 35mm prints are a regular feature of the programme. There are also occasional screenings of silents with live musical acompaniment. A splendid way to end such a tour. There is  a published book on Le Prince and his career – The Missing Reel by Christopher Rawlence, 1989 [copy in Leeds Central Library Local History section]. Thanks to Lyall for the photographs and to Erik for his advice.

Posted in Early cinemas, Silent technology, UK pioneers | 3 Comments »