Worton Hall in Isleworth was home to one of British cinema’s pioneers and brightest young things, George Berthold Samuelson. It was said that GBS stood for Get Busy Sam, and it seems that he was possessed by an almost manic energy, as director Frank Pearson testified in his autobiography Flashback: “to halt Samuelson when his imagination was alight was as hopeless as to stem Niagara.” At least two films were produced at any one time, with the producer shooting one and editing the other, often disappearing into the edit suite between camera set-ups and emerging later with a (highly flammable) strip of celluloid draped around his neck. As well as a workaholic, Bertie (as he was commonly known) was also an opportunist. On the day that war broke out in 1914, the producer’s first thought was to make a movie called The Great World War, which began shooting the following day after the script had been written over-night. The finished film was released a fortnight later and met with instant success. It was all too much for Pearson who – perhaps understandably – only lasted 12 months in Worton Hall: “I had directed eleven films in less than a year; I was tired mentally and bodily. I felt I could not keep up with Samuelson’s enthusiasm and tireless energy.”
At the grand opening of Worton Hall, Samuelson declared that “I shall produce films which will compare favourably with those on the American market. I want the English to be on top. There is a big fight ahead in the film business. We mean to win.” And for a few years, he seemed to be living up to his own hype, by doing what the British film industry has done successfully for the last 100 years – depend heavily on literary and stage adaptations. But the victory was short-lived. By the mid-20’s slump, when only 5% of films in British cinemas had been made locally, he was so short of cash that he had to dress the sets with furniture from his own home, leaving his family to sleep rough on their bedroom floor every night. In 1928, one of his many bankruptcies forced Samuelson to sell up and the studio passed through numerous hands, including those of Hollywood beauty Douglas Fairbanks Jr, until it was finally sold to the National Coal Board in 1952. Only a year earlier, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn and John Huston had descended upon Worton Hall to film The African Queen. For all the fables about filming in the Congo – the hard drinking, mass vomiting and elephant hunting – most of it was shot in Middlesex.
Samuelson’s place in history, though, is already assured, as he produced Britain’s first Sherlock Holmes adaptation. A Study In Scarlet was made in 1914, and with typical Samuelson chutzpah, the Cheddar Gorge was used to double for the Rockies and Southport beach for the Utah desert. But aside from being an answer to a pub quiz question, he has suffered the same neglect as his studios in Isleworth.
Samuelson entered the film business in typically opportunist fashion. Working as a shop assistant in Southport, he purchased a short reel of footage of Edward VII opening parliament and started showing it in various local venues to packed houses. Twelve months later, he had his own film renting agency in Birmingham. Not long after that he moved into film production, following a conversation over tea with his brother Julian, who wondered why he wasn’t making his own movies. After rejecting the more swashbuckling episodes of the Bible as story material, Bertie hit upon the idea of a biopic of Queen Victoria.
The result, Sixty Years A Queen, was filmed in Ealing Studios for £12,000 in 1913. In its 67 minutes, it managed to embrace the full sweep of Victoria’s reign, from the coronation to the Crimean War, the domestic to the epic. The queen was portrayed by three actresses – Miss Kastner, Blanche Forsyth and Mrs Henry Lytton – whereas Scottish actor Rolf Leslie played 27 different characters. Not for nothing was he known as “a master of make-up”. The film made a tidy profit of £40,000, enabling Bertie to buy his own studio.
When Samuelson bought Worton Hall for £200, he described it as “an abode of bliss”, set in 9 acres of rolling lawns, with its own orchard, paddocks and vineries. An article in Our London Letter dated June 27th 1914 observed that “This is the chance for the cinema man. The front and the back of the mansion itself gives him an opportunity of taking at least twenty distinct views and by this means novels can be “illustrated” on the screen in a way that will suit the author’s text… Miss Vesta Tilley is to open the new studio on Wednesday next.” Vesta Tilley, a comedienne and Britain’s foremost male impersonator, is almost perfectly preserved. She was the subject of a bio-pic in 1957 called After The Ball, still has a society dedicated to maintaining her memory and is also commemorated on the side of a carousel in Carter’s Steam Fair, pictured in her work clothes of top hat and tails.
The crowds who gathered to watch Miss Tilley cut a ribbon with a pair of large golden scissors were treated to a read-through of A Study In Scarlet performed by the cast including Fred Paul and Agnes Slyne. Also known as In The Grip Of The Mormons, the film was released in British cinemas in 1915 to some of the best reviews a Samuelson production would ever get. The Western Daily Press concluded that “the engrossing interest of the novel has lost nothing in its film interpretation … undoubtedly the Samuelson Film Company has a masterpiece in “A Study In Scarlet”. The Yorkshire Telegraph And Star gushed that “the pictures form a remarkable series, in which the art of subtle sensationalism is exhibited at a high pitch. The scenes depicting the Mormon caravan crossing the desert are full of realism”, possibly unaware that the sands belonged to Merseyside and not Utah.
There was other firsts, including John Gielgud’s film debut in Who Is The Man ? In 1920, Samuelson produced the first football movie The Winning Goal about a fictional team called Blackton Rovers and their star player who scores the winning goal against his old club, despite the impediment of a broken arm. Chelsea centre forward, England international, war hero, dandy, amateur singer and noted socialite Jack Cock played himself.
Samuelson was also the first British producer to take a crew to the United States, renting out a studio, where he made six films in four months, not one of which got a favourable review back home. Bertie hoped to initiate some sort of star interchange, or loan system, with Hollywood, where famous actors could cross the Atlantic in either direction. He also hoped to return to Los Angeles the following year. Neither of these things transpired.
Bertie must have also known the value of controversy early on, because he baited the British censor not once but twice in the first six years of the formation of the BBFC. The first, Damaged Goods, a health warning about venereal disease, was adapted from a play written in 1902 but revived in 1917, amid a moral panic about what British troops were bringing home from the front. This tale of a young man who gives his unborn child gonorrhoea was too much for the British Board Of Film Censors. Even though Samuelson had been encouraged to make the film by the War Office, the film was banned outright. The producer mobilised a small platoon of clergymen and MPs to fight the ban, but the film never saw the light of a projector in this country.
Samuelson had more success with his next attempt to make capital out of controversy, once again uniting education with titillation. Based on a story by Marie Stopes, Married Love was effectively a piece of agit-prop for her birth control campaign, a cautionary tale about British society’s reaction to a woman who turns down a marriage proposal because she doesn’t want to end up like her mum – poor, bedraggled and burdened by children she cannot afford to feed or clothe. According to the BBFC website, the movie’s message was conveyed “in part through the use of euphemism-driven images of babies, rose gardens and pruning.” Obviously the imagery wasn’t subtle enough, as the film was rejected by the British censor, who considered it “propaganda on a subject unsuitable for discussion in a cinema theatre.” A compromise was eventually agreed. Fourteen minutes were pruned, removing both the birth control message and Stopes’ name from the final version, which was now called Maisie’s Marriage. In some towns, the posters for the film were also banned. This, of course, only stirred the interest of the public, as the Hull Daily Mail noted in its edition of 7th August 1923: “it was not surprising that both The Tower and The Strand Picture Theatres were crowded last night. Perhaps the film censor and the local Watch Committee will be disappointed that the effort to beguile the public by insisting that the title of the film be changed to Maisie’s Marriage has failed in its purpose – it has proved a lot of useless fuss and the curiosity in the picture is greater than ever.” In Burnley it was advertised as a “film for all thinking men and women, to whom truth is purity and purity is truth.”
Given the fact that Samuelson had all the pre-requisites for a film mogul – opportunism, enthusiasm, a brass neck and a salesman’s patter – the obvious question is – why did he fail ? The rather blunt conclusion of Rachael’s Low extensive and (extremely) critical history of British cinema is that Bertie was “a particularly good example of a type of producer in the middle ranks of the British film industry, robust and enthusiastic but seriously underestimating what they were up against.” A supreme example of his bullish naivety was Bertie’s doomed attempt to diversify the brand – The Samuelson Transport Company, which ferried coach passengers from London to various seaside resorts. Acting the only way he knew how – in haste – Get Busy Sam rapidly expanded his fleet in only a matter of months. Unfortunately, the business was predicated upon the prospect of a national rail strike that never materialised. Samuelson was lumbered with 99 coaches and 56 luggage vans. The losses he occurred on that misadventure resulted in Bertie giving up sole ownership of the studio and a new company British Super Films was created, of which he was only a partner.
It also didn’t help that Samuelson’s films were creaky, often incompetent and already old fashioned. In Low’s words, “there was a limit to the carelessness in production and the stupidity of the stories which even the most ignorant of audiences were prepared to accept.” His films also revealed a “fondness for spectacle and ‘olden times’. The preference for ‘high society’ was also regrettable, for few of his company looked the part”. Like most British film producers, Samuelson sourced much of his material from plays and novels, but according to Low his choice of material was consistently misjudged, based on fame and reputation rather than suitability for the medium, such as Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Magistrate and H. Rider Haggard’s She.
Bertie fatally misjudged the appeal of an epic piece of hokum about a lost city ruled by Queen Ayesha, otherwise known as She Who Must Be Obeyed. Ploughing his own money into the sprawling production, the last £10,000 that that he had in the bank, Samuelson relocated the cast and crew to Germany, because his own studio apparently wasn’t big enough to accommodate the vast sets, even though the lost city does seem to consist of one big cave and an ornate boudoir. This typically reckless decision would have been vindicated if She was a critical or commercial success. It was neither, despite the presence of inter-titles written by its author, who died, portentously, a week before the film’s release. In the words of Rachael Low, “in its phoney, cheap-looking production, absurd over-acting and incredible slowness, She was years out of date.“ Even contemporary critics concurred. To make matters worse, Bertie was also sued by his star Betty Blythe for non-payment of fees. And although he won the case, the expenses of mounting his defence drained his bank account further.
Samuelson returned to the dock soon afterwards in a case that would finally put a full stop to his career as a film mogul. This legal action followed the production of For Valour, one of the producer’s so-called Patriotics, in which Leonard Keysor VC ended up with worse injuries filming the Battle of Gallipoli than he did fighting it. Keysor was paid £75 a week to replay the heroic action that won him the Victoria Cross – catching Turkish bombs and tossing them back at the enemy like some kind of gentleman’s ball game, while holding his ground for almost 50 hours despite being seriously wounded. And it was during the reconstruction of that one-man stand that a dummy bomb exploded in the officer’s face, fracturing his jaw and resulting in shock which incapacitated him for over five weeks. In the ensuing case, Keysor enlightened the court about the producer’s attitude towards historical verisimilitude: “Mr Samuelson told me lots of things to get my VC that I have never done.”
In a case between an injured war hero and a film producer there was only going to be one winner. Samuelson was successfully sued for damages and combined with the financial disaster of She, was declared bankrupt. He eventually off-loaded his main asset, which became a studio for hire to various fly-by-night companies, including Sam Spiegel’s British And Continental Film Corporation Limited. Their only film of note was The Invader, made in 1936 with Buster Keaton, by now broke, alcoholic and probably regretting his error of not owning the rights to his films.
In 1936, Worton Hall became the property of visionary and charlatan Alexander Korda, and used a holding studio while his behemoth in Denham was being constructed. The fact that Worton Hall was too small for his expansive vision was evident in the production of H.G. Wells’ Things To Come which was spread across three studios – Elstree, Denham (for exteriors) and Isleworth. It was here that Everytown was built, the underground metropolis and modernist cathedral that’s shaped many daydreams of what the future will look like – streets in the air, glass elevators, travelators and avant-garde glass chairs. Only the jet-packs and flying cars were absent.
Other notable Korda productions at Isleworth included Rene Clair’s The Ghost Goes West and Sanders Of The River starring Paul Robeson and the future President of Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta.
The next tenant of Worton Hall was Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who was unlucky enough to have a household name that belonged to another member of his household. His father was one of the first global superstars and one half of the first celebrity couple with his wife and America’s Sweetheart, Mary Pickford. As fathers go, this one was hard to beat.
After trying to forge his own Hollywood career, Junior finally returned to London, where he had honeymooned happily with ex-wife Joan Crawford. Here he was the star of a social world that included Noel Coward and a minor royal, and it was thanks to his aristocratic connections he could finally fulfil his dreams of forming his own production company. Criterion Films was created with a couple of producers and a Tory MP and former World War 1 daredevil called Captain Alec Cunningham-Reid. In 1936, they bought Worton Hall and rattled off a series of films – Jump For Glory, Accused, Crime Over London – that were instantly erased from history like deleted unread e-mails. The latter, a thriller about an American plot on a London department store, sank without a trace at the box-office and took everyone down with it. After only a year of life as a mogul, Fairbanks Jr retreated to Hollywood, where years later he would become a sort of postmodern celebrity, a chat show turn, famous only for being famous.
When Korda returned to Isleworth after the war and after the disaster of Denham, Worton Hall became an adjunct to Shepperton for productions such as The Last Days Of Dolwyn, in which the flatlands of Middlesex doubled for the South Wales valleys and Richard Burton was first witnessed on screen, and Powell and Pressburger’s minor key thriller The Small Back Room. It’s always been assumed that The African Queen was one of these productions, that Worton Hall’s only contribution was its water tanks, while the rest of the action took place at Shepperton. But according to Ed Harris, author of Britain’s Forgotten Film Factory, not one frame of John Huston’s classic was shot in the bigger studio. He provides plenty of evidence to support his claim, but the clue is in the credits, where the only studio to get a name-check is Isleworth. In fact, we see more of Isleworth than we do of the Congo in The African Queen. When the cast and crew came down with dysentery (except famously for Bogart and Huston who never drank the local water as they preferred their whisky neat and drank nothing else), the whole shoot decamped pronto to the more sanitary conditions of TW7.
A year later, in 1952, Worton Hall was bought by the National Coal Board for its Central Research Establishment. If Isleworth studios came to an incongruous end, that’s nothing compared to the fate of its original owner. G.B. Samuelson became a director for hire after losing his prized studio, even returning to haunt the premises as the maker of eight forgettable films in the early 30s. Serial failure didn’t seem to daunt his enthusiasm, sap his energy or destroy his faith in free enterprise. In 1933, he set up a chain of lending libraries in Worthing, where books could be taken out for a tuppence a week, and when that failed, he took on a series of jobs including film editor in London, amusement park manager in Glasgow and supervisor of film storage depots in Birmingham. He was never to be his own boss again. Worn out by diabetes and weighing almost 20 stone, G.B. Samuelson died in 1947, finally at rest.