The star system, one of the rocks upon which modern cinema is founded, began life not in Hollywood, as is often assumed, but in the back garden of a suburban home owned by producer Cecil Hepworth.
In the very early years, film actors were familiar yet anonymous figures, uncredited and unmolested by paparazzi and gossip columnists. It wasn’t long, though, before studios were inundated with letters from adoring fans wanting to know everything about the beautiful strangers they only met in the dark. Early on, Hepworth must have intuitively grasped that the public shouldn’t see the joins between a star’s on and off-screen personas. A demure English rose couldn’t be a vamp and a lush in her private life, otherwise the spell would be broken. And to maintain that delicate illusion, Hepworth assigned his players not only new names but also new identities, giving them, in effect, another role to play. One of his stars, Chrissie White, for instance, had to appear as innocent as the characters she played in rural dramas like The Vicar Of Wakefield, so an inconvenient divorce was erased from history books, as was her real name – Ada Constance White. And where Hepworth led, D.W. Griffith followed. In 1910, he took an unknown Canadian actress called Gladys Marie Smith and made sure that the whole wide world knew her as Mary Pickford, America’s Sweeheart.
It’s only really by chance that Hepworth happened upon Walton-On-Thames. He started his film career with Charles Urban’s film processing company in Flicker Alley, the centre of the industry in Cecil Court, just off Charing Cross Road. When he was sacked from the company in 1899, he took his patented developing machine with him to set up business elsewhere. Initially he planned to base himself in Thames Ditton, where he’d spent an enjoyable summer holiday the year before. But when that proved unviable, he went upstream to Walton, where he found a villa for rent at £36 a year. It was here that he lived and worked – the two bedrooms were used as film drying rooms, leaving Hepworth nowhere to sleep. He admits in his autobiography Come The Dawn that he can’t remember where he slept. Perhaps he didn’t.
It wasn’t long before Hepworth decided to make his own films, rather than just develop others. A young girl called Mabel Clark was employed as editing assistant, though like everyone else in the studio, she multi-tasked, often starring in dozens of 50ft shorts (movies at the turn of the 20th century were bought by the foot). Using professional actors didn’t even enter the producer’s head, as “the mere idea of films was abhorred by all stage people and it is doubtful whether they would have come to Walton if we’d asked them”. Hepworth exploited the new medium’s USP, motion capture, with titles that left potential customers in no doubt that these pictures were moving: Donkey Race, Ladies Tortoise Race and Costume Race For Cyclists, filmed at a cycle gymkhana. From there it was just a short hop to covering major events, grander even than the local donkey derby. Hepworth’s first piece of new actuality was a shot of The City Imperial Volunteers as they boarded a ship bound for South Africa to join the conflict. Royal walkabouts were catnip to camera crews as they are now, such as the box-office hit Queen Victoria’s Visit To Dublin in 1900, although that didn’t prove nearly as popular as Queen Victoria’s funeral a year later.
The real break-through, though, was a trick film, Explosion Of A Motor-Car, in which car and occupants seem to go up in a puff of smoke without any obvious edits or special effects. Its classic formula of pyrotechnics, spectacle and optical illusion still wins at the box office today. Michael “Transfomers” Bay has effectively been making that movie for most of his career.
On the back of its phenomenal success, Hepworth decided to build a studio, in his back garden. The first structure resembled nothing less than a half-finished shed: a wooden floor perched on blocks just inches above the grass, with other planks of wood propped up against a shaky frame. These pieces of timber would act as the interiors, since filming was still carried out in broad daylight. In the spirit of British can-do amateurism, it was decided that Hepworth should paint the sets himself, even though he admitted: “I am no artist, but I remembered my childhood’s nursery efforts and so the job fell to me”. The producer claims in his autobiography that this was the first studio of its kind in the world. Even though the premises were gutted by a deadly fire in 1907, the complex soon took over the whole of Hurst Grove.
And it’s here that many other innovations and inventions were forged, or at least claimed, such as the longest film ever made. This was in 1903 and the first ever adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, that spanned 800 feet, but could also be cut into handy 50 foot episodes, such as The Duchess And Her Pig Baby, which Hepworth ingeniously sold as separate items.
Two years later, he produced his blockbuster Rescued By Rover, in which a family’s dog turns detective when their baby is snatched from its pram by a beggar and taken across the water to Shepperton. Lewis Fitzhamon’s 6 minute nugget is credited as the first chase movie and first action film. Handing out garlands for being first is a dubious practice when it comes to silent movies, as only a tiny percentage of films survive. With a lack of material evidence, historians have to rely upon on witness testimony, self-aggrandising autobiographies by last men standing or Rachael Low’s jaundiced History Of The British Film. But so far as we know, Rescued By Rover was the first example of modern cinema. Whereas previous movies were showcases for stunts, jokes or special fx (even the long player Alice In Wonderland), Rover tells its story economically and in fragments. The film leaves it to the audience to infer what’s happened between scenes, to mentally join the dots. So, we see the collie scampering down a Walton street, then the film cuts to him diving into the Thames. We assume from the previous shot that he’s run all the way there, that he’s hasn’t suddenly vaulted through space and time. And importantly, there are no intertitles to guide us. What we’re witnessing is not so much the birth of a new language, as the first faltering attempts at a proper sentence.
Rescued By Rover was essentially a home movie. Hepworth’s daughter Barbara played the victim, his wife Margaret starred as the distraught mother and wrote the screenplay, while Hepworth himself made a cameo in a tall hat as the child’s father. And cinema’s first canine superstar was his pet, Blair. The dog’s adventures proved so popular with audiences that 400 prints were struck and even then the negatives wore out, so Fitzhamon had to direct two shot-for-shot remakes. Its follow-up The Dog Outwits The Kidnapper set the template for movie sequels by repeating the plot, stretching credulity (the same unlucky girl is stolen again, albeit by a rich man in a motor car) and upping the level of spectacle with a set-piece designed to slacken the jaws of its audience (Rover rescues the baby by expertly driving the child snatcher’s car back home).
Taken and its ludicrous sequels, in which Liam Neeson plays the world’s unluckiest husband and father, are proof that cinema hasn’t really progressed that far in over a hundred years.
Hepworth’s other legacy, of course, is the star system, but that was borne out of failure. The producer originally tried to impose pseudonyms on his actors, stage names that were his intellectual property for exclusive use in his productions. “Consequently John McMahon became John MacAndrews, Kaynes became Jack Raymond, Wernham Ryott became Stewart Rome and so on.” The rationale behind this masquerade was economic. Hepworth figured that film companies were turning unknowns into overnight stars through their publicity efforts and the vast amounts they spent on stills, advertising and posters. By the producer’s reckoning, the actors had very little to do with their own fame and yet they profited the most from it. The actor’s value, which he could “sell to any rival firm as much as he could get”, grew exponentially, while the film company saw no long term benefit from their initial investment. If you couldn’t keep an actor under contract, you could at least retain their name. These days, you’d probably try and keep their image rights too. This policy actually worked until Wernham Ryott returned from the war and defected to rival company Broadwest, taking the name Stewart Rome with him. Hepworth took legal action and lost.
As well as staking a claim for the first use of slow motion and tracking shots, Hepworth also pioneered sound in cinema, two decades before the world heard Al Jolson sing for his mammy in The Jazz Singer. The new patent was known as a Vivaphone, which appeared to make pictures talk by synchronising a record player with a reel of celluloid using only a gramophone attachment, a projector handle, a coil of wire and a 4 volt battery. Even though there was a light which warned the operator if the sound and vision were starting to uncouple, the system was unfortunately prone to human error. Somebody still had to put the needle on the record at the right time. “In some cinemas a programme boy was given the job – and a lot of things went wrong !” Hepworth complained in his autobiography. The system lasted about four years.
Other innovations were less influential. In a Hepworth movie, every single shot was softened around the edges and every single scene faded to black. Even though critics complained that these dissolves slowed down the action, Hepworth countered that it actually sped up the film, eradicating the need to see an actor leave by one door and enter through another, for instance. Not much later, directors would do away with this replication by the simple expediency of editing. But Hepworth didn’t believe in editing. Despite admitting that “two figures arguing would probably be best built up in excitement by cutting sharply backwards and forwards from one to the other”, he preferred the camera to stay on both faces “and allow the expressions of the actors to be studied together”, all in the interests of “smoothness”. Coupled with Hepworth’s distrust of the medium shot when a master shot would do perfectly well, his films resembled primitive stage adaptations, even the few that weren’t primitive stage adaptations. (Hepworth championed popular West End productions that have since badly flunked the test of time.) Editing was something to be done before the film was shot, and not afterwards, in Hepworth’s view, because he would conceive the whole movie “as a misty mosaic” in his mind, before a single frame of nitrate was exposed to the light. In fact, he was so convinced by his own fully-realised visions that he refused to look at the rushes, in case “my mental conception would be upset”.
It would be easy to assume that Hepworth floundered in the 1920s because he failed to keep up with the times. This was a decade when film-making was no longer just about recording events, when every component part of cinema seemed liberated and virtuosic, whether it was the camerawork (Abel Gance’s Napoleon), the editing (Battleship Potemkin) or even the sets (The Cabinet Of Dr Caligari). This was not the time to modestly refuse to bring attention to yourself. This was the time to express yourself. To show off a little.
But according to Come The Dawn, this was not the case. Hepworth failed because of over-expansion, rather than contraction. His old-fashioned moving pictures still played well at the local box-office. And that’s hard to disbelieve. British audiences have always liked a stage adaptation, and also a certain staginess to the film-making, preferring function over flamboyance. An invisible proscenium arch still hangs over much of British cinema.
What did for Hepworth was his decision to move out of the suburbs and get a bigger place. Buying a mansion in its own grounds with its own lake, seemed like a good idea (Shepperton studios were built in the grounds of Littleton Park across the Thames a decade later). What wasn’t such a good idea was purchasing Oatlands Park (now a mock Tudor hotel) without the necessary capital.
After the subsequent bankruptcy, all Hepworth’s negatives were sold and melted down for their silver, which seemed to be their only worth at the time. And with it, a significant proportion of British silent movies were destroyed (some put the figure as high as 80% of all British movies between 1900 and 1929).
In 1926, the studio was purchased by a part-time farmer called Archibald Nettlefold, and although he only owned it for a few years, the complex bore his name for the next four decades. Over those years, Nettlefold Studios produced Michael Powell’s debut, Two Crowded Hours, a Mother Riley, a big screen outing of a well-known known radio detective, Calling Paul Temple and little else of note. And yet, Walton was home to some of the best Hollywood script-writers of the mid-century, thanks to the TV series The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Not that you’d see the name of Oscar winner Ring Lardner Jr on the titles of the ITV tea-time adventure. The writer of the first Spencer Tracy/Katherine Hepburn vehicle Woman Of The Year, Lardner co-wrote his episodes under the pseudonyms Lawrence McClellan, Eric Heath and Paul Symonds, to name but a few.
The reason for the writer’s anonymity was that Lardner Jr was one of the Hollywood Ten, the most famous victims of the witch-hunt that swept through the film industry in the 40s and 50s. Obliged to testify in front of the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the ten film-makers quickly turned the congressional hearing into a courtroom drama, flatly refusing to answer the question “are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party.” A specialist in acerbic screwball comedies, Lardner Jr responded to his inquisitor: “I could answer that question, but I’d hate myself in the morning.“ Like the other nine, his reward for blanking the committee’s questions was a year’s prison sentence and a life-time ban from working in the film industry. After serving nine months in jail (getting time off for “meritorious good behaviour”), Lardner Jr was rescued by Hannah Weinstein, an American producer in London who had left Hollywood before HUAC added her name to the list of undesirables. Weinstein was a prominent member of the Progressive Citizens of America, a party headed by Roosevelt’s vice-president, Henry Wallace, which campaigned for peace with the Soviet Union, a policy of appeasement that became increasingly unpopular as the Cold War degenerated.
A former journalist, Weinstein moved seamlessly into film and television production, first making a movie in Paris, and then persuading ITC boss Lew Grade to finance 39 half hour episodes of The Adventures Of Robin Hood. Just how she acquired the capital to set up her production company Sapphire Films is shrouded in mystery, or at least mild confusion. According to Tom Dewe Mathews, the American Communist Party dispatched Weinstein to Europe to establish a film company, while others have claimed that she was simply funded by left-wing colleagues. Regardless of how she got the money, it was certainly a lot, enough to buy a gothic pile in the Foxwarren Park estate in Cobham, with fifteen bedrooms and its own deer park
And it was here and in neighbouring Wisley Common that many of the outdoor scenes of Robin Hood were shot, which is why Sherwood Forest has never looked so sparse.
Wisley Common and Foxwarren Park used to sit cheek-by-jowl, but they have since been separated by the M25
In the mansion itself, said to be the inspiration for Toad Hall, Weinstein would regularly entertain a small diaspora of left-wing exiles, including members of the Hollywood Ten and film star Paul Robeson (thus contributing to the alternative history of Surrey as a hotbed of socialism, a red line that extends from the Diggers in Weybridge to H.G. Wells in Woking and his free-love egalitarianism.)
Part of that inner circle was a writer called Christina Stead, who Weinstein put up for free in a cottage in the grounds. Stead repaid her host’s charity by writing an unpublished roman a clef, The Golem or Fan Pearl, in which Weinstein is portrayed as a persuasive talker, convivial host and ruthless exploiter of desperate writers who were willing to take a fraction of the fees they used to command. Stead’s biographer Hazel Rowley characterised Weinstein as “charming and hardworking, tiny and full of energy, but she had an ‘unquestioning egotism’ and a weakness for luxury”, whereas her husband John Fisher was “empty, authoritarian, fraudulent and an incurable spender”. That character flaw led to his bankruptcy in 1962 and their hasty exit from Foxwarren and the United Kingdom.
The millions of viewers of Robin Hood probably never guessed that their favourite adventure serial was written by ex-Communist Party members who were using this costume drama to make, in Ring Lardner Jr’s words, “oblique social comment on the issues and institutions of Eisenhower-era America.” But it’s quite easy to spot the allegories in hindsight and play a kind of metaphor bingo. At its core, Robin Hood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, is a socialist parable. The writers built upon that foundation with contemporary themes about the erosion of democracy, the politics of paranoia, the frightening power of the state and the unending threat of violence. It’s not much of a stretch to view Eisenhower as the Prince John figure, destroying the good work of King Richard /Roosevelt. But the series was also specifically about the writers’ own parlous situation. As Professor Steve Kneale has observed, The Adventures Of Robin Hood thrums with “the constant threat of informing and betrayal” (writer Waldo Salt, for instance, was named by his best man Richard Collins at the HUAC investigations, only six months after his wedding). There’s a sense that the writers were pushing the parallels with contemporary America, and pushing their luck, to see how far they could get away with it. There’s even an episode about a witch-hunt (literal rather than metaphoric), in which Robin saves the lives of three women about to be burnt at the stake. You have to wonder if Hannah Weinstein ever pictured herself dressed in Lincoln green, riding through the glen with her band of men.
Lardner Jr and many other blacklistees were banned from leaving the USA, so were required to smuggle their scripts to Weinstein by post via a go-between. The mission was so secretive that even the writers’ children weren’t allowed to tell their school friends. New bank accounts had to be opened for the various pseudonyms that the writers adopted. This clandestine operation really began to resemble the plot of a spy movie, however, when one of the financiers, Hal Hackett, president of Official Films, demanded to meet the people responsible for his trans-Atlantic hit. As twenty two of the credited writers were actually a handful of blacklistees who didn’t live in the country, Weinstein asked script editor Peggy Phillips to act as a front and meet the money-man. A front was a relatively new but extremely popular occupation in Hollywood in the 1950s, which required a writer to take the credit for a black-listed comrade, a job that would occasionally extend to selling somebody else’s work to a TV or film executive and passing it off as your own (an opportunity for farce exploited by the 1976 comedy The Front). In this instance, the ploy worked. Hackett’s curiosity was sated. Not though J. Edgar Hoover, who according to Mathews, put Weinstein on surveillance. Two months later an agent reported back that she was producing television films with a company “influenced by the communists”. And that’s where the trail ends. For reasons only known to the FBI’s director, he decided not to pursue Weinstein, and she continued to produce TV adaptations of romantic myths about protectors of social justice and righters of wrongs, The Adventures Of Sir Lancelot and Ivanhoe. Weinstein returned to Hollywood in the 60s, where she would go on to produce the Richard Pryor vehicles Greased Lightning and Stir Crazy.