One hundred years ago this month, Grace Kingsley reported on the Hollywood arrival of an authentic film pioneer and his favorite actress:
Modestly disclaiming her title of the English Mary Pickford, yet occupying in the heart of the English public very much the place which Mary Pickford occupies in ours, Alma Taylor, British screen star, arrived in Los Angeles and is registered at the Alexandria. She may decide to make pictures here, she says.
Miss Taylor, who is a beautiful young girl of demiblond type, is accompanied by her mother and by her director, Cecil Hepworth, of Hepworth Pictures Corporation, of England. Her director, having faith that the young lady will become as popular throughout the world as any American star, declares that he and Miss Taylor are here looking over the ground with a view possibly to returning this winter and producing pictures. During their present stay they will remain only a week, returning to New York, and thence to England.
“I want not only to make pictures for England, but for the world,” said Miss Taylor earnestly. “And,” she continued modestly, “one must travel to California and see American methods at their best in order to learn those things which shall make us able to compete with Americans.” During the coming week Miss Taylor will visit various studios with her director.
It’s interesting to learn that the most English of all early directors had ambitions to crack the American market! That didn’t work out for him, but he was still important to film history without it.
Cecil Milton Hepworth was “perhaps the leading figure in British silent cinema,” according to film historian Luke McKernan. Born in 1874 in London, England, his father, Thomas Hepworth, was a traveling magic lantern lecturer. The younger Hepworth got his start in moving pictures in 1896 as an assistant to camera inventor/filmmaker Birt Acres. In 1898 he moved to producer Charles Urban’s company. After he got fired in 1899, he and his cousin Monty Wicks started their own production company, Hepwix, later renamed the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, and it became the biggest British film production company before the first world war. In 1905 they had a huge international hit with Rescued by Rover – it was so successful that he had to re-shoot the film twice because they wore out the negatives making prints.
After the war he continued to make features like Alf’s Button (1920) that sold lots of tickets in the United Kingdom, but not in the United States. So it’s no wonder he wanted to see if he could change that. Hepworth, Taylor, her mother Kate, and William Reed, a Hepworth company executive, arrived in New York in late October 1921. Hepworth told Motion Picture News that “it was his intention to produce for a broader market and that this was largely the purpose of his trip.” From there they traveled to Montreal, then to Los Angeles where they visited studios and attended some parties.* In his 1951 autobiography Came the Dawn, Hepworth didn’t have a lot to say about his trip to America. He mentioned that Charlie Chaplin traveled on the same boat to New York as they did, and they saw him at his studio in Los Angeles “and had many most interesting talks with him on his production and allied subjects.” They took the train back to New York and left for London on January 17, 1922.
Before he left, Hepworth arranged for a press screening of Alf’s Button and the response from a Film Daily writer explains why the story of a solider who finds a wish-granting button couldn’t even get distribution: it was just too slow for American audiences. Although it had reportedly made the Prince of Wales laugh, it had “poor direction” and a “badly constructed script,” therefore “just how American audiences can be expected to find the picture amusing when there are such fun makers as Lloyd, Chaplin, Keaton and a few others capable of drawing continuous laughs is hard to say.”
Hepworth responded to this criticism with a somewhat confusing essay in Motion Picture News. It shows that he wasn’t interested in learning new things on his trip, he just became more confirmed in his own opinions. He thought that one of the biggest troubles with the films of 1922 was “their gradual divorcement from reality” for
the aim of every good director is to build up gradually, on the sure foundation of reality and experience, a towering structure of beauty, interest and entertainment peopled with living, breathing human creatures living such lives as real people live and doing such things as human beings do or may be believed to do. But there are many directors who have left that sure foundation far, far below them.
He hated the current trend of quick editing and what he thought was the excessive use of close-ups, then he praised himself for using fades between scenes instead of cuts (he thought they were too distracting). Furthermore, make-up on actors was “the greatest destroyer of illusion that we suffer from today.” He wanted the rest of the film industry to be different because he certainly wasn’t going to change.
Hepworth didn’t return to Los Angeles in the winter of 1922 to make movies, as he told Kingsley he might. Instead he tried to get funding for a new company, Hepworth Picture Plays. He launched it in 1922, but in his autobiography he said, “it was almost still-born for it was very badly undersubscribed…I alone am to blame for the unhappy result.”
However, he did manage to make Comin’ Thro’ the Rye (1923). It was a box office failure in U.K. and was never distributed in the U.S. The American fan magazine Photoplay reviewed it in 1925 and said, “in picture production it is about thirty years behind American films. The story is poor, the settings are poor, the costumes are poor, the acting is worse and the whole thing just gives one a desire to shoot everybody that had a hand in its making.” Now in academic film circles it’s greatly respected and considered an important part of the formation of the British national cinema.
Hepworth didn’t stop trying. In 1923 he signed a deal with Burr Nickle, a small states rights distributor, to distribute eight of his features in the U.S. Nickle opened an office in Los Angeles and previewed three of them at the Ambassador Theater in January: Sunken Rocks, Tansy, and Bargains. Nothing came of it and according to Film Daily, they terminated their agreement at some point before February 1924. Hepworth made one more feature, The House of Marney (1927). But as Luke McKernan observed, “he followed the typical pattern of an innovator unable to move with the times.” After Hepworth Picture Plays went bankrupt, he directed trailers and lectured on film history. He died on February 9, 1953.
Alma Taylor also didn’t return to Hollywood. Alma Louise Taylor was born January 3, 1895 in London to John and Kate Taylor. Her father was a metal broker. She started acting in Hepworth’s films in 1907, when she was 12. She appeared in over 150 shorts and features for the Hepworth Company, usually playing girls and girlish women. In a 1915 poll by Pictures and the Picturegoer fan magazine, she was the most popular British-born star (Chaplin came in second).
After Hepworth’s company went bankrupt, she starred in her first film away from him, The Shadow of Egypt (1924). Shot on location, she wrote an essay about it and wearing make-up for the first time for P&P and said, “despite the terrific heat and the attacks of mosquitos, Egypt impressed me very much indeed.” She continued to act in films and on stage, moving on to smaller, more matronly parts. Her final film was A Night to Remember (1958).
She married Leonard Avery in June 1936. Leonard Avery Grimes was born on May 31, 1869 in Queensland, Australia. He enrolled in Wadham College, Oxford, in 1889. He became a physician and was a house surgeon at St. George’s Hospital in London. Taylor was his second wife; he was married to Helen Mary Reeves in 1899, and they had three children: John, Philip and Cynthia. At some point between 1899 and 1901, they changed their last name to Avery. When he married Taylor he was working for Horlicks (the malted milk powder company) as a medical advisor.
Leonard Avery died in 1953, and Alma Taylor died in 1974.
If you’d like more information about Cecil Hepworth, visit Cecil Hepworth: Cinema’s Forgotten Pioneer, an online exhibit from the Elmbridge Museum.
The actual Mary Pickford had a premier this month, and even though its subject was as old-fashioned as a Hepworth film, Kingsley really enjoyed it:
Not since Stella Maris has Mary Pickford shown her acting ability as she does in Little Lord Fauntleroy, which opened at the Mission yesterday. And I say this despite the fact that a mother crying with her hand over her mid-Victorian bodice because her small son is going to have his curls cut off, is a bit out of date. Also in spite of the fact that the normal tendency among human beings is to want to kill a boy who is as sweet as Lord Fauntleroy.
But Little Lord Fauntleroy is a great picture. It is great largely because Mary Pickford is great. The double roles of the tender young mother and the quaint, friendly little Cedric shows the wide range of this star’s amazing talent.
However, even super-Pickford fan Kingsley had to admit:
Infinitely absorbing, charming and appealing as is Little Lord Fauntleroy, but it has one big fault. It is too lengthy and seems to drag in spots. Many shots could be cut out, and many scenes could be cut down without impairing the clarity or the charm of the story and this would not only render it unique, as it is now, but indeed quite perfect.
I suspect that one big fault is what’s keeping modern reviewers away from it, even though it’s available on DVD. Fauntleroy is nearly two hours long, and there are too many other, more zippy Pickford movies to write about.
* Years later Taylor told an Australian journalist about seeing Chaplin at a Hollywood party: “Even when he was entertaining his friends at a big party, and making them convulsive with laughter with his acting I always was conscious of a terrible undercurrent of sadness and tragedy…Being the great man of Hollywood is no fun for Chaplin. He is more or less always surrounded by a body guard because people have done the most ridiculous things, even to throwing themselves under his car to get in touch with him and then play on his sympathies so that he would help them. I remember in Hollywood when we went to parties there would always be a man sitting in the front of the car with a revolver on his lap, just in case of trouble.” What a change from the days when Grace Kingsley could run into him coming out of a theater and have a chat.
“Actress Who Televised Duchess of Kent,” Daily Telegraph (Sydney), June 25, 1937.
“Alf’s Button,” Film Daily, February 19, 1922, p. 10.
“Burr Nickle to Release Here,” Los Angeles Times, January 8, 1923.
“A Film Pioneer,” West Australian (Perth), June 1, 1937.
Hepworth, Cecil M. Came the Dawn: Memories of a Film Pioneer. London: Phoenix House Ltd., 1951.
Hepworth, Cecil M. “Director Points Out Defects in Production,” Motion Picture News, November 25, 1922, p.2647.
“Hepworth and Alma Taylor Here,” Exhibitors’ Trade Review, October 29, 1921, p.1503.
“Hepworth, Noted British Producer, Here,” Motion Picture News, October 29, 1921, p.2276.
“Hepworth Prod. Formed,” Film Daily, February 6, 1924.
“Historical Production is Novelty,” Los Angeles Times, November 5, 1922,
“The Most Interesting Man I Ever Met—Charlie Chaplin,” The Sun (Sydney), July 28, 1938.
“Personal Pages, The Herald (Melbourne), June 18, 1937.
“Sailing Tomorrow,” Film Daily, January 16, 1922, p.1.
“The Shadow Stage,” Photoplay, March 1925, p.104.
Taylor, Alma. “The Land of Mystery,” Pictures and the Picturegoer, January 1925, p.58.