Glimpses of a lost silent film: Far from the Madding Crowd (1915)

Advertising for Far From the Madding Crowd, Moving Picture World, July 15 1916. Many thanks to the Townly Cooke Collection for the picture.

Advertising for Far From the Madding Crowd, Moving Picture World, July 15 1916. Many thanks to the Townly Cooke Collection for the picture.

For me, there are few things more tantalising than stumbling across an old theatre programme for a play that closed many years back, or reading about a film that was made a century ago but has not survived. You might know who the players were, the parts they took, even what they wore, but the chance to see what was performed is long gone.

For people who love silent film – and, in particular, British silent film – glimpses of performances past both frustrate and enthuse. It is estimated that 80% of British silents are lost – you come across a reference in a book or magazine, perhaps see still photographs or find musical cue sheets, read a contemporary review or see an advertisement – but you can’t watch the film itself. The missing reels are constantly out of reach.

I’m seeking information about the lost British silent Far from the Madding Crowd (1915). I came across it by chance when researching a fine (extant) film, East Is East (1916), directed by Henry Edwards, who also played in the film. Edwards went on to become one of the big stars of British cinema, and can be seen looking back over his career in this delightful British Pathé film.

A signed postcard of Henry Edwards in his 1926 hit, The Flag Lieutenant

A signed postcard of Henry Edwards in his 1926 hit, The Flag Lieutenant

East is East featured the very talented actor, director, writer and producer Florence Turner. I was intrigued to learn that this was not the first pairing of Edwards and Turner; the previous year they had both appeared in a version of Far from the Madding Crowd, directed by Turner’s friend and business partner Larry Trimble.

Florence Turner on the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer, June 6 1914

Florence Turner on the cover of Pictures and the Picturegoer, June 6 1914

Edwards played Gabriel Oak and Turner was Bathsheba Everdene. Malcolm Cherry played Farmer Boldwood and Campbell Gullan was Sargeant Troy. So what did this Far from the Madding Crowd look like? Where was it filmed? How did the actors play their parts?

Well, if their pairing in East is East is any indication, Turner and Edwards would have played well together as Bathsheba and Oak in a well-received “quality” picture based on a respected novel (and if you don’t know the plot, please note that the following contemporary reviews contain spoilers).

The Hull Daily Mail on 28 February 1916 said: “The mere fact that so great a novel as Far from the Madding Crowd by so skilled an author as Thomas Hardy should be produced  as a picture play is of sufficient importance to warrant the keenest interest of the public. Far from the Madding Crowd is the life story of an impulsive, capricious, but fascinating woman upon whom tragedy and suffering is brought by her own actions. Her innate inability to refrain from misleading and torturing those whom she captivated by her alluring ways was the cause of the heartbreaking of Gabriel, of the death of Troy, and of the final doom of the morbid Boldwood. But, at the end of it all, the happiness of rest and peace must have been intensified by the turmoil that had gone before. The part of Bathsheba is taken by that favourite and appealing cinema actress, Florence Turner. It is refreshing to have brought to the memory the scenes of Wessex country life; and some of the pictures of farm life are if intense interest because they are so realistic.”

Florence Turner in 1915

That favourite and appealing cinema actress Florence Turner in 1914

On 29 February 1916, the Manchester Evening News reported: “Film versions of popular novels will always be welcome if they are so well done as Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd. The picture has many gripping moments as well as scenic and sylvan beauties, and Florence Turner acts the leading part with distinction.” The Rochdale Observer, on 30 August 1916, reported that the film was a “particularly fine production. The setting was admirable and the natural beauty of the scenes depicted added much to the attractiveness of the film. The career of a wandering shepherd and his mistress was followed with much interest.”

I also know a little about which elements of the source novel were filmed. On 3 March 1916 the Hull Daily Mail reported on the strongest scenes: “Great flocks of sheep on the Downs, the catastrophe to Gabriel’s herd, his fall in the world, the saving of the hayrick in the lightning storm while Troy and the others are in drunken sleep, and the unhappy two loves of Bathsheba Everdene.”

Again, courtesy of the Hull Daily Mail (17 November 1915), I learned that “there are several moments of real dramatic intensity in this film. One incident stands out, however, from all the rest – that of the moment when Bathsheba, gazing into the coffin of Fanny Robin, discovers the overwhelming proof of her husband’s misconduct – an episode powerfully acted by Mr Gullan and Miss Turner.”

What I don’t know is whether my favourite scene – Hiving the Bees – was included. But just in case it wasn’t, I’ve been sewing some of the text of that beekeeping scene for my next quilt project.

Hiving the Bees - quilt work in progress

Hiving the Bees – quilt work in progress

And I’ve got a pile of Pictures and the Picturegoer magazines from 1916 to hunt through for more clues about this intriguing lost Far from the Madding Crowd.

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Sir John Martin-Harvey, The Only Way, and a Precious Piece of Fabric

John Martin-Harvey and Nina De Silva as Sydney Carton and Mimi in The Only Way

John Martin-Harvey and Nina De Silva as Sydney Carton and Mimi in The Only Way

As a quilter I keep a lot of fabric at home but the most precious piece of fabric in my possession is part of an old theatrical costume from over a century ago. It is very fragile so I hardly ever get it out to look at, let alone touch – I worry about its further disintegration. It is a silk sash on which someone has written the famous words spoken by Sydney Carton before he meets his death on the Guillotine at the climax of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. The sash belonged to an actor, Sir John Martin-Harvey (22 June 1863 – 15 May 1944), who made his name playing Sydney Carton in a play called The Only Way, based on Dickens’ novel.

The Sash worn by Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way

The Sash worn by Sir John Martin-Harvey in The Only Way

It is thanks to the perilous state of the sash that the quote from Dickens can be seen; it was hidden, written into the lining – presumably by Martin-Harvey himself – but over the last hundred years the fabric has come adrift somewhat and so the secret wording can now be seen.

Of course I never saw Martin-Harvey on stage but luckily for film and theatrical historians, there is a lasting record of his most famous role. The Only Way was filmed in 1926, directed by Herbert Wilcox. Thanks to its survival we can still see the star performance of Martin-Harvey as the dissolute but ultimately heroic Sydney Carton in this silent film version.

I remember vividly the first time I saw the film. I was in Cambridge in the Spring of 2012 and it was playing as part of the British Silent Film Festival. The Only Way was on my must-see list; I love Dickens and A Tale of Two Cities is probably my favourite of his novels. I knew nothing of Martin-Harvey and nothing about the film but context was provided by the musician Neil Brand who, in introducing it, said it was a rare opportunity to see one of the great Edwardian Actor-Managers at work. Neil said that, at some screenings, as the film drew to a close, the projector would be turned off and Martin-Harvey himself would appear and recite the famous final lines – an experience loved by audiences.

To begin with, I was underwhelmed. The film began with a long, slow prologue about the Evremonde family, and, when Martin-Harvey appeared on the screen, my immediate response was “He is far too old to play Sydney Carton.” By the time the film was made, Martin-Harvey was 63 and had been playing the role of Carton on stage for 27 years. I started to anticipate grand theatrical gestures and wondered if I could slip out without disturbing too many people.

And then something happened – one of those transient moments that transform a performance entirely.

For you and any dear to you, I would do anything.

For you and any dear to you, I would do anything.

The scene is Dr Manette’s house in London. Carton comes visiting. He loves Lucie Manette but knows he cannot expect her to return his love. Instead, he tells her that he would do anything for her and for anyone she loves. And during this scene, Martin-Harvey picks up some rose petals that are lying on the table and runs them through his fingers. And that was that. That small movement transformed him. He was Sydney Carton. His tour de force at the Tribunal. The devotion of his servant, Mimi, that he fails to notice. The brilliant final scenes in the Bastille alongside other prisoners waiting for death. His inspiring courage in Mimi. And, of course, the last words: “It is a far, far better thing.” I was completely transfixed.

Since that screening, I have amassed quite a collection of Martin-Harvey items. Some of my favourites are postcards – not so much because of the pictures they feature, but because of what is written on the back. It is very clear that Martin-Harvey had a very loyal following; some fans would make a note of each theatrical performance they went to (often multiple times to The Only Way) or write down their favourite lines.

He was brought before the curtain 5 times and then had to speak.

He was brought before the curtain 5 times and then had to speak.

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Others seem to have been taking part in organised postcard swaps, like a Miss O’Rourke from Nottingham, who received lots of pictures of Martin-Harvey in 1904. One, however, seems to have been from a friend with a sense of humour and a cryptic message: The Doctor is making me send this. 

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I am afraid of sending you cards of Martin Harvey that you may have already, wrote B.P. to Miss O’Rourke in November 1904 on a postcard showing the actor in The Breed of the Treshams. Is there anyone else? From the evidence of the cards in my collection, it would seem not.

A Miss Dobbings is asked by an anonymous friend How do you like “His Serene Highness” in this garb?

How do you like "His Serene Highness" in this garb?

How do you like “His Serene Highness” in this garb?

A.C.H. saw a postcard as I came home and thought perhaps you would like it, and sent it to her friend Enid Downs in Hull, while Maggie Harwall was sent Another one for your collection by her friend Nellie. In 1910, Eva Henderson was asked by her friend Anna How do you like the gentleman on the other side? Miss Smith of West Dulwich has clearly been quite specific about the card she wanted, as her correspondent Georgie writes I do hope that this is the postcard you wanted. They had several of him but this is the only one I could see where he was sitting down. 

"The only one where he was sitting down."

“The only one where he was sitting down.”

And apart from the devoted fans, there are those intent on teasing their friends. In 1907 Mr Jack Thompson received a card featuring Hamlet with the immortal words Hallo fathead. How’s the weather up there? It’s rotten here. I am thy father’s ghost. 

"I am thy father's ghost."

“I am thy father’s ghost.”

Hallo Fathead!

Hallo Fathead!

I am intrigued by these postcards. Who were the people who sent them? Who collected them? So many clues can be found on these items and it opens up a world of theatrical devotion from more than a century ago.

You can still watch The Only Way at the BFI Mediatheque. Unfortunately, the viewing copy has no music and is completely silent – not the way it was intended to be shown – but it is there nevertheless. My advice is to just go with it. It starts slowly. But there is a moment when it gets under your skin. And from then on, it is wonderful.

Reflecting on The Reluctant Widow

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

 PictureShow, 13 May 1950

A few months ago, I blogged about some fabric depicting Regency Costumes that I had found at Quilters Trading Post which made me think of Georgette Heyer’s heroines. The fabric brought to mind a film adaptation of Heyer’s Reluctant Widow and, when the British Film Institute showed this film on 17 March, I was invited to introduce the screening. I did some further research into the film for the introduction, and here it is:

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

Regency Fashion Plates quilt panels

On August 6 1949, the Derby Evening Telegraph reported that “at last British Studios have seen something that has been staring them in the face for years – it is the amount of good screen material to be found in Georgette Heyer’s historical novels.”

Between 1921 and 1974, Heyer wrote over 50 novels, most set in the Regency period. She remains incredibly popular today with a dedicated fan base. But unlike many bestselling authors, very little of her work has been adapted for the screen. A rare example is The Reluctant Widow which was published in 1946 and released as a feature film in 1950 as the last of the period dramas made by Two Cities Films during the late 1940s. So why is so little Heyer seen on screen?

The answer might lie with Heyer herself. Her biographer Jane Aiken Hodge (The Private World of Georgette Heyer) was of the view that “Georgette Heyer’s books with their brilliant plotting and distinctive style and language should be naturals for film and television, but not, perhaps, with their strong-minded author at the director’s elbow.”

Reluctant Widow Editions

In principle, Heyer was open to having her novels adapted, as this could have increased her earning power. Despite earning significant income from her writing, she always felt short of cash and worried excessively about her tax bill. In 1939, there were discussions with Alexander Korda about filming her novel about Charles II, Royal Escape, but these came to nothing, as did proposed films of False Colours to star Anna Neagle (a Heyer fan) and to be directed by Herbert Wilcox, and a mooted production of An Infamous Army.

When The Reluctant Widow came to be filmed, Heyer found that she was not in control of her story – and she didn’t like it.

Screenwriters Gordon Wellesley and Basil Boothroyd made alterations to supporting characters Becky and Nicky (who, as written, are great examples of Heyer’s shrewd old governesses and hilarious younger brothers); added a mysterious smuggler; and, most significantly, created a new character – Madame de Chevreaux played by Kathleen Byron – who does not appear in the novel at all. A very exciting duel scene, made much of in advance publicity, is not in the book; and London scenes featuring Guy Rolfe are inventions of the film makers. There is also a very strange second marriage, which makes no narrative sense. And Heyer was powerless.

Jane Aiken Hodge quotes her as saying “I am being driven frantic by the advance publicity from Denham (Studios) … I feel as though a slug had crawled over me. I think it is going to do me a great deal of harm, on account of the schoolgirl public. Already I’m getting letters reproaching me. They have turned the Widow into a ‘bad-girl’ part for Jean Kent.” She cannot have felt reassured by a review in the Daily Express that described Jean Kent having “a whale of a time. She has a part … that is a cross between the Wicked Lady, Forever Amber, and the barmaid at the local.” (April 28 1950)

Jennifer Kloester’s 2011 biography (Georgette Heyer: Biography of a Bestseller) reveals that Heyer wanted her name removed from the film because, “It seems to me that to turn a perfectly clean story of mine into a piece of sex-muck is bad faith and something very different from the additions and alterations one would expect to be obliged to suffer. If I had wanted a reputation for salacious novels I could have got it easily enough. The whole thing is so upsetting.”

Heyer ultimately refused to see the film, so she didn’t get to see what the director, Bernard Knowles, had made of her work – and her refusal meant that she missed seeing some of the very interesting aspects of the film.

To start with, she was wrong about Jean Kent, who played the role of Elinor much as written for much of the film. Guy Rolfe, who played Lord Carlyon, is now mainly remembered for playing English villains, but in The Reluctant Widow he had a rare opportunity to play the romantic lead and did so with conviction.

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Julian Dallas catches a fainting Jean Kent

Heyer also missed out on an early screen appearance of Julian Dallas as Francis Cheviot. Advance publicity from Two Cities tells us that the Rank Organisation saw Dallas as “the new James Mason” and said that “if his acting and personality come over on the screen successfully he may be offered a long term contract.” Dallas was, indeed offered a long term contract, but not by Rank. Under his real name, Scott Forbes, he went to Hollywood under contact to Warner Brothers in 1950. After appearing in a number of films, he starred in the popular television series, The Adventures of Jim Bowie, from 1956-1958. According to Forbes’ 1997 obituary in The Independent, It was a well-kept secret … that Jim Bowie, with his deep Southern drawl and astonishing good looks, was played by an Englishman educated at Repton and Balliol College, Oxford. The promoters of the series, feeling that the US public would not accept a frontiersman played by an Englishman, launched him with a fabricated biography, claiming that he had been born in South Africa and grown up in eastern Pennsylvania.” (29 April 1997)

Heyer’s world was created on screen by Carmen Dillon at Denham Studios. Dillon was the first woman to win an Academy Award for set decoration, for Hamlet in 1948 – having overcome opposition to her work in the 1930s when she overheard someone saying, “That bloody Carmen Dillon is keeping a man out of a job.”

Dillon caught the mock-gothic settings of The Reluctant Widow with her usual excellence. In the novel, Elinor jokes about the character of Highnoons, the house she inherits, saying:

“The house is clearly haunted. I have not the least doubt that that is why only two sinister retainers can be brought to remain in it. I dare say I shall be found, after a night spent within these walls, a witless wreck whom you will be obliged to convey to Bedlam without more ado.”

With props to add to the sense of chaos of a neglected, crumbling mansion, notably in the decadent master bedroom, Dillon’s work resulted in a convincing Highnoons.

For the London scenes – also created at Denham – Dillon depicted architecture in the style of William Kent, who designed Horse Guards Parade, and she created views – seen through windows – of St James’ Park and the Treasury Building as in 1815. Props included a campaign sheet of the Peninsular War printed in 1815; a copy of The Morning Post borrowed from the British Museum, and some bombards, small shells used in the Battle of Copenhagen. Research was undertaken into the regiments stationed at Horse Guards in 1815 to ensure that the costumes were correct.

Overall, the film is an interesting addition to the history of British costume drama. It is particularly notable given its status as a very rare feature filmed based on a novel by Georgette Heyer – and, perhaps, answers the question “Why are books of this very popular author so rarely filmed?”

PictureShow, 13 May 1950

PictureShow, 13 May 1950