Alma Taylor (1895-1974)
|Born Alma Louise Taylor
January 3, 1895 London, England
Died January 23, 1974 (aged 79)
One of Britain's first true film stars, the brown-haired, blue-eyed, round-faced actress Alma was a principal actress in the Hepworth Picture Players at the Walton Studios, she made over 150 films! See the Alma Taylor IMDB entry. See her International Silent Film Biography.
The 1901 census records her as living in Sunbury on Thames. According to the 1911 Census Alma Taylor was born in Peckham, Camberwell, London in 1894 [although the 1901 census gives DOB of 1895].
She joined the Hepworth studios whilst a teenager and became a firm favourite (if not an obsession) of Cecil Hepworth, who promoted her throughout her career. Her first films were "The Story of a Picture" (1909) and "The Little Milliner and the Thief" (1909), when she was just 14 years old (although her reported age was rather younger than this - see below).
The photogenic brunette Alma Taylor gained her greatest popularity playing one of the two sprightly "Tilly Girls" in a series of brilliant comedies produced by Hepworth in 1910-1911, which can still raise a laugh from an audience even a century later. Apparently her big blue eyes also had something to do with her popularity.
Watch "Tilly the Tomboy Visits the Poor" to get an idea of the kind of antics these girls got up to! The short "Tilly" films starred Chrissie White and Alma Taylor as Tilly (Taylor) and Sally (White), a pair of naughty schoolgirls who get caught up in all manner of mischief. The films, many of which were directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, were filled with fun and energy and still appeal to all ages. Hepworth originally wanted the dancer Unity More for the role of Tilly, but she was unavailable; unable to choose between White and Taylor he decided to have them both appear in the films. As the article in the local paper shows, Alma became extremely popular nationally.
July 13th 1915
In the results of a voting competition, organised by a Cinematograph Newspaper to ascertain the views of its readers as to the greatest British born Picture Players, Miss Alma Taylor, of Sunbury Mansions, heads the list with 156,800 votes. Miss Taylor is well known in Sunbury, her family for many years having resided in the district, Miss Taylor has for several years been engaged by the Hepworth Picture Company, of Walton, and in their announcement they state: “This overwhelming proof of the well known supremacy of Alma Taylor in the hearts of British Playgoers is a triumph indeed. In the few years since her twelfth birthday, this sweet, simple English girl, from her Thames side home, has risen by her sincere, earnest study and playing, and by her unaffected personality, to the greatest position in British Filmland today,” Her first big part was Nancy in “Oliver Twist”, but she is best known for her part in the Tilly Girl series. Swimming and boating are her favourite pastimes, and in her leisure she writes picture plays, in some of which she has taken a prominent part.
The other Tilly girl was Chrissie White and each in her own way would come to personify the typical British silent screen heroine: innocuous, well-mannered, and invariably dressed for comfort.
In 1973, Chrissie White said that Alma lived in Sunbury, just on the other side of the river from Walton Studios.
|So where did Alma live as a child?
The 1901 Census records shows Alma's
listed as living in Sunbury on Thames but so far I have not retrieved
the record to get the details. During the 18th and 19th centuries
Sunbury was little more than a small riverside village, with many large
mansions and their parkland in the surrounding area. The location of
"Sunbury Mansions" is not known. It was not
Sunbury Court, because it was operating as a club at the time. A
number of references suggest it could have been Sunbury Manor whose
Sunbury Walled Garden you can enjoy today. But it was not that
either. The house was most probably the building known as the
Sunbury Military Institution, which burnt down on
31st December 1915.
This ties up with the facts reported by Alma.
Chrissie also said that in those days everyone helped out at the studios, both Alma and Chrissie helping in the processing rooms joining up lengths of film when the weather was so poor shooting was impossible. In Hepworth's biography he praised Alma for her ability to make parts to very close tolerances on a lathe. Not many of today's film stars would know how to start on that!
By 1912 Alma had starred in at least 30 'shorts' and her face would have been very familiar to many of the passengers and crew who boarded the Titanic. In 1912 she played the female lead as Nancy in "Oliver Twist", Britain's first feature-length film.
In 1915 Alma won a national poll in "Pictures and the Picturegoer" - beating Charles Chaplin, and her colleague Stewart Rome. Her Hepworth co-star Chrissie White, Ivy Close, Violet Hopson and Lionel Howard also scored highly in the poll. This is a true measure of Alma's domestic popularity at the time.
Alma acted in many films during the heyday of the Hepworth Studios over WW1 including "The Nature of the Beast". Taylor, who at one point was favourably compared to America's Mary Pickford, found her career waning after World War I and she was decidedly long in the tooth when producer/director Cecil M. Hepworth decided to remake the already then old-fashioned "Comin' Thro the Rye" (1923). This beautifully produced movie is described in some detail in Hepworth's autobiography - he even paid a local farmer to plant the field especially with rye well in advance of shooting! There were many difficulties in its making, including looming disaster and typhoid fever contracted by the leading man, which delayed final delivery of the picture just when the income was needed the most to help save the studio from bankruptcy.
Below is a remarkable interview with Alma Taylor, published in the Hepworth Magazine of 1921 (click for the larger version). Thanks to
Taylor played her usual heroine, suffering nobly and at great length after losing her man to another woman. One critic dismissed the film as poor melodrama, complaining that the starring role was not played by Taylor but by "a field in which the rye, as far as I remember, failed to function obediently."
1921 was a good year for interviews, here is another in Picturegoer , contributed by our regular correspondent Chris Lynch, who lives in Japan.
However, by 1924 Alma was considered to be Britain's number one movie star.
In the talkie era which followed, Alma's star quickly faded but she continued to work in lesser roles and eventually in uncredited bit parts.
However, during this time she made something of a career in the theatre, for example in 1925 appearing with Russell Thorndike starring in 'Dr Syn' at Wyndham's Theatre, London.
Due to a slump in British film production during the Depression, Taylor disappeared until 1926, when Hepworth launched a comeback of sorts with "The House of Marney", and "Tansy" (1927). Tickner Edwardes (1865-1944) was known as "the bee-man of Burpham" and his novel Tansy, about a beautiful village girl who upsets farming traditions by becoming a shepherdess starred Alma Taylor and it was filmed in Burpham. After this, she made a couple of thrillers in Germany, including a version of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" (1929) with some of the major stars from all over Europe, a prestigious production indeed. No language problems in the silents! Long thought lost, a print of this film was allegedly discovered in Poland in 2009.
Once the darling of British movie audiences, she married Leonard Avery in 1936 (and not, some biographies state, the prolific film producer Walter West). However, this writer cannot but speculate about the relationship between Alma and Cecil - many of Cecil's writings are perhaps over-fulsome about his star - and his daughter Valerie said that at one point marriage was considered, but the family were against it for some reason. See the Family page for more information on this fascinating episode.
Alma Taylor was reduced to minor bit parts in sound films until her retirement in the late '50s. She was "Nurse Sprott" in Stock Car (1955) for example. However, some sources report she was active in TV work at this time too.
Apparently in her later years she was often to be found at Shepperton Studios, looking for work, and surely she must have accepted extra work in order to get by during some difficult times, but occasionally she won a role in a feature film.
Alma appeared in "Lost" (1955) which featured just about every British supporting actor of the time, and (uncredited) in Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" (1956). One of the last appearances was a Prince Bruno's mother in "Blue Murder at St. Trinian's" (1957). Her final screen appearance seems to have been almost 50 years after her screen debut, as an 'old lady' in, of all things, "A Night to Remember" (1958) (uncredited).
A filmography of her later career is here.
Alma lived until 1974. Her obituary was published in The Times on 28th January 1974.
Here is a splendid Alma Taylor Filmography. This has no less than 151 credits! Here is another biography of Alma Taylor. Alma Cogan was also named after her because her mother had been a great fan of Alma Taylor.
|Tilly, the Tomboy, Visits the Poor (1910)|
|Helen of Four Gates (Now restored!)|
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