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"Comin' Through The Rye"

(Introductory narrative spoken by Hannah Gordon for film presentation Feb 7, 2000)

SPECIAL: Hannah Gordon's narrative on "Comin' Through The Rye" (1923).

The video of the film does not tell the whole of the plot, so I will complete the story of "Coming through the Rye" in a few minutes.

But before I do, there is a real-life story linked to this film . . in its way just as full of drama.

Cecil Hepworth, one of the pioneers of filmmaking in Britain, is a 49-year old widower in 1923 when he makes this film.

The time is full of promise - the Great War is over; he has kept his filmmaking enterprise going during it, by contrast with many of his British competitors, and the post-war boom is fuelling a growth in cinema attendance. He is full of plans for the future.

He needs to expand the studios to meet the growing interest in his films and the growing sophistication in film production. He is particularly concerned about electric power. He remembers all too clearly how he was let down in earlier years by the failure of the local power company to meet his needs. So he resolves to have his own power generators. Although he is buying second-hand equipment, he has had to borrow heavily to pay for it. But that's not a problem - the equipment is worth much more than he has paid for it.

Cecil Hepworth is a brilliant technical innovator in cinematography and a meticulous director. He feels that the tragic story told in Helen Mathers' popular 1875 novel "Coming through the Rye", in which the love between Helen and Paul is ruined by the evil Sylvia, will make the ideal subject for a film.

In fact, he has filmed the story before, in 1916, and the viewing public liked it. But he has always regretted using 'modern' styles for that version - a motor car in one scene was an anachronism.

So, in 1923, he makes a second attempt to film the story. Moreton Old Hall in Cheshire is an ideal location for the family house, and it has a field of rye close by. To cover the change of seasons, he has planted a field of rye in Walton (in the area now occupied by HomeBase). He has collected the right actors for the parts. So he starts work on the film - at the same time as he is borrowing heavily for the expansion.

Then tragedy! Shayle Gardner, who plays Paul, falls ill with typhoid fever. Hepworth cannot wait for Shayle to recover, because he is committed to showing his newest picture at a prestigious event in London in late summer 1923. So he releases the picture incomplete.

In fact, this is not so great a drawback. The picture ends at a plausible point in the story, though not (as you will see) where Helen Mathers ended it.

Hepworth later considered the resulting work to be a great success and, at the time it receives great plaudits for the beauty of its camera work. The contemporary critics praise some of the acting, particularly Alma Taylor and Eileen Dennes. But it isn't enough. Even when the film is finished, later in the year after Shayle Gardner's recovery, the film is not a commercial success. The story, and its Victorian flavour, is falling out of favour with post-war audiences.

Whether prompted by the failure of this one film, or by a feeling that Hepworth is no longer in tune with the audiences of the day, his financial backers are deserting him. The Hepworth Picture Players goes bankrupt. The liquidator fails to get good value for the business, including the electrical equipment of which Hepworth was so proud. Much of the film stock is sold to people who have no sense of its value and it is melted down for "dope" to coat aeroplane wings. (Hence we can see so few of Hepworth's films today)

Writing 28 years later with a remarkable absence of bitterness, Cecil Hepworth confessed to a degree of schizophrenia at the time, explaining that "the onset of disaster is precluded and concealed by a spurt of better times than usual".

Though disappointed, Cecil Hepworth was not personally ruined. He returned to his true expertise - technical innovation. Throughout the time that he had made motion pictures, he had been inventing. As a young man he had invented a greatly improved projection lamp. Then he greatly improved the camera action of the early movie camera, and produced the first automatic film-processing machine for ciné film, which was years ahead of its time. He was honoured during his life by the professional bodies of the British Cinema Industry. At his death in 1953, his peers remembered him as a major pioneer of the British Film Industry, certainly not as a failure.

What about the Studios? After the bankruptcy of Hepworth Picture Players, Archibald Nettlefold, of the Birmingham engineering family bought the studios. He invested in improved equipment and especially sound stages to catch the wave of the 'talkies'. Walton Film Studios became one of the principal centres of filmmaking in Britain, along with Ealing, Shepperton and Pinewood. By contrast with the Hepworth years, Walton studios were hired out to independent filmmakers. Most of the films produced were low-budget B-movies made for American producers to allow then to release their Hollywood productions in Britain.

The introduction of television could have been the death-knell for Walton but instead it proved its salvation, at least for a time. A number of TV series were filmed at Walton most notably 143 episodes of 'Robin Hood', starring Richard Greene.

Unlike other British film centres, Walton was constrained by being close to a town centre. It couldn't expand enough to cope with the growing sophistication of films and filmmaking. Eventually, in 1961, the site closed. The road called 'Hepworth Way' is a daily reminder to us of the proud record of filmmaking in Walton.

And now to return to "Coming through the Rye". The story is very much of its mid-Victorian time. Cecil Hepworth himself was of a generation to feel considerable empathy with its values. His customers of 1923, however, were already drifting away from them.

To recap the plot . . . .the heroine, Helen Adair, is a member of a large and affluent family in the rural town of Silverbridge. Her stern and overbearing father, who controls all their activities, dominates life inside the family house. To seek fun the children escape outside and play in the countryside, including the field of rye, which features throughout the story. During one of their adventures Helen meets George Tempest, and they become best friends. Eventually George asks Helen to marry him and she agrees but half-heartedly. Her father discovers that she has been seeing George and sends her away to school.

Helen meets Paul Vasher, the man with whom she will fall in love, at a school dance. Twice her age, she finds him handsome with an intriguing aura of world-weariness and melancholy. She discovers that being betrayed in love by the beautiful Sylvia Fleming, whom she also meets, causes his sadness. Having been betrayed by Sylvia, Paul is drawn to Helen's youthful innocence and virtue, as well as her beauty. They become friends and often meet in the field of rye. Before the friendship can blossom, however, Paul has to leave for Rome on business.

Paul returns after 3 years to be re-united with Helen. She first tells her childhood friend George that she does not love him and will not marry him. She does this is in a meadow and then crosses a fence to meet Paul in the rye. Helen and Paul declare their love for each other and there follows a brief period in which they are blissfully happy. However, the evil Sylvia is determined to marry Paul herself and sets out to ruin their relationship.

When Paul again leaves for Rome Sylvia seizes her chance. She places her maid in Helen's house, and the servant intercepts all mail between Paul and Helen. Sylvia also places a false announcement of the marriage between Helen and George in the 'Times'. Meanwhile, George proves himself a true friend by discovering the plot and rushing to Rome in an attempt to warn Paul. However, before he arrives Sylvia has used her feminine wiles and Paul's despair to trick him into marriage.

Paul, having discovered the truth, is a broken man and returns to meet Helen in the field of rye - now harvested and covered in snow. Helen tells him that they must accept what has happened, respect the sanctity of marriage and live the rest of their lives apart. Sylvia soon discovers that marriage without love is a terrible existence. Even the birth of a son, Wattie, does not relieve her misery and in revenge she seeks to ruin Helen's reputation. She moves her family next door to Helen and tries to encourage a relationship between Helen and Paul. Helen remains solid in her virtue, however, becoming devoted to little Wattie. When the child dies of a fever, Paul is maddened by grief and leaves to fight and die in a foreign war. The novel ends with Helen racked with sadness, but convinced of the virtue of her actions and looking forward to being re-united with Paul and Wattie in heaven.

What a tragic story! Probably we shall never see for ourselves whether Hepworth filmed this story to its bitterest end, but if you want to savour the novel for yourself, the Museum holds a copy of the 1924 edition. This includes still photographs from the film demonstrating that linking merchandise to movies was happening nearly 80 years ago!

And finally . . . one piece of modern-day promotion . . . The Elmbridge Museum and the South East Film and Video Archive are jointly working on a CD-ROM on the heritage of vintage filmmaking in the area, which they hope to release later this year. Look out for it!

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