Filmmaker, inventor, producer, director, writer, artist, scenic photographer and author Cecil M. Hepworth was a pioneer of early pre-WWI British cinema. He survived in the film business longer than any other British pioneer film-maker. In the course of his career, Hepworth became one of the most respected, if not the most dynamic, figures in British cinema.
Cecil Hepworth was born on 19 March 1874 in Lambeth, South London, the son of celebrated showman T.C. Hepworth who made a living lecturing about magic lanterns, a subject that fascinated young Cecil who frequently toured along with his father on the lecture circuit whilst still a child. This fascinated the young Cecil, and he often cited it as an influence on his later inventions in pre-World War I British cinema. In 1896 he followed his father's footsteps and began touring with his own mixed slide and film show.
Hepworth invented a type of arc lamp for Robert Paul in 1895, assisted Birt Acres in the following year, and in 1897 wrote the first book on the cinema, "Animated Photography, The ABC of the Cinematograph" in 1897. In the early days of cinema, he worked on the periphery of the industry, assisting Birt Acres in a royal command cinematograph performance. After being sacked by Charles Urban from Maguire and Baucus, Hepworth and his cousin Monty Wicks set up their own company, Hepworth and Co, with their trade logo Hepwix, which lasted until about 1908.
His film-making career began when he set up a laboratory in Hurst Grove, Walton on Thames in 1896 (or 1899, according to some accounts), and converted the small house into a studio. Twenty-five years later it would be the over-ambitious expansion of the studio that would drive him out of business. What happened during the intervening years was an immense achievement.
By 1900 he was releasing a hundred films a year. In 1899 he made a film of aspects of the Boer War, which survives. Their first popular success came with the filming of the funeral of Queen Victoria in 1901, which bankrolled the company and permitted further development.
He was primarily a producer more than an actual film-maker but did on occasion, write, direct, edit, photograph and star in many films. Hepworth was instrumental in developing the British film industry through his use of cutting to produce a coherent film narrative. However many of the films credited to him were in fact the work of his associated Percy Slow and Lewin Fitzhamon.
In 1905 Hepworth presented the first British movie star, his family collie with the stage name of Rover. "Rescued by Rover" (co-directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, 1905) was an enormous popular success and had to be remade several times because the negatives wore out making prints for distribution. "Rover" was the first animal film star, predating "Lassie" by over 50 years, and when he died, Rover was given his own obituary. Cinematically, "Rescued by Rover" is notable for its efficient style, using consistency of direction from one shot to the next to clarify the action, yet Hepworth showed little interest in the development of film language. Indeed, he was to speak out against the narrative system of classical Hollywood films in later years. His interest remained in scenic photography and he brought this pictorial style into his films.
The following year, cashing in on the success of animal stardom, Hepworth presented a new star - a horse - in Black Beauty (1906), which was then teamed with Rover in "Dumb Sagacity" (1907). Around the same time he presented other inventive comic films such as 'The Other Side of the Hedge' (1905) and 'That Fatal Sneeze' (1907).
During this time, despite being in the country, the studios were clearly heavily involved in the rapid development of the film industry, which was based in Cecil Court, London (later known as "Flicker Alley"). He probably helped a number of other pioneering film makers for example Alfred J. West of Gosport.
Over the next few years Hepworth and Co made a steady stream of scenic films and actualities, with Hepworth as cameraman/director. In 1904 (some sources say 1908) the company was renamed the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, and Hepworth stopped directing, handing the reigns over to others such as Lewin Fitzhamon. It's not clear what drove this, or what happened to Monty Wicks at the time. Conscious of the need to maintain a recognisable brand, the logo did not change a lot!
The Hepworth Company acquired offices in Denman St., London around this time.
The company began to develop a house style, based on simple stories told with high photographic quality. At this time, Hepworth produced on average three films a week, ranging from melodramas and slapstick comedies to scenics and travel films. He also made an annual pilgrimage to the Brighton area and the south coast in Dorset to shoot on location.
The UK's first purpose-built cinema opened in 1909. Film Distribution developed rapidly.
By 1910 Hepworth had recognised the growing cult of personality in the cinema, and was promoting two series featuring recurring comic characters, "Mr. Poorluck", played by Harry Buss, and "Tilly the Tomboy", featuring Alma Taylor and Chrissie White.
In 1911, after the US market had closed to British films owing to the formation of the Motion Picture Patents Corporation, and sales in the UK had dwindled, Hepworth returned to directing, adapting famous authors and using famous actors in an attempt to revitalise his product. He presented several Dickens adaptations, including Oliver Twist (d. Thomas Bentley, 1912), and a version of Hamlet (d. Hay Plumb, 1913) starring Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson, probably the longest film that had ever been made at the time.
With a budget of £10,000, it was the most expensive film produced in Britain and, determined to show the audience where the money was, Hepworth instructed a replica of the original Elsinore to be built on the cliff top at Dungy Head above Lulworth Cove. Silent Shakespeare is an interesting concept!
During World War 1, the Hepworth studios supported the war effort. Film Propaganda was in its infancy and studios, as always, were at the hub of invention. Charles Urban, a one-time colleague of Hepworth, was a leading light in the war propaganda effort. Whilst it is perhaps understandable that records are patchy, the activities of the Hepworth Studios were rapidly diverted to this new and important medium.
Conscription became a major issue in March 1916 when unmarried, and later married, men in Britain between 18 and 41 (later extended to 51) became liable for call-up to full time service in the army for the duration of the First World War.
Cecil Hepworth was 42 in 1916, so just missed the conscription age criterion to begin with. He does not mention any active service in his autobiography, and comments extensively on the difficulties of keeping the business going when so many men were on active duty. However, there is a splendid photo of CMH in military uniform - whist it is unlikely he actually served in the forces, (if so what did he do and where?) his autobiography says he was in the "Volunteers" which appear to be training regiments - but which one is not clear, West Surrey or Middlesex probably. By the end of the war it is possible that propaganda was a reserved occupation, so it seems CMH escaped being sent to the front, instead making a number of films in 1918. If you know more please contact us.
One example of the propaganda films of the period was his "Leopard's Spots" as featured in 'Pictures and Picturegoer', edition of August 17, 1918 (page 189), a warning against buying German goods after the war. In "Old Mother Hubbard", Mac, another Hepworth collie, encourages the munitions effort. Another, "Anna" encourages the public to buy War Bonds. "Broken in the Wars" (1918) is a public information film informing audiences of the loan scheme for discharged soldiers. Another notable film of 1918 from the Hepworth Manufacturing Company was The Message, although details of this are rather hazy. The propaganda machine continued with A New Version, a short fictional piece starring Alma Taylor encouraging people in Britain to plant food in their own gardens, in summer 1918. It seems that many of these propaganda films are lost.
After the war, Hepworth still maintained the same style of film language which he fostered prior to 1910, frontal staging with action played out in pantomimic gestures in a single long-shot tableaux. Rarely was a space broken down in a Hepworth shot. Ultimately, as the classical narrative system took over, Hepworth films began to look more and more old-fashioned. They were, however, championed in the film press, and Hepworth's films were popular enough to turn both Chrissie White and Alma Taylor into major British stars. Hepworth Picture Plays, as the company became, continued making modestly successful films into the 1920s. His film subjects at this time were still mostly melodramas, although a foray into comedy with "Alf's Button" (1919) proved a massive popular hit, even in America. In Britain it was revived several times.
After the end of the first world war, film making did well for a short while in the postwar boom. Hepworth's sense of his company's direction after the First World War was very clear. 'I was to make English pictures, with all the English countryside for background and with English atmosphere and English idiom throughout' (Hepworth "Came the Dawn", p.144). He was also very protective of the reputation of the film industry and was influential in setting up what became the British Board of Film Censors, now evolved to be the British Board of Film Classification.
Buoyed up by financial success, Hepworth planned to build a large studio complex and also bought a local country house with large grounds, Oatlands Lodge Estate, (now an hotel) to use for filming purposes. The deeds of this transaction still exist and were sold on eBay a few years ago. To fund this expansion, he released a share prospectus which was badly under subscribed, and Hepworth found himself unable to raise the capital he required to pay off what he already owed, despite ever more desperate debenture issues to raise capital.
His company limped on, and Hepworth was able to complete his re-make of "Comin' Thro' The Rye" (1923), the film he regarded as his finest achievement. Unfortunately audiences didn't share his opinion and it failed to revive his fortunes. "Comin' Thro' the Rye" seemed, for all its thoroughly British character, outdated and outmoded. On 17 June 1924 a receiver was appointed who sold off Hepworth's company for a fraction of its worth. All of his original negatives - around 2000 films in all - were melted down - depending on the story, either to reclaim the silver or to make dope for aircraft wings - or both.
What a tragic loss of our heritage - one writer estimates 80% of British films made between 1900 and 1929 were lost.
After the bankruptcy of Hepworth Picture Players, Archibald Nettlefold, of the Birmingham engineering family bought the studios. But that is another story.
Hepworth was a film-maker with a unique visual style which suffered badly in comparison to the Hollywood product. His presentation style barely changed from the early melodramas to the features of the 1920s, but it was a specific style which he deliberately fostered.
He was justifiably proud of his place in cinema history, and toured in later life with a lecture programme telling the story of the birth of cinema. As Variety said of him on 19 May 1922, "he was apt to allow the artist in his nature to conquer the commercialism of the showman, but his pictures were always worth watching".
After the Crash - the 1920s and beyond
Hepworth left the film industry after the 1920's, setting up a couple of small "developing and printing" shops in Hampton and Staines. According to "Came the Dawn", life was hard and it it is speculative that he suffered some sort of nervous breakdown following the collapse of his studio. However, over the next twenty years Hepworth found some employment at the national screen service making film trailers.
Cecil married again on 30th April 1929 to Olive Elizabeth "Betty" Walter, a local Walton girl. She gave her age as 25 and he was 55. At least two national newspapers carried an article on their secret wedding at Chertsey Registry Office. She was described as a singer - and she was in what is now the Walton and Weybridge Amateur Operatic Society (WWAOS) whom Cecil conducted and the honeymoon was reported to be in Switzerland. According to WWAOS records, the pair appeared together in a production of "The Mikado" at around this time. As well as reporting the marriage, the newspaper announcement contains quite a bit of biographical material including some nice Hepworth epigrams, including:
Their daughter Valerie was a passionate supporter of the work of her father for her entire life. Hepworth doted on his daughter whom he nicknamed "tuppence", making Valerie a brooch from two pennies as a memento, which she treasured. The marriage had its troubles, as alluded to by Valerie in a video interview just before she died. It is not clear how the marriage ended.
A newspaper article dated October 6, 1932 states that Cecil joined Standard Kine Laboratories of Thames Ditton as a Director, acknowledging him as "one of the most skilful research chemists in the Industry". He was also reported to be Managing Director of Walton Photographic Co. of Staines, a company engaged in still and moving photography. A key factor in the partnership seemed to be Hepworth's new machine for "stretching" old 16fps films to 24fps to conform to the new sound film frame rate by repeating every other frame. He joined Sydney Wake, who was also a film pioneer who started his career in 1910 and founded Standard Kine in 1921. Clearly, Cecil was still in business making money, and remained a creative inventor, but it was not as exciting as having his own studio.
During the 1939-1945 war Hepworth returned, at the age of about 65, to make films for the Ministry of Agriculture, notably "Food Flashes" propaganda, some of which survive as a memento of rationing. These were made at Perivale by National Screen Services Ltd.
More information is requested about these films and Hepworth's activities at this time.
In the Evening News of 11th November 1950, Hepworth got a column and half which was used to complain about the "Quota Act" imposed by the Board of Trade, which was having an adverse impact on the industry. This alludes to his "film stretching" machine which had been invented 15 years earlier as if it were new! It also said he was associated with "the leading firm of trailer makers" - National Screen Service Ltd.
In recognition of his lifetime's work, Cecil Hepworth was one of the first six Fellows appointed by the The British Film Academy (now BAFTA) on Tuesday 2nd September 1950. He was 76 years old. He was in exalted company. The other Fellows appointed that day were:
Around this time, Hepworth penned his autobiography, "Came the Dawn", (published in 1951) a fascinating if not always historically accurate account of his family, early life, the film business and stars. What is in there is as interesting as what is left out.
Cecil had always hoped to die in harness, but unfortunately National Screen Services Ltd. were forced to retire him on a small pension at Christmas 1952 owing to failing health, at the age of 77, ending his active career.
In the course of his career, Cecil Hepworth became one of the most respected, if not the most dynamic, figures in British cinema. He was a fascinating man, an innovator, actor, inventor, director, businessman who inspired loyalty from all who worked with him during the early days of film before WWI, the Roaring Twenties, Charlie Chaplin and the rise of Hollywood changed the national identity of England forever.
Hepworth died on 9 February 1953 at Greenford, Middlesex. Several Obituaries were published.
There are numerous online biographies of Cecil Hepworth - all interesting, and many with additional detail about his life and works. Some are listed below, but if you find a good one to add please tell us.