Cecil Hepworth

The Master of Machinery

Cecil Hepworth (1874-1953) was the son of T.C. Hepworth, one of the most renowned magic lanternists of the day and author of The Book of the Lantern, being a Practical Guide to the working of the Optical (or Magic) Lantern.[1] Cecil developed his interest in motion pictures while accompanying his father on his lecture tours and, being of a mechanical bent, entered the moving-picture industry as an inventor of photographic apparatus. In 1896, for example, he sold arc lights—high-intensity lamps that can simulate sunlight on indoor locations—to R.W. Paul (see Chapter 3.1). (In Rescued by Rover, the studio interior depicting the gypsy’s garret features a skylight through which simulated arc lighting falls [Figure B5.1]. D. W. Griffith would be celebrated for using the same device in Edgar Allan Poe four years later.[2])

In 1898, Hepworth wrote what may be the very first book on the new medium of motion pictures, Animated Photography: The ABC of the Cinematograph, and after following for a short time in his father’s footsteps, touring with moving pictures instead of lantern slides, he went to work for the Warwick Trading Company, one of Britain’s most successful production firms, where he processed and printed films (see Biographical Sketch 5.2, on Warwick founder Charles Urban). He also invented a mechanical process for cranking filmstrips through developing baths in the same way that they were cranked through the camera and projector. The fact that filmstrips otherwise had to be handled manually was among the technical constraints on length that eventually had to be overcome before “feature” films were feasible.[3]

Later in his career, Hepworth patented the Vivaphone—a synchronized sound-on-disc system that used a phonograph to accompany projected visuals with sound captured on ten-inch records. Along with competing systems, the Vivaphone was installed in numerous British and European theaters, and Vivaphone films—that is, films with accompanying phonograph records—were distributed in the U.S. in 1913-1914. The Vivaphone enjoyed certain advantages over its competitors—it was portable and easier to use, and a special electromagnetic attachment controlled synchronization—but, unfortunately, it also shared a critical drawback: the use of prerecorded sound meant that exhibitors could not edit the visuals to suit their own purposes. Such systems enjoyed only brief popularity and had disappeared by about 1918.[4]

The Production Executive


       The Hepworth Manufacturing Co. on Location

In 1899, Hepworth and a cousin named Monty Wicks (hence the “Hepwix” logo) set up Hepworth and Company (later the Hepworth Manufacturing Company) on property in the London suburb of Walton-on-Thames, where they built a 15-by-18-foot stage in the back garden and a film laboratory in the house. The company specialized in 50-foot actualities recording such local subjects as The Ladies Tortoise Race and Procession of the Prize Cattle, but in 1901, Hepworth committed the modest resources of the firm to recording the entire route of Queen Victoria’s funeral cortège (Figure B5.2). The resulting series of “newsreels” was successful enough to underwrite Hepworth’s plans for increasing the company’s output,[5] and “Hepwix” was soon releasing 100 films per year. By 1905, the company had attached a large glass studio to the Walton-on-Thames house and converted one floor to printing, developing, and drying rooms and a machine shop.[6]

See the moving picture


         Cecil Hepworth/Percy Stow, Alice,

      in Wonderland, Hepworth & Co., 1903

In 1903, Hepworth shattered the mold of 50-foot shorts with the 800-foot Alice in Wonderland, which he directed in conjunction with Percy Stow, a specialist in trick films. Distinguished by special effects and color tinting, Hepworth’s 12-minute Alice was the longest film yet produced in England. Rescued by Rover, which displayed an advanced sense of narrative continuity, came out in 1905; again, Hepworth codirected, this time with Lewin Fitzhamon, who would write, direct, and act in Hepworth films for the next eight years. Hepworth films also pioneered the use of greater naturalism in acting styles and, as Rover amply demonstrates, the combination of exterior locations and studio interiors (see Figure B5.3). John Gilpin’s Ride (1908) features one of the earliest uses of the tracking camera to perform a clearly dramatic function, and according to British film historian Roger Manvell, An Alien’s Invasion (1905), which sympathetically depicted the conditions faced by London immigrants, was one of the first British motion pictures to display “some sort of purpose in the making of a film.”[7]

The Producer as Pictorialist  

As producer and distributor of his own films, Hepworth, who withdrew from directing in about 1905, had become one of the most influential figures in the early British film industry. Interestingly, however, the creator of Rescued by Rover expressed little interest in the continuing development of film syntax. In articles written in later years for English industry publications, he was overtly skeptical about the effect of the continuity-oriented editing style that was becoming increasingly evident in American imports. “Smoothness in a film,” he wrote in his 1951 autobiography,
. . . should always be preserved except when for some special effect a “snap” is preferred. . . . Only the direst need will form an excuse for lifting an audience up by the scruff of the neck and carrying it round to the other side, just because you suddenly want to photograph something from the south when a previous scene has been taken from the north.[8]

As always, Hepworth’s chief criterion was high photographic quality, and the films that he produced from about 1905 until the beginning of World War I relied heavily on his well-developed sense of scenic pictorialism.

See an excerpt


             Hay Plumb, Hamlet,

         Hepworth Mfg. Co., 1913

Adaptations and the Prestige Production  

Increasingly, he also turned to adaptations of popular fiction that exploited images of the British countryside and regular appearances by a stock company of actors. Scenes were typically limited to frontal staging, and in order to preserve the integrity of long-shot tableaux acted in broad theatrical gestures, he rarely disturbed the unity of scenic space. Not surprisingly, Hepworth’s films started to look old-fashioned, but they remained fairly popular with the British press and moviegoing public.

Hepworth’s hour-long 1913 version of Hamlet starred the eminent stage actor Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson and was at the time the most expensive film turned out by an English producer (see Figure B5.4).[9] According to British film scholar Simon Brown, Hamlet entitles Hepworth to be counted “among the first [English producers] to mount prestige productions based on great literary works using well-known actors of the day.”[10] What Brown calls the “prestige production” is now usually called the “heritage film,” and it remains a topic of controversy in discussions of the English film industry. Very loosely, it refers to films that evoke historical England in nostalgic (and visually lavish) terms, and although its latest incarnation (beginning in the 1980s) tends to focus on adaptations of writers like Charles Dickens and Jane Austen, its range of source material is actually much broader and certainly takes in Shakespeare. It remains highly pictorial in style with a tendency toward painterly displays of the English landscape.[11] Many English critics charge that heritage films are directed toward a certain educated American audience, and Hepworth’s Hamlet, according to Brown, was conceived for a similar commercial pupose, though on a domestic scale—namely,

to woo the middle classes into cinemas which were being smartened up to include covered seats, refreshments, and ushers. It’s the same as we see today with films like [the Academy Award-winning] The King’s Speech [2010]—a high-quality cast with heritage subject matter—and it was very successful. Hepworth was highly regarded in the film industry for making very English films.[12]

World War I and After

Hepworth’s strategy kept his company busy in the years leading up to World War I, even as monopoly practices in the U.S. industry largely closed off the American market. During the war, Hepworth and Company remained quite active, made shorts to support the war effort, rented its facilities to independent companies, and emerged as one of Britain’s major producers. After the war, the company, like many British producers, sought to counter the increasing American dominance of domestic screens by abandoning the old artisinal model of production in favor more of a efficient industrialized model.[13]

The industry also strove to appeal to the English audience by speaking to it in a more pronounced English accent—that is, by making movies on English subjects with ostensible appeal to domestic tastes. Hepworth found this approach particularly congenial to his own ideas about what English audiences wanted (and needed) to see. In 1919, he formed Hepworth Picture Plays Ltd. and imbued it with a clear vision: “I was to make English pictures, with all the English countryside for background and with English atmosphere and English idiom throughout.”[14]


      Cecil Hepworth, Comin’ thro’ the Rye,

            Hepworth Picture Plays, 1923

A Lapse in Style  

For a few years, the strategy was modestly successful, as Hepworth turned out melodramas based on popular fiction in which he continued to feature a company of home-grown stars and to exploit images of the British landscape (see Figure B5.5 [15]). In 1923, for instance, he released Comin’ thro’ the Rye, a remake of subject that he’d first directed in 1916. He considered this complicated story of frustrated love “my best and most important film,”[16] but it wasn’t very popular. Comin’ thro’ the Rye, says British film historian Roy Armes, “is sober and tasteful but rather prosaic. . . . Hepworth’s cinema,” he explains,

looks back to the prewar era rather than forward to the 1920s. He employs his camera in a basically illustrative capacity, conveying sentiments largely through rather theatrical miming and never exploring settings through closeups and montage in a way that would reveal their true poetry.

We should bear in mind that Hepworth’s outmoded style was not simply a matter of inertia—it was unique and deliberately cultivated. Not surprisingly, however, it was unable to satisfy the changing narrative and entertainment values of his audience. As the American show-business paper Variety had pointed out just a year prior to Comin’ thro’ the Rye, Hepworth “was apt to allow the artist in his nature to conquer the commercialism of the showman.”[17] In any case, concludes Armes, Comin’ thro’ the Rye “was in fact the sad end of the creative filmmaking career of one of the major figures in early British cinema.”[18]

Still buoyed, however, by the bubble of England’s postwar economic boom, Hepworth had made plans for a large new studio complex. When the sale of stock in the enterprise fell short, he was left bankrupt. His company’s most valuable asset—its back catalogue of some 2,000 titles—was sold in 1924, and when the original negatives were melted down to reclaim the silver content, perhaps 80 percent of all British films made between 1900 and 1929 were destroyed.[19] Fortunately, many titles have been recovered from existing prints.

For the next 20 years, Hepworth worked on the margins of the idustry, directing trailers and advertising shorts. Official recognition, however, began to come in 1946, when the British film industry celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. In 1950, Hepworth was among the first six Fellows named by the British Film Academy (now BAFTA), the English equivalent of U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

[1] For general accounts of Hepworth’s life and work, see Christine Gledhill, Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion (London: British Film Institute, 2003), pp. 93-100; Robert Shail, “Cecil Hepworth,” in British Film Directors: A Critical Guide (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2007), pp. 94-96; Frank Gray, “Cecil Hepworth (1874-1953) Film Pioneer,” BritMovie (1997-2012), at (accessed June 23, 2016); Simon Brown, “Hepworth, Cecil (1874-1953),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-14), at (accessed June 23, 2016); Luke McKernan, “Cecil Milton Hepworth,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 23, 2016); “The Man: Cecil Milton Hepworth (1874-1953): British Film Pioneer,” (2013), at (accessed June 23, 2016).

On the role of Hepworth’s wife Margaret in his filmmaking career, see Tony Fletcher, “Margaret Hepworth,” Women Film Pioneers Project, ed Jane Gaines et al. (New York: Columbia Univ. Libraries, 2013), at (accessed June 23, 2016). Hepworth published a biography entitled Came the Dawn (London: Phoenix House, 1951): see “Full Text of ‘Came the Dawn: Memories of a Film Pioneer,’” Internet Archive (2014), at (accessed June 23, 2016).

[2] See Barry Salt, “The Early Development of Film Form,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), p. 286.

[3] See Michael Chanan, The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 49, 231.

[4] See “The Vivaphone,”, at (accessed June 23, 2016); “Hepworth Vivaphone,” Silent Era Information and News (1999-2016), at (accessed June 23, 2016).

[5] On The Queen’s Funeral, see Rachael Low and Roger Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906 (1948; rpt. London: Unwin Brothers Ltd., 1973), pp. 64, 65. Also consulted: “Funeral of Queen Victoria: The Marble Arch,” Moving History (Centre for British Film and Television Studies), at (accessed September 7, 2012).

[6] See “The Studios,”, at (accessed June 23, 2016); “Nettlefold Studios, Walton-on-Thames,” BritMovie (2014), at (accessed June 23, 2016). On the early films of Hepworth, see Low and Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906, esp. pp. 51-110; Low and Manvell reprint catalogue entries for nearly 40 films of the Hepworth Manufacturing Company.

[7] Film and the Public (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1955), p. 20. For the full catalogue description of Alice in Wonderland, see Low and Manvell, The History of the British Film 1896-1906, pp. 83-84. See also Simon Brown, “Alice in Wonderland (1903),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-14), at (accessed June 23, 2016). On the British Film Institute’s 2003 restoration of Hepworth’s Alice, see Emily Garnham, “Alice in Wonderland: How Lewis Carroll’s Tale First Wowed Cinema-Goers 100 Years Ago,” Express (February 25, 2010), at (accessed June 23, 2016); “Alice—Random but Cool,” The Bioscope (March 3, 2010), at (accessed June 23, 2016). For information on Mabel Clark, who starred in Alice and may also have served as set decorator and costume seamstress, see Tony Fletcher, “May Clark,” Women Film Pioneers Project, ed. Gaines et al., at (accessed June 23, 2016).

[8] Came the Dawn, p. 139.

[9] On Hamlet, see Geoff Brown, “‘Sister of the Stage’: British Film and British Theatre,” in All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema, ed. Charles Barr (London: British Film Institute, 1986), esp. pp. 148-49; Kenneth S. Rothwell, “Hamlet in Silence: Reinventing the Prince on Celluloid,” in The Reel Shakespeare: Alternative Cinema and Theory (Cranberry, NJ: Associated University Presses, 2002), esp. pp. 31-33, at (accessed June 23, 2016); Michael Brooke, “Hamlet (1913),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-14), at (accessed June 23, 2016); Ian Johnson, “Merely Players,” in Focus on Shakespearean Films, ed. Charles W. Eckert (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972), p. 11.

[10] Quoted by Nick Churchill, “Lulworth, Camera, Action!” Dorset Life (January 2012), at (accessed June 23, 2016).

[11] On contemporary English “heritage films,” see Andrew Higson, English Heritage, English Cinema: Costume Drama since 1980 (Oxford, UK: Oxford Univ. Press, 2003); Claire Monk, Heritage Film Audiences: Period Films and Contemporary Audiences in the UK (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2012).

[12] Quoted by Churchill, “Lulworth, Camera, Action!”

[13] See Gledhill, Reframing British Cinema, p. 123.

[14] Came the Dawn, p. 144.

[15] For Figure B5.5, see Gledhill, Reframing British Cinema, pp. 38-40, 95-97; Hepworth is quoted in Julian Petley, “Tansy (1921),” Screenonline (BFI Screenonline, 2003-14), at (accessed June 23, 2016).

[16] Came the Dawn, p. 188. On Comin’ thro’ the Rye, see Andrew Higson, “The Heritage Film, British Cinema, and the National Past: Comin’ thro’ the Rye,” in Waving the Flag: Constructing a National Cinema in Britain (Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1997), Ch. 3. See also: Roy Armes, A Critical History of the British Cinema (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1978), pp. 62-63; Hannah Gordon, "‘Comin’ Through the Rye’” (February 7, 2000),, at (accessed June 23, 2016).

[17] Variety (19 May 1922); quoted in “The Man: Cecil Hepworth,"

[18] A Critical History of the British Cinema, p. 63.

[19] Came the Dawn, p. 196.

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