Welsh film history: 1910-19

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Last updated: 05 March 2010

This decade, for all its tragedy and turmoil, saw the spread of permanent cinemas in Wales (some public halls, others purpose built) and the more ambitious halls even installed their own orchestras to accompany the silent movies.

There were 162 halls and other venues screening in Wales in 1910 and by 1920 the number had soared to 252. The cinemas boomed as industry thrived temporarily, with Cardiff and Barry leading the world in coal exports between 1911 and 1913.

Yet the years from 1915 to 1919 and the remainder of the non-talkie period, are the most frustrating, in retrospect, for film historians. Only 20 per cent of silent film features internationally, survive in anything like their entirety, but Wales was particularly hard hit, with barely any of the silent features shot in the first five years following World War One still extant.

The most celebrated film to disappear is A Welsh Singer (1915), a romance of West Wales, from the novel by local writer 'Allen Raine' (Anna Adeliza Evans), British publisher Hutchinson's best selling author of the 1890s.

The film, made by Turner Films at the Hepworth studios, starred Florence Turner (in the early 'teens the biggest star at America's top film exporting company Vitagraph) - and the film's director Henry Edwards, and featured in another leading role Edith (later Dame) Edith Evans. It garnered superb reviews from the trade press and proved so popular that it was re-released in 1918 and prompted two further screen features from Allen Raine's novels - Torn Sails and By Berwen Banks (both 1920 and long-lost).

Also vanished is The Pitboy's Romance (1917) the only feature starring the Rhondda's World Flyweight boxing champion Jimmy Wilde - 'The Tylorstown Terror' or 'The Ghost With a Hammer in his Hand'. Director AE Coleby took no chances in seeking to curry favour with its patriotic audiences. The film featured five rounds of the film's crucial bout at the denouement, and Wilde appeared at the end, outside the ring in khaki!

One of Britain's most prolific companies British and Colonial made four shorts in Wales, all starring the studios glamour girl Dorothy Foster - all are still missing, and all that remains of The Croxley Master (1920) based on a Conan Doyle short story, are the inter-titles (dialogue captions).

The great 'teens survivor from Welsh film history is Maurice Elvey's The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918). This extraordinary two and a half hour epic, centred on the Prime Minister's life to the end of the Great War, was lost for 76 years after its withdrawal just before its planned trade show. The film's sudden disappearance followed accusations by Britain's jingoistic 'people's magazine' John Bull and its now notorious editor Horatio Bottomley, that the film's production company, Ideal of Wardour Street, were "Hun" (German) sympathisers.

Harry Rowson, of Ideal, the film's co-producer, later claimed in memoirs that a solicitor (acting for the Government, the Liberal Party or Lloyd George) took away the print and negative, paying the company on the spot the cost of production - £20,000 in £1,000 notes. Early in 1919 Bottomley and Odhams Press were found guilty of libel and Bottomley, an urbane rogue, was later in 1922 gaoled for fraud, operating a lottery scam at John Bull!

Loss of the film, with its spectacular crowd pieces and special effects, was tragic. Kevin Brownlow, the film historian who restored Abel Gance's great French silent Napoleon (1925), has said that British cinema would have been viewed in a much more favourable light had the film been released at the time - and has dubbed the Life Story's rediscovery in 1994 - followed by restoration in 1996 - as "the find of the century." Norman Page, the actor outstanding as Lloyd George, is now largely forgotten.

In non-fiction shorts, the most important survivor is probably the Royal Visit to the Prince of Wales Hospital, Cardiff, 1918, which captures the surprisingly indomitable spirits of amputees in the wake of the Great War.

Highlights of the early screen newsreels and cine-magazines screened in these years include the 1911 Pathe and Gaumont versions of the Investiture in Wales but sadly no traces have been found of the sole version made in a groundbreaking two-colour process Kinemacolor, invented by the renowned British early filmmaker GA Smith for Charles Urban.

The 1913 film of the aftermath of Britain's greatest pit disaster at the Universal Colliery, Senghenydd, proved singularly elusive to archivists for decades. Early in the 2000's the National Screen and Sound Archive, Wales acquired footage of the Warwick company news item of the colliery's tragedy, claiming 439 men's lives, contained in Senghenydd, a 1964 documentary made by James Clark, better known as editor of such films as Charade (1963), The Mission (1986) and the James Bond 1999 film The World is Not Enough. He landed an oscar for The Killing Fields (1984).

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