Welsh film history: 1920-29

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Last updated: 05 March 2010

The 1920's were the peak and, ironically, the swansong years of silent cinema - which reached its zenith with the cinematic masterpieces of directors such as von Sternberg, von Stroheim, Murnau, Eisenstein and Gance, and in Hollywood the still incomparable comedies of Chaplin, Keaton and Harold Lloyd.

Huge attendances in Wales marked the decade's early and middle years as audiences responded to the growth of the star system and the fan magazine industry and the mushrooming of ornate (often fairly kitsch) Picture Palaces, where large orchestras accompanied movies in the last years before sound took over.

The first and last Welsh star of the silent era was Cardiff's Ivor Davies, better known as Ivor Novello, remembered now as a writer of theatre musicals and light comedies, and a talented lyricist who achieved a string of West End hits from the 1920s to the 1950s.

Yet Novello was in films before making any significant stage impact and was Britain's biggest male star after appearances for Hitchcock as an unlikely Jack the Ripper-style serial killer-suspect in the director's The Lodger (1926) and as a public schoolboy caught in a spiralling decline after ostracism from family and friends in Hitch's Downhill (1927).

Novello was more comfortable in roles allowing scope for his playfulness and talent for burlesque such as his flirtatious but mercurial Paris gigolo in The Rat (1925), and his follow-ups Triumph of the Rat (1926) and Return of the Rat (1929).

For all his success in Britain Novello failed to succeed in America, despite his debut there in The White Rose (1923), made by the father of US silent cinema DW Griffith. Sixteen of Novello's 22 films are now known to survive.

One Welsh actor who achieved brief stardom in Hollywood as a lead man or in significant character parts was Llanelli's Gareth Hughes (1894-1965) who made films only in America. Hughes, slim and diminutive was, like Novello, a gay actor who found fame in romantic roles, usually in the studios 'second unit' films. He earned fine reviews for his own favourite performance in John Robertson's Sentimental Tommy (1921), an amalgam of stories by JM Barrie.

An interesting lead in British films, usually produced by Bertram Phillips, was Queenie Thomas, a former pupil at Cardiff's Canton High School (in the building now housing one of Wales most known cinema venues Chapter Arts Centre). Thomas, who starred in more than 20 films, also worked for major British companies such as Bamforth and Stoll.

Until the late 1990s it was thought animation in Wales had been a barren area until the 1970s, but the cartoon pioneers in Wales proved to be two Cardiff projectionists from the 1920s. Sid Griffiths (an ingenious 2D animator) and Bert Bilby (a photographer) joined forces to create Jerry the Troublesome Tyke, a feature of Pathe cinema magazines for 18 months, appearing fortnightly in commercial cinemas from 1925 to 1927.

Jerry, a mercurial mutt with an infinite capacity for dishonesty, is far removed from many other animal cartoon creations of the day, but the films gain their appeal mainly from the interaction on screen between Griffiths and his canine creation. Conceived as a British successor to Felix the Cat and clearly derivative in both form and content, the 40 extant episodes, now all restored, have their own playful appeal, and a pleasing boldness of line, narrative and progressive techniques.

The rediscovery of all 40 Jerry films at Pathe's Pinewood vaults was a great relief, particularly as so many silents from the 1920s are lost - including the 1920 Welsh feature Aylwin, directed by Henry Edwards. It starred his wife Chrissie White - the biggest homegrown female star (along with Betty Balfour and Alma Taylor) in British cinema of the 1920s.

The most intriguing of Welsh film 'casualties,' is surely With the Aid of a Rogue (1928), a period highwayman's drama made by unemployed miners at Blaenavon. Twelve prints were made and a deal done, with proceeds in aid of the "distressed" miners of the Eastern Valley.

By the advent of sound in Wales in 1929 the country had more than 250 cinemas; a total owing much to a three year building boom compensating for closures in the bleak years. The Queen's cinema, Cardiff screened the first part-talkie The Jazz Singer starring Al Jolson and followed up in 1929 with the first full sound film, The Singing Fool, with Jolson in blackface.

In September 1929 the Queen's cinema booked Hitchcock's lauded part-talkie Blackmail. By the turn of the decade business had picked up and prosperity seemed around the corner as Welsh cinemas and British filmmakers geared up to meet the talkie's new challenges.

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