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Silent Lovers

The look of love, 1920s style

Main image of Silent Lovers

Romance, passion and adventure are the things that perhaps we most associate with the heady days of silent cinema. This is because the little that has filtered down to most of us through the years is the glitter and glamour surrounding the great luminaries of the silver screen. If one were to ask the proverbial man in the street to name any of its stars he or she might come up with Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Fairbanks, Pickford, (Chaplin or Keaton of course but these comedians have had an exceptional shelf life by comparison). It is unlikely that anyone in the street (as it were) could name a British silent film star - most film historians would be pushed to name half a dozen. Our home grown stars have been eclipsed so effectively that none, with the possible exception of Ivor Novello, penetrates the popular consciousness in the 21st century. And yet in their day they were avidly watched and written about, there were fan magazines, merchandising and memorabilia and a vibrant trade press. Famous couples such as Chrissie White and Henry Edwards were mobbed wherever they appeared. The feature films of the postwar period provided a range of romantic settings for these emerging stars, from the tragic heroes and heroines of 19th literature to the thoroughly modern, adult relations of The Informer (d. Arthur Robison, 1929), Underground (d. Anthony Asquith, 1928) or The First Born (d. Miles Mander, 1928) with more light hearted treatments somewhere in between.

There are many reasons why the silent lovers of Britain's silver screen are so little known today not least the fact that the films have not been easily available. It is worth considering the chronology of the star system in the emerging film industry which puts into perspective the relatively short period of filmmaking during which these stars may have emerged. Famously, of course, the first star of a British film to be named was a dog, Blair, who played Rover in Hepworth's groundbreaking Rescued by Rover (d. Lewin Fitzhamon, 1905). After the mid-1900s performers began to mentioned by name although initially that might be a character name such as 'Pimple' or 'Tilly'. It was certainly the case that in this series the Tilly girls were played by different performers and that it was only in the later episodes that Alma Taylor and Chrissie White became identified absolutely with Tilly and Sally in this series. The arrival of the trade press such as the Kinematogaph Weekly and The Bioscope at this time did much to promote the names of performers and print advertising, with pictures of likable 'stars' began to flourish and the deliberate positioning of the performer in the promotion of films began to be a commonplace.

The promotion of leading players in more weighty dramatic roles had to wait for the arrival of the feature film at which time performers like Henry Edwards, Chrissie White and Alma Taylor, all associated with the Hepworth studios in Walton on Thames, could transfer to a medium for which 'star treatment' was appropriate and with which the audience has time to develop an interest in a particular performer. Henry Edwards was our first major male star and played in lead parts from the start having transferred from the stage. He had a good range of classical parts such as Gabriel Oak in Far from the Madding Crowd and heroic roles and occupied any role with a charm and ease that would make him hugely popular with audiences and sustain a career of several decades. As well as being a cinema actor of real skill he was also a director of considerable talent and occasionally experimented with form such as his film Lily of the Alley (1923) which told its story entirely without intertitles. He married Chrissie White, one of the original Tilly girls and a Hepworth favourite, and together they became a star couple and darlings of the fan press.

From the same stable was Alma Taylor, Chrissie White's partner in crime in the Tilly films. She was cultivated as a leading lady by Hepworth and played romantic and tragic Hardyesque roles in costume dramas and pastorals such as Tansy (1921), Comin' Thro' the Rye (1923) and Pipes of Pan (1923) and continued to play character roles into the 1950s.

The post war period in British film history is the most interesting in a way. For a few short years a genuine attempt seems to have been made to foster a specifically British cinematic idiom based partly in new styles of naturalistic acting coming from the theatre, which translated well to the film, and also in the use of the British landscape and literary traditions. The most interesting of the filmmaking enterprises in the early 20s was that of another real life and on screen couple, Guy Newall and Ivy Duke. In Fox Farm (1922) and the Lure of Crooning Water (1920), real passion was generated in contemporary but rural settings and dealing with relationship issues in a grown up and dramatic, but not melodramatic style. A crisis in the film industry in the mid decade may have been partially responsible for a change away from this interesting direction but similar trends are noticeable in other European film outputs at this time.

In the later 1920s faced with stiff competition from Holly wood and Europe the British industry began to advance its stars in earnest. This was the era of genuinely beautiful Ivor Novello, the gamines Betty Balfour and Mabel Poulton, feisty but tragic modern girl Lilian-Hall Davis and the caddish but fascinating Miles Mander. A new generation of actors who went on to play in sound films such as Isabel Jeans and Brian Aherne were younger and more presentable than some of their predecessors. It is noticeable that audiences today are surprised by the age of male leads in the films of this period. Conforming to a standard set by the American studios stars got younger and better looking. Madelaine Carroll who starred in The First Born with Miles Mander made the Hollywood grade, as did he, but in character roles, not leads. At the end of the silent era a kind of international traffic in film stars had developed between the British and European studios in particular. Ivor Novello, Clive Brook, Warwick Ward, Alma Taylor and Betty Balfour made films in German and French studios and British producers imported stars such as Carl Brisson, Alissa Landi, Lars Hanson, Lya di Putti and Anny Ondra. The arrival of sound put an abrupt end to this fruitful exchange.

Bryony Dixon

Related Films and TV programmes

Thumbnail image of Constant Nymph, The (1928)Constant Nymph, The (1928)

Ivor Novello drama about a composer who leaves his wife for a schoolgirl

Thumbnail image of Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)Cottage on Dartmoor, A (1929)

Late silent feature by Anthony Asquith - a dark tale of thwarted love

Thumbnail image of East is East (1916)East is East (1916)

An East End girl comes into money but struggles to blend into Society

Thumbnail image of Farmer's Wife, The (1928)Farmer's Wife, The (1928)

Uncharacteristically warm-hearted Hitchcock rural comedy

Thumbnail image of First Born, The (1928)First Born, The (1928)

Society drama about a politician, his wife and her adopted illegitimate child

Thumbnail image of Informer, The (1929)Informer, The (1929)

Fascinating early sound film set during the 1917 Irish Rebellion

Thumbnail image of Lure of Crooning Water, The (1920)Lure of Crooning Water, The (1920)

A star-crossed romance between an actress and a farmer

Thumbnail image of Man Without Desire, The (1923)Man Without Desire, The (1923)

Fascinating time-travelling romantic fantasy starring Ivor Novello

Thumbnail image of Manxman, The (1929)Manxman, The (1929)

Hitchcock's last silent film: a melodrama set on the Isle of Man

Thumbnail image of Shooting Stars (1928)Shooting Stars (1928)

Anthony Asquith's first film, a satirical romantic drama set in a film studio

Thumbnail image of Tansy (1921)Tansy (1921)

Cecil Hepworth feature about a shepherd girl in the Sussex Downs

Thumbnail image of Underground (1928)Underground (1928)

Stirring and atmospheric story of love rivals on London's underground.

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Thumbnail image of Edwards, Henry (1883-1952)Edwards, Henry (1883-1952)

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Thumbnail image of Hall-Davis, Lilian (1897-1933)Hall-Davis, Lilian (1897-1933)


Thumbnail image of Newall, Guy (1885-1937)Newall, Guy (1885-1937)

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Thumbnail image of Taylor, Alma (1895-1974)Taylor, Alma (1895-1974)