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Helen of Four Gates (1920)
 

BFI

Main image of Helen of Four Gates (1920)
 
35mm, black and white, silent, 5,800 feet
 
DirectorCecil M. Hepworth
Production CompanyHepworth Picture Plays
Original NovelMrs E. Holdsworth

Cast: Alma Taylor (Helen); Gerald Ames (Hinson); James Carew (Abel Mason); Gwynne Herbert (Mrs Trip); George Dewhurst (Martin Scott); John MacAndrews (Fielding Day)

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A young Yorkshirewoman suffers under an embittered and abusive guardian.

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Helen of Four Gates was a popular novel by a working class Lancashire Mill girl, Ethel Carnie, writing under her married name of Holdsworth. A feminist, socialist writer of poetry and journalism based on her experiences of factory life, she wrote several novels of which this was the most popular. The rural setting and tragic treatment of a blameless woman at the mercy of men led to inevitable comparisons with Tess of the d'Urbevilles and Wuthering Heights and the novel sold 10,000 copies.

That Cecil Hepworth chose this literary property to adapt for the screen is not surprising although it may have been at the request of Blanche MacIntosh who wrote the script. The novel was also particularly suitable for Hepworth's penchant for the British picturesque and the location shooting and composition are the film's strongest points. The scenes on the hilltops are stunning, composed with receding skylines in deep focus in the best tradition of Victorian photography.

Aside from the beauty of the settings and photography the film feels slightly old fashioned due to Hepworth's unusual editing style which had not followed what was by then the accepted standards of film grammar. The continuity is occasionally spoiled by Hepworth's refusal to cut on action. For example, in the final scene Fielding Day is struck by the farm hand, but a cut to show Helen's reaction interrupts his fall so that he is left temporally, as it were, hanging in the air. Equally weak is Hepworth's direction of the cast despite sterling efforts by Alma Taylor and particularly James Carew, the performers are left floundering and resort to a gestural melodramatic manner on occasions. The intertitles are written in West Yorkshire dialect, which reflects the style of the novel and which gives the film a strong sense of place. It was filmed in the location that the novel is set, Heptonstall near Hebden Bridge.

When Hepworth's company declared bankruptcy in 1924, his original negatives and prints were melted down to retrieve their silver content, and many of his films are believed lost for ever. Helen of Four Gates was long thought to be one of them, but a print was recently found in the collection of the Cinematheque Qu├ębecoise, and a print has since been acquired by the BFI National Archive.

Bryony Dixon

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Video Clips
1. Opening scene (6:39)
2. Bad blood (08:57)
GALLERY / SCRIPTS / AUDIO
SEE ALSO
Taylor, Alma (1895-1974)
Lost Then Found