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Forde, Walter (1898-1984)

Director, Actor

Main image of Forde, Walter (1898-1984)

A prolific and versatile director of the 1930s and 40s, Walter Forde is a good example of a filmmaker who thrived in the collaborative atmosphere of the British studio system. While for a short time in the early 1930s he was discussed as a director of international stature, Forde appears to have been content to make a variety of quality star vehicles primarily for a British market.

Born Thomas Seymour Woolford, in Lambeth, South London, on 21 April 1898, the son of Tom Seymour, a music hall performer and comedian, Forde spent most of his early life touring in stage melodramas and music hall acts, where he developed a comic routine heavily reliant on his physicality. From 1920, in collaboration with his father, Forde wrote and directed a number of short film comedies for Zodiac featuring himself as 'Walter' - a hapless innocent, sporting a boater and Oxford bags, and getting into a series of gentle scrapes. They were essentially visual and slapstick in appeal, and gained popularity with audiences. In 1923 he spent a short period working for Universal in America, but unlike his father (who remained in Hollywood as a gag-writer for Laurel and Hardy) he failed to achieve success, and soon returned to Britain. He resumed the 'Walter' series, this time in collaboration with James B. Sloan and by the late 1920s, had become recognised as one of Britain cinema's major comic talents, the director and star of a number of very popular feature length comedies for Nettlefold, including Wait and See (1928) and Would You Believe It! (1929), still in his comic persona as 'Walter'.

His 'Walter' persona failed to make the transition to sound film, however, and from 1930 onwards, Forde ceased to appear onscreen, and began to concentrate solely on directing. He joined Michael Balcon's company at Gainsborough, and quickly established himself as one of the company's most reliable and versatile directors, increasing his generic range to include thrillers such as The Ringer (1932), musical spectaculars such as Chu Chin Chow (1934) and prestige productions such as Rome Express (1932).

Indeed, Rome Express is a measure of the esteem in which Forde was held as a director at this point - the first film to be made at the refurbished Shepherd's Bush studios and released under the 'Gaumont-British' name, it was conceived and executed on an international scale, and shows Forde's skill in the sure and confident handling of Sidney Gilliat's complex scenario, which weaves together several narratives concerning passengers on board a trans-European Express train. The film combines comedy, romance and crime in an evenly balanced thriller with some strikingly original passages - particularly those which make use of visual and aural hooks to link the various narratives to each other. It was a critical and commercial success, eliciting praise for its cinematic quality and technical skill, and the direction of its international cast.

While Rome Express remains possibly Forde's most durable achievement as a director, The Ghost Train (1931) is a more typical example of the kind of film he most successfully directed under Balcon's regime. Arnold Ridley's stage thriller was re-written (again by Gilliat) to suit the comic talents of the star, Jack Hulbert. The result is a light comedy-thriller, a genre which Forde repeated in his three other films with Hulbert, particularly Bulldog Jack (1934) - very loosely based on Sapper's 'Bulldog Drummond' stories. Forde revived the formula for the later successful Inspector Hornleigh films, starring Gordon Harker and Alastair Sim, and his version of The Four Just Men (1939), another light comedy thriller adapted from an Edgar Wallace novel with topical overtones. The Ghost Train was re-made by Forde in a similar style as a vehicle for Arthur Askey in 1941.

Walter Forde maintained in interviews that directing comedy was more difficult than directing straight drama, and his many collaborations with leading comics of the period - Hulbert, Askey, Harker and Tommy Handley - demonstrate that he was consistently drawn to that genre, and the careful discipline needed to maintain the illusion of narrative order being strained by the anarchic improvisational pull of the performer. In this he undoubtedly drew on his early career, but he also lucky enough to work within a studio which boasted an experienced scenario department who had made this kind of comedy something of a speciality. Figures such as Sidney Gilliat, J.O.C. Orton, Val Guest and Marcel Varnel were among Forde's influential collaborators. When Balcon left Gainsborough in 1936, Forde appears to have left also. He worked for various independent production companies before re-uniting with Balcon to make The Gaunt Stranger (1938) and two films which set the parameters of Ealing comedy, Cheer Boys, Cheer (1939) and Saloon Bar (1940). Over the next few years he continued to work variously for Gainsborough, Ealing and other independent production companies.

Forde was often described in profiles as a painfully shy, though intensely likeable man, who enjoyed playing the piano on set in the intervals between set-ups. Throughout his career as a director he was accompanied on set by his wife, an ex-'continuity girl' named Culley Forde. While Culley never received a screen credit for direction (and indeed went into print with the opinion that women were unequipped emotionally to direct), it seems not unreasonable to suggest that the Fordes in fact worked as a fully blown collaborative team. An article in Picturegoer in 1934 described them as 'One director who is two', and Culley is remembered by various veteran technicians as a formidable and permanent presence on set.

During the mid-1940s Forde's prolific output of comedies and dramas began to falter. No longer allied to a single studio, he began to find it more difficult to get projects off the ground. His final film, The Cardboard Cavalier (1949), starring Sid Field, was not a success, and he took early retirement, moving to California, where he died on 7 November 1984.

Barber, John, 'Walter Forde Directs a British Film - With Sid Field and Margaret Lockwood', Leader, 27 Nov. 1948, p. 14.
Brown, Geoff, Walter Forde (London: British Film Institute, 1977)
Low, Rachael, The History of British Film 1918-1929 (London: George Allan and Unwin, 1971)
'One Director Who is Two', Picturegoer, 14 July 1934, p. 13.

Laurence Napper, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)Cheer Boys Cheer (1939)

Prototype Ealing comedy about a conflict between rival breweries

Thumbnail image of Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)Chu-Chin-Chow (1934)

Arabian Nights-inspired musical starring Anna May Wong

Thumbnail image of Jack's the Boy (1932)Jack's the Boy (1932)

Comedy about an incompetent who joins the police force to prove his worth

Thumbnail image of Rome Express (1932)Rome Express (1932)

Delightful comedy-thriller set on a VIP-packed express train

Thumbnail image of Sailors Three (1940)Sailors Three (1940)

Jolly wartime naval comedy starring Tommy Trinder

Thumbnail image of Would You Believe It? (1929)Would You Believe It? (1929)

A toyshop assistant invents a radio-controlled tank

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