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Edwards, Henry (1883-1952)

Director, Producer, Actor

Main image of Edwards, Henry (1883-1952)

To his many cinema fans in the silent period, Henry Edwards' main claim to his considerable fame was as an actor: the tall, tousled, sensitive man who beat off tribulations to win the hand of Chrissie White in pictorially splendid Hepworth dramas, or proved himself noble and self-sacrificing in stout-hearted adventures like The Flag Lieutenant (Maurice Elvey, 1926). But the acting career and his star aura developed hand in hand with pioneering and innovative work as a director, producer and writer. In the 1910s and 20s, Edwards proved himself one of the industry's most enlightened and important film-makers, helping to advance British cinema beyond its early concentration on physical action towards the subtleties of characterisation, feeling, and visual design required for the mature feature film. Edwards could sometimes produce imaginative work even when working under the severe constraints of low-budget film-making in the 1930s.

Arthur Harold Ethelbert Edwards was born in Weston-Super-Mare, Somerset, on 18 September 1883. Lured to the stage, he trod the boards for fifteen years as an actor, producer, and playwright. He began in 1900 in provincial theatres, graduated to London's West End in 1911, and in 1913 played opposite Ethel Barrymore in New York. In films, he played a small role for Harold Shaw in Clancarty (1914), but his cinema career only began in earnest when he repeated his stage role in Cecil Hepworth's version of the spy drama The Man Who Stayed at Home (1915). The Americans Larry Trimble and Florence Turner, based at Hepworth's Walton studios, quickly hired his services, initially as an actor and writer; his directing debut came with A Welsh Singer (1915), adapted from a popular romantic novel. After Edwards' East is East (1916), Turner and Trimble returned to the States; Hepworth then formally joined the Walton studio, generating much of its product along with Hepworth at a time when war service had thinned the company's ranks. The series of films Edwards made co-starring the blonde and lissom Chrissie White flourished until financial woes brought down Hepworth's enterprise in 1924.

From the beginning, Edwards explored new territory in British cinema, particularly in films based on his own original scenarios. The outlines of the mature Edwards hero were already clear in East is East, where Edwards' charmingly boyish East End garage worker kept faith with his love for Florence Turner's Cockney heroine through every twist and turn of fate. Other typical early parts included the newsboy in love with an heiress (Merely Mrs. Stubbs, 1917), a hunchback with a brusque exterior but gentleness within (Towards the Light, 1918), and an insane husband accused of murder (Broken Threads, 1917): all roles requiring Edwards to direct the audience's attention away from melodramatics towards tender interior feelings. As a director he showed a surprising sophistication in his methods of visual story-telling and the use of three-dimensional space, particularly evident in East is East. He became famous for what The Bioscope, reviewing The City of Beautiful Nonsense, termed 'poetic embellishments' and 'symbolistic touches': the subjective flashes of dreams or allegory, or other spotlit visual incidents designed to express hopes, fears, or particular character traits. In 1923 Edwards' experiments with cinema narrative led him to mount an entire feature without using inter-titles: the result, Lily of the Alley, now seemingly a lost film, broke new ground in Britain, though contemporary comment suggests a brave attempt rather than a stylistic triumph.

For the bulk of British audiences, the stylistic advances in Edwards' films mattered far less than the allure of their leading players. The films may have been unexportably English in tone - charming, quietly intelligent, rather like the man himself - but at home they raised Edwards and White to a degree of stardom rare in British silent cinema; their marriage in January 1924 created considerable public tumult. With the collapse of the Hepworth company, White withdrew from silent cinema. But Edwards continued working, directing less ambitious films, chiefly at Stoll, before he found renewed acting success with Astra-National as the manly and jovial Dick Lascelles in Elvey's lively account of The Flag Lieutenant (1926), a stalwart naval drama.

The film's success, coupled with new prospects offered by government legislation and the new sound technology, encouraged Edwards to join Astra-National's ambitious general manager Julius Hagen in independent production. In 1927, they co-founded the W.P. Film Company to produce films at Twickenham; in 1929, he took over the studio with Hagen and Leslie Hiscott, and personally spearheaded its conversion to sound. 1931 saw his third managerial venture, when he and E. G. Norman purchased, rebuilt and re-equipped Teddington Studios, previously damaged in a fire. Seeking a base for their British product, Warner Bros. promptly negotiated a lease for the property, though not before Edwards shot a lowly production of his own, Stranglehold (1931).

Once Edwards' managerial burden lessened, his own output as director increased. Over 1932-3 he made eight low-budget films at Elstree for British and Dominions, beginning with a remake of The Flag Lieutenant; afterwards came sixteen for Hagen at Twickenham. None shared the personal imprint of his best silent work; assembly-line production schedules scarcely encouraged the lingering camera details or atmospheric locations previously evoked by his regular cameraman Charles Bryce. Yet Edwards still managed several minor successes. Squibs (1935) made a fair attempt at reviving Betty Balfour's Cockney charmer, with songs and dances heroically squeezed into Twickenham's cramped spaces. Scrooge (1935), featuring the veteran theatre actor Seymour Hicks, rolled along pleasantly in an unusually convincing Victorian setting, while in Vintage Wine (1935), another Hicks vehicle, Edwards' determination to avoid a canned play generated camera set-ups and compositions almost as exuberant as the film's star.

Industry recession and the 1938 Films Act cut the demand for 'quota quickies', and Edwards' directing career came to a halt after making The Vicar of Bray and Song of the Forge, two vehicles for Stanley Holloway, in 1937. But 'Tedwards', as he was genially known, continued to act, playing modest roles as authority figures (police inspectors, majors, judges), and retaining enough of the star aura to worry about whether the cameramen were capturing his best profile. His last appearance was in Robert Hamer's The Long Memory (1952). He died suddenly from a heart attack at his home in Chobham, Surrey on 2 November 1952. Chrissie White lived in retirement until 1987; their daughter, Henryetta Edwards, appeared in several films in the 1950s.

'So This is Henry Edwards', Picturegoer, Feb. 1921, pp. 12-13
Edwards, Henry, 'The Language of Action', Bioscope, 1 July 1920, (supplement) p. iv
Gledhill, Christine, Reframing British Cinema 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion (London: BFI Publishing, 2003)
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1914-1918 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1950)
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film 1918-1929 (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1971)
Roffe, Edward, 'O! Henry!', Picturegoer, Feb. 1924, pp. 38-39

Geoff Brown and Bryony Dixon, Reference Guide to British and Irish Film Directors

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