Cecil Milton Hepworth
Cecil Milton Hepworth was a producer, director, writer, scenic photographer and film-maker who became one of the most respected and dynamic figures in British cinema.
He was born on 19 March 1874 in Lambeth, South London, and the son of celebrated magic lantern showman T.C. Hepworth.
In the early days of cinema, he worked on the periphery of the industry, assisting Birt Acres in a royal command cinematograph performance, and writing the first British book on cinema, 'Animated Photography, The ABC of the Cinematograph' in 1897. In the late 1890's Hepworth set up his own film company with his cousin Monty Wicks, at a house in Hurst Grove, Walton-On-Thames, calling it 'Hepworth and Co.' and having 'Hepwix' as their trade logo. Over the next few years 'Hepworth and Co.' produced many scenic films and 50ft actualities, followed by an ambitious 800ft film; 'Alice in Wonderland', with Hepworth as cameraman/ director. Their first popular success came with the filming of Queen Victoria's funeral in 1901.
In 1904 the company was renamed the 'Hepworth Manufacturing Company', and Hepworth stopped directing. Lewis Fitzhamon took over this role and the company developed its own unique style of film presentation, based on simple stories told with a very high standard of photographic excellence. Over three films a week were produced with a wide range of appeal for audiences.
In 1905 Hepworth presented the first British movie star, a collie with the stage name of 'Rover'. 'Rescued by Rover' made with Lewis Fitzhamon was an enormous success. This was followed in 1906 with another star, a horse in the film 'Black Beauty', both 'Rover' and 'Black Beauty' joining forces in 1907 in the film 'Dumb Sagacity'. The financial rewards from the success of these early films enabled the company to invest in purpose built studios in Walton-On-Thames.
Hepworth films made two actresses; Chrissie White and Alma Taylor into major British stars, with the success of a series of pictures in which they played the 'Tilley Sisters' mischievous young women, full of high jinks and pranks: the audiences adored them.
'Hepworth Picture Plays', as the company became, continued making modestly successful films into the 1920s. His film subjects at this time were still mostly melodramas, although a foray into comedy with 'Alf's Button' (1919) proved a massive popular hit, even in America. In Britain it was revived several times.
Hepworth was at this time planning to build a large studio complex, purchasing a local country house with large grounds;'Oatlands Lodge Estate', to use for filming purposes. To fund this expansion, he released a share prospectus. This prospectus at it's launch was badly under subscribed and in consequence Hepworth found he was unable to raise the capital he required to pay off what he already owed.
'Comin' Thro the Rye' was completed in 1923 and Hepworth regarded this as his greatest achievement, and was convinced it would revive his fortunes. Unfortunately this was not to be, and in June 1924 'Hepworth Picture Players' went onto receivership and was sold off at a fraction of its worth.
Hepworth has pride of place in cinema history and justly so. In later years he toured with a lecture programme, on the 'Birth of English Cinema'. As 'Variety' said of him on 19 May 1922; 'He was apt to allow the artist in his nature to conquer the commercialism of the showman, but his pictures were always worth watching.'
He died on 9 February 1953 at Greenford, Middlesex. The appeal of his work is still with us. The interest in his films and information on his life and cinema work shown on websites today are testament to the enduring quality and unique pioneering style of early twentieth century film making, which Hepworth made his own.
See what films are showing today at Walton Cinema. The current cinema was built on the site of the Capitol Cinema, the area's first fully functional cinema opened in 1927.