BIFF 2011 #14: Helen of Four Gates (UK 1920)

One of the beautifully composed landscape shots in 'Helen of Four Gates' with Alma Taylor in the foreground as Helen.

There is quite a story behind the interest in this film from arguably the major pioneering figure in British Cinema, Cecil Hepworth (1974-1953). Like several of Hepworth’s later films, Helen of Four Gates was a ‘literary adaptation’ – but this time of a novel by a former mill girl from Blackburn, Ethel Carnie (1886-1962) who married Alfred Holdsworth. Helen of Four Gates was published in 1917 when Ethel was living near Hebden Bridge. Her most famous novel was This Slavery (1925). She was a socialist, feminist and a peace campaigner and now acknowledged as one of the most important working-class women writers in British literary history.

Helen of Four Gates is a story of abuse against Helen. The rather contrived plot sees a woman dissuaded from marrying because the prospective groom has a family history of mental illness. She marries someone else and has a daughter but she and her husband both die when the child is still a baby. Before her death, the woman gives her daughter in care to her former boyfriend who agrees to become her guardian. However, this is not an act of altruism but of cruelty as he intends to mistreat the girl as a form of revenge. The girl is Helen and her stepfather is the farmer of ‘Four Gates’. What follows is a full-blooded British melodrama in which the earlier plot elements are re-visited. Helen (and her mother) is memorably played by Alma Taylor, one of the British stars of the period who worked extensively with Hepworth.

Cecil Hepworth, who was responsible for several important short ‘early films’ such as Alice in Wonderland (1903) and Rescued by Rover (1905) eventually owned his own studio and produced features in the late 1910s and early 1920s. He made several films ‘on location’ in distinctive British landscapes and Helen of Four Gates was shot in the Hepptonstall/Hebden Bridge area. Unfortunately, he was a better filmmaker than financial manager and the business went bankrupt in 1924 despite commercial successes like Helen of Four Gates. All these feature films were for many years feared lost having been melted down for their silver nitrate. Local Hebden Bridge historian-filmmaker Nick Wilding was one of the major players in an exercise in tracking down an original negative in Canada, overcoming copyright difficulties and finally producing a viewing copy via the National Film Archive. Wilding has since shown the film twice in Hebden Bridge to audiences of up to 500 (I can vouch for the interest as I was one of many turned away as the queues wound into Hebden Bridge Picturehouse).

For this festival screening, Nick Wilding introduced the film and stayed for questions and comments after the screening. The film was accompanied on the piano by Darius Battiwalla. Wilding offered us some very interesting background on the film and on Ethel Carnie. I think it was probably a mistake to show the trailer he devised for the Hebden Bridge screenings though. The festival audience didn’t really need it and it cut down the time for questions afterwards – and there seemed to be quite a few knowledgeable people in the audience. Wilding emphasised Hepworth’s use of long takes, suggesting it was a unique authorial style. I then looked up the Screenonline entry on the film in which Bryony Dixon argues that it now looks very old-fashioned because Hepworth refused to cut on action and instead faded between scenes which were usually shot in tableaux with a static camera. Added to this, she argues that the actors suffer from poor direction and are “. . . left floundering and resort to a gestural melodramatic manner on occasions”. I’m not sure about these comments. I don’t think that Hepworth was particularly unusual in terms of shot length as both British and European films were ‘slower’ in terms of cutting than Hollywood. I enjoyed the film, especially the second half. Rather than old-fashioned, I thought that the location photography looked forward to the 1930s/40s (there were just two interior studio sets and many more outdoor scenes). And, since it is clearly a melodrama the use of melodrama gestures and acting styles looked appropriate. In fact, my first conclusion after the film finished was that the cast were well-chosen to fit the melodrama types of rough villain, deranged farmer, rather soppy boyfriend etc. Alma Taylor as Helen is wonderful. I thought about the waif-like Gish sisters in D.W Griffiths’ melos and compared them to the strapping Ms Taylor who represented a strong Northern lass (albeit born in Peckham) very well. But I’m no expert on silent cinema and I take all the comments which I could then use in comparing Helen of Four Gates with a Hollywood film of 1920, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (posting to come).

This clip on YouTube gives the merest hint of Hepworth’s style. It’s from the BBC Series Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood (1996) – note how the commentary read by Kenneth Branagh makes the common mistake of referring to the Yorkshire Dales instead of the South Pennine Moors:

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