Maurice Elvey – Film Director
Maurice Elvey was born William Seward Folkard on 11 November 1887, 14 Park Road, Stockton-on-Tees. He was the most prolific director of the British film industry with a career spanning over 40 years, nearly 200 films to his credit and a reputation for helping shape early British cinema. His major contribution to British cinema is finally being acknowledged as his films are restored and become available on DVD.
Elvey started his career on the stage in 1905, playing a variety of small parts in the West End and in regional theatre, before setting up his own theatre group in 1911, The Adelphi Play Society. Elvey staged new and often, for the time, radical theatre and was the first person to stage Chekov’s “The Seagull” in the UK. He came to the attention of George Bernard Shaw and Harley Granville Barker who gave him his big break: the chance to produce Shaw’s “Fanny’s First Play” in New York.
By 1913, Elvey had decided that the growing film industry was the place for him to develop his career. He made his first film, The “Fallen Idol”, based on a painting by John Collier, and filmed most of it in Richmond Park. A rapid succession of films followed, the vast majority featuring a young actress called Elisabeth Risdon. Elvey turned Risdon into a star and, in 1916, established his own film company, Diploma Films, to feature her. Diploma came to an end later that year, largely due to the prevailing conditions of the British Film Industry at the time, rather than any failure of effort on Elvey’s part.
As far as we know, none of Elvey’s earliest films survive, but his 1917 film of Dickens’s “Dombey and Son” still exists and shows a film maker at the top of his game. His 1919 “Bleak House” is another excellent Dickens adaptation but his masterpiece from this early period was the 1918 film, “The Life Story of David Lloyd George”. This was not released in 1918 and was thought to be lost. However, it was found in 1994, and has since been restored. Had it been released in 1918, the breadth of its ambition and technical innovation would have had a significant effect on the development of British cinema.
During the 1920s, Elvey became the leading director for the Stoll Film Company, where he made adaptations of popular novels (including a series of Sherlock Holmes stories). He spent a year in Hollywood with the Fox Film Corporation, and also made a film in Germany, at a time when the German film industry was seen as the most advanced in the world. Back in the UK, he made a series of films that are now considered among the best in British silent cinema: “Hindle Wakes”, “Palais de Danse” and “High Treason”.
During the 1930s Elvey’s tireless energy led him to work across the spectrum of British production, on ‘quota quickies’ as well as on ambitious productions such as “The Tunnel” for Gaumont-British. At the Ealing Studios he made Gracie Fields’s first film, “Sally in Our Alley” (1931), notably more realistic and downbeat in tone than her later work and he subsequently worked with her on “This Week of Grace” and “Love, Life and Laughter”.
Around this time he became the President of the British Association of Film Directors. He was also active in the newly established Association of Cinema Technicians, which was one of the forerunners of the film and television technicians’ union, BECTU.
The working conditions of his crew had been of concern to Elvey for years and he had been instrumental in gaining credits for his crew back in the silent days.
During the Second World War he worked with Leslie Howard on the critically praised “The Gentle Sex” (1943) and took over direction on “The Lamp Still Burns” (1943) after Howard’s death. “Medal for the General”, his wartime production for British National, and his big-budget post-war melodrama “Beware of Pity” are also worthy of note.
The British film industry went through peaks and troughs, but until the late 1940s, Elvey, unlike many of his contemporaries, was usually in work. In the 1950’s Elvey made melodramas such as “The Late Edwina Black” and comedies like “The Great Game” and “The Gay Dog” with Petula Clark, whom he discovered. Elvey worked with many of the British stars of the period.
Elvey retired from film making in 1957 when the loss of sight in one eye made it difficult for him to get insurance. He spent the last ten years of his life still maintaining an active interest in film, doing advisory work, writing articles and appearing on television talking about the early days of film. He died in Raylands nursing home in Brighton on 28 August 1967.
Maurice Elvey has been largely neglected by British film historians but this is starting to change. The rediscovery of the Lloyd George film has led to a greater interest in his other films and it is hoped that this interest will continue to grow. No other British film director spanned such a broad period in cinema history or produced as much.