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The Times (29/Aug/1967) - Obituary: Maurice Elvey

(c) The Times (29/Aug/1967)



A veteran of the early British cinema Mr. Maurice Elvey, who died yesterday in a Brighton nursing home at the age of 79, was one of the few remaining veterans from the old heroic days of the early British cinema.

His professional career in films spanned some 45 years, from Maria Marten in 1912 to Dry Rot in 1956, and among the 300 films he claims to have made during that time there was to be found something of everything: comedy, drama, romance, musicals, costume films, science fiction, screen originals and adaptations. Of course, with such an enormous output, much was unremarkable and many of his films are now forgotten, no doubt deservedly. But discoveries sometimes turn up in unlikely places. Only a few months ago the eccentric highbrow French film magazine Midi-Minuit Fantastique was enthusing about a completely unknown fantasy film of 1929 which had turned up and been discovered in a provincial cinematheque. It was Maurice Elvey's High Treason and from it the magazine concluded that he was undoubtedly one of the most interesting figures awaiting reappraisal from British cinemas between the wars.

Perhaps he was not in fact quite that, but there is much in his work which has the virtues of honest craftsmanship and occasionally something more. He was born in Darlington on November 11, 1887, and educated in London; his real name was William Seward Folkard. He went on the stage early, acting in all sorts of shows, and even appearing in a pantomime chorus. Before long he decided that his talents were less for acting tihan for directing, and he rapidly established himself as a stage director in London and New York, before venturing in 1912 on the new medium of the film. In the cinema he soon made his mark with adaptations of such popular works as The Elusive Pimpernel and The Hound of the Baskervilles, as well as more contemporary pieces like H. G. Wells's The Passionate Friends, Galsworthy's play Justice, and Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes. He also tackled the classics with adaptations of Dombey and Son, Bleak House, and The School for Scandal.

By the end of the silent period he was one of Britain's leading film makers, along with Herbert Wilcox and Alfred Hitchcock. To begin with he remade some of his greatest silent successes as talkies, among them Hindle Wakes and The Wandering Jew, and made two of his freshest and most charming films in Sally in our Alley, with Grade Fields, and The Water Gypsies, after A. P Herbert.

In general his films of the 1930s were more remarkable for their commercial success than for their artistic qualities, but with the coming of the war he seemed to hit a new creative streak, and such films as The Lamp Still Burns, The Gentle Sex (which he co-directed with Leslie Howard) and Strawberry Roan still retain a certain liveliness and truth of observation. In 1946 he made what remains for many his best film. Beware of Pity, adapted from Stefan Zweig and distinguished by an exquisite performance from Lilli Palmer.

He continued to make films until the late 1950s, latterly mostly farces like My Wife's Lodger, Fun at St. Fanny's and Dry Rot. He was also quick to see the possibilities of television : in one of the earliest film programmes he had his corner, reminiscing about the past and commenting, sometimes trenchantly, on films of the present For the last few years he had been living in retirement He was married twice, to Philippa Preston and to the actress Isobel Elsom, who starred for him in such silent films as Dick Turpin's Ride to York, The Wandering Jew and The Love Story of Aliette Brunon. He was a link with an age of British cinema which is rapidly becoming ancient history; as long as he lived, it could not vanish utterly.