Charles Ashton and British Silent Films

British Silent Film Star – Charles Ashton

Kitty (1929)

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Production Company: British International Pictures at Elstree.  Director: Victor Saville.  Assistant Director: Marjorie Gaffney.  Script: Violet E. Powell. Author of the Original Work: Warwick Deeping.

 

Duration: 92 min. Length: 8100 feet Silent and Sound versions. Format: 35mm Film.  Viewing copy on VHS: contact BFI National Film Archive’s Research Viewing Service.

 

Cast: Estelle Brody (Kitty); John Stuart (Alex St George); Dorothy Cumming (Mrs St George); Marie Ault (Sarah Greenwood); Winter Hall (John Furnival); Olaf Hytten (Leaper, Male Nurse); Charles Ashton (Pilot and Friend of Alex St George); Charles Levey (Cast Member); Gibb McLaughlin (The Electrician); Jerrold Robertshaw (The Artist); Edith Bostwick (Cast Member); Moore Marriott (Doctor); Charles O’Shaughnessey (Reuben).

 

Plot Synopsis Taken from:  AMC Movie Guide: Basically a silent picture for most of its 92-minute running time, Kitty switches to sound during its last 2 1/2 reels. Handsome young aviator Alex St. George (John Stuart) is on the verge of marrying his sweetheart Kitty Greenwood (Estelle Brody) when he’s called off to serve in WWI. Hoping to break up the romance, Alex’s domineering mother (Dorothy Cumming) does her best to convince her son that Kitty has been “playing the field” with fellow pilot (Charles Ashton) in his absence. So unnerved is Alex by these falsehoods that he cracks up his plane and ends up crippled, apparently for life.

Kitty sets up a small café by the river in order to earn enough money to keep her and Alex, and to remove him from his mother’s house.  On the advice of the doctor (Moore Marriott) believes Alex can walk, so she feigns to fall in the river.  Alex seeing her in difficulty tries to walk.

The film was based on a Warwick Deeping novel of the same name, published in 1927.  For most of its 92-minute running time, it is a silent picture, and yet the second half has a soundtrack. This is because in mid 1929 sound had arrived, and the director, Victor Saville decided to convert the last three reels of his silent film into sound.  However, the studio, British International Pictures (BIP), had no facilities, so  Saville rushed the leading lady, Estelle Brody and her co-star John Stuart to New York and used RKO’s experimental sound studio on Seventh Avenue, where he reshot the final sequences (Brownlow, K. Obituary Estelle Brody. Independent (6 June 1995 ) http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituaryestelle-brody-1585164.html).

A contemporary review of Kitty, which appeared in the American magazine,The Screen, 11 June 1929, was fairly damming in faint praise when the film was released:

“It is the pictorial version of Warwick Deeping’s novel, “Kitty,” a subject that is weak on drama but strong on scenery. The acting of most of the players is quite commendable, but that and the views are not enough in a picture that runs for an hour and a half.

The talking bits are uneven. For a few moments the voices are splendid and then suddenly there is an effect as if one of the characters were talking through a barrel, using it as a megaphone. The direction is somewhat simple and the various episodes betray little if any originality. The audible element of this offering was produced at the R. C. A. studios in this city. So neither praise nor blame for the sound angle goes to the tight little isle. Not much is to be said in favor of the dialogue or the manner in which the characters speak their lines. It is another case of lengthy periods of hesitation, which end in the young man or the girl blurting out a bromidic phrase, not expressed feelingly but uttered as though it were being recited. Apparently all that counted was to have the words understood.”

Film budgets escalate with introduction of sound

 With the arrival of sound, studios had to make new investments in equipment and sound-proofed studios.  Bulky cameras had to be housed in large sound insulated booths to avoid picking up camera noise on the soundtrack. Microphones were hung from booms above the actors and away from the view of the camera.  This restricted the actors as studios attempted to record the dialogue with an immobile microphone. Therefore, the earliest sound films appeared primitive and crudely made.  Not only did studios make new investments , but cinemas also had to be rewired for sound. 

 

Even the sound of the squeak from the nurse’s shoes was made in New York:

“There is introduced as a nurse a sort of beefy Uriah Heep, who annoys his patient by his squeaking shoes. One hears the squeak, for, although the nurse walked in Britain, the sound of his shoes was made over here.”

The story touches on the class struggle between rich and poor:

“The story as it comes to the screen is unconvincing. There is a young flying officer, named Alex St. George, who has a mother who is a slave to class—a snob of the snobs, the sort of woman who would be proud of never having done a stroke of work in her life. Sighing, smiling feebly and boasting of the jawbones of the St. Georges is virtually her life. She loves her son, in a way. He, poor fellow, marries the comely Kitty Greenwood, who is in trade! Oh, it’s so shocking to think of it that Mrs. St. George, one suspects, is more relieved than pained when her boy returns from Flanders with both legs paralyzed. The wicked blue-blooded mother keeps her son from his wife, and sees to it that Alex does not receive any of Kitty’s letters.”

Needless to say, in the end Kitty gets her man despite his mother’s interventions and Alex learns to walk again.

Despite The Screen’s review, British audiences were more enthusiastic about this ground breaking use of sound and the film. According to Matthew Sweet’s book “Shepperton Babylon. The Lost Worlds of British Cinema”, published by Faber & Faber (2005) after the film’s premiere at the London Hippodrome, the audience erupted into applause.

The Screen’s review of the performance of Kitty’s two leading actors, was not so enthusiastic:

“Estelle Brody has an agreeable manner of acting the part of Kitty. John Stuart gives a splendid silent performance, but when he talks he does not appear to think of what he’s saying.”

Estelle Brody, who played the role of Kitty, was actually American.  This was her only film with Charles Ashton, but she had many leading roles in films during the late 1920s.  Her two other famous films were: Mademoiselle From Armentieres.(1926) and Hindle Wakes (1927), which was another pro feminist film, and also co-starred John Stuart.

John Stuart appeared in two other films with Charles – We Women (1925) and The Woman Juror (1926).  In his long film career which spanned nearly sixty years (1920-1978), he appeared in well over 180 films right up until his last role in the movie Superman (1978).  There is a Gifford audiotape interview with John Stuart which is held in the BFI Library.

Still showing Estelle Brody and John Stuart in the film can be viewed at the BFI website http://explore.bfi.org.uk/4ce2b7a9a8c6f

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Written by anneramsden

January 26, 2012 at 4:54 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Very interesting piece. I’d love to know the print source and titles of the two references in this piece on Kitty – Brownlow K 1995 and Sweet 2005.

    Don Fairservice

    March 22, 2012 at 3:13 pm

    • Hi Don, I have updated the Kitty page with details of the two references to Brownlow and Sweet. Many thanks for your interest.

      anneramsden

      March 23, 2012 at 3:16 pm

  2. I assume this film is not available for purchase in DVD or other format. Do the talking sequences survive?

    Ed Lorusso

    December 13, 2014 at 9:03 pm

    • Hi Ed, as you rightly say the film is not available in DVD for purchase because of copyright restrictions and costs. The British Film Institute has a VHS cassette which is available for viewing at the BFI’s National Archive’s Research Viewing Service at 21 Stephen Street, London W1T 1LN. Tel 020 7957 4726. I believe the film is the sound version but check with the service first.

      anneramsden

      December 15, 2014 at 5:21 pm

  3. Thanks for response. I’m in US and bought a copy which seems complete but has no music track (not uncommon) but is also missing the talking sequences. Loved Brody in HINDLE WAKES and a US short with Jack Benny. I guess nothing else exists….. Ed

    Ed Lorusso

    December 15, 2014 at 5:42 pm


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