Charles Ashton and British Silent Films

British Silent Film Star – Charles Ashton

Pillars of Society (1920)

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Pillars of Society (1920)

Production Company: R.W. Syndicate Ltd for Moss’ Empires Ltd.  Director: Rex WilsonProducer: Rex Wilson, Frank E. Spring, Harry Lorraine.  Adaptation: Walter Courtenay Rowden.  Based on the play Samfundets stotter (Pillars of Society) by Henrik Ibsen (1877). With scenes filmed in Norway.

Cast: Dame Ellen Terry (Mrs Halligan Sr.(Widow and mother of John Halligan/Karsten Bernick); in the Norwegian film she is known as Mrs Bernick); Norman McKinnel (John Halligan; in the Norwegian film – Karsten Bernick); Irene Rooke (Martha Karsten, John Halligan/Karsten Bernick’s sister); Joan Lockton (Dina Dorf, a young girl living in Halligan/Bernick’s house); Lydia Hayward (Lena Hessel; in the Norwegian film version – Lona Hessel); Charles Ashton (Dick Alward; in the Norwegian film version – Johan Tonnesen); John Kelt (Parson Rogers); Pamela Neville (Florence, Mrs Halligan; in the Norwegian film – Betty Bernick, Karsten Bernick’s young wife); Lovat Cave Chinn (Olaf, Halligan/Bernick’s son); George Bishop (Shipwright Aune).

Note: The Norwegian version of this film gave the characters the names from the original Ibsen play (Karsten Bernick, Johan Tonnesen, Betty Bernick, Martha Bernick, Lona Hessel),  whereas the UK film version used English sounding names: John Halligan, Dick Alward, Florence, Martha Karsten, Lena Hessel.

Plot synopsis: Norwegian shipping magnate, Karsten Bernick/John Halligan (Norman McKinnel), prides himself on his success and high standing in society, but his success is based on lies and dishonesty. Years before achieving his current role, however, he had an affair with Madame Dorf, an actress, resulting in a daughter, Dina Dorf (Joanna Lockton).  Later he succeeds in winning the affections of Lona/Lena Hessel (Lydia Hayward), but on meeting her younger pretty step sister, Florence/Betty, who has a small fortune, he marries her instead with a view to saving the fortunes of his failing shipping business.  Soon afterwards when Madame Dorf dies, Bernick/Halligan adopts her child, Dina.  Meanwhile, Bernick/Halligan’s brother-in-law Johan Tonnesen/Dick Alward (Charles Ashton) leaves for the United States to seek his fortune and his step sister, Lona/Lena, who was jilted by Halligan/Bernick, goes with him.  Their departure results in gossip about Dick/Johan and the adopted infant girl, Dina.  Bernick/Halligan does not dispute the rumours that Johan/Dick is the girl’s father, however, he is worried that the truth will come out, so when Johan/Dick and Lona/Lena return to Norway, Bernick/Halligan decides to kill him.  Things are complicated still further when Johan/Dick falls in love with Dina and wants to take her back to the United States.  To save his reputation, Bernick/Halligan tries to put the couple on his most unseaworthy ship, but the plan backfires when they board a different vessel and Bernick/Halligan’s son Olaf stows away on the unsafe one. The shipwright, Aune, rescues Olaf,  after which Bernick/Halligan, unable to continue lying, confesses in a speech to his fellow citizens, who have come to celebrate him as the Pillar of Society,  that he is his adopted daughter’s real father.  Source for the synopsis: The original film programme for Pillars of Society held at the National Library of Norway.

In 1920, the 36 year old Charles Ashton landed an important  supporting role as Dick Alward/Johan Tonneson in the film version of Henrik Ibsen’s play, Pillars of Society. Rex Wilson, director, overcame officialdom to shoot the scenes in the country where Ibsen was born.  The National Theatre, Christiana University and the associates and friends of the playwright assisted.   The stills for this film were taken from scenes shot in Grimstad,  a small maritime town set among many small islands. Here can be found a museum dedicated to the early life of Henrik Ibsen in Grimstad.

The cast included Dame Ellen Terry (1847-1928), the famous Edwardian theatrical actress – then in her seventies, playing the role of Mrs Halligan Senior (Ibsen character: Widow Bernick/Halligan).

STILL 2: FILM CAST FOR PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1920).

STILL 2: FILM CAST FOR PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1920).

Charles’ long standing friend, Irene Rooke (1878-1958), played the role of Martha Karsten/Bernick.  Pillars of Society was the only film they made together, but she and her actor husband, Milton Rosmer, continued to visit Charles at his home after he retired from films.

ha Karsten) and Charles Ashton (Dick Alward) in Pillars of Society (1920)

ha Karsten) and Charles Ashton (Dick Alward) in Pillars of Society (1920)

Irene was 42 years old when she appeared in this film.  There are some beautiful images of her by society photographer, Bassano, dating 1913-1914 from when she was a stage actress.  These are held on the National Portrait Gallery website http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait.php?sText=irene+rooke&submitSearchTerm_x=0&submitSearchTerm_y=0&search=ss&OConly=true&firstRun=true&LinkID=mp65920&rNo=0&role=sit  Accessed 17 April 2012.

In 1927, Irene produced a detailed photographic album of her holiday retreat called Spindles in Dungeness, where she stayed with one of her female friends.  The album is available online: http://www.rennart.co.uk/dungeness.html

Lydia Hayward, played the role of Lena/Lona Hessel.  This must have been Lydia’s one and only acting role, because thereafter she went on to  become a screenwriter for many British silent and sound films including: Monty works the wire (1921), Head of the family (1922), Sam’s Boy (1922), A Will and a Way (1922), The Constable’s Move (1923), The Monkey’s Paw (1923), Lawyer Quince (1924), We Women [co-scriptwriter] (1925).  Lydia’s “homepage” appears on the Women and Silent British Cinema website

http://womenandsilentbritishcinema.wordpress.com/ with a full list of her films.

STILL 4: LYDIA HAYWARD (LENA HESSEL) AND PAMELA NEVILLE (FLORENCE) ON THE LEFT, WITH CHARLES ASHTON (DICK ALWARD) IN BACKGROUND.

STILL 4: LYDIA HAYWARD (LENA HESSEL) AND IRENE ROOKE (MARTHA KARSTEN) ON THE RIGHT, WITH CHARLES ASHTON (DICK ALWARD) IN BACKGROUND.

Joanna Lockton was only 19 years old when she appeared in Pillars in the role of Dina Dorf, Halligan/Bernick’s illegitimate daughter.  Here she is wearing plaits.

STILL 7: CHARLES ASHTON (DICK ALWARD) AND JOANNA LOCKTON (DINA DORF) IN PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1920)

STILL 7: CHARLES ASHTON (DICK ALWARD) AND JOANNA LOCKTON (DINA DORF) IN PILLARS OF SOCIETY (1920)

The lead actor Norman McKinnel worked on the stage and started in silent films in 1899.   The young Lovat Cave Chinn (b. 1905, d. 1969 London), who played the role of Bernick/Halligan’s son, Olaf, went on to become a camera man for later films e.g. Treasure Island (1950) and for newsreels and documentaries for Paramount.  He was a founder member of the British Society of Cinematographers in 1949.

Despite the fact that we have a number of the Norwegian film stills, the film itself is presumably lost.  Several of the original stills were donated to the British Film Institute’s Stills Collection in March 2009 for preservation.  The  National Library of Norway also holds some additional photographs, which can be seen at the National Library of Norway’s Ibsen.net website http://ibsen.net/index.gan?id=6062&subid=0

Most of the film cast except for Ellen Terry and Norman McKinnel can be seen in this group photograph in Norway.  From the left: Dolly Wilson (Rex Wilson’s daughter), Lovat Cave Chinn (Olaf), unknown crew member, Rex Wilson (Director), Charles Ashton (Dick Alward/Johan Tonnesen), George Bishop (Aune), Pam Neville (Florence/Betty Bernick), Irene Rooke (Martha Karsten/Bernick), Lydia Hayward (Lona/Lena Hessel) and front row, Mrs Wilson.

Pillars of Society (1920) film cast in Norway

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Written by anneramsden

March 9, 2010 at 10:50 am

4 Responses

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  1. Am researching the silent movies of Ellen Terry and found this very helpful.
    Thank you.

    Ann Rachlin

    October 29, 2012 at 5:42 pm

    • Dear Ann, thank you for your comment. I thought you might be interested to know that the Ibsen.net team at the National Library of Norway have an original film brochure for the Pillars of Society including photographs of Ellen Terry and all the cast. For more information about the brochure contact details can be found on their website http://ibsen.net/index.gan?id=13549&subid=0

      anneramsden

      November 5, 2012 at 1:08 pm

      • Yes, thank you, I had found that and they already sent me the brochure as a pdf. if you know of anything else, I would be grateful indeed.
        Ann

        Ann Rachlin

        November 5, 2012 at 2:14 pm

      • Well done. I am sorry I have no more information. Anne

        Email: Anne.ramsden@yahoo.co.uk

        ________________________________

        anneramsden

        November 5, 2012 at 2:18 pm


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