Cecil Hepworth is one of the unsung heroes of early cinema. The son of a magic-lantern showman and novelist, Hepworth was one of the first producers/directors to realize the potential of making full-length “feature films” (his version of David Copperfield in 1913 ran for 67 minutes) and the selling power of star actors (and animals—most notably his pet dog in Rescued by Rover in 1905).
Hepworth began by making short one-minute films. Influenced by the Lumière Brothers and the early master of cinema Georges Méliès, Hepworth tried his own hand at advancing their ideas. With How It Feels to be Run Over he took the Lumiere’s Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) and applied it to a motor car—where the vehicle heads straight for the camera apparently mowing down both cameraman and audience. The same year, he made Explosion of a Motor Car in which a car with four passengers explodes. The road (in comic fashion) is then littered with their body parts. This was shocking and surreal viewing for early cinema goers. It was also, as Michael Brooke of BFI Screenonline points out, “one of the first films to play with the laws of physics for comic effect.” Hepworth pinched Méliès technique of editing in camera—stopping the film between sequences to create one complete and seemingly real event.
In 1903, Hepworth decided to go large and make (as faithfully as possible) an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Originally running twelve minutes in length, Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland was the longest film yet produced in Britain. Hepworth co-directed the film with Percy Stow. He wanted to keep the style of the film in keeping with Sir John Tenniel’s original illustrations. Costumes were designed and elaborate sets were built at Hepworth’s film studio—including a rather impressive rabbit burrow. Family members, friends and their children were used in the cast.
Unfortunately, the full version of Hepworth’s mini classic has been lost. The print that exists is damaged but is still a beautiful, trippy and incredible piece of work—which as far this little ole blogger’s concerned, still stands high above that Tim Burton atrocity. ✪