The Kerfuffle over Five Nights (1915)
Author David Hewitt tells all about a much forgotten (and controversial) silent film from 1915, Bert Haldane's Five Nights. This now lost film, as well as the atmosphere of early cinema going in the UK, is the subject of David's most recent book 'Gold, Violet, Black, Crimson, White' .
What is striking about the film Five Nights – given that it was a silent film – is just how much of a kerfuffle it caused. There would be angry newspaper headlines and letters to the editor, criticism from magistrates, and a trial in front of a High Court judge. And audiences would be sent home disappointed from picture houses across the land.
The film came out during the first full summer of the Great War, and it arrived in Preston before anywhere else. But although the people of that proud cotton town flocked to see it, it would be shown there only once.
Five Nights was about a wealthy young artist with too much time on his hands. It showed him wooing a Chinese woman in faraway Alaska, shooting a Chinese man dead in San Francisco, and getting his own cousin to disrobe for him. Controversially, it also suggested that he was the father of an illegitimate child.
The Chinese woman was played by Sybil de Bray, who wasn’t Chinese at all, while the cousin was played by Eve Balfour. She was a Kiwi, who had enjoyed success on the London stage. The part of the Chinese man, meanwhile, was played by Tom Coventry. Now into his sixtieth year, this was his fourth decade as an actor. Thomas H MacDonald, who played the errant artist, was half his co-star’s age, and it just so happens that he was born in Bristol.
Tom and Thomas were stalwarts of the Barker film company, which had made Five Nights, and which was named for its principal, Will Barker. He had once been managing director of the Warwick Trading Company, Charles Urban’s old concern.
In the last few years, Barker had produced Henry VIII, a film based on Beerbohm Tree’s version of Shakespeare’s play, which had seen Sir Herbert paid the equivalent of £90k for his trouble. The company had also made Sixty Years A Queen, a sumptuous film about ‘Victoria the Good’. And most recently, there had been Jane Shore, the tragic story of a mistress of King Edward IV, in which both Thomas H MacDonald and Tom Coventry had prominent roles.
The kerfuffle began when the Chief Constable of Preston went to see Five Nights and then announced that it was ‘objectionable and offensive’. The film was promptly banned in Bath and Bridgwater and banned in Bradford and Brighton as well.
In West-super-Mare, it was due to be shown at the Regent Street Picture House. This was a refined sort of place, opened two years before, where there was a statue of a goddess on the roof above the front doors.
But then, the manager received an anonymous letter saying, ‘You will be judged for this sin!’ And a bench of magistrates banned the film after seeing it at a private screening. ‘The whole interest of the plot is sexual from beginning to end,’ the chairman explained.
The men who had sent Five Nights to Preston had been distributing the film around the rest of the North as well. Fred White would be sued by Charlie Chaplin for his part in a dubious biopic of the great man. And Walter Stott had already had to explain what he was doing with a young usherette in the back room of a cinema in Huddersfield. Now, they sued the Chief Constable for defamation, and they claimed damages equivalent to £300k.
Yet, despite the kerfuffle, no one batted an eyelid when Five Nights was shown in Manchester and Liverpool, Glasgow and Edinburgh. And no one batted an eyelid in Bristol, either. The film was shown in the city just after its one showing in Preston, at the old Bedminster Hippodrome on East Street. Admission prices there ranged from 3d to a shilling. There were ‘free teas’ between 4pm and 6.30pm. And Five Nights was billed as ‘The film sensation of the century’.
The case against the Chief Constable was heard the following spring. The trial, at the Assize Courts in Manchester, lasted two days, but the jury was out barely two hours. And the verdict, when it came, was itself sensational. Walter and Fred had failed in their claim, the foreman solemnly announced, and the Chief Constable had won. What he had said about Five Nights was fair comment and nothing more.
The film would go on being shown around the country, albeit – as interest waned – in ever smaller and less salubrious halls. Sybil de Bray would soon appear on a cigarette card put out by Bristol’s own Wills company, but she would never make another film. Eve Balfour made one more film for Barker, before going to America and featuring in the celebrated Fantômas series.
Thomas H MacDonald would make a few more films, but Will Barker announced his own retirement the day after the Armistice. And after that, the films in which Tom Coventry appeared were made by the likes of IB Davidson and GB Samuelson.
Fred White, meanwhile, would get into trouble again - not just with the Chaplin biopic, but with Where Are My Children? and Trapped by the Mormons as well.
Although Jane Shore can now be viewed online, Henry VIII is considered lost and only a few seconds are known to remain of Sixty Years A Queen. All that remains of Five Nights, meanwhile, is kept in the county archives in – fittingly enough – the proud town of Preston. It isn’t much – just a frame-and-a-half from the film. And while it is still as pink as Will Barker made it, it has grown very brittle over the years.
David Hewitt’s new book – Gold, Violet, Black, Crimson, White – tells the story of the Five Nights kerfuffle and even attempts to reconstruct the film. The book is published by Matador, while David can be found on Twitter.