Scottish film production: fiction films and narrative cinema

‘Production’, said the Scottish Film Council as late as 1944, ‘is Scotland’s weak point.’ Against the background of the rapid development of film exhibition in the ‘silent’ period and the legendary popularity of cinema in large and small towns, the evidence points to under-development in the production of film fiction. For a very small nation, Scotland is distinctive in having a significant place in world literature, particularly through Walter Scott, and the Scottish stories, Scottish characters and the romance of Scottish history became part of the diet of the international film industry. Scotland is much filmed, but usually from elsewhere. Scottish producers did not seem able to create a well-founded and sustainable industry to exploit their own ‘national’ narratives. Even within Scotland the visibility of indigenously produced films was not high, and much of it had little or no impact across national borders.

There are probably a number of reasons for this. Fundamentally, film production is difficult in a nation that does not have a large enough domestic audience to underwrite the risk of investing in film production. This has been a historic problem for Britain as a whole, and for Scotland even more sharply. The result is that productions tend to be ‘one-off’ entrepreneurial ventures, dependent on the success or failure of a single film, and this does not provide the base on which an infrastructure can be built. Equally, investors and entrepreneurs in the period may have been more attracted to the apparent security of investing in exhibition, often on quite a grand and ambitious scale, than in the high-risk business of investing in production when the world market was increasingly dominated by the U.S. Less grandly, the unpredictability of the weather and the light make Scotland inhospitable to film production. Part of Gaumont’s 1922 production of Rob Roy was meant to be filmed in Oban, but this was abandoned when the weather turned bad. The temptation is to compare Scotland and Ireland, but it is important to recall that much of Ireland’s success in early fiction film is largely due to a single adventurous American company, Kalem, and, possibly, to the Irish ancestry of its producer, Sidney Olcott. The absence of a sustainable industry is not unusual in small countries. The result is often that the ‘talent’ — the writers, producers, actors — go elsewhere, thus compounding the problem.

Attempts to create a Scottish film industry or a sustainable studio infrastructure were unsuccessful in the long term, but there is certainly evidence of ambition and innovation, and of recurrent attempts to launch a programme of Scottish-produced films. Details of the production context for a number of these films are given in Caroline Merz’s doctoral thesis, 'Why Not a Scots Hollywood? Fiction film production in Scotland, 1911-1928'; the following notes only provide an outline.

The fate of Rob Roy is indicative. Produced in 1911 by the Glasgow company, United Films, Rob Roy was an attempt to exploit for cinema the success of Pocock’s theatrical adaptation of Scott’s novel, a production that had toured widely with John Clyde as Rob Roy and Durward Lely as Francis Osbaldistone and was billed as the ‘national drama’. United’s Rob Roy was to be ‘the Scottish Drama, produced by Scottish actors on Scottish ground by the Scottish firm.’ It was shot on location around Aberfoyle (though there is a suggestion that some scenes may have been shot in a studio in Glasgow), and, at three reels, it is believed to be the longest film shot in Britain at that time. Originally launched as the first of a series of Scots (or Scott’s) classics which would include Jeanie Deans, ‘Scotty’, the Scottish correspondent of The Bioscope pronounced: ‘There is not the slightest doubt that the "Rob Roy" and all the other films will command a big sale everywhere. Produced before our own Scottish audiences they are bound to create the greatest enthusiasm.’ It was first screened publically and prominently at the Picture House on Sauchiehall Street before the Lord Provost and magistrates of Glasgow. Scotty’s enthusiasm, however, does not seem to have been matched by the enthusiasm of audiences. It was shown in Paisley and Pollockshaws, but the furthest it may have travelled in Scotland was Ayr and, possibly, Bo’ness. There may have been isolated screenings in England, and it was screened in New Zealand and Australia, but within months United Films had been wound up due to the weight of liabilities, and nothing further was heard of the planned Jeanie Deans.

The reasons for the failure of the production to establish a secure footing, even with Scottish audiences, are hard to pin down. Despite their vigorous advertising, they may have been let down by the structure of rental and distribution which were still evolving. The theatrical version of Rob Roy had been touring with Clyde and Lely since 1892, and Lely, playing the youthful romantic lead of Osbaldistone, was 58 when the film was shot. It may already, like Barker’s Henry VIII (1910), have become too histrionic for the cinema screen. Or, to the contrary, it may simply have failed to capture the excitement of the semi-operatic theatre production. And the production was not helped by the fact that, with uncanny ruthlessness, Gaumont released their version, originally titled Rob Roy, also shot on location in Aberfoyle, just weeks after the release of the United production: two Rob Roys competing for the same market. Based on the legend of Rob Roy rather than on Scott’s novel, and later titled An Adventure of Rob Roy, the Gaumont version may have used their experience to chime more exactly with what the audience wanted. There is certainly evidence that it was shown more widely, probably because Gaumont could use its own distribution network. This would confirm the difficulty which film production in a small country faced: without a stable infrastructure and without even the medium-term stability to build up a body of experience, it could not break into what was becoming an increasingly competitive national and international market.

The story becomes familiar. The Harp King, produced in 1919 by the Ace Film Producing Company, arose out of one of the ‘cinema colleges’ which became popular after World War 1 to exploit the popular appeal of film stardom as a route to untold wealth. A Scottish romance, produced in a studio in Thornliebank, it repeated the formula - ‘Written in Scotland. Played in Scotland. Filmed in Scotland’ — but it failed to find a Scottish audience. Probably most successful, and set in an urban location, building comedy around the music hall themes of football, alcohol and single-ended tenements, was Football Daft (aka Fitba’ Daft) produced in 1921 by the Broadway Company. Football Daft was seen more widely in Scotland and was even reviewed favourably in Dover. The series of comedies, however, that seem to have been produced out of the convolution of cinema colleges, Ace Film Producing and Broadway, largely under the entrepreneurial eye of Max LederThe Referee’s Eye (1921), His Last Bachelor Night (1922), Blasted Ambitions (1922) and Keep to the Left (1922) — were received poorly by the trade press, and seem to have left little impact.

Maurice Sandground’s The Life of Robert Burns, produced for the Scottish Film Academy in 1926, was lacerated by the trade press. ‘[A] jumbled up concoction of incidents in the life of Scotland’s national bard with some splendid examples of Scotland’s beauty spots,’ said The Bioscope, concluding with the view of a Burns expert: ‘The picture could be considerably improved by cutting out fully fifty per cent of the celluloid and then setting fire to the other fifty.’ Sandground’s Glimpses from the Life of Walter Scott (1926) was even less successful.

Of all these films, only one, Mairi, the Romance of a Highland Maiden, still survives and is available in the NLS Moving Image Archive. Paradoxically, it is an amateur film, shot in North Kessock in 1913 by Andrew Paterson, an Inverness portrait photographer who wrote the script and directed a small company of eight local amateur actors in a story of romance and smuggling. It does not seem to have been shown outside Inverness, but was re-edited by James Nairn in 1953.

There are hints of other productions, some of which may have reached cinemas. In an article, ‘Producing in Scotland’ in The Bioscope on 10 February, 1916, James McBride, the Scottish correspondent (aka ‘Scotty’), reports on a studio in Glasgow operating under the name ‘Club Comedies’ with a staff of around twenty, with an American director, Mr Foote, who apparently has worked ‘in the best-known picture producing companies in the States’, and with a fully equipped technical production capacity. According to Scotty’s report, it had produced successful comedies – which are not named – which had been shown in cinemas, and it was currently rehearsing a new comedy to be released under the name His Highness. There is, however, no record in the trade press of its release, or of the release of any of the other comedies that Scotty apparently saw in a suburban Glasgow cinema.

In a further article in the Scottish Section, ‘Picture Producing in Scotland’ (The Bioscope, 11 December 1919), there is a colourful and optimistic account of production in Scotland, including reference to the Royal Studios in Wishaw, under the direction of Mr Syd St. Clair, already responsible for the production of three (untitled) ‘pictures’. In August 1920, Scotty also notes a new studio in Montrose directed by C.F. Partoon, a photographer with a distinguished record of making topicals which were shown as ‘Partoon’s Pictorial of Local Events’ in the Kinnaird Picture House, Dundee. Scotty is incurably optimistic and shares the view expressed by Partoon that there is no reason that feature films cannot be produced in Scotland. Partoon, it appears, has secured an ‘excellent story’, and is rehearsing actors including the author of the story, Gordon Crystal, and a ‘leading lady’, Miss Betty Willocks, ‘who will charm everyone who sees her work, and for whom there is a very bright future’. The production, The Greater Riches, will be shot in the Montrose studio with exteriors in and around Dundee. Mr Partoon, says Scotty, ‘has very pronounced ideas on the subject of motion picture production and photography, and the Trade may look with confidence to his first work, which will lack only one thing, and that is the stamp of amateurism’. Again, there is no record of the release of The Greater Riches. In December 1921, Scotty laments: ‘By the way, what has come over that company that was producing in Dundee and Montrose? Are the pictures they partly took ever to be finished, or must the venture be written down as abandoned?’ The evidence is indeed that the venture was abandoned.

It is evident that, if only in the trade press, there was a desire for a Scottish cinema, ‘Written in Scotland. Played in Scotland. Filmed in Scotland’. It is clear that there were also entrepreneurs and producers who were prepared to take the risks in producing such a cinema. What may be missing, however, is the desire of the Scottish audience for a cinema that appealed to national tastes but could not meet the sophistication of narrative, spectacle and stardom that was offered by the increasingly streamlined and increasingly competitive industries of England and America.