The movie industry has a long history of flops. This is the story of a film made nearly 100 years ago that culminated in litigation and a court case.
In 1919, just over a couple of decades after the first British feature film was produced, the silent movie ‘The Lackey and the Lady’ was completed in England. It tells the story of the daughter of a wealthy banker married to a servant who ran off with him to Australia, and was based on a novel by Tom Gallon.
Probably the only familiar name attached to the film is actor Leslie Howard, of Gone with the Wind (1939) and Scarlet Pimpernel (1934) fame. Other performers were A.E. Matthews, Roy Travers and the French-born actress Mary Odette.
But the film and the performances of the actors were destined not to be judged by the world of cinema but instead in the judicial environment of court ushers and barristers’ wigs and gowns. In February 1920 the director, Thomas Bentley, brought an action for slander against Phillips Film Company, its distributor H J Boam and The British Actors Film Company, in the King’s Bench Division of the High Court.
The film was meant to be shown at a trade show at Shaftesbury Pavilion in London. Just before showtime, Boam – who had been in dispute with Thomas Bentley – came on stage to declare that ‘The Lackey and the Lady’ would not be shown, as it was ‘not up to standard to be placed before you’. The film had previously been shown to Boam and representatives of The British Actors Film Company and had been passed as satisfactory.
The National Archives hold the court records for the case. The pleadings are under the reference J 54/1718, and the transcript of the pre-trial examinations of witnesses undertaken by lawyers are under reference J 17/601. This produces some illuminating and entertaining exchanges about the quality of the film.
An expert witness William George Faulkner, the film reviewer for the Evening News, was questioned by one of the barristers for the plaintiff Thomas Bentley, before the court appointed barrister called a Special Examiner. Continue reading »