The Pirates of 1920


(7/10) Pirates of the air get more than they bargained for when they kidnap a resourceful damsel in this well-made British short feature film from 1911. And there’s an interesting historical link to Katy Perry’s eyelashes. 

The Pirates of 1920. 1911, UK. Directed by David Aylott & A.E. Coleby. Cinematography: John H. Martin. Produced by G.H. Cricks & John H. Martin for Cricks & Martin Films. IMDb score: 6.2 Tomatometer: N/A Metascore: N/A.


Original poster.

I think that I may have previously rather overestimated the quality of early British filmmaking, perhaps because I have based too much of my assumptions on the crazy-brained antics of trick filmer and speed fanatic Walter R. Booth, creator of films like An Over-Incubated Baby (1901, review), The ‘?’ Motorist (1906, review), The Airship Destroyer (1909, review), The Aerial Submarine (1910, review) and The Automatic Motorist (1911). While Booth’s production values were often poor and his art direction downright amateurish, his camera tricks, fast-paced editing and reckless imagination easily wins the viewer over. I assumed that Booth simply wasn’t given the time and resources to do a good job with sets and designs, and that there were other studios might have provided their filmmakers with better production values and more resources.

But the more I dig into early British cinema, I come to realise that this probably wasn’t the case, and that Booth on the contrary was an exceptionally creative director in a normally dull movie industry, which partly would explain why no other director than Booth did any science fiction prior to 1911 – in the home country of H.G. Wells, Jonathan Swift and Mary Shelley. For a short period between 1900 and 1903 British film was internationally relevant, as filmmakers like Frank Mottershaw, William Haggar, James Williamson and G.A. Smith were amongst those that pioneered narrative editing techniques. Then the British industry seems to have gone into a bit of an artistic slump.


Very decent miniature and backdrop work in The Pirates of 1920 (if you ignore the wires carrying the airship).

The Brits were always on the cutting edge of the technical development of cinematic equipment: William Friese-Greene made one of the earliest prototypes for the movie camera, and Robert W. Paul was a key figure in refining the Edison camera and the Lumière projector. Important breakthroughs in the hunt for functioning sound and colour film were also made in Britain. But that seemed to have been the root of the problem: many of the leading people in the UK film industry were more interested in tinkering with dogs and wheels and developing new chemical compounds for film stock than in the actual filmmaking process. In an interesting little interview from the Huntley Film Archives about the early studios in Croydon John Huntley notes that early British filmmakers “by and large don’t seem to show much imagination, they don’t even have the eye of an amateur painter. They seem to have been technicians rather than men of imagination”. Film scholar Chris Kelly replies that this is fair criticism, and points out that Robert W. Paul actually withdrew from producing films before 1910 and went back to selling camera equipment, and that this was the fate of many of the early British film pioneers: “I think [John] Martin was a little bit more interesting because of his interest in trick film, and in fact it was here [in Croydon] eventually with Cricks & Martin that there finally was made a film which showed a little more imagination than most of the other films of the time, it was a film called The Pirates of 1920“.


Producer G.H. Cricks.

Which brings us the the film at hand, produced by George Howard Cricks and John Howard Martin in one of the three small film studios in Croydon, just south of London. Through their company Lion’s Head Film, the two had begun making films together in 1908, specialising in comedy shorts, newsreels and so-called manufacturing films. By 1910 there was a general sentiment in the British news industry that British fictional movies weren’t up to the same standard as French, American and Danish films. Furthermore, with newly implemented international regulations on film distribution, studios were no longer paid according to how many tickets were sold to their films, or how often they were screened, but simply by how much bulk of film they sold to the distributors. This meant that longer films automatically brought in more money, but with longer films came new quality standards. Now many studios, spearheaded by Cecil Hepworth at Hepworth studios, were promising longer films with better stories, better acting and better effects. The Pirates of 1920 certainly answered the call.


Pirates boarding an ocean liner. Notice the painted plywood sets.

At around 17 minutes long, the film ranks as a short today, but was one of the first examples of what may perhaps be called a feature film in Britain, following the trend emerging from Italy and Denmark. The movie was heavily influenced by Walter R. Booths’s aviation films. In fact it seems as if Cricks, Martin and directors David Aylott and A.E. Coleby had been watching Booth’s The Aerial Submarine and had the same reaction that many modern viewers have when watching it today: “Give me a decent carpenter and a bucket of paint, and I can do a better film than that”. The Pirates of 1920 is described by the British Film Institute as “a rip-roaring adventure tale with a nod to Jules Verne, as a band of futuristic cut-throats and their black-bearded captain forsake the high seas for the wild blue yonder, terrorising the skies in their trusty airship. After bombing a liner and stealing gold bullion from its hold, the band of ruffians try to make good their escape, with only a valiant naval officer and his sweetheart to bar their way.”

Indeed, the film follows the valiant naval officer who goes by the manly name of Jack Manley, who escapes the pirates’ bombing of the ocean liner by climbing up their rope ladder to the airship after they have successfully looted the ship. Naturally overwhelmed by the pirate crew, he is hung out to dangle from a rope between sky and ocean. But not before the pirate captain has laid eyes on the picture of Jack’s sweetheart Marie Thompson, whom he falls in love with and swears to find and make his own. But Jack, the manly man that he is, finds a knife in his pocket and cuts the rope, making a heroic swim ashore, where he is picked up by two fishermen who take him to the police station.


Marie Thompson being spied on at her father’s mansion, which he apparently inherited from a community theatre production.

Meanwhile the pirates find Marie at her father’s mansion, and descend to her balcony from their airship, and steal her away for their captain. But in a surprising twist, this young lady turns out to be too much to handle for our swarthy pirate captain, and emerges as the real hero of the story, rather than the manly Manley, perhaps in a nod towards the growing feminist movement. The surviving print of the movie lacks the final minute of the film, but according to BFI:s plot description, nothing of real value is lost, as the final twist is pretty much was you’d expect.

The actors, like all the rest of the crew, were uncredited not only in the film but sadly also in all documentation. This was the usual practice back in the day, partly because the producers wanted to create the illusion that movie-goers were watching “reality”, something which was slightly undermined by the cardboard sets, but perhaps more importantly, because they were afraid that credited cast and crew would ask for more money – which they did.


She has a bomb!

So, it was around 1911 that the British film industry at least made an effort catch up with the US and the rest of Europe, and The Pirates of 1920 was one of the key films in that year. Another extremely important figure was producer-director Will Barker, who in 1902 bought the so-called White Lodge in the London suburb of Ealing, on which he built what was to become known as the Ealing Studios, which by 1912 was possible the largest studio in Europe. 1911 was the year when Barker made the film Henry VIII, a lavish production using stage sets from Her Majesty’s Theatre, with the theatre’s star Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree reprising the title role for an unprecedented fee of 1 000 pounds. Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree is an absolutely fabulous name, by the way.

Cricks & Martin didn’t quite borrow sets from Her Majesty’s Theatre, but the art direction of The Pirates of 1920 is decidedly better than Booth’s in The Aerial Submarine. Yes, there are still lots of furniture painted on backdrops and flat plywood backdrops standing in for houses and walls, but at least the landscape paintings are, if not realistic, then at least made by someone who could hold a brush. Thankfully directors Aylott and Coleby utilise a lot of outdoor photography, and have built quite a large three-dimensional airship deck, which looks sturdy enough hold up for a real flight – as it should, since there are sometimes half a dozen actors jumping around on it.  The film also have – for the time – very impressive model work: the zeppelin used is a small masterpiece of model making, and it is steadily and aptly controlled. The ocean liner seems to be an out-of-the-box model, and its small size it betrayed by the ripples it makes in the water. The shot of the liner sinking is a classic Georges Méliès-style fish-tank-in-front-of-the-camera shot.


A look at the rather well designed and built airship i a location shot.

In terms of cinematography and editing the film is unfortunately extremely boring. Aylott and Coleby invariably use wide shots, letting the shots go on forever before cutting. The use of these long, uninterrupted shots that were inspired by theatrical scenes were something of a trademark of Aylcott’s and may explain why he never was able to establish himself as a feature film director. In fact, the film doesn’t have very much more plot that Booth’s similar movie, even though it is doubly as long, the scenes are just much more padded with characters milling back and forth in the frame, and there’s no cutting before someone has exited the shot or a scene has had some sort of punctuation which would normally be used for a scene change on stage. So while the film has a lot of action, explosions, chases and dramatic situations, it feels rather meandering and long-drawn.

Unlike for example French companies Pathé and Star Film, the British studios didn’t have the resources to hand-paint their films. At the time Pathé had a whole factory employing hundreds of women who hand-coloured in exquisite detail every single frame of every single copy of the studio’s most prestigious films. British studios were still struggling with finding even one painter to do the backdrops. Instead The Pirates of 1920 has a couple of tinted scenes, which seem odd to a modern viewer, but which apparently made an impression on contemporary audiences. The Manawatu Standard in March 1911 called it an “in every way remarkable film” and went on to write that “besides being wrapped up in splendid and realistic effects, [the film] is full of intensely exciting dramatic incidents and stirring situations”. A more recent assessment, by Rachael Low in the book History of British Film, notes that The Pirates of 1920 “contained some interesting trick and model work” and “was [well] attuned to the growing delight in thrills”.


Jack Manley dangling from a rope.

As I have written in length about in my articles on The Airship Destroyer (review) and The Aerial Submarine (review), aeronautics were very much on everybody’s mind around 1911, what with the perfection of Zeppelins and other airships, the first commercial airline and the aerial crossing of the English Channel. But these airship films were equally influenced by the literary genre of invasion literature, which was primarily a British fantasy egged on by the Franco-Prussian war in 1870-1871, when the German army wiped the floor with the mighty French horde. And if the Prussians could beat the French, then the unbeatable British imperialists perhaps weren’t as unbeatable as they thought after all. Over 400 books of invasion fantasies were written in Britain between 1872 and 1914, and even the French got in on the craze. Jules Verne wrote his classic novel Robur the Conqueror in which the the title character basically turned into a terrorist bombing his enemies from a propeller-powered airship in 1886, and followed it up with Master of the World in 1904. While the story of The Pirates of 1920 doesn’t share many similarities with the books, the idea of the aerial pirates with their bombs was directly inspired by them.


David Aylott Sr.

It took some digging around to find any valuable information on the co-director David Aylott, but by linking the short mentions here and there and following the breadcrumbs, I was able to put together quite an interesting little history. Aylott was an extremely prolific short film director who started out in 1906. In 1909 he started working for James Williamson’s company, where he made his first film of any importance, The Boy and the Convict, which was the first ever adaptation of Charles Dicken’s novel Great Expectation, albeit a loose, and by all accounts rather dull one. Jameson closed shop soon after, and Aylott joined Cricks & Martin, and he would stay with Martin until the company folded around 1920. Aylott mostly made comedy shorts with awful titles like Podgy Porkins’ Plot, The Charm that Charmed and The Tricky Stick, but would also make a number of crime and detective films and a few dramas and, during WWI, propaganda films. He tried his hands at feature films with a few titles between 1916 and 1921, but apparently this didn’t suit him very well.

Around 1917 there emerges large gaps in Aylott’s IMDb credits. And although I don’t have any verification of this, I would assume that this was the time when Aylott got involved in movie make-up; as there are throwaway lines here and there on the internet describing him as a “movie make-up man”. Between 1921 and 1929 Aylott has no directorial credits, but he returned to directing shorts for a year in 1929, presumably at the Welwyn Garden Studios in Hertfordshire south of London, but he again put directing behind him with the introduction of sound films.


David Aylott Jr. (left) and brother Eric with one of their models, presumably in the early sixties.

Aylott’s son, David Jr, or Dave, took up the profession of movie make-up artist in early years, while his brother Eric worked as a runner at Welwyn Garden Studios. After serving in WWII Eric also got involved in make-up. Both brothers became two of the most sought-after make-up men in British movies. IMDb only lists credits for Dave from after the war, and all-in-all make-up credits from the era are patchy at best, since make-up artists sometimes weren’t credited, and when they were, the credit was often given to the studio’s head of the make-up department, rather to than the artists that worked on the film. We do know that between them Eric and Dave worked on a number or prestigious movies like Brighton Rock (1948), Alexander the Great (1956) with Richard Burton, Anastasia (1956) with Ingrid Bergman and Yul Brynner, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), starring Katherine Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Montgomery Clift and School for Scoundrels (1960). Friends of science fiction may be interested in the fact that David Aylott was the head make-up artist on the 1962 sci-fi comedy The Road to Hong Kong, starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Joan Collins, etc, and Eric created the make-up for the low-budget cult movie Village of the Damned (1960).


Katy Perry lashes from 2013.

But that’s not all: in 1947 David Sr., Eric and David Jr. together started their own company Eylure, manufacturing false eyelashes for commercial sale. In the beginning the lashes were made of human hair imported from India, but in the fifties they developed self-adhesive plastic lashes, which became an instant hit, making Eylure the world’s leading manufacturer of eyelash extensions. In the sixties, the company had grown to employ over a thousand people, manufacturing lashes, false fingernails and other make-up products, and Dave and Eric were forced to quit the movie business in order to manage Eylure. After the death of David Jr. in 1991, Eric sold the company and went into retirement, but Eylure is still one of the leading brands for eyelash extensions, and has recently had signature designs from pop star Katy Perry and TV presenter Emma Willis, among others.

(One of the things that I love about writing this blog is that I learn all sorts of bizarre things, like the history of eyelash extensions. I hope that someone besides myself find these stories at least distantly interesting.)


The backlot of Welwyn Studios where the Aylott family worked, around 1930.

A.E. Coleby is a bit more of an elusive character, and not much seems to be written about him, despite him having directed more than 250 films, mostly shorts. He is best known, though, for directing a series of short films about the master criminal Dr. Fu Manchu, based on the novels by Sax Rohmer, in the mid-twenties, starring Harry Agar Lyons and Fred Paul. Coleby left the film business at the introduction of talking pictures.

Largely forgotten today, G.H. Cricks was perhaps the most important movie producer in Britain during the period between 1903 and 1911, what Rachael Low calls “deplorable years” of “minor comics, industrials and unimportant sentiments”. Cricks started working for Robert W. Paul in the late 19th century, but quickly founded his own studio, first with partner Henry Martin Sharp, and later with John Howard Martin in Croydon in 1908. The two had first met at Paul’s company where Martin had been in charge of the darkroom and Cricks had worked in film and equipment sales.


Still from Cricks & Martin’s 1906 industrial film A Visit to Peek Frean and Co’s Biscuit Works.

Like most British companies, Cricks & Martin (often through Cricks’ Lion’s Head Films brand) primarily made short comedies and so-called “industrials” or “manufacturing films” that were very much in vogue at this period, basically short documentaries about how things were made and what work looked like inside factories and workshops. According to the BFI, “Cricks and Martin were tireless self-promoters, as well as promoters of the quality of British film production in general. They boasted in the trade press that their Lion’s Head Brand trademark was turning out more successful films than any other British film manufacturer, and that a Lion’s Head Film was a clean, moral and above all British film”. But Low writes in British Film History that this was not completely without merit, as Cricks & Martin actually did turn out more movies than any other company in Britain, and that without their bulk, the British film industry would probably have collapsed under the weight of foreign imports. BFI writes that they excelled in making industrials, but that their fictional films were mostly ripoffs of other studios: “Although derivative, the narrative construction, framing and the pictorial quality of their films were of a very high standard.”


The captain falls in love with a photo in The Pirates of 1920.

By 1911, Cricks & Martin boasted the largest staff of any British studio, and in the course of two years made a number of well-received feature films of around 20 minutes in length. However, feature production would prove their undoing: Martin left in 1913 to set up Merton Park studios, clashing with Cricks over whether the company’s future lay with feature production or short films and comics Cricks continued producing features and crime stories at Croydon, growing more disillusioned until in 1918 he retired from film production. Film scholar Denis Gifford writes that he managed Croydon Film Company for some years, then became manager of the film printing department of Gaumont.

Janne Wass

The Pirates of 1920. 1911, UK. Directed by David Aylott & A.E. Coleman. Cinematography: John H. Martin. Produced by G.H. Cricks & John H. Martin for Cricks & Martin Films.


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