The School For Scandal (1923)
A surprising British feature film released in 1923 was Bertram Phillips’ The School For Scandal starring Queenie Thomas based on a well-known British stage play by Richard Sheridan.
When it was announced that Bertram Phillips was to film an adaptation of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s amusing comedy of manners, some said he had courage and enterprise others audacity and impudence. One critic decided that in selecting the subject he should be accused of having pluck rather than nerve. It was agreed that it was not an easy play to transfer to the screen since it had an intricate plot and was concerned with manners and conversation and not action.
The original stage production was launched in 1777 at the Drury Lane Theatre and had been hugely popular and successful being revived more than 70 times before it was adapted for the screen. The story was regarded as a perfect picture of the period and considered by some to be the greatest comedy of manners in the English language with a deep insight in human nature.
Bertram Phillips was a well-known character in the film trade who emerged as MD of the Holmfirth Producing Company formed in October 1915. Holmfirth leased Cherry Kearton’s studio at Cranmer Court, Clapham the following year, that had one dark stage 45 x 30 ft and was under a railway bridge. Here, Phillips produced a number of moderately long dramas toward the end of the war that featured his leading lady Queenie Thomas (a Welsh actress and singer) the last of which was Meg O’the Woods (February 1918). Thereafter, Phillips joined Butcher’s Film Service as producer for a short while. In 1919 Phillips acquired a mansion type studio at Thornton House, Clapham Park and made plans for further production, but when Queenie Thomas married in late 1919 production plans fizzled out.
Early in 1923 Queenie Thomas made a comeback under Bertram Phillips once again and appeared in series of short comedies called Syncopated Picture Plays before appearing in a series of longer films with better casts including two with the young actor John Stuart (Alley of the Golden Hearts and Her Redemption). The production team included Percy Anthony as photographer and the famous illustrator and poster artist E.P. Kinsella as art director (he had already produced films and wrote some screenplays). The first of these films was The School For Scandal filmed at Thornton House. It was distributed by Butcher’s Film Services and given a trade show in September 1923 and became one of the films selected for British Film Week in early 1924.
The story started with Sir Peter Teazle (Frank Stanmore), a courtly though crusty gentleman bachelor of the old school, taking a young and charming girl as his wife (Queenie Thomas). Fresh from a country manor and unused to the artificialities of society she is keenly anxious to be considered ‘smart’.
The wonderful gallery of scandal-mongers – Lady Sneerwell (Elsie French), Mrs Candour (Mary Brough), Sir Benjamin Backbite (Richard Turner) and their circle – like to think themselves select and find their chief delight is discussing the morals of others. These gossips try to teach Lady Teazle the ethics of their school of thought and try to persuade her that every married lady, in order to be considered really fashionable must engaged in a secret, although harmless, love affair.
Lady Teazle is dazzled by their flattery and attention and because she does not want to be considered unsophisticated, reluctantly accepts the attentions of the sauve and polished Joseph Surface (Basil Rathbone in one of his very early film appearances).
Sir Peter takes on the guardianship of Maria (Billie Shotter), a wealthy heiress with whom his nephew Charles (John Stuart) falls in love. Charles’ brother Joseph schemes to marry Maria for her fortune and endeavours to cover his designs by his flirtation with Lady Teazle.
Later, Oliver Surface (Sydney Paxton) returns from the West Indies and determines to find out which of the two nephews, Charles and Joseph is the more sincere. The contrast between Joseph, the seemingly moral young man and his reckless but open-hearted brother Charles and their wealthy uncle’s investigation into their true character made excellent comedy.
Joseph induces Lady Teazle to visit him and is surprised by Sir Peter. Lady Teazle is hidden behind a screen and learns Joseph’s true character and receives proof of Sir Peter’s love and generosity having had her eyes opened to Joseph’s hypocrisy and the shallowness of the Sneerwell set.
The reviews and comments were mixed. Kine Weekly decided that Phillips had managed to make a fairly entertaining picture but had not reproduced the comedy but considering the lack of action it was agreed he had managed ‘to make his characters stand out quite well.’ However, further criticism was harsh with comments like the settings were unremarkable, the continuity scrappy, the action jerky and harsh and the lighting uneven.
In complete contrast, Bioscope thought that the settings were elaborate and the technical quality of a high order. Motion Picture Studio thought that it was the best picture Phillips had given and that he had done a good job saying it was credible and ‘very reasonably faithful to the original….a pleasant, interesting and often amusing picture.’ They were also full of praise for the art direction ‘the mounting of the sets are as charming as the dresses and EP Kinsella is to be unreservedly complimented upon the art direction throughout which strikes a note of daintiness and exquisiteness as opposed to garish lavishness.’
The casting was commendable because of the variation of the personalities all of whom were regarded as interesting and none colourless. One reviewer thought Queenie Thomas did not make an ideal Lady Teazle and another thought that she lacked something of the feminine wilfulness associated with her many illustrious forerunners in the part. However, it was agreed that she gave an agreeable and animated performance and looked fresh and charming. Oddly, one critic thought Basil Rathbone was splendid, another that he was badly cast.
Despite his mid 20s output, Phillips clearly could not adapt to the new more lavish British film–making process and was regarded as being rather old-fashioned. By mid 1925 he was declared bankrupt. Rachael Low commented, rather harshly, but perhaps with some truth, that his ‘type of film making with poor technical resources, ridiculous stories and no real talent was weeded out…’
Kine Weekly, Bioscope, Picturegoer, Motion Picture Studio,
Press material (BFI)
The History of British Film 1918-1929 by Rachel Low
The History of British Film 1914-1918 by Rachel Low