(Thomas Seymour Woolford)
Pioneering British Silent Comedian & Director
1898 – 1984
Today, Walter Forde is chiefly remembered as a director of British comedies and thrillers in the 1930s and 1940s, but long before this he had his own starring career in silent comedies. In fact, he was virtually alone in dedicating himself to comedy film-making in the manner of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, et al. While lots of comedians had a go at making films in Britain, few of these had been successful. Most British comedies of the late teens and 1920s tended to be on the stodgy side, a bit too polite when contrasted with the gag-packed slapstick of American comedies.
Forde’s own films were much more in the latter vein, initially owing a large debt to Chaplin, but developing his own style as he went on. His short films were well received and he was even successful enough to make four feature films. However, in the wake of his future directing career, the films were forgotten. Forde himself was blunt as to their worth, decrying them as “crap!”
Forde was a painfully shy and modest man, and much too harsh on himself. His career in films certainly began amateurishly, but he had an admirably trailblazing spirit and did some fine work in front of the camera. He was certainly the only British comedian to successfully transfer the American model of silent comedy making to the U.K, and his efforts are worthy of revival.
Forde was born in 1898 as Thomas Seymour Woolford. His birthplace was London, not Bradford as has often been claimed; this was apparently a ruse created by a studio publicity department to make his films more popular in the provinces! Young Thomas was named after his father, the actor-manager Tom Seymour. Seymour had a successful company touring a range of comedies and melodramas.
As he got older, the young boy received a training in several performing arts. As he recalled for The Tatler & Bystander in 1947, “My father had me trained in tumbling, eccentric dancing, singing, piano, violin, concertina (one tune only), juggling and cartooning”
Of these skills, it was the piano that he would dedicate himself to the most. Piano playing became a lifelong love, and future collaborator Jack Hulbert recalled that Forde would always keep a piano on set. Quickly building his skills, he worked up an act as a boy prodigy pianist and toured the halls.
Subsequently, he began incorporating comedy bits into his act, until it became a full pantomime act based around his struggles with an uncooperative piano. With the new focus of the act came a new stage name; playing on his surname, he billed himself as ‘Wool Forde’. At some point in the teens, Forde caught the Chaplinitis sweeping the world, and turned his fooling into a Chaplin imitation.
Walter’s rise was interrupted by war service, but it was during a camp concert that he was seen by comic Fred Goodwins. Goodwins had recently returned from America and was planning to start film production in Britain. Goodwins had actually worked with the real Chaplin in his Essanay films and the first three Mutuals (he’s most prominent as the bald cashier in THE BANK), and was impressed with Forde’s comic skill.
On Goodwins’ advice, Forde self-produced a trial film, THE WANDERER. Obviously deciding that ‘Wool’ was hardly a suitable name for a movie star, he mutated it into Walter for his new efforts. No trace remains of THE WANDERER today, and apparently it was never released. Forde himself remembered it as “the worst film ever made”. Nonetheless, it was a useful experience, and before long Forde and Goodwins embarked on a series of British Comedies that did find release.
These early bunch of films, among them FISHING FOR TROUBLE and THE HANDY MAN, are obscure today. Just one survives at the BFI, NEVER SAY DIE. This slight film detailing Walter’s attempts to try to crash into a high class music school so he can flirt with a pretty piano teacher very much shows the Chaplin influence.
Walter would go on to better things in a new series of Zodiac comedies made in 1921-22. These films show his style developing. Though there is still a Chaplin influence in gags and sometimes plots (WALTER’S TRYING FROLIC owes a big debt to THE IDLE CLASS; WALTER MAKES A MOVIE borrows from A DOG’S LIFE & THE IMMIGRANT), Forde was beginning to work more original ideas in.
WALTER’S WINNING WAYS, the first of the films, drawa directly on his own experiences. This a comedy set in an auctioneers was apparently inspired by time spent apprenticed in the trade before his stage career took off. Walter plays a clumsy assistant, which provides an excuse for some well timed slapstick and good sight gags, the best of which involves him creating a precarious pile of objects, and then climbing the improbable tower to help him reach a high shelf. Walter ultimately saves the day by donning a disguise to help Marjorie Russell bid for a family heirloom.
The film was a milestone in Walter’s personal life as well as his career. During shooting, he fell in love with his continuity girl, Adeline Culley. The pair were married shortly after, remaining a happy partnership until her death in 1967. Culley, as she was known, provided both technical and moral support to Walter in his career, acting as his editor and assistant director on many films, and encouraging him along the rocky road to success.
The first two films were trade-shown in September 1921, to enthusiastic reception. An impressed reviewer from The Era considered them “two of the most commendable British comedies yet screened. Walter Forde should go far in his particular kind of work, for he possesses a quaint style that is most pleasing.”
From the third film, Forde’s father Tom Seymour took over directing, and played some small parts onscreen. He may be seen as the director in Forde’s most widely seen short, WALTER MAKES A MOVIE. Walter now also had a regular leading lady in Pauline Peters.
The success of the films led Forde to be contacted by Harry Spoor, a prominent figure in U.K. film distribution. Spoor recommended that Forde should try his luck in the U.S. He did so, but work was scarce, and apart from making two one-reel comedies for Universal (A RADIO ROMEO and GOOD DEEDS, both now lost), he found himself painting houses for a living.
Things weren’t much better when he returned to Britain. There were no more offers for film work, so he found himself in the ignominious position of playing pianos in cinemas to accompany other people’s films.
Eventually, Forde got another chance at stardom. The Bioscope of August 13, 1925 announced that Forde would shortly begin shooting a series of six-two reel films, with Pauline Peters back as his leading lady. The new series had James B Sloan in the director’s chair, though Forde effectively co-directed (existing outtakes show him setting up a gag for the camera) and was largely responsible for the comedy of the films. It is immediately apparent when watching one of the new series of films that Forde has spent his time away thinking of new approaches and of the developments in film comedy. Watching the films he was playing to must have kept him up to date with developments in screen technique, not to mention new comic ideas.
Accordingly, the new films are smoother and more sophisticated, with less frenetic slapstick and more space given to developed gag routines. Walter’s character is a little more sophisticated, too; it’s immediately apparent that he has shifted from Chaplin as his main influence to the lighter, “boy-next-door” style of Harold Lloyd. To this end, his costume is smartened up with shiny-buttoned blazer and ‘Oxford bag’ trousers, then in vogue. Instead of a bum or petty thief, he is now a smart young man struggling to get by in the modern world. Gone are the building sites and farmyards of the earlier films, replaced with white collar jobs in offices, insurance and retail.
The best of the second batch of films is probably WALTER’S DAY OUT. Walter works in an office and plans on spending his half-day holiday at Limpet-on-Sea with Pauline. However, his boss (Foley) has other plans, leaving Walter a stack of work to finish. Walter defiantly tries to leave the office, but is continually caught by the boss. There’s a little of Lloyd’s SPRING FEVER in this sequence, but Walter develops some nice gag variations of his own, pretending to take the waste paper out as he is caught in the act. Eventually, one of his colleagues offers to do Walter’s work, on the condition that he does him a favour. Of course, Walter replies, as the colleague opens a door to reveal his two small children. Walter is supposed to drop them at his home, but loses his address on the way and so has to take them along. The children cause mischief on the boat and on the beach, leaving Walter and Pauline forever chasing after them. There are extra complications as Walter’s boss has decided to take a day at the beach too. After a chase through Margate’s Dreamland theme park, Walter is fired.
An enjoyable little comedy, the mixture of sunny location shooting, fast moving gag sequences and nice situational humour make WALTER’S DAY OUT perhaps the most satisfying of all Forde’s shorts.
Forde was approached by Archibald Nettlefold (yes, that was his real name!) for the rights to distribute his films in colonial Africa. Thinking on his feet, Forde convinced him that it would be much more profitable to make a brand new feature-length comedy for release in the UK. Bluffing that he had a perfect story all ready to go, he spent all that night writing one to be ready for a meeting with Nettlefold the next day!
The result, WAIT & SEE was a smash hit. Walter plays a young man fooled into thinking he has inherited a fortune, is invited to join the board of a financially struggling firm and marry the boss’s daughter in return for his “fortune”. When he finds out the truth, he struggles to break the news, and is cast out when his rival reveals it. However, Walter redeems himself by tracking down an investor who can bail out the firm after a wild car and train chase.
Though the storyline may have been hastily constructed, Forde tells it with gusto. Indeed, WAIT AND SEE is astonishingly assured for a first feature film as director and builds steadily to a fine frenzy. Forde’s work editing other films must have been educational for learning the art of storytelling, and he brings everything he has to the table. There is wide use of tracking and overhead shots, and several gags that depend on visual camera effects.
As a comedy, the film can’t compete with the great silent features of the American clowns, but it is certainly entertaining. Perhaps the best comparison lies somewhere between the lighter end of Harold Lloyd and the films of Reginald Denny. Notably, the final chase doesn’t feature many gags as a Keaton or Lloyd feature might (contrast with the end of GIRL SHY or SEVEN CHANCES, for instances), being more of a dramatic climax. To that end, it’s a success, genuinely exciting and skilfully made. In fact, it seems that Forde’s preference was for straight “thrill” climaxes to his films; he later remarked that his favourite type of picture was a thriller with comic elements. So, rather than a swing and a miss, the climax to WAIT AND SEE probably turned out exactly as he planned it.
However, the chase is topped off with maybe the funniest moment in the film. Crashing through the wall of the house, Forde screeches the car to a halt beside an astonished lady holding a tea tray. Without missing a beat, Walter nonchalantly helps himself to a cup of tea from the tray. This little moment brought the house down when I saw the film screened to an audience
The film got very positive reviews, guaranteeing Forde the chance to make a follow up. He eagerly did so with (appropriately) WHAT NEXT?. Missing for many years, a slightly abridged print of this feature eventually turned up, and shows Forde taking his first steps into the comedy-thriller genre that would become his speciality. Walter buys an antique candlestick that turns out to be a cursed Egyptian relic, and is pursued by a manic collector who has been driven mad in his search for the object. Things culminate in a sinsiter and shadowy chase around the British Museum. Though it feels a bit like a padded two reeler, there are some excellet moments in WHAT NEXT?, and the final sequences are genuinely exciting.
WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT? is undoubtedly the best of all Forde’s vehicles. The story of a toy shop salesman who invents a wireless controlled tank and is pursued by spies was original and allowed for some ingenious gags. From simple sight gags in the toy shop (his attempts to package some helium balloons in wrapping paper is a pantomime highlight) to an elaborate finale of a runaway tank, Forde brought his A-game as actor, filmmaker and gagman.
The centrepiece of the film, and its most celebrated sequence, is a chase scene up and down the stairs of a London Underground station. Adroitly filmed and edited, the sequence is a marvel of silent comedy, and something uniquely Forde’s own. (You can see it excerpted in a British film of 1949, HELTER SKELTER as Doctor Jimmy Edwards tries to use it to induce laughter as a cure for hiccups!).
WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT? broke box office records, but the writing was already on the wall for the silent comedy genre. Forde’s next vehicle would still be a silent, but included a sound sequence and a synchronised soundtrack.
In fact, YOU’D BE SURPRISED was wholly centred around sound. Walter, as in real life, has been passionate about music since birth. This is shown in some flashbacks to him to him as a toddler, and then a small boy struggling to play an enormous piano. Moving forward to 1930, he is an aspiring songwriter, seen playing his latest song at a piano. However, he hasn’t quite made it yet, and in a great camera ‘reveal’ gag, we see he is actually playing the piano in the back of a moving van. Writing songs might be his dream, but moving pianos pays the bills!
The main part of the film centres around Walter’s attempts to sell a song he had written. (Forde really wrote the title song, ‘Too Late’, and sang it in the film’s sound sequence – sadly the soundtrack no longer exists). In a twist in the tale, Walter is mistaken for an escaped convict and sent to prison, where he ends up handcuffed to an escaping criminal.
Forde’s confidence to sing in YOU’D BE SURPRISED, and his experiences on stage, suggest that he could have continued in sound films, but he never did make a starring talkie. Perhaps his shyness was making him recede from the spotlight, but he turned purely to directing others. Throughout the 1930s, he became one of the top British directors, alternating between comedies, thrillers, and mixes of the two. Notable hits were THE GHOST TRAIN and BULLDOG JACK with Jack Hulbert, the lavish musical CHU CHIN CHOW, the thrillers ROME EXPRESS and SALOON BAR.
He made his last onscreen appearance in a brief cameo as a drunk piano player in CHEER BOYS BOY. An appearance harking back to his earliest stage appearances as the boy piano prodigy, Walter had come full circle.
He remained busy until the late 1940s, but retired after the flop of SId Field’s CARDBOARD CAVALIER. His long retirement was spent in the USA; he lived on until 1984 in relative anonymity.
In the wake of his directorial success, Forde’s early films have been neglected. It’s a shame, as he developed his own style, and his features, particularly WOULD YOU BELIEVE IT?, are as good as those by any of the second echelon American comics, like Monty Banks or Reginald Denny. Hopefully one day they will be released to DVD for new audiences to discover.
This article is adapted from an in-depth two-part article on Forde in issues 12 and 13 of THE LOST LAUGH magazine. Copyright Matthew Ross, 2020.