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  Maurice Elvey (1887–1967), by Howard Coster, 1935 Maurice Elvey (1887–1967), by Howard Coster, 1935
Elvey, Maurice [real name William Seward Folkard] (1887–1967), film director, was born on 11 November 1887 at 14 Park Road, Stockton-on-Tees, the eldest son of William Clarence Folkard, an inspecting engineer, and his wife, Sarah Anna Seward Pearce. Little is known about his childhood but it is believed his father had travelled north from Southsea, in search of engineering work; the family moved lodgings frequently. By the age of eleven he was in London, surviving on odd jobs, before getting work in the theatre in the early 1900s. Between 1908 and 1911 he undertook small roles in popular romantic dramas mounted by the Fred Terry and Julia Neilson company. On 31 December 1910, by which time he had assumed the name Maurice Elvey, he married Adeline Maud Charlton Preston (b. 1889/90), an actress and journalist, known as Philippa Preston. A member of the Fabian Society, Elvey read voraciously, and developed a lifelong appreciation of music, opera, and ballet. In pursuit of a more adventurous repertoire he formed the Adelphi Play Society (July 1911), and produced and acted in plays by Ibsen, Strindberg, Schnitzler, and Chekhov, including the first English performance of The Seagull (1912).

It was while taking Fanny's First Play to New York in 1912 at the behest of Harley Granville Barker that Elvey saw his first film, a four-minute version of The Flying Dutchman. The sight of ‘a real ocean with a ghost ship’ converted him to cinema as a ‘new and magical world’ of which he wanted to be a part. Following an introduction to a small London-based company, Elvey directed his first film, The Fallen Idol (1913). He quickly grasped the techniques and potentialities of the new medium, and at the London Film Company encountered the more systematic methods of American film-makers. He also built up a company of established theatre actors, including his leading lady, Elisabeth Risdon, who was to feature in his divorce in January 1915. On 2 February 1916 he remarried; his new wife was Florence Hill Clarke (b. 1890), a sculptor.

Elvey was soon recognized as a rising talent. His 1914 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Suicide Club was declared to be a ‘marked advance of work from this studio in every detail’ (The Bioscope, 9 July 1914). As well as introducing up-to-date techniques, he brought a new seriousness about the medium as an artistic undertaking. Overcoming British and Colonial's doubts about costume drama, he pioneered film biography with Florence Nightingale (1915), which was followed in 1917 by the highly successful Nelson for British Instructional. He then made for the Ideal Film Company The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1919), which for political reasons was never screened and, until recently, was assumed lost. Shortly afterwards Elvey became chief director for Stoll, then the largest film production company in Britain, for whom he undertook an ambitious programme of adaptations from classic and popular authors, including Charles Dickens, A. E. W. Mason, H. G. Wells, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ethel M. Dell, and Marie Corelli.

Elvey consolidated his reputation with films such as Comradeship (1919), one of the first to tackle issues of social change raised by the war, Mr Wu (1919), and The Passionate Friends (1922). His films were praised for their ‘painstaking detail’ of setting, furnishing, and costume, their emotionally and pictorially effective photography and lighting, their strong performances and ensemble playing, their creation of an involving story world and atmospheric pictures, their combination of ‘melodramatic punch’ with tasteful restraint, and their feeling for English social types and settings, and the English countryside in particular. Above all Elvey was seen to challenge the dominance of Hollywood. At the Villa Rose (1920), an intricate tale of spiritualism and detection, was for the reviewer in the Kinematograph Weekly ‘a magnificent day's work for the reputation of British film’ (Kinematograph Weekly, 6 May 1920) and justified Elvey's claim to be among the best directors in Britain. It was characteristic that he prefixed to the credits his own portrait—depicting an aesthetic looking thinker in pince-nez.

Motion Picture Studio described Elvey on set as ‘spruce and dapper’, always impeccably dressed, even while ‘darting here and there’ among his technicians and actors, ‘polish[ing] off scene after scene with smooth celerity, but no trace of haste’ (Motion Picture Studio, 24 March 1923). A noted ladies' man, he divorced for a second time, marrying on 13 January 1923 his then leading lady, Isobel Elsom (b. 1895); her real name was Isabella Reed. In 1924 Elvey escaped the slump in the British film industry by going to Hollywood, where he made five films. However, apparently unable to adapt, he returned the following year. During this difficult period his marriage to Isobel Elsom was dissolved. Aptly perhaps, their last film together, Human Law, made independently in Germany in 1926 and influenced by expressionism, was about a nasty divorce, and featured a psychotically jealous husband; The Bioscope found it ‘sombre to the point of being sordid’ (The Bioscope, 3 June 1926).

Following two successful independent productions in 1926, The Flag Lieutenant and Mademoiselle d'Armentieres, another First World War drama which mixed espionage and romance in the trenches, Elvey's career reached a creative peak. Mademoiselle brought together Elvey, Victor Saville, and V. Gareth Gundrey (scriptwriter) in a ‘winning team’ that was to flourish at Gaumont-British, 1927–9. They made the remarkable Palais de danse (1927), a Cinderella tale set within the emerging dance-hall sex industry; and also produced Hindle Wakes (1927). Elvey's first talking picture for Gaumont was the futuristic High Treason (1929), only just beaten as England's first sound film by Hitchcock's Blackmail. Elvey's brother, Fred Merrick, joined him on this film as assistant director, a position he was to occupy sporadically until the Second World War.

Victor Saville praised Elvey's ‘authoritative technical know-how … and sensitive feeling for the emotional’ (Saville). This was combined with a capacity to work quickly and efficiently within budget and schedule, an ability to weld a team of actors and crew, and a shrewd grasp of the popular imagination. In 1930 Elvey secured a contract to make a number of films for Basil Dean, including Gracie Fields's first film, Sally in our Alley (1931). He then remade The Lodger (1932) and adapted I Lived With You (1933), both with Ivor Novello. A second period with Gaumont (1933–5), devoted largely to musical comedies, peaked with the spectacular and sinister The Clairvoyant (1935). The financial failure of the high-budget The Tunnel (1935) and further industrial crisis returned Elvey to freelance work. Throughout the depressed years of the 1930s he was involved in struggles to establish and gain recognition for the Association of Cinematograph Technicians (1933), and later, as chair of the directors' section, he fought to secure minimum pay and working conditions for the now vast army of film workers (1939).

Elvey's first wartime film was For Freedom (1940), a characteristic mix of social document and romance, which he repeated in The Lamp Still Burns (1943), about the struggle between a nurse's call to duty and obedience and the new wartime independence of women. It recalled his earlier fascination with Florence Nightingale. In the brief golden age of British cinema after the war, Elvey adapted Stephan Zweig's Beware of Pity (1947), often considered his best film.

During the 1950s Elvey directed a series of low-budget but popular comedies. However, his film career came to a halt when an insurance medical revealed blindness in one eye. Ever resourceful, he turned to broadcasting, with a radio series, Opera Alphabet, and a television series, Picture Parade (1956–62). He also directed an episode in an Independent Television thriller series, White Hunter (1960). In 1953 he was described as still being ‘an immensely vital and vigorous man, with a small white beard and soft speaking voice of an enfant terrible who has not necessarily been tamed but has mellowed’ (Radio Times, 23 Dec 1953). Despite earlier prosperity, Elvey died impoverished in Raylands Nursing Home at 54 Marine Parade, Brighton, on 28 August 1967.

The only British director to continue making successful films for four generations, separated by two world wars, Elvey has been consistently praised for his work. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s he was consistently named ‘one of our best directors’ alongside Alfred Hitchcock and Herbert Wilcox, and in 1947 The Cine-Technician introduced him as ‘doyen of British directors’ (May–June 1947). Despite such achievement, Elvey has not been accorded the critical attention his interesting career deserves because his films do not fulfil the criteria for the film auteur largely established in relation to European or Hollywood directors. Thus later attention to his work has characterized him as a craftsman rather than artist. Yet his films brilliantly convey a peculiarly English sensibility.

Christine Gledhill

Sources  

L. Wood, The commercial imperative in the British film industry: Maurice Elvey, a case study (1987) · R. Low, The history of the British film, 3: 1914–1918 (1950) · R. Low, The history of the British film, 4: 1918–1929 (1971) · R. Low, The history of the British film, 7: 1929–1939: film making in 1930s Britain (1985) · D. Gifford, ‘The early memoirs of Maurice Elvey’, Griffithiana, 60–61 (Oct 1997), 77–124 · V. Saville, ‘Shadows on the screen’, unpublished memoirs, BFI, 32–7 · D. Quinlan, The illustrated guide to film directors (1983), 87–8 · R. W. Pohle and D. C. Hart, Sherlock Holmes on the screen (1977), 73, 77–9, 167 · K. Brownlow, David Lean (1996), 26, 49, 54–5, 57–60, 679 · Radio Times (23 Dec 1953) · B. Dean, Mind's eye: an autobiography, 1927–1972 (1973), 108 · The Bioscope (16 Oct 1913) · The Bioscope (9 July 1914) · The Bioscope (3 June 1926) · The Bioscope (10 Feb 1927) · The Bioscope (5 Jan 1928) · Kinematograph Weekly (Aug 1919) · Kinematograph Weekly (6 May 1920) · Kinematograph Weekly (22 April 1920) · Kinematograph Weekly (9 Feb 1922) · Kinematograph Weekly (19 June 1924) · Kinematograph Weekly (10 Feb 1927) · Kinematograph Weekly (11 Jan 1934) · Kinematograph Weekly (20 June 1935) · Kinematograph Weekly (9 Nov 1939) · Motion Picture Studio (24 March 1923) · Pictures and Picturegoer (Jan 1924) · The Picturegoer (Sept 1927) · private information (2004) · b. cert. · m. certs. [Adeline Preston; Florence Clarke; Isabella Reed] · d. cert. · CGPLA Eng. & Wales (1967) · The Era (19 March 1910) · The Times (29 Aug 1967) · North East Daily Gazette (12 Jan 1915)

Archives  

BFI, letter to the British Film Institute  

FILM

 

BFINA, performance footage

 

SOUND

 

BBC WAC


Likenesses  

H. Coster, photographs, c.1935–1936, NPG [see illus.] · photographs, priv. colls. · photographs, Green Dragon Museum, Stockton-on-Tees

Wealth at death  

£376: probate, 10 Nov 1967, CGPLA Eng. & Wales