The History of Hammer Films Part One: Pre-Horror Hammer

In late 1934 that Hammer Productions came into being. The first Hammer Production was The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935). While the film itself had little to do with Hammer as we know chem, The founders of Hammer Film Productions, William (Will Hammer) Hinds, and Enrique Carreras. the title demonstrates that even in their earliest days, Hammer Films were designed to offer the public something pre-sold which they were certain to have some interest in. In this case, the title was a joke based on Alexander Korda’s classic film of 1933, The Private Life of Henry the Eighth starring Charles Laughton. Next came The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1936), of interest simply because it featured the great horror film star Bela Lugosi (who, unfortunately, never had the chance to work for Hammer during its horror period, as he died in 1956). However, this is pure coincidence as it was not a horror film but a mystery based on a famous true life incident, its American title being Phantom Ship/The Mystery of the Marie Celeste (1935). This was followed, in the same year, by Song of Freedom (1936) starring the well known singing personalities Paul Robeson and Elizabeth Welch. (Together with the only known film acting appearance of Will Hammer himself.)

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In 1937 the very popular comedian Stanley Lupino starred in Sporting Love (1936) and with this the earliest stage of Hammer Productions came to an end. It was about this time that William Hinds/Hammer joined forces with Enrique Carreras, an ex-cinema owner. (Carreras had previously pioneered one of the earliest ‘circuits’ Of Cinemas known as the “Blue Halls” and had staged the first Royal Command Performance at the Albert Hall with a presentation of Quo Vadis.) At the time, Enrique Carreras was running a small distribution company, Exclusive Films (formed in 1932), distributing other companies’ productions, (including many re-issues of Korda’s famous London Films—Q – Planes, The Spy in Black (1939) etc.) well as re-issues of the four early Hammer films (which had originally been released through different distributors). Then, in the late 1940s, (Jack Goodlatte, Booking Manager of) the ABC circuit Of cinemas (now EMI) showed such interest in the box office potential of British (Quota) supporting features that Exclusive decided to go into production as well as continuing in distribution. Employing the skills of outside producers their first new release was a “Knightsbridge-Hammer Production” entitled River Patrol (1948), a 46 minute London Police story which was quickly followed by Who Killed Van Loon?, a 48 minute mystery thriller credited as “An Exclusive Production”. Exclusive’s third “homemade” release, “A Hammer Film in association with Marylebone studios” (a converted church), was Dick Barton, Detective (1948), which ran an hour and ten minutes (a mammoth length at that time) and marked an important “first” for Hammer in that it was based on a fantastically successful BBC radio series of the Same name. (So successful that people used to stop their cars on their way home and listen to the nightly 15 minute episodes). Once again, Hammer was turning to material which the public was already familiar with, and, ironically, it was to be the BBC which would eventually inspire Hammer to specialize in the making of science fiction and horror films, but that’s a long way off yet.

Song of Freedom (1936

It was not until February of 1949 that Hammer Film Productions Limited were officially registered, with William Hinds, Enrique Carreras, Anthony Hinds (son of William), and James Carreras (son of Enrique) as directors; but the official company list Of Hammer Films started with the production unit formed in November 1947. Operating in a house named Dial Close at Cookham Dene, Berkshire.) The first Hammer Film was Dr. Morelle: The Case of the Missing Heiress (1949), based on the radio play by Wilfred Burr and starring Valentine (Man In Black) Dyall in the title role. (Dyall was definitely a forerunner of the Christopher Lee style and appeared in many of the early films.) This firmly established the Hammer format of producing thrillers based on familiar BBC serial or play material and during 1948-49 was followed in quick succession by The Adventures of P.C. 49: Investigating the Case of the Guardian Angel (1949), Meet Simon Cherry (1949), The Man in Black (1949), Room to Let (1950) and Someone at the Door (1950). All of these films were based on pre-sold’ radio material and found to be generally acceptable as sup- porting features by British audiences. (Several other patterns were to emerge from this first year of continuous production. We had the use Of large country houses temporarily converted to makeshift studios a permanent technical unit that operated as almost a family, so that the a team public became familiar with a Hammer style. All these films were produced by Anthony Hinds and directed by either Godfrey Gray son or Francis Searle, and a future director John Gilling was writing screenplays—such as The Man in Black and Room to Let.)

1950 saw the production of five more radio favorites What the Butler Saw (1950), The Lady Craved Excitement (1950), The Black Widow (1951), The Rossiter Case (1951) and To Have and to Hold (1951). All were produced by Anthony Hinds and again directed by either Grayson or Searle, with one more screenplay by Gilling (Lady Craved Excitement). (To make The Black Widow and later films, We again moved to Gilston Park in Essex. Here we made a further Barton adventure, Dick Barton at Bay (1950), with a much larger budget and a chase climax on the Blackpool.

Sadly. Don Stannard, who had played Barton in all three films, Was killed in a car accident shortly after completion Of the film.) 1950 also saw Michael Carreras’ first production, The Dark Light (1951). This film was produced entirely on location on the Nab Tower, Portsmouth and written and directed by Vernon Sewell. With 15 productions completed in the first three years of operation and considerable audience acceptance achieved, Hammer now ended its nomadic production formula of moving from house to house and they purchased “Down Place” on the Thames near the village of Bray in Berkshire—and began to create permanent studio facilities which would later serve as the basis of Baron Frankenstein’s Estate, Dracula’s Castle, The Haunt of the Werewolf, The Mummy, The Reptile, The Zombies, Baskerville Hall and many other weird Hammer film dwellings. But in this year of 1951 Hammer made their first international deal with American Producer-Distributor and cinema chain owner, Robert L. Lippert, (a major force in the growth of Hammer Productions) whereby Exclusive would distribute Lippert’s product in the United Kingdom (Rocket Ship X-M, The Steel Helmet, Lost Continent, Catwomen of the Moon and many others) and Lippert would provide American artists to appear in Hammer films then distribute them in the U.S.A. (Unfortunately Enrique Carreras was not to See this step forward in the fortunes of Hammer as he had died in October 1950 at the age of 70).

The Gambler and the Lady (1952)

The first five films produced in ’51 were Cloudburst (1951) a psychological drama starring Robert Preston Whispering Smith vs. Scotland Yard (1952) the well-known American Investigator Whispering Smith played by Richard Carlson, Man Bait (1952) George Brent (joined by Britain’s young sex sensation, Diana Dors), Dead on Course (1952) Zachary Scott (joined by Diane Cilento in her first film role), and Stolen Face (1952) Paul Henreid and Lizabeth Scott. The last three of these films were all directed by a newcomer to the Hammer Team Terence Fisher. Stolen Face is of particular interest as it offered a “preview” of later Fisher/ Hammer films in terms of both plot and theme.

Dr. Philip Ritter, a plastic surgeon (Paul Henreid), falls in love with a gifted and beautiful concert pianist, Alice Brent (Lizabeth Scott). They meet by chance at a country inn, and romance soon develops. However, Alice is already engaged to be married and, afraid to tell Ritter, runs away. Ritter is devastated.

Back at his London surgery, Ritter receives a phone call from Alice, who informs him she is to marry David (André Morell). Meanwhile, Ritter’s new patient is Lily Conover (Mary Mackenzie), a female convict whose face is disfigured. The love-struck surgeon believes he can change her criminal ways by constructing her new face to resemble that of Alice. He does so, and they marry. (Now identical to Alice, she is played by Scott.)

However, Lily has not changed her ways. She soon grows bored of Ritter’s sedate lifestyle, and returns to a life of crime and partying. She is reckless in her behavior, and unabashedly flirtatious with other men, and he comes to despise her. As Alice completes her latest concert tour, David knows there is something wrong with her. He guesses she is in love with someone else, and calls off the engagement. Alice goes to see Ritter, who confesses what he has done.

Later, an upset Ritter leaves London for Plymouth, believing that the situation can never be reversed. Lily follows him, however, and takes the same train, where she becomes drunk and aggressive towards Ritter. Alice believes Ritter is so upset he may harm Lily, or even kill her if provoked, and she too joins the train. She arrives just as the two are arguing, and engaged in a physical struggle as Ritter tries to prevent the intoxicated Lily from falling out of the carriage. As Alice enters, Lily accidentally falls against the loose carriage door, and falls out of the train. The film ends as Lily is discovered dead at the side of the tracks, and Ritter and Alice are reunited.

And so we find in Stolen Face an early version of Hammer’s obsessed “mad scientist”, as well as one of the first examples of Fisher’s continuing theme of evil lurking beneath an attractive surface. producer Of Hammer—joined the company as Production Manager at this time. 1952 saw the continuation of the Hammer/Lippert association on Scotland Yard Inspector (1952)—with Cesar Romero, and for the first time an American director was used, Sam Newfield. (NOTE: Whilst the production-studio facilities were being developed at the Hammer-Bray Studios, Dead on Course (1952), Stolen Face and Lady in a Fog were made at Riverside Studios Hammersmith. These studios no longer exist). Also from Hammer/Lippert in The Gambler and the Lady (1952) This unusual photograph proves that film crews need never get their feet wet whilst shooting “in the middle of a lake”. From To Have and to Hold (1951) with Robert Ayres and Avis Scott.

spaceways-lobby

Also produced during the year of ’51 bringing the total of films produced that year to eight were a P.C. 49 sequel, A Case for PC 49 (1951), and Never Look Back (1952), which were the last of the domestic film programme. (Over- hangs from the radio/play library of scripts built up during 1950. The action—more talk than action, of Never Look Back all took place in an old Bailey Courtroom in London, but the film was produced entirely in yet another converted church in Manchester, but that’s the film business. Anthony Nelson Keys a future prolific Clark, Mantrap with Paul Henreid returning for a second film, Four Sided Triangle (1953) and Bad Blonde (1953) both starring Barbara Payton, and Spaceways (1953) with Howard Duff. Four Sided Triangle and Spaceways were of special note, being Hammer’s first venture into the world of science fiction and both directed by Terence Fisher.

Four Sided Triangle (1953), written and directed by Val Guest in 1956 from Nigel Kneale’s BBC Radio series. Dr. Harvey, a rural physician, breaks the fourth wall to relate an unusual occurrence that happened in his village. The bulk of the story is told in flashback.

Bill and Robin are boyhood friends who compete for the affections of Lena, a beautiful girl about their own age. Lena’s family moves away, and in adulthood the two men become scientists. They collaborate on the Reproducer, a machine that can exactly duplicate physical objects. Lena returns to the village, and Bill and Robin’s forgotten childhood feelings return. In time, they abandon their work on the Reproducer, and Robin leaves the village to learn his family’s business. Bill is disappointed to discover that Lena loves Robin and intends to marry him.

Hoping that he can win Lena’s affections, Bill convinces her to allow him to use the Reproducer to create a duplicate of her. The experiment succeeds, and Bill names the duplicate “Helen”. Because Helen is an exact copy, when she is introduced to Robin she also falls in love with him. Bill believes that electro-shock therapy can be used to erase Helen’s knowledge of Robin. Not wishing to compete with Lena for Robin’s affections, Helen agrees to the therapy. Bill convinces Lena to help him with the procedure. The process proceeds as planned, but the apparatus overheats, explodes and causes a terrific fire.

Robin and Dr. Harvey arrive in time to rescue a woman from the fire. Bill and the other woman perish in the flames. Harvey, having been briefed on the situation by Robin, discovers that the woman has amnesia. The two men wonder whom they have saved. Dr. Harvey recalls that Bill had to start Helen’s heart with a device that he attached to the back of her neck, leaving two scars. Robin is relieved to find that there are no marks on the neck of the woman they rescued: It is Lena.

Stolen Face (1952)

The film was budgeted at £25,000 and filmed over five weeks in August and September of 1952 better than the twenty days Hammer usually allotted Terence Fisher at this time. The cheapness of the film is clear from the credit, ‘Wedding Scene dressed by Youngs Dress Hire Ltd., London W1’ the outfitters presumably waiving their fee in return for on-screen publicity. Fisher was no doubt keenly aware of the financial pressure. Rain did not stop play during location work at Lulworth Cove in Weymouth, when Fisher surprised imported Hollywood starlet Barbara Payton by filming on, regardless of an unforeseen shower.

Hammer assembled a strong cast. 25-year old Payton was familiar to genre fans from Curt Siodmak’s Bride of the Gorilla (1951). Her casting was Hammer’s standard, and at this stage still imperative, concession to the American market. She also appeared in The Flanagan Boy for Hammer but never fully bore out Carreras’s “hot tip” that she would “become an international sex symbol star”. She died in 1967. James Hayter, cast as Dr Harvey, was fresh from his triumphs as Friar Tuck and Mr Pickwick; fifteen years on he would reprise the former on Hammer’s behalf in A Challenge for Robin Hood (1967) and then have the distinction of appearing in The Horror of Frankenstein. He would also, of course, become the voice of Mr Kipling’s “exceedingly good cakes”. An actor who, only a few months previously, had been playing King Lear at the Old Vic and who, at forty, was only five years Hayter’s junior – might seem a curious choice for the rôle of Dr Harvey’s surrogate son, but Stephen Murray made a suitably haunted and unbalanced Bill nonetheless. He was later to spend fifteen years at the helm of BBC Radio’s The Navy Lark, but was already to radio what Peter Cushing was to television – more or less the most popular actor on it. Cast in the thankless role of Robin, and billed somewhat below the others, was John van Eyssen, a 27-year old South African actor who would later appear for Hammer in Quatermass 2, Man with a Dog and, of course, as a notable Jonathan Harker in Dracula. He subsequently became Chief Production Executive for Columbia Pictures in the UK and was also companion to Ingrid Bergman in her later years.

The two male stars of Four Sided Triangle died in the same week in the spring of 1983 James Hayter on 27th March, Stephen Murray on 1st April – some thirty years after the film’s release. This occurred in May 1953 (in both the UK and the US), and the film was better received by the public than by the press.

Anthony Hinds

Interview with Screenwriter Anthony Hinds
How did you get started in screenwriting?
Anthony Hinds: My first produced script was Curse of the Werewolf. I wrote it because the budget I was given as a producer wasn’t enough to include a writer.

You started out wanting to be a writer, correct?
Anthony Hinds: Well, that isn’t strictly true. I had always dabbled in writing since I was a boy. I quite enjoyed it when I started writing. That certainly applies to Jimmy Sangster, who was my second assistant, first assistant, production manager and all that before he started writing scripts. Jimmy and Michael Carreras were about the same age. I was a bit older. But we used to go out a lot together. We were all very good friends.

Why did you choose John Elder as your pen name?
Anthony Hinds: It’s not a very interesting story. When I was a boy, I edited a magazine for a group attached to my school. And when you’re editing those things, you usually end up writing a lot. The chap who was typing it for me rang me up and said, “Look, I can’t give you the byline on everything, so for the serial story, can you give me a different name?” There was a man working for my father at the time-my father was very slightly involved in films called Jim Elder Wills. So I said, “Oh, how about Jim Elder?” And the typist got it wrong and typed it John Elder. And that’s how John Elder was born. Funnily enough, Jim Elder Wills worked for me long after that. I never told him that story.

Were most of your scripts commissioned or did they spring from your own ideas?
Anthony Hinds: Well, you have to understand that I was also a director of the company [Hammer), so there was no question of a commission. I was part of the company, so I was never paid for my scripts, just as a producer.

As producer overseeing production of your own scripts, were you on set every day?
Anthony Hinds: I always was. And having written a script, I used to forget that I’d written it. It never seemed to me that I had.

Did the directors ask you for any on-set rewrites?
Anthony Hinds: No. I used to ask for them, mainly because we were always running short of time. We only had 30 days to make ’em, or whatever it was. And if we were going to get it out in 30 days, I knew we had to do something about it.

Spaceways (1953), adapted from Charles Eric Maine’s radio play by Paul Tabori and Richard Landau (an American writer who worked on several of the Lippert co-ventures) was basically a murder mystery with outer space backgrounds and quite simply, never overcame its severe budget limitations.

Engineer Dr. Stephen Mitchell is part of a British space program that plans to launch a satellite that will permanently orbit earth. At a cocktail party, it is announced to the program’s staff that the satellite project has been approved by the defense council. Mitchell’s wife Vanessa is not enthusiastic about the new project, nor with having to live at its high security base. She sneaks away with Dr. Philip Crenshaw, with whom she is having an affair. Dr. Mitchell leaves the party with Lisa Frank, a mathematician on the project, who is in love with him. When Mitchell returns home, he has an argument with Vanessa; he had been made aware of her having passionately kissed Crenshaw after she left with him.

The satellite rocket soon launches, but it does not reach its maximum altitude. Afterward, it is discovered that Crenshaw and Vanessa have disappeared. Dr. Smith secretly investigates their disappearance and comes to the conclusion that not only were the two murdered, but that they were murdered by Dr. Mitchell, after which he hid their bodies in the spacecraft’s fuel tanks. Smith approaches Mitchell with the accusation, while also telling him about Crenshaw being a spy, who had concealed having a degree from a German university.

Mitchell decides to go into space on the second rocket being launched, in order to try to prove his innocence. Smith discovers that there was a new team member added just prior to the disappearance, and that a security guard had died in an accident a week earlier. Soon after, Smith and the police discover that Crenshaw and Vanessa are actually at a seaside cottage. Crenshaw has been planning to head to the east instead of going to America, as he previously had said. During a violent scuffle between Crenshaw and Smith, Vannesa is accidentally killed.

After the rocketship launches into space, Mitchell is surprised to see that Lisa is on board; she had previously convinced Toby to let her go on the flight instead of him. Despite the revelation that the bodies of Crenshaw and Vanessa are not on board, Mitchell and Frank attempt to jettison the spaceship’s second stage, resulting in an explosion, causing their spacecraft to go out of control. Steve, however, releases the fail-safe, saving them from destruction and allowing the spaceship to return safely to Earth.

Cloudburst (1951)

The Saint’s Return/The Saint’s Girl Friday (1953) with Louis Hayward re-creating his earlier role as Leslie Charteris’ famous hero, Blood Orange/Three Stops to Murder (1953) with Tom Conway, 36 Hours/Terror Street (1953) with Dan Duryea, Face the Music/The Black Glove (1954)with Alex Nicol (as the trumpet-playing detective dubbed by Kenny Baker on the soundtrack), The House Across the Lake/Heat Wave (1954) again with Alex Nicol, plus Hillary Brooke from the U.S.A. (with Ken Hughes directing his first film from his own screenplay of his own novel ‘High Wray’) Life with the Lyons/Family Affair (1954)—a re-entry into the pre-sold radio (and later TV) series, starring Ben, Bebe, Barbara and Richard Lyon. (A situation comedy and forerunner of the many other television series spin-offs that Hammer were to produce in the seventies), and Val Guest’s first directing assignment for Hammer, Murder by Proxy/Blackout (1954) and Paid to Kill/Five Days (1954)—both with Dane Clark back again.

A mixed bag of thrillers with the comedy exception as were the eight films produced in 1954. A Stranger Came Home/The Unholy Four (1954) with Paulette Goddard, for which Michael Carreras wrote his first screenplay from a novel by actor George Sanders. Third Party Risk/The Deadly Game (1954) with Lloyd (Joe Forrester) Bridges, Mask of Dust/Race for Life (1954) with Richard Conte, The Men of Sherwood Forest (1954) —Hammer’s first colour film with Don Taylor as Robin Hood, The Lyons Abroad (1955) a second Lyons family situation comedy, The Glass Tomb (1955) with John Ireland, Break in the Circle (1955) second colour film with Forrest Tucker and Eva Bartok, and finally the forerunner to the new era ahead, The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), based on Nigel Kneale’s fantastically successful BBC/TV Serial, starring Brian Donlevy and directed by Val Guest. Hammer knew they had a potential hit ‘in the can’ (but in film making there is that nail biting gap’ between producing a picture and getting the audience reaction) and so, 1953 became a waiting game. Except for Women Without Men (1956) with Beverley Michaels as one of the many deprived female prison inmates, all feature production was halted, and existing scripts were discarded. With faith in what they had, Val Guest, Nigel Kneale and Jimmy Sangster (who had worked himself up from tea boy to Production Manager during ten years in the production team, but had always wanted to write) were commissioned to write screenplays with the ‘new image’ in view.

Michael-Carreras

Interview with Michael Carreras
Hammer’s first two genre excursions, Four-Sided Triangle and Spaceways, both directed by Terence Fisher, in 1953. Did you feel an affinity for fantasy and science-fiction themes at that early time?

Michael Carreras: There was a bit more excitement in their preparation. My adrenalin level certainly went up higher than it had for the previous films. I began to see great potential in using special effects. I was dabbling in material I hadn’t known before. A fresh element entered my life.

The previous cycles of radio adaptations and American co-productions coalesced in 1955 with The Quatermass Xperiment. Was it a natural evolution for Hammer to turn to TV for source material?
Michael Carreras: The nation came grinding to a halt every Thursday evening, so people could watch The Quatermass Xperiment on TV. Hammer naturally saw that as an opportunity to repeat our first cycle, and again take material which was successful in the broadcast medium and turn it into a film. The selection of Quatermass as film material had nothing to do with its being science fiction. We were simply applying the same expertise, but in a different area.

Yet Hammer then capitalized on the commercial success of Quatermass with another science-fiction thriller, X-The Unknown, in 1956, for which Jimmy Sangster wrote his first feature screenplay.
Michael Carreras: We could see how well Quatermass was turning out as we were making it. We were very excited about it, so we decided to do another science-fiction picture. Jimmy liked the idea, and asked if he could write the script. Everybody told him: “Oh, go away.” He must have thought we meant: “Oh, go away and write,” because that’s what he did. In those days, Jimmy only needed to hear someone ask: “Why don’t we try this idea?” and the next morning, his script would be on your desk.

Did the success of The Quatermass Xperiment inspire Hammer to initiate their third cycle of gothic horror thrillers?
Michael Carreras: I consider Quatermass to be the actual beginning of the horror cycle, but that can only be seen in hindsight. At the time, there was no direct correlation. There was, however, an indirect influence. I can still remember the conference following the screening of the Quatermass rough cut, prior to the insertion of the final special effects shots. The monster hanging over Westminster Abbey at the end was a bit of a gooey mess. Out of that conference came the decision to give the monster some semblance of humanity in its last moments, to reflect the man it had once been. It was decided to incorporate within the sludge a faint image of a human eye, although of enormous proportions, and to have a distant, final human scream. That improved the Quatermass monster, and in a strange way, it also foreshadowed the human monsters who were featured in the horror cycle. But the thought that Hammer should move into the gothic classics didn’t come from Quatermass’ success at all. It came from Jack Goodlatte. He said: “Why don’t you guys do Frankenstein?” It was as simple as that. It was like the word of God to us-a small, dependent, independent company-to have him say: “I would look kindly upon your providing me with a film based on the Frankenstein novel.” So without much ado, we hurried off and made it. We figured that if it turned out to be a bad movie, Goodlatte would still have to take it because it was his idea.

Was booking manager Goodlatte so powerful that he could exert such influence over your production and distribution?
Michael Carreras: Goodlatte’s ideas were almost edicts. When a man in that position came forward and made a suggestion, he was taken seriously. Of course, we felt it was a jolly good suggestion. We looked at the record, and discovered that there had never been a Frankenstein film in color before. The black-and-white Universal version had not been shown in England for many years. It all made very good sense to us.

One thought on “The History of Hammer Films Part One: Pre-Horror Hammer

  1. Always heard that The Mystery of the Marie Celeste was supposed to be pretty weak. But honestly did not find it to be too bad. Would be nice to maybe see a full. uncut version one day, but doubt that will ever happen.

    Liked by 1 person

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