Searching for Walter Forde (1898-1984)



An Introduction of Walter Forde by BAFTA Award Winning Editor Don Fairservice.

To perhaps the unexpected delight of many, one Slapstick Festival 2013 event turned out to be quite a triumph. Under the title Lost Clowns was screened a little known film by English director Walter Forde.

The film was “Wait and See”, and in fact it’s probable that no one in the audience had previously seen it (none of the die-hard Bristol Silents or Slapstick Festival lot had anyway), or knew anything about it. In fact our contacts at The National Film Archive, who lent us the film also seemed to know little about it, other that some bits were missing. In the event the screening proved to be quite a revelation!

Walter Forde was born in 1898 a year before Alfred Hitchcock.

Both men were born in London; both entered the film industry about the same time; in most respects their careers developed in similar ways and both directors were equally successful. The vast difference is that Hitchcock’s name is one of the best known in cinema history, but Walter Forde’s name is largely unknown, his work is rarely seen and now mostly forgotten.

Although known as “Walter Forde” all his working life, he was born Thomas Woolforde. His father was a music Hall performer and comedian, and Walter’s early career was spent touring in stage melodramas and music-hall acts; his speciality being, action-based comedy which transferred readily into the popular silent movies of the day, as we shall see.

Realising that the future was going to be in cinema, Walter approached, and was taken on by Zodiac Films, and it was in 1920 that he wrote, directed and acted in his first short film ‘The Handy Man’.

‘Wait and See’ (1928) was the last of the eleven silent films comedies that he directed for Zodiac, and he wrote the script, played the lead and edited the film as well.

But that was only the beginning. During the sound period Forde directed 42 full-length features. One of the most popular and well known is ‘The Ghost Train’ which was released in 1941. It was based on a successful stage play written by Arnold Ridley, who many of you will recall played Private Godrey in the long-running television comedy-series ‘Dad’s Army’ – still running on BBC Two.

Forde was incredibly prolific, between 1920 and 1948, when he retired, he had directed 54 films and also wrote nineteen, acted in twenty-four and edited five of them.

During the early sound period, Forde, like Hitchcock, worked for producer Michael Balcon at Gainsborough Pictures and Gaumont British, where he directed ‘The Ghost Train’, ‘The Ringer’ (1932), ‘Jack’s the Boy’ (1932), ‘Rome Express’ (1932), ‘Jack Ahoy’ (1934), ‘Orders is Orders’ (1934), ‘Chu Chin Chow’ (1934), and ‘Bulldog Jack’ (1935). However, despite his extensive career and remarkable output, he is now virtually forgotten as a significant figure in British cinema.

None of the eleven silent films he directed are available on DVD, although some of his silent comedy short titles can be found on YouTube. Perhaps surprisingly, eleven of his sound films are still currently available on either DVD or VHS through Moviemail.com or Amazon.co.uk.

Profiles of Forde speak of him as a painfully shy, but intensely likeable man. He married his continuity girl and, despite her keeping a mainly low profile, it was generally accepted that Forde and his wife Culley worked throughout as a full-blown collaborative team. In fact they were once described in Picturegoer magazine as “One director who is two”

Forde’s final film, released in 1949, was ‘Cardboard Cavalier’, starring comedian Syd Field. He retired soon after, aged only fifty, and moved to California where he died in 1984.

On a visit to England, Mack Sennett (center) stops by the set of Bulldog Jack and poses with Jack Hulbert and director Walter Forde.

Text edited by Don Fairservice from his original transcript for Slapstick Festival 2013: Lost Clowns: Walster Forde.

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  1. #1 by Ben Model on February 3, 2013 - 6:00 am

    Watch “Walter Finds a Father” (1921) at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pEdzhxJTIRk

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