The Five Nights case
David Hewitt considers the historic banning of a silent film
In 1916, as the Great War wore on and the winter came to a sodden end, a trial took place in Manchester that got the whole country talking – which was ironic, because the subject of the trial was a silent film. The film was Five Nights – and it was chock-full of shenanigans. Based upon a book by the popular novelist Victoria Cross, it told the story of a rich young artist, who woos a Chinese girl in Alaska, falls for his own cousin back in London, and shoots a man stone dead. Most controversially of all, for its time, however, the film suggested that the artist had fathered an illegitimate child.
In spite – or perhaps because of – that, Five Nights was a huge success wherever it was shown – in Manchester itself, and in Liverpool, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Bristol. There were other places – Nottingham and Brighton, for example, Bradford and Dublin – where the film was banned. But nowhere was it banned as swiftly as in Preston. At the end of the August the previous year, the Chief Constable had seen the film at what would be its only showing in the town. And afterwards, he announced that it was “offensive and objectionable.”
Those words were what the Manchester trial was all about. They quickly came to the attention of Walter Stott and Fred White, the businessmen – from Manchester themselves – who had been distributing the film around the country. Stott and White had paid a sizeable fee for that privilege, and now, they said the Chief Constable had defamed them. They claimed £5,000 in damages (a sum worth sixty times as much today).
But Stott and White were singular men, and this wasn’t the only time either of them found himself appearing in court. As well as being a distributor of pictures, Walter Stott was also a proprietor of picture houses. The Olympia in Huddersfield was one of his, and it was in the office there he became involved in an incident with an usherette named Dora. One hot summer’s day, Stott told Dora he was going to Blackpool, and he asked whether she would like to go with him. “You’re a nice girl,” he said, and she sat on his knee and put his arm around her neck. The truth of what happened next was known only to the two of them – and to the two projectionists who were watching the incident through a little window in their booth. As he walked out of the police court after a humiliating hearing, Walter was surrounded by reporters. “You are not proud of what you did on this occasion?” one of the reporters asked. “No,” Walter replied. “I am very much ashamed of it.” Nor did Fred White escape unscathed.
Before long, he would produce a film entitled The Life Story of Charles Chaplin – but he would do so without first obtaining the permission of the great man himself. This most unofficial of biographies was made up of clips from earlier Chaplin films – The Kid and Goldrush – together with footage of an obscure music hall performer named Chick Wango, who was made up to look like Charlie and filmed only at a distance or in poor light. When news of the film got out, a writ soon followed. Fred White was “damnifying the fame and goodwill enjoyed by Mr Chaplin,” a lawyer announced – and White agreed at the door of the court that the film should be withdrawn. It would never be seen by a paying audience – although, 70 years later, a copy of it would turn up in a garage somewhere and go on to sell at auction for the best part of £20,000.
Their scuffles with Charlie and Dora weren’t Stott and White’s only appearances in court. None of them achieved anything and all of them cost them a great deal. That was certainly the case with the Five Nights trial. The Manchester hearing lasted two days, but the jury had been out for barely an hour when the foreman rose to his feet and announced the claim was dismissed. What the Chief Constable had said about the film was nothing more than fair comment, he declared.
David Hewitt is a lawyer and a writer. His book about the Five Nights case – Gold, Violet, Black, Crimson, White – is available now from Matador. Twitter: @historycalled