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17 June 2010

75th Anniversary Of First Hammer Film

Bombardier Billy Wells as the original Hammer Productions Ltd anvil man Photo courtesy Robert Simpson collection

On the 75th anniversary of the release of the first ever Hammer film production, film historian Robert Simpson takes a look at the origins of Hammer and the first incarnation of the company.

No-one who went to see it could have anticipated that the general release on 17 June 1935 of comedy filler The Public Life of Henry the Ninth would have been ultimately responsible for a wave of films which pushed audiences expectations and frustrated the censor, and forever linked the name Hammer with horror cinema. In fact so far removed from the Hammer films that most people are familiar with, that the earliest version of Hammer Films has largely been pushed to the side and forgotten about.

It doesn’t help that the early company history is so fragmentary. I’ve been researching the history of Exclusive and the pre-horror history of Hammer for several years. Presumably nobody expected Hammer to obtain the legacy it has, and many of the corporate records are missing, and no copies are known to exist of many of the features.


The typescript first treatment document dated October 1934 makes it clear that ‘Henry the Ninth’ (as it was then called) was always intended as a vehicle for Leonard Henry – a popular radio comedian of the day who not only has the distinguished privilege of being the star of the first ever Hammer film but was also the first person to appear in a live outside broadcast for the BBC. The script by Herbert Ayres and Bernard Mainwaring was signed over to Hammer Productions Ltd. on 17 November 1934 and quickly put before the cameras at MGM/ATP Studios, Ealing. Directed by Mainwaring, and featuring aging theatrical comedian George Mozart in the supporting cast – Mozart himself being one of the directors of Hammer.

The 61 minute feature was exhibited to the censor less than two months later, but it wasn’t until June 1935 (a month after the formation of distribution company Exclusive Films ) that Hammer chose to release it. Despite a re-release by Exclusive in 1940, the film is now thought to be lost. All that remains are a few production stills, some advertising/publicity material and a draft script.

We do know that the film was a low-budget affair. It centres around a street entertainer called Henry Henry (Leonard Henry) who is offered a job at the local pub – the Henry the VIII (Henry adopts the moniker ‘Henry the Ninth’ as he is the 9th person in the job in the last year). After a girl is knocked down outside the pub, Henry and his musician friends give a show at the hospital which attracts the attention of a theatrical manager who encourages Henry to put on a show, and then offers a major contract to both Henry and his friends.


Henry the Ninth is typical of the early films produced by Hammer – concentrated around working class pubs and theatrical acts, they reflected the professional and personal interest of William Hinds, the man who gave Hammer its name. Hinds was part of the Hinds Jewellers dynasty and operated his own chain under the W. Hinds name. He was also a sometime comedian and stage magician, who used the stage name ‘Will Hammer’. A look at his company directorships reveals a strong interest in things theatrical. Hinds would go on to have interests in theatrical management (there were a string of ‘Hammer Theatres’ across the UK), film exhibition, publishing, music publishing, serving as an actor’s agent, a string of hotels as well as the family Jewellers, a building society, hairdressers and a bicycle shop.

Hammer Productions Ltd. was just part of Hinds’ business empire and owes its initial identity to him. The first board of directors included Hinds, J. Elder Wills, H. Frazer Passmore, D.J. Gillings (aka. George Mozart) and G.A. Gillings (Mozart’s brother).

To cement the Hammer image in the eyes of the public a special logo was filmed, featuring a muscular man banging a hammer on an anvil in a rhythm which in morse code spelt out ‘Hammer’. The ‘Hammer man’ was British and European heavyweight boxing champion Bombardier Billy Wells. Just two years later Wells would become associated with another (longer lasting) iconic image – that of the first Rank ‘gongman’.

THE 1930s 

The rest of the 1930s productions suffer similarly from a lack of availability. All are viewed as cheap entertainment, B-features and fillers with little lasting impact. Yet for the cultural historian they provide important snapshots into the tastes and lives of the English public. The dominance of comedy in the early films (regardless of the quality) is a curious alternative to the horror and thriller films that Hammer would become synonymous with, and the prevalence of the genre could be posited as an alternative history for the Hammer group.

The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1936) is arguably the first taste of the Hammer we know today – a dark thriller based upon a true maritime disaster, with the star Bela Lugosi (best known for his portrayal of Dracula in the Universal horror movie of the same name) imported from the US. Today the only copies known to exist are of the shorter American version Phantom Ship, shorn of 20 minutes of book-ending court-room material.

The Song of Freedom (1936) was produced by Hinds (as Hammer) and Enrique Carreras, and directed by company director J. Elder Wills. Like Henry the Ninth, the film centres around a working class male who ends up performing on the stage to much praise. Again the lead actor was imported from the US (a policy which Hammer would adopt regularly through the 1950s and 60s). Paul Robeson was an international star – a bass-baritone singer who would become as famous for his work as a civil rights activist as his performances. Song of Freedom is to date the only Hammer film to feature black actors in the lead roles (his co-star was Elisabeth Welch), and was deemed important enough to be permanently preserved by the BFI in the National Film Archive in the 1940s. It remains hugely important not least as a milestone in Black British popular culture.
- Mozart incidentally is on hand once again to provide comic relief (in a role, the sort of which would become Michael Ripper’s stock in trade for Hammer during the 1960s).

To date, no materials are known to survive from three additional Hammer shorts produced during the period.

Polly’s Two Fathers (1935) was written/directed by Mozart, with Hammer producing, and the two friends starring – with a plot concerning two broke fishermen about to be evicted from their homes. Bank Messenger Mystery (1936) was produced by Will Hammer himself, and is a 56 minute thriller. Similarly Musical Merrytone No. 1 (1936) was directed by Hammer, and underlines his interests in popular music of the period.

The final film of the original Hammer company (so far as we can currently confirm) was an adaptation of the Stanley Lupino play

Sporting Love (1936), which had been a huge success in London’s West End two years previous. Made at the newly-upgrade Beaconsfield Studios for British Lion, the film was a mad romp about a couple of racehorse owners (played by Lupino and Laddie Cliff) who are struggling to find the finance to pay their mortgage. Set largely within the confines of a large country home, with scenes filmed on location at the Derby, Sporting Love once again manifests Hammer’s love of musical theatre, with a selection of songs from Lupino’s previous plays making up the memorable score. Currently thought to be ‘lost’ in its complete form, a 50 minute redacted version has recently been discovered allowing the film to be appreciated by a wider audience once again.

Unfortunately Sporting Love failed to be the success on screen that it was in the London theatres, and Hammer Productions Ltd. soon folded, with only the distribution concern left operating during the war.


William Hinds died in June 1957 following a cycling accident near his home in Leatherhead, just as the future of the Hammer company was being decided following the release of The Curse of Frankenstein a few weeks earlier. His son Anthony would maintain a connection with the company up until the 1980s, although the direction would increasingly be decided by the Carreras family.

While the films produced from the mid 1950s on are regularly broadcast on television, revived in cinemas, and released on DVD, the films of the 1930s and 1940s are under-represented. My own current research suggests that there are other titles that Hammer and Exclusive produced during the period which so far have gone unacknowledged through lack of extant paperwork. To truly appreciate Hammer for me, I feel you have to go back to where it began. And without those humble origins in popular musical theatre, Hammer would not today be celebrating the diamond anniversary of its first release.

Robert Simpson is currently researching the history of Exclusive Films and the early history of the Hammer group for a PhD project at Trinity College Dublin. His findings will be published in due course. 

He can be contacted regarding his research via www.exclusivefilms.co.uk

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