Henry K. Miller
Saturday 25 March
‘Captain Ellis, the well-known big game hunter,’ it is reported in the Leicester Evening Mail, ‘has brought to London the first film record of wild elephants in the Ceylon Elephant Kraal.’
Every half-dozen or so years, the wild elephant population of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) grew to the extent that it interfered with human agriculture, and there was a round-up, called a ‘kraal’, which involved erecting stockades and organizing armies of beaters to drive the elephants towards them, then using ‘tame’ elephants for the difficult process of ensnaring them, and, after their capture, taming them in turn, a ‘delicate and amazing process’, Fred Ellis wrote in an article later in the year. He had gone out to film the kraal in order to produce what turned out to be a two-reel documentary (avant la lettre – the term ‘documentary’ was not yet in use), The Great Elephant Kraal at Kurunegala, first shown in September 1922.
This news of Ellis’s return in March, which appeared as the last item in the Leicester Evening Mail’s ‘Moments with the Mummers’ section, devoted to theatre and movie news, probably appeared in other papers as well, but it does not show up in searches, and there is no obvious reason why it appeared where it did. But its significance for the Hitchcock story is that Fred A. Ellis’s cameraman was Joe Rosenthal, who shot Number Thirteen.
Number Thirteen was a short, presumably cheap film, and was presumably shot quickly. The fullest account Hitchcock gave of it is the first, in 1930. His job at Famous Players-Lasky, he recounted, ‘came to an end, and I should have been left high and dry if right-minded relations had not agreed to finance a film so that I could make my name.’ It is assumed that it was shot at Poole Street, but without very hard evidence – there are stills showing the production in the Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles, which has Hitchcock’s archive, and in the Ernest Thesiger archive at the University of Bristol. In his biography Hitch, John Russell Taylor, who had interviewed Hitchcock, and invited his comments on the manuscript, says that ‘In the records of Islington Studios it is called Mrs. Peabody’ – but the nature of these ‘records’ are a mystery, and Hitchcock did not help elucidate. Number Thirteen was not a Famous Players-Lasky production, as Taylor slightly suggests it might have been. Hitchcock himself said, in 1936, that ‘It was not made for any company.’ It is most likely that it was shot at Poole Street after Famous Players-Lasky had ceased production there, and before it became a rental facility for the likes of Gliddon and Crisp, or in the early months of it being a rental facility.
Joe Rosenthal had been part of the Poole Street crew before going to Ceylon – he had worked on Donald Crisp’s The Princess of New York in 1920 – and Hitchcock’s assistants, Norman Arnold and Arthur Barnes, had worked there as well. This would account for them knowing Hitchcock, and fits with the sense that Number Thirteen was made by a group of people who were at a loose end – possibly still contracted to Famous Players-Lasky, possibly not in the case of Rosenthal. Poole Street effectively closed down in February 1922, and the first mention of it being rented out – tentatively to Crisp, then definitely to Gliddon – is made in the same month. Though it cannot be absolutely ruled out, it is unlikely that Number Thirteen was shot before then. But it is also unlikely that Number Thirteen was shot in February or early March, since Rosenthal was abroad throughout that time – the journey to and from Colombo could take more than three weeks each way. Taking all this into account, the first likely date for Number Thirteen is late March or early April – after Rosenthal’s return from Ceylon, and before the return of John Gliddon’s company from Egypt.