British Film Producer and Director
Born 1889 Died 1947
George Berthold Samuelson, known to his friends as 'Bertie', was one of the early pioneers of the British film industry. He was born on the 6th July 1889 at 41 Nevill Street in Southport, the youngest of the five children of Henschel Samuelson and his wife, Bertha Weile. His father was a tobacconist, who unfortunately died seven weeks after Bertie Samuelson's birth. As it happens the family were originally Prussian Jews by the name of Metzenberg, who had emigrated from Lissa to Ireland sometime around the year 1846 and subsequently adopted the family name of Samuelson.
Bertie was educated at the University School in Southport until the age of fourteen, Bertie spent a number of years moving from job to job before he ended up running a cinema in Southport, which is where he developed an interest in the emerging film industry. Inspired by the commercial opportunities he formed the Royal Film Agency in 1910, a film rental business which was relocated to Birmingham at the end of the year. The film rental business proved to be a success and provided the finance for a move into film production, and the Samuelson Film Manufacturing Company was established in 1913. Together with producer Will Barker, Bertie then set about making an epic film of the life of Queen Victoria. Sixty Years a Queen was made at Ealing Studios and has been described as "a bold patriotic pageant", and was in any event a commercial triumph and made his fortune.
With the money he made on Sixty Years a Queen, Bertie acquired Worton Hall in Isleworth which was converted into film studios, and with George Pearson as director set about filming an adaptation of A Study in Scarlet, featuring one James Bragington as Sherlock Holmes for no better reason that he was an existing office employee simply because he resembled what was regarded as the 'traditional Holmes' look. However he changed tack within days of the outbreak of World War I, and set about shooting The Great European War, which was so succesful that it was rapidly followed by Incidents of the Great European War.
With Sydney Blythe as the cameraman and Roland Pertwee and Walter Summers producing scripts, he assembled a regular group of players including the likes of Isobel Elsom, Owen Nares, Tom Reynolds and Campbell Gullan who were later joined Peggy Hyland and the former beauty queen Lillian Hall-Davies, and shot a series of generally sentimental dramas based on literary properties, including classic novels such as John Halifax, Gentleman, and Little Women, as well as plays such as J.M. Barrie's The Admirable Crichton, William Stanley Houghton's Hindle Wakes, and Milestones, based on the play by Arnold Bennett and Edward Knoblock, which is generally regarded as his most likely masterpiece. However the relentless pace of productions was such that Pearson left after only fifteen months, and later productions were directed by Alexander Butler, Fred Paul, Rex Wilson, Albert Ward and sometimes even Bertie himself.
Unfortunately the immediate post-war period proved to be difficult for the British film industry largely due to the competition from American product where larger budgets permitted more lavish production values. Bertie in fact anticipated this development and together with H.H. Lorie, he took a company of British actors and technicians to Hollywood in 1919–20, and made a series of six pictures at Universal City including Love in the Wilderness, At the Mercy of Tiberius and The Ugly Duckling. This attempt to promote British film in the American market was supported by a new company called General Film Renters established by Denton Hardwicke, and it was even announced in November 1920 that General Film Renters would be acquring the Samuelson production company. However it seems that this venture was not particularly succesful as General Film Renters later went into liquidation.
It was likely the downturn in the film business that led him to diversify form the Samuelson Transport Company on the 14th April 1921. Launched on the 7th May 1921 with six coaches, this company set about running daily services between London and various coastal resorts, and by July had expanded to a fleet of ninety-nine coaches and fifty-six luggage vans, most of which were acquired on hire purchase. The problem was that the Samuelson Transport Company was launched in anticipation of a threatened rail strike which failed to arrive, whilst an attempt at a public flotation was unsuccesful and the business had collapsed by the end of the summer of 1921.
Bertie therefore returned to the business of film-making and in February 1922 he started a new company, British Super Films in partnership with William Jury, which later acquired Worton Hall Studios in December of that year. Although British Super Films made three films; Brown Sugar, If Four Walls Told, and The Right to Strike by November 1922 Bertie had set up another new company Napoleon Films which made A Royal Divorce released in 1923, which took as its subject Napoleon Bonaparte and proved to be his last comercial success. Most of his later films made during the years 1925 to 1928 were released under the Reciprocity Films banner which he founded with H.H. Lorie in December 1924, although there was also a shortlived GB Samuelson Films which was established in July 1926 but was wound up at the end of the same year.
Whilst he had many successes, some of his films had a tendency to be over ambitious. There was Damaged Goods (1919) based on the play Les Avaries by Eugene Brieux, which was a frank discussion of venereal disease and got him into trouble with the censor, as did Married Love (1923) supposedly based on the book by Marie Stopes, where the British Board of Film Censors insisted that the title was changed to Maisie's Marriage for its British release. His downfall came in 1925 when he decided to film yet another version of Henry Rider Haggard's She in Berlin. The result was a "phoney, cheap looking production" featuring "absurd over acting" which led to a court battle with the American actress Betty Blythe. Sadly his method of production, which had once been so succesful, was now seen as crude and old-fashioned as evidenced by the three so-called 'Patriotics' made in 1927 and 1928 which were all seen as being rather behind the times. Eventually the financial disaster that was She caught up with him, and Worton Hall Studios were sold to British Screen Productions in 1928 whilst Bertie was made personally bankrupt in 1929.
Bertie thereafter remained on the fringes of the film industry and he directed a few so-called 'quota quickies' during the 1930s, whilst he launched a number of business ventures such as a circulating library which ultimately came to nothing. He ended up working as a clerk in the offices of British Lion Films, before spending much of World War II employed as the superintendent of two nitrate film depots in the Birmingham area. By this time he was suffering from diabetes and he died on the 17th April 1947 at his home in Crook House at Great Barr in Staffordshire.
Two of his brothers also made their way in the entertainment business, with Julian Wylie becoming a producer of pantomimes and Lauri Wylie a writer for the theatre. Bertie married Marjorie Vint, who bore him four sons who also went into the film industry. The four Samuelson brothers later set up Samuelson's Film Service, which became the Samuelson Group, at one time the world's largest supplier of audio-visual equipment, before becoming a corporate presentations company as Visual Action and later acquired by Carabiner Communications. His grandsons Peter and Marc Samuelson remain active in the film industry with their company Samuelson Productions Limited.
Luke McKernan, ‘Samuelson, George Berthold (1889–1947)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
Charles Klapper, The Golden Age of Buses (Routledge 1984)
Rachael Low, History of British Film (Routledge 1997)
or at least those portions that could be accessed via Google Books.