Director, Producer, Entrepreneur. Nationality: British. Born : London, 1867. Career : Worked as a travelling salesman; became interested in amateur film production, turning professional in 1901 and founding the Autoscope Company, which specialized in "topical" or "reality" films; became director of the Warwick Trading Company in 1906, which specialized in news films; 1908—with the nickelodeon boom, he set up his own company, Barker Motion Photography Ltd., with offices in the London theatrical district (Soho) and studios at Ealing; continued making topicals for several years; 1911—began feature production; formed own stock company of players; 1918—left the production business because of unsolvable distribution problems. Died : 1951.
The Anarchists Doom ; The Great Bank Robbery ; In the Hands of London Crooks ; Jim the Fireman ; The Last Round ; Lights of London ; The Fighting Parson ; Greater Love Hath No Man ; Younita
Henry VIII ; Princess Clementina
The Great Bullion Robbery ; London by Night ; Sixty Years a Queen ; East Lynne
The Brother's Atonement
Armes, Roy, A Critical History of British Cinema , New York, 1978.
Low, Rachael, The History of the British Film Volume II , Surrey, 1948.
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Along with Cecil Hepworth and George Pearson, William Barker was responsible for the re-establishment of profitable British production in 1908, a boom that was prompted by the transference of exhibition from musical halls and fairgrounds to purpose-built theaters, known as nickelodeons, and the gradual shift to narrative films.
Interested first in filmmaking as an amateur, Barker saw the economic possibilities of the new medium and started making his own "topical" or "reality" films in the tradition of fellow British filmmakers Robert Paul and Birt Acres, themselves inspired by the success of the Lumière brothers in France. He abandoned the very primitive facilities of his Autoscope Company in 1906 to run the Warwick Trading Company, replacing founder Charles Urban, and soon turned the business into one of the country's most notable suppliers of topicals, for which there was then the greatest demand. He became one of the most important figures in the growing British film business.
The public's growing lack of interest in a steady diet of topicals, however, led to a radical change within the industry, with Barker very much in the forefront. The future, he saw clearly, lay in narrative films, and by 1911 he realized that longer, feature films would be most desirable, providing problems of exhibition and distribution could be solved so that larger production budgets could be justified. Like D. W. Griffith and Adolph Zukor in America, Baker saw that the most popular kind of film would likely be feature length productions starring famous actors, especially those from the legitimate stage. While he did not stop making the topicals that were still providing a steady income, Barker did pioneer the making of large-scale features, on the model of Italian costume epic spectaculars such as Giulio Cesare (1909), Bruto (1910), San Francisco (1911), and, particularly, Fall of Troy (1911). His initial choice of subject matter was wise—a film on Henry VIII, perhaps the most famous of British monarchs; it was a subject that would prove popular and profitable again in the thirties with Alexander Korda's The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). For his Henry VIII , Barker convinced the era's most famous Shakespearean actor, Sir Herbert Tree, to play the title role; only the promise of a huge salary convinced the reluctant Tree to take the part, but his superb performance made the film. British film historians are agreed that the film was the first truly important British feature, occupying roughly the place within the cinematic history of that country that Griffith's The Birth of a Nation does in the United States. Barker's film was an outstanding success at the box office and was instrumental in interesting a middle-class public in the cultural possibilities of the cinema.
Developing, again like Griffith, his own stock company of actors, Barker moved on to other historical subjects—most notably, Sixty Years a Queen , a slickly produced and patriotic homage to Queen Victoria. More important, however, for the growth and development of the industry was his elaborate mounting of East Lynne , which had started life as a novel by Mrs. Henry Wood and was soon adapted into one of the period's most successful and notable stage melodramas. As Griffith had, Barker discovered materials in the stage melodrama ideally suited to cinematic adaptation: stock characters, emotionallyheightened action, predictable but effective twists and turns of the plot, and young female main characters, potential victims of a male-dominated society, with whom the audience could easily identify. Barker's film version, directed by Bert Haldane, was the first six-reel British film and achieved an outstanding success with audiences. Though Barker and Haldane were not technically innovative in the manner of Griffith (the film's editing, without any intercutting, makes for a certain monotony that the basically static camera set-ups do not alleviate), East Lynne offers a well-told and coherent narrative, with an expert blending of interior scenes and appropriate exteriors.
During the same period, again following a popular trend undoubtedly inaugurated by Griffith (in Musketeers of Pig Alley ), Barker produced a number of exciting crime melodramas that made much of London night life, particularly its seamier side. Despite his successes with audiences, however, Barker proved unable to solve persistent problems with distribution. He allowed Henry VIII to be hired for very limited runs at quite high prices, thus enabling him to keep distribution in the hands of one dealer, who would issue territorial rights for individual showmen. To keep prices and demand high, he allowed very few prints of any one film. Barker even went so far as to burn the twenty prints of Henry VIII after a release period of only six weeks in order to keep increasingly tattered prints from circulating and damaging the public image of the film business (and of course provding competition to newer films produced by him). No other producer went so far in an attempt to control the market, and Barker was by no means successful in solving the problem for British filmmakers with ensuring a distribution that would regularly reward the huge investment needed to make a top-quality feature.
Barker's films eventually became less noteworthy during the period from 1914 to 1917, and he was increasingly discouraged by the difficult business conditions the British industry suffered through as a result of wartime restrictions. The same general crisis that was soon to overtake all British production as a result of irresistible American competition forced him out of the industry by the end of the war in 1918.
—R. Barton Palmer