This film is held by the BFI (ID: 13808).


Title card: "Vivaphone" Film. Title card: 'The Rollicking Rajah'. First verse and chorus of 'The Rolling Rajah'. The film set is a city street in Britain. White man dressed as an Indian rajah dances and sings centre screen, either side of him are two dancers who are dressed as his oriental guards. Six women, wearing European-styled coats and hats enter from either side of the screen; they dance with the rajah, admire his clothes, and bow to him and salute. Second verse and chorus of 'The Rolling Rajah'. The film set is the interior of an elegant British residence. The women are now in dresses and are drinking wine with the rajah; also present is a rotund European butler. Rajah heads centre screen and continues with his song; the women and butler dance behind him. The women gently caress the rajah; the butler makes a motion to kiss him. Third verse and chorus. The film set is the interior of a palace in India. Rajah is sat down, he continues his song; the guards are present either side of him. Girls enter from rear of set, dressed in oriental costumes. Two of the girls sit on the rajah's lap, while the others gather round him. They stand, followed by the rajah, and circle and bow in supplication before him.



Cecil Hepworth had the longest career of any of Britain’s pioneer filmmakers. He produced his first films in 1899, and in 1904 formed the Hepworth Manufacturing Company, with Monty Wicks and H.V. Lawley, which remained in business until 1924. Rachael Low has argued that during the years of its existence the company gave the British film industry ‘its greatest and sometimes only cause for pride’ (Low, 1949, 107)

The Hepworth Manufacturing Company’s house style was ‘based on simple stories told with high photographic quality’ (Brown). Their output included melodramas, comedies, literary adaptations, scenics and travel films. The company was among the first to understand the value of using film stars, including the canine star of their first noted picture, Rescued by Rover (1905), and actors such as Harry Buss, Alma Taylor and Chrissie White, who were each featured in several of their films.

The Hepworth Manufacturing Company was among those that experimented in combining sound with pictures. In 1907 they introduced the ‘Vivaphone’, an electromagnetic system, which synchronised the projector with a gramophone (Talbot, 1970, 182). It was among the more successful of such systems and was praised in Bioscope for being as ‘near perfection as human ingenuity can make it’ (Bioscope, 13 July 1911, 57). It was also less expensive than others on the market (Low, 1949, 265).

The Rollicking Rajah is one of Hepworth’s ‘singing pictures’. It is comprised of a performance of the song of the same name, which was written by lyricist Arthur J. Mills and composer Bennett Scott, one of the most prolific music hall songwriting teams of the period (‘A. J. Mills (1872-1919)’). In March 1914 The Bioscope reported that the music hall artists Tom Powers and Florence Turner had recorded a number of songs and dances for Hepworth’s Vivaphone system, and it is possible that Powers is the lead actor in this film. The journal also noted that the Hepworth Manufacturing Co ‘had an unusually large number of orders to install their Vivaphone singing pictures in all parts of the country’ (The Bioscope, 19 March 1914, 1257).

The Rollicking Rajah concerns a fictional Indian prince – the Rajah of Ranjipoo – who ‘has his fling’ while visiting England. The Indian Princes were thought of as being synonymous with wealth; Ann Morrow writes that ‘Carpets of ivory, pearls of gold, coffers of diamonds and rubies, emeralds as big as goose eggs, jewels designed by Cartier were taken for granted’ (Morrow, 1986, ix). In this film the Rajah’s wealth and charm fascinate ‘the lovely dancing girls’, who in turn fascinate him, and he eventually decides to take one as his bride. Barbara N. Ramusack has stated that during the British colonial period marriage between Indian Princes and western women was looked upon with disfavour by both Britons and Indians; she notes that the subject was ‘disparaged in official discourse and literature’ (Ramusack, 2004, 135). Although these marriages were also considered to be of dubious legality, Ramusack notes three prominent unions that did take place (Ramusack, 2004, 136). It is possible that the inspiration for ‘The Rollicking Rajah’ was the 1910 marriage between Maharaja Jagatjit Singh of Kapurthala and the Spanish dancer, Anita Delgrada, a cause célèbre in its day (Vázquez de Gey).



The roots of The Rollicking Rajah as both a song and presentation lie in music hall theatre. As such, the piece obeys the bawdy conventions of the genre, and it displays a greater understanding of rollicking than it does of rajahs themselves. The film is patterned after the song that it features. It runs for the length of the number, and its three acts correspond with its three verses and choruses. It is also filmed in the manner of a music hall performance. It is shot from one camera position, and the singer commands the front of the stage addressing the audience directly. One filmic convention is the use of cross-fades to segue between each scene. The settings of each scene correspond with what could be achieved by using props and backgrounds in a theatre production, for example drapes and potted flowers are employed to signify a British country house, and in the next scenes these are replaced with animal-skin rugs and potted plants to signify India.

Rachael Low has argued that the music hall conventions of early sound pictures meant that they remained ‘stationary’ at a point when contemporary silent pictures were experimenting with editing and the multiple positioning of cameras (Low, 1949, 266). However, Simon Brown believes that, in general, Hepworth was uninterested in the development of film language. He states that his films continued to feature ‘frontal staging with action played out in pantomimic gestures in a single long-shot tableaux’ and that, as such, films such as The Rollicking Rajah began to look ‘more and more old fashioned’ (Brown).

In both the song and the film much is made of the Prince’s wealth. He is noted as being a ‘multi-millionaire’ who wears diamonds and rubies in his turban. The lyrics of the song state that it is these gems that attract the dancing ladies. In the film itself these riches are portrayed using budget-price costumes and props. Moreover, the girls are not shown to be mere money-grabbers. Instead, there is mutual attraction between the Rajah and the dancing girls: the girls flirt with the Rajah, while the Rajah invites them to sit on his lap.

The film is not censorious of the relationship between the Rajah and the dancing girls: instead the subject is treated as an object of mildly bawdy fun (there is even a moment when a British butler makes a motion to kiss the Rajah on the cheek). This playfulness is made possible due to the fact that the Rajah is clearly a white man in blackface (who was also possibly a familiar actor to the cinema audience). Moreover, while obviously dressed up as an oriental character, he bears little resemblance to an actual Indian prince: there is no attempt at authenticity in the clothing or jewellery. The minstrelsy enables the actors to broach a taboo subject while avoiding actual miscegenation. It also frees the protagonists to act in an outré manner, and it should be considered to what extent the filmmakers were led by this basic impulse of music hall theatre, and to what extent they were led by an urge to disparage Anglo-Indian relationships.

Richard Osborne (April 2010)


Works Cited

‘A. J. Mills (1872-1919)’,

The Bioscope (13 July 1911), 57.

The Bioscope (19 March 1914), 1257.

Brown, Simon, ‘Hepworth, Cecil (1874-1953)’, Screenonline,

Low, Rachael, The History of British Film 1906-1914 (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1949).

Morrow, Ann, Highness: The Maharajahs of India (London: Grafton, 1986).

Ramusack, Barbara N., The Indian Princes and Their States (Cambridge: CUP, 2004).

Talbot, F. A. A., Moving Pictures (Ayer Publishing, 1970).

Vázquez de Gey, Elisa, ‘Anita Delgado: Princesa de Kapurthala’,




Technical Data

Running Time:
3 minutes

Production Credits

Production Countries:
Great Britain
Production Company
Hepworth Manufacturing Company