Like Warner Bros and Universal, which were established by the Warner and Laemmle dynasties respectively, the founding of Hammer Films was very much a family business – or rather, the business of two families. The most important of these was the Carreras family, headed by the Spanish-born Enrique Carreras, a would-be business tycoon who came to England at the turn of the century and involved himself in a number of small businesses, and by the time his brother Alphonse joined the determined young Enrique in Hammersmith, London, the family was ready for its first major brush with show business.
This occurred in 1913 when the brothers acquired the first of what would grow to be a chain of London-based theatres that came to be known as the Blue Hall circuit, whose bills featured well-known variety and music hall acts of the day. The success of this venture confirmed to the Carreras brothers that their futures lay in some form of show business. The name of Carreras by now had a certain prestige, and also enough capital for Enrique to buy his first cinema – The Harrow Coliseum – in which he exhibited cheaply-acquired B-features and reissues. With the assistance of his general manager,Henry Lomax, further cinemas were acquired, and gradually an empire was born. Takingthings a step further, Carreras then formed his own distribution company, christened Exclusive Films.
Meanwhile, elsewhere in London, one William Hinds, whose family would also play a major role in the birth of Hammer as we now know it, was himself enjoying his first flirtations with show business. Like Enrique Carreras, Hinds came to show business via a circuitous route. But it was Hinds’ love of the theatre which gradually forced his other interests into the shadows, for not only did he go on to form his own theatrical booking agency – his own ambitions as a performer also saw him form the comedy double act Hammer and Smith. In fact, the name of the act had been hastily devised when the duo, about to make their debut in a talent contest, realised they had no stage name. They quickly decided on Hammer and Smith, after the borough in which they were appearing. For Hinds the name of Hammer stuck, even though the double-act quickly fizzled. So much so that, in1934, when Hinds decided to form his own film company, it also took on the name of Hammer.
By this time Hinds’ empire had grown to include four seaside theatres,which he owned outright, and three offices in Imperial House on Regent Street in London,which housed the fledgling Hammer Productions. Despite the general depression it was a time of prosperity in show business, and it was during this period that the fates of the two families merged, for Enrique Carreras and William Hinds met and, seeing that their ambitions lay in the same direction, decided to become distribution partners under the Exclusive banner, for which they purchased their first two films – Snowhounds and Spilt Salt – at the bargain basement price of just �100.
At this early stage, the Hammer company remained mostly in the care of Hinds and his associates, and between 1935 and 1937, Henry Fraser Passmore, one of the company’s managing directors, would produce for them a total of five films – The Public Life of Henry the Ninth, The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (aka The Phantom Ship), Song of Freedom, Sporting Love and The Bank Messenger Mystery – all of which were introduced by a blacksmith hammering at an anvil, a distinctive trademark devised by Enrique Carreras to help distinguish their product.
None of the films Hammer made during this period are particularly noteworthy, save for Song of Freedom (1936) which stars the great Paul Robeson as a black docker who, having become an opera singer, later uses his influence to help an African tribe, of which he discovers he is the long lost chief! The Public Life of Henry the Ninth (1935), was Hammer’s very first film, the title cheekily alludes to the 1933 Charles Laughton Oscar winner The Private Life of Henry VIII, the American success of which had done much to open up the world-wide market for British films. This was followed by The Mystery of the Mary Celeste (1936) which was not only Hammer’s first brush with a horror subject (albeit of the melodramatic kind), but also stars one of the genre’s biggest names, Bela Lugosi.