While the introduction of sound changed the course of cinema forever, almost a century later there’s still a large, and growing, audience for the silent film experience. Nick Mitchell speaks to the programmer of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, which returns this week.
Now in its fourth year, the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema [HSFC] has made its home not in London, or Manchester, or Edinburgh, or any similar cultural hub, but in the former mining and shipbreaking town of Bo’ness (population c15,000), on the banks of the River Forth in central Scotland.
However, Alison Strauss, an Arts Development Officer for Falkirk Community Trust who programmes the festival, maintains that it’s no coincidence that Bo’ness has stuck its own pin on to the international film map.
“It’s funny, in another way Bo’ness is on the film map because of Scotland’s oldest cinema, the Hippodrome, but also the Bo’ness & Kinneil Steam Railway. It’s often used for scenes in major international pictures. So for example Cloud Atlas had scenes shot there, and some of World War Z was filmed locally as well.”
The event, which has grown from three to five days, is the only dedicated silent film festival in the UK that is rooted in one place (the British Silent Film Festival is attached to several venues, and focuses on British film primarily). As such, it really starting to establish its reputation internationally.
“We’ve developed links over the years with archives in other countries as well, so we have films coming from major restoration archives internationally, including the States and the far east,” says Strauss. “The musicians are from Scotland and all over the UK, but we also have some musicians coming over from Germany to perform for the first time in Scotland, for our film Der Letze Man. So we just feel it’s really exciting that all this international buzz and exchange is coming to Bo’ness.”
This year’s programme in Bo’ness is more diverse than ever. The big names of the silent era, like Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, are represented, but there’s also the Oscar-winning film-maker Kevin Brownlow, who will be in town with his documentary about Lon Chaney, the popular film critic Mark Kermode will be performing with his band The Dodge Brothers to the 1928 Louise Brooks caper Beggar’s Life, there’s a screening of the 1929 classic Lucky Star with accompaniment by pianist Neil Brand, not to mention Jane Gardner‘s newly commissioned score to accompany Yasujirô Ozu’s take on the American gangster genre, Dragnet Girl.
The latter is particularly exciting for Strauss, and it is set to go on tour after the festival.
“We got some help with from Film Hub Scotland, and they’ve helped us so that Jane Gardner could create this new score,” Stauss says. “So far I’ve just heard the first ten minutes with Jane on piano, Hazel Morrison on percussion and Roddy Long on violin. There’s some sort of effects attachment that they put on the violin to add to the atmosphere. Also, we’ve just had confirmation that we’re going to be able to tour that version across Scotland.”
Unlike her contemporaries at more conventional film festivals, Strauss also has to really consider the live music in her annual plans.
“One of our biggest challenges this year is that we’ve got the Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra performing here for the first time, and there’s going to be 17 of them,” she says. “In the old days the cinema would have had an orchestra pit because live accompaniment was commonplace. Now we don’t have that it’s about trying to arrange the musicians in such a way that people can still see the screen.
“The Glasgow Improvisers Orchestra are creating a completely new response to the film Rien Que Les Heures, but they’re also working with a beat-boxer called Jason Singh who’s created a score for the film Drifters, but he always like to try something new or fresh.”
As well as the the music, another problem for any silent cinema event is the sheer distance in time. Whereas Edinburgh or Glasgow film festivals can invite the stars (whether or not they actually come), the vast majority of silent film stars have obviously long since departed for the big cinema in the sky. But there’s still an opportunity to invite ‘the talent’, as Strauss explains:
“Last year we did have a director of a film about a child star from the silent era called Baby Peggy. It was a fascinating documentary and the woman who made it came over to introduce it. And in fact Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary) is still alive, an old lady living in the States. We tried to set up a Skype interview but unfortunately it wasn’t possible in the end. The year before that we had a special video message from the grand-daughter of Harold Lloyd, Suzanne Lloyd, so that was our connection to the past.
“This year we’ve got Kevin Brownlow, who’s won an Oscar. He was put forward for the Oscar by Martin Scorsese for his services to film and restoration. He made this year’s film Lon Chaney, and he’s met so many people from the silent era, directors and actors. So he’s our medium to the stars of the era.
“We do bring a lot of glamour, even if we don’t have Sandra Bullock. We do have a red carpet and everyone is a star who arrives. The dress code is ‘Star’ for our Friday night gala, Lucky Star, so everyone gets dressed up in 1920s style.”
The average cinema-goer might be satisfied with the not-so-subtle Hollywood blockbusters, but there’s a thriving silent cinema scene that the HFSC is seeking to connect with.
“There are international festivals,” Strauss explains. “There’s one in San Francisco, and one in Pordenone in Italy, both of which are very prestigious. We’re making links with them and hoping that as we go forward in to the next four or five years that we’ll be able to do exchange with them – co-commissions and that kind of thing. We really feel that we’re finding our place. The people that travel to Pordenone are now putting the Hippodrome in their diaries as well.”
But while this might sound like the preserve of chin-stroking cineastes clutching their copies of Cahiers du Cinéma, Strauss is keen to stress that the festival is for anyone, and their audiences range from travelling enthusiasts to first-timers with a curiosity for silent film.
“Some people travel from all over the UK, because I think we’ve got the gold standard, the perfect cinema environment, the music is top-notch, and the reception and the whole ambience is great,” says Strauss. “But it’s not for film buffs at all, in any way. We have a really loyal audience in the Hippodrome throughout the year, and there’s that trust that grows up, that they’ll try something they don’t know. People think it’s their cinema, so there’s not that barrier of ‘oh, it’s not for me’. Over the past three years I’ve found that the audience has been really diverse. We do audience evaluation to ask if it’s their first experience of silent film and it’s been a 50-50 split actually.”
If you’re looking for the real appeal of the Hippodrome Silent Festival, then the clue is in the name. When asked about the origins of the festival, Strauss explains that the cinema, which reopened in 2009, was the key factor.
“There’s this tangible connection between the heritage of the building and the silent era itself,” she says. “The building was opened in March 1912, and film was just getting into its stride at that time. It’s such a perfect venue for that reason.”
The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film runs from Wednesday, March 12 to Sunday, March 16. For more information on the programme and to book tickets, visit the official website.
5 to watch at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema
Lon Chaney: A Thousand Faces
Kevin Brownlow’s fascinating tribute to the craft of this screen icon is packed with rare and previously lost footage celebrating the versatility and genius of the man whose 150+ movie career left a profound legacy on Hollywood cinema. The director will be in attendance to introduce his film, which is narrated by Kenneth Branagh.
Wed 12 Mar, doors 6.15pm, £6, £4.55; more info
Friday Night Gala: Lucky Star (1929)
Double Oscar-winner Frank Borzage directs this sensual and delicate story featuring the magnificent and enduring on-screen pairing of Janet Gaynor (star of Murnau’s Sunrise) and handsome leading man Charles Farrell. Accompanying the film at the Hippodrome will be world class pianist and composer Neil Brand. Ticket includes a ‘champagne’ reception supported by The Corbie Inn, Bo’ness with live music by five-piece band Blues Alive.
Fri 14 Mar, doors 6.30pm, £10/£8; more info
Dragnet Girl (1933)
Japanese director Ozu’s take on the American gangster genre set in the smoky pool halls and boxing clubs of Yokohama. Tough-talking good-time gal Tokiko is madly in love with her small-time hoodlum boyfriend Joji, but her jealousy is aroused when Joji’s head is turned by the virtuous sister of a wannabe-gang-recruit in this beautifully composed, neon-lit crime melodrama. It features a new musical score from Jane Gardner and will be introduced by Chris Fujiwara, Artistic Director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.
Sat 15 Mar, doors 7pm, £10/£8; more info
Double Bill: Before Grierson Met Cavalcanti
Prior to collaborating at the famous GPO Film Unit, Stirlingshire-born documentary pioneer John Grierson and Brazilian filmmaker Alberto Cavalcanti each explored the boundaries of silent documentary. This double bill is a dynamic pairing of the two directors’ work and is superbly complemented by performers currently working in the vanguard of the UK music scene.
Sun 16 Mar, doors 4.30pm, £10/£8; more info
Visages d’Enfants (1925)
The extraordinarily naturalistic performances of the young actors, breathtakingly dramatic Swiss mountain setting and psychological insight of the story make for an astounding film, here interpreted with trademark sensitivity and flair by Stephen Horne on piano, accordion and flute.
Alison Strauss: “I saw it at the British Silent Film Festival a couple of years ago and fell in love with it. It didn’t have such a good critical reception when it came out. There weren’t many prints or restorations available, and the negative disappeared. Towards the end of the 1980s the archive in Belgium began a restoration and that kicked off more interest, until finally in 2004 Lobster Films in Paris produced this definitive restoration with digital technology. They introduced the tinting and toning to give it the colour effects.
“It’s such a great story. It’s got this psychological reason to it. It’s seen through the eyes of a child, and it’s got this naturalistic quality. It’s a child whose mother dies and he can’t quite get over the death, and his father moves on and remarries, and it’s the tension in the step-family. It’s really relatable, and beautifully shot. The peasants who are in the background had never seen a camera before and there’s this beautiful snapshot of this mountain village life at the time.”
Sun 16 Mar, doors 7.30pm, £10/£8; more info