Hepworth Village Hall, West Yorkshire
2 July 2016
I’m on my way tonight to what has to be the smallest, most remote silent film venue I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending, the delightful Hepworth Village Hall, high above the Holm Valley in rural West Yorkshire. And the film bringing me on this long quest, Maurice Elvey’s 1927 version of Hindle Wakes, being shown as part of the first Yorkshire Silent Film Festival. Based upon Stanley Houghton’s celebrated and (in its day) controversial play, first performed in 1912, this was not the first time Elvey had directed a film version of Hindle Wakes. His first attempt in 1918 is now sadly considered lost but Elvey was reportedly unsatisfied with this effort and, believing he could do better, directed a second version which is the one I’m here to see tonight. Providing piano accompaniment for tonight’s screening would be Lillian Helman.
Set in the fictional Lancashire mill town of Hindle, the film opens with mill girls Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and Mary Hollins (Peggy Carlisle) preparing to depart for Blackpool for their annual ‘wakes’ week holidays. In Blackpool, Fanny meets Allan Jeffcote (John Stuart), the son of the owner of the mill in which she works. He persuades her to leave Blackpool and accompany him to Llandudno for the remainder of the week. Fanny writes a postcard to her parents which Mary promises to post later in order to conceal Fanny’s absence. But Mary dies in an accident and Fanny’s parents (Marie Ault and Humbertson Wright) find out about the affair. Confronting Alan’s parents (Irene Rooke and Norman McKinnel) there is agreement that Fanny and Alan should marry in order to avoid scandal. But when Alan proposes, Fanny turns him down saying that she is just as entitled to enjoy a “little fancy” as any man. Professing her independence in the face of her mother’s fury, Fanny leaves home and is last seen agreeing to go on a date with a fellow mill worker.
I first saw this film last year in Cambridge (with accompaniment by John Sweeney) and was bowled over at what a great picture it was and on a second viewing it just gets better and better. Maurice Elvey delivers a master-class in film direction, demonstrating a visual flair and inventiveness in the largely location-shot first half together with a lightness of touch in the more drama-focused second half which in lesser hands could have resulted in overwrought melodrama. Despite a running time of almost two hours the film fairly races by, with a beautiful economy of storyline, not a scene or a shot is wasted. The first half of the film is largely a scene-setter for the drama that follows. It begins with shots of the working mill, stoking the boilers, the workers starting their shift, the banks of looms moving backwards and forwards, the factory clock and whistle, all of which serve to convey the regimented nature of the factory workers lives. But when the location shooting switches to Blackpool, it takes on a wonderful air of spontaneity reflecting the escapism of those same workers on their short holiday. Scenes on the pleasure beach (particularly the roller-coaster ride) and the Tower Ballroom are visually stunning, as good as anything Vertov would ever achieve in Man With a Movie Camera (1929). And yet it is not just the grand location shooting that impresses. Elvey turns his attention to the minutia, the shoes of the workers as they trudge into work, the feet and legs of the mill girls as they change out of their work shoes and into their holiday ware or the whirling feet on the Ballroom floor.
As escapism gives way to drama in the second half (which is where Houghton’s original play began) Elvey’s cast manage to convey more meaning and depth of feeling with a brief sideways glance or a frown than through any amount of over-the-top melodrama. There are some wonderful moments here. For instance, while Fanny’s parents are waiting on her return in order to find out where she has been, the camera focuses on just their hands. Fanny’s mother clenches and unclenches her fists inanger while her father can only nervously rub his knees, anxious and uncertain over the coming confrontation. Fanny’s decision to reject Alan’s proposal and instead go her own way must still have been shocking in 1927, let alone in 1912 when the play was first staged and for its time is a remarkable expression of female emancipation. But subjects addressed by the film go further than this, focusing in particular on the issue of class and the moral and social codes of behaviour faced primarily by the working classes and especially working class women.
It is interesting to compare this film with a near contemporary, Paradise (1928) shown recently at the second Kennington Silent Film Weekend. In this film, Betty Balfour plays a single girl (albeit rather more middle-class) with ambitions for adventure. When she comes into some money she travels on her own to holiday in the south of France but it is her fiancé who turns up to ‘take her home’ and avoid a scandal. As the film concludes with Betty’s return to dreary London and her even drearier husband there is almost a sense of disappointment and anti-climax for a modern audience. Yet in Hindle Wakes, when Fanny announces “I’m a Lancashire lass and so long as there are spinning mills in Lancashire I can earn enough to keep myself respectable.” the audience wants to jump up and cheer! And at the end, when a fellow worker asks her out, Fanny, ever the independent Lancashire lass, coolly looks him up and down before agreeing.
Much of the appeal of Hindle Wakes stems from a terrific ensemble cast performance. No one really puts a foot wrong here but one or two in particular stand out. Norman McKinnel is excellent as mill owner Nathaniel Jeffcote, a role he also played not only in the 1918 version but also in the 1932 ‘talkie’ adaptation. The scene when he beckons Fanny to sit down next to him at the dining table and she pointedly ignores him and sits at the head of the table is superb, as his face gradually changes from anger to a grudging admiration for her spirit and independence. McKinnel began as a stage actor, renowned for his many Shakespearian roles. His first film role came in 1899, in King John, the earliest known example of Shakespeare on film. He continued working on stage and making occasional films (including the Hitchcock silent Downhill (1927)) until his death in 1932. Also outstanding is Humbertson Wright as Fanny’s father, with his portrayal of a man ground down by hard work and missed opportunity who is torn between wanting his daughter to do the socially correct thing or to see out her dreams (in the way he never did). Wright didn’t begin his film career until into his forties but went on to make over 80 films before his death in 1953. In addition, Marie Ault is great as Fanny’s hard-as-nails mother whose anger at her daughter’s behaviour leaps from the screen.
But the real star of the film is Estelle Brody (image, left) as Fanny, out to have her share of fun, just like the men. As she says to Alan “I’m a woman, and I was your little fancy – you’re a man and you were my little fancy. Don’t you understand?” Yet while as a confident and independent woman she can give Alan a cutting put-down stare when he somewhat over-familiarly takes hold of her arm at the funfair she betrays a touching vulnerability when she realises rather uncomfortably that she and Alan have been left on their own together when her friend departs the fair. Brody was an American actress who became one of the biggest female stars of British silent film in the latter half of the 1920s. But such was the resentment in Britain over America’s dominance of the domestic film industry at that time, that publicists put out the story that she was in fact Canadian. Despite her popularity, the transition to sound presented problems for Brody with her American accent and she made the decision to try her luck in Hollywood. But this proved a mistake for not only did she alienate many of her British fans but few offers were forthcoming. Returning to England she continued to take minor roles in film and TV until the 1960s before retiring to Malta where she died in 1995 aged 94.
As for director Maurice Elvey (image, right), he went on to become one of the most prolific directors in British cinema history, eventually releasing over 200 films. However, it would be rare for him to even come close to producing films of the quality of Hindle Wakes. As one writer pointed out, “Elvey died in 1967, at the age of 79, remembered, if at all, as a journeyman who turned out low-budget quickies that defined the mediocrity of the British film industry. In 1927, at least, he was in its vanguard.”
So even after a second viewing, I still find it hard to find fault with Hindle Wakes. The story is as relevant now as it was in 1927, the directing is top notch, the acting is faultless and the film is visually stunning. And tonight’s keyboard accompaniment from Lillian Helmen was a perfect match for the film, capturing the excitement of the holiday scenes while emphasising the drama of the second half. Does silent film going really get any better than this? (Hindle Wakes is available as a Region 1 DVD from Milestone in the US)
There is another opportunity to see Hindle Wakes as part of the first Yorkshire Silent Film Festival when it will be screened on 14 July at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, Westborough, Scarborough with live musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.