9th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival

20 – 24 MARCH 2019. HIPPODROME, BO’NESS

Forbidden Paradise (1924) Directed by Ernst Lubitsch.

Above all else, the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a joyful celebration of film and music. Speaking to other audience members, who had travelled far to Bo’ness for the unique atmosphere and live experience, it’s clear that the festival and this small town, delivers something very special. Home to the oldest cinema in Scotland, it is also a centre for national and international cinema heritage. This year’s programme offered thrills, chills, laughs, unexpected discoveries and truly memorable performances from some of the world’s finest accompanists. I arrived for the third day of the festival, staying until closing night and was delighted to see many films for the first time, introduced in the best possible way.

Hippfest’s traditional fancy-dress Friday Night Gala is always great fun, inspired this year by the glamour and military moustache twirling of Ernst Lubitsch’s 1924 Romantic Comedy-Melodrama Forbidden Paradise. This new restoration from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was vibrantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano), Roddy Long (violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion). The trio complimented the tone of the film brilliantly and heightened its pace, enhancing the tension of court intrigues and Lubitsch’s characteristic brand of knowing comedy. Channelling the passion of Pola Negri as vampish, authoritarian ruler Czarina Catherine, it was an enjoyable, crowd pleasing caper, well suited to the whole occasion. Pre-screening period music by The Red Hot Minute Band, accompanied by fizz and canapes, added to the party atmosphere.

The Cat and the Canary (1927) Directed by Paul Leni.

Following on the heels of last year’s riotous late-night screening Seven Footsteps to Satan, Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary (1927) starring Laura La Plante, Creighton Hale and Forrest Stanley, set the stage for more ghoulish fun.  The story begins just before midnight, with scheming relatives of grand eccentric Cyrus West assembled for the reading of his will. Musicians Günter Buchwald (Piano, violin) and Frank Bockius (percussion) drew the audience into the eerie corridors of the West mansion with a startling variety of sound. The music mirrored the film’s high angle shadow play to great effect, in the hushed circular sweep of brushes on drumskin, the nervous tension of pizzicato strings, use of upper register violin whining like a cat and the spidery creep of piano. At one point, the reverberation of percussion, from drumsticks scraped over wooden notches, produced the most fantastic sound, like rasping, macabre human laughter. As Horror-Comedy, the tone of The Cat and the Canary ,reflected in the intertitles, is almost comic book and a relatively safe programming choice. With their range of musical expertise, I would love to see Buchwald and Bockius perform a darker psychological Horror/ Thriller in this late-night timeslot.

Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, Hippfest Triple Bill.

Silent Comedies remain hugely popular and there’s nothing quite like watching them as part of a live audience. Visual gags hinge on anticipation and this is palpable in an auditorium, where laughter is immediately infectious. The circular architecture of the Hippodrome really brings you into the fold in that respect. This year’s Saturday morning Jeely Jar screening The Freshman starring Harold Lloyd and Jobyna Ralston was a great choice of film, appealing to the universal human desire to be liked and the imperative of being yourself. The transformation ‘from geek to cool’ is a trope which often lacks charm in more recent films. However, in Lloyd’s hands, the likeable innocence of the central character shines through, aided in this performance by John Sweeney’s adept accompaniment. Hippfest’s annual Laurel and Hardy Triple Bill is always a sell-out and this year’s audience were treated to comedic pandemonium with Wrong Again, You’re Darn Tootin and With Love and Hisses. Sadly, there was no horse on the piano (see Wrong Again), but Jane Gardner’s wonderful accompaniment more than made up for it.

Although I thoroughly enjoy events like the comedy triple bill, what I really come to Hippfest to savour is reinterpretation of film in performance and seeing cinema I’ve never seen before. Friday afternoon’s Cuppa Talk, Peace on the Western Front was one of those highlights. Dr Toby Haggith (Senior Curator of Second World War and Mid Twentieth Century from the Imperial War Museum’s Film Department) introduced the film and provided live narration, accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano. Seeing film restoration work in progress is a rare privilege and this deeply affecting film about what war really means, told father to son, stayed with me. With 2014-2018 centenary events concluded and those who lived through the conflict no longer with us, the question remains of how we continue to commemorate international conflict and warn future generations. Like many members of the audience, I was surprised to discover such a hard hitting and compassionate battlefield pilgrimage film from 1931. ‘The role of film in
memory’ is extremely significant, not just for survivors of the Great War who saw the film on its release, but in the present act of reconstruction.

In addition to seeing Peace on the Western Front for the first time and the important questions it raised, what I loved about this event was insight into decision making process, the complex negotiation of restoring film from different archival sources and re-interpretation through sound. With the original sound discs lost from this “all talking picture”, two archival copies of the film and a variety of documents were used to reconstruct the narrative. The press book for the film provided the basis of the script, together with lip syncing interpretation, identifying locations using a Michelin guide to the battlefields and contemporary press accounts. Underpinning all restoration is the immense task of remaining true to the intent of the original, in this case, a directorial collaboration between two WWI veterans, Fred Swan and Hans Nieter, drawing on experiences from both sides. Peace on the Western Front became an unofficial film for the League of Nations Union, promoting the cause of peace and disarmament, something that I’m sure will continue through the current restoration. Like all archival film it lives before an audience, which is why festivals like Hippfest are so important, doubly so when the quality of music enhances perception to such a high degree.

 Although this was a read through and the final recorded version will employ an actor for narration, the balance between the voice of the film and its soundtrack was beautifully realised. Seeing abandoned war-torn towns, the determination to rebuild and reclaim the land for living, speaks of the timeless value of film as an agent of self-reflection and growth. It’s the drive that music is made of and all the ways that human beings find to out-create destruction. Compassion is the core of this film, which enabled veterans who could not afford to return to the battlefields, a virtual experience of validation through cinema. Peace on the Western Front acknowledges their experiences, while the current restoration honours these memories. The darkened auditorium is a safe space to collectively grieve and it is also a place for audiences, then and now, to see what is possible.

The union of sound and image led the audience into a landscape of ruins and bomb blasted hollows, resting tonally on objects of horror and remembrance. A trinity of bayonets emerging from the ground marked the final resting place of three soldiers, killed where they stood. The cross fallen over them, like a figure bowed in lament, is an image held long in the mind. What we see are the dead in absence, so many never found and the rubble of civilization, like Paul Nash’s painting We are Making a New World (1918). However, Peace on the Western Front is also a hopeful vision, of people re-working the land and rebuilding their lives. The narrative explains what happened in these fields and villages, however, it’s the way that sound alights on human objects, encouraging deeper reflection on what they mean, that leaves a lasting imprint. As Stephen Horne described during the post-screening Q&A, the music enters the ‘spirit in which the film was made, rather than recreating what might have been played.’ It is ‘abstracted, serving the narrative, not focus pulling.’ This approach creates a more intimate, visceral connection with the audience, because we can’t sonically relegate what we’re seeing to a bygone era, shrouding the film in nostalgia or sentimentality to distance ourselves from uncomfortable truths.

The Blot (1921) Directed by Lois Weber

That quality of accompaniment was also present in the screening of Lois Weber’s The Blot (1921), introduced by Pamela Hutchinson and accompanied by Lillian Henley on piano. Although the hidden history of women in film is gradually coming to light, what will enable neglected cinema to enter public consciousness (and move us closer to equality) is connecting films like this one with live audiences. Weber (1879-1939) was a writer/director who made over 40 features and hundreds of shorts. In her own time, she was the highest paid director in Hollywood, placing the myth of continuous human progress and the current gender pay gap debate into perspective. Part of South West Silents’ initiative Silent Women Film Pioneers, Henley’s skilful new score for The Blot unobtrusively merges with Weber’s vison. Her live performance wove itself into the film’s closely observed domestic spaces, complimenting the unfolding drama and serving the director’s intent perfectly.

Focusing on middle class poverty, so acutely relevant today, Weber understood film as an agent of social change and brought missionary zeal to her examination of inequality in America. Her call for a living wage is articulated through the experiences of mother and daughter, normally cast in supporting roles, but here placed centre stage. We’re all too familiar with women on film portrayed as silent agents of social cohesion and ironically, here in the Silent era, they have a greater voice than in many mainstream Hollywood films circa 2019. Seeing the Griggs and Olsen families, side by side in stark contrast, is immediately resonant, reflecting the ever-increasing divide between rich and poor on a global scale. Supplanting expectations of Romance with sharp, social critique, the collapse of Middle America is ongoing. Weber’s famed ‘feminine touch’ as a filmmaker begs closer scrutiny, as her energies were directed above and beyond her gender. What she stood for was human dignity, empathy and self- determination. There’s a tendency that goes with the whole “feminine touch” label, dismissing interior details in The Blot, like decorative elements, simply belonging to a woman’s domain and aligned with the designated role of homemaker/filmmaker.  However, I’d suggest that seemingly passive imagery such as a pet cat and kitten, are more potent inclusions by Weber, suggesting eternal cycles of child bearing, linked to grinding poverty.

An image (or “blot”) that particularly struck me was that of a little girl, just learning to walk, observed by the central character Mrs Griggs (Margaret McWade). Tottering at the base of the stairs wearing one high heeled shoe, a plaything and basic item of clothing that the Griggs family cannot afford to buy, this sequence felt metaphorical rather than observational. As Pamela Hutchinson suggested in her introduction, if Weber had been a man, we’d have been having discussions about the vision of the director long ago, rather than seeing her films as reductively female. I’m quite certain, given Weber’s moral and ethical stance, that this scene in The Blot is more socially/ politically loaded than just a child playing games. Those games shape how we move through the world as adults and you can’t walk, much less climb the stairs, in one ill-fitting high heeled shoe. Although Weber delivers a strong moral message, this tempered throughout by feeling and projection, rather than grandiose sermonising. The shame of ostracism in work, the pride that tries to keep up with the Jones’s or class-based cues of dress and body language that inform how characters are made to feel, are aspects of self, shared with the audience. This is part of Weber’s life experience and congruence as a filmmaker. It’s a telling indictment that so many prominent women working in the film industry during its early years have silently disappeared from its history. Film restoration is also about reclamation, reappraisal and reinterpretation, which is why I was so glad to have seen this film as part of a live audience.

The Parson’s Widow (1920) Directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer

Danish director Carl Theodor Dreyer (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, Days of Wrath, Ordet) is best known for the profound seriousness and spiritual austerity of his work. The performance of a lesser known film, The Parson’s Widow (1920) demonstrated that there are many more layers to this deeply humane director, including a great sense of humour. It was an absolute pleasure to experience the sensitivity and understated brilliance of this film with an accompanist who equals it. John Sweeney has been accompanying Silent Film for over 25 years and I’m consistently moved by his ability to communicate the most vulnerable and subtle aspects of human behaviour in performance. In Sweeney’s hands, sound becomes a conduit for audience immersion in the emotional arc of the story and the predicament of the characters, rather than a simplistic trigger of emotive response. It’s why I love watching Silent Film live- it pares the art of film back to its most essential, universal language. As an audience we’re not reduced to manufactured cause and effect, but are presented with a pure, intuitive response to the film’s own trajectory in real time, that we can imaginatively project ourselves into. What Sweeney achieved in this performance was a revelation in terms of what makes Dreyer’s work so distinctive and timeless. Tapping into the human kindness, sparkling humour and humility at the heart of the story is his natural gift as an accompanist. As the relationships in the film become deeper and lessons are learned about the true nature of the main characters, Sweeney’s music embraced the lyricism, solemnity and richness of those connections. Dreyer’s conclusion of thanksgiving ‘for all the good days I have lived’ was expressed musically throughout. We begin with a story set in 17th Century Norway, where custom dictates that a young theologian must marry the previous parson’s widow to secure his position, finding a path back to ourselves by the end of the film. Deception, love, wisdom and human flaws are revealed as only Dreyer (and Sweeney) can. I can think of no finer introduction to this new Swedish Film Institute restoration of a Dreyer classic.

Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) Directed by Julien Duvivier

Another of this year’s great Silent discoveries and a festival highlight was the World Premiere of Lobster Films restoration Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930). The incredible virtuosity and rapport of accompanists Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (vibraphone, percussion) continues to elevate every performance. Paired with an intensely moving film, they delivered a dazzling performance, driven by pure intuition and consummate artistry. Adapted from a story by Emil Zola and directed by Julien Duvivier, Au Bonheur Des Dames is an immediately relevant ‘modern parable’ for the 21st Century, as we now face the global, environmental and human cost of capitalist “progress.” The film is also a poignant memorial to the ‘final days of French Silent Cinema.’ The buildings we see being demolished on screen are those of the film studio, subject to the same ‘bulk buy’ attitude to branded entertainment as that of the “Ladies Paradise” department store. Small and independent gives way to retail empire in the film, something we see daily in every town and city High Street. Although the heroine Denise Baudu (Dita Parlo) eventually succumbs to this corporate vision of progress, and annoyingly for love, the film’s imagery and musical accompaniment cuts through the plot to deliver a more critical interpretation.

The mechanisation of desire and accelerating drive towards mass consumption were communicated beautifully by the accompaniment. Vibraphone and cymbals created a mesmerising sense of being seduced by glitter in a retail cathedral. The “Ladies Paradise” is certainly an ironic title given the treatment of the shop girls by their male managers. ‘Paradise’ is a dualistic idea, which regardless of belief, is associated with a fall of biblical proportions. The association between lust and shopping projects wider social concerns. In one scene, we see a woman covetously touching her throat, surveying jewellery and another stealing a fur from the department store display. Sound conveys misplaced desire, in the use of piano strings and syncopated percussion, creating an unnatural slant on all the shiny things we might own, perfectly in keeping with the subversive imagery. Sharp intercutting during a sale scene or frenetic movements along a city street, accompanied by palpitations of percussion give us a bodily sense of being in the frame.

The cinematography by André Dantan, René Guichard, Émile Pierre and Armand Thirard is frequently poetic and clever editing juxtaposes the fate of the individual with towering corporate dominance. When Denise’s cousin Genevieve collapses, the piano guides us emotionally through the doorway, accenting her vulnerability- cut to an upwards camera pan of a demolition site and we immediately feel that she (her hopes, the family business and way of life) are being literally and metaphorically crushed. The rumbling depths of the piano and percussion are abstracted- as unconscious as breathing in that moment of absolute immersion. There’s a very special circuitry of energy in play, led entirely by the film, related to what is visually inferred rather than spoken. It’s a circle, fuelled by imagination, connecting the filmmaker(s), the art object, accompanying musicians and audience across time. Horne and Bockius understand the language of film so completely (and intuitively in tandem) that the tonal qualities of a film; visual, psychological, emotional, are translated effortlessly to sound, the most immediate of all our senses. This is Silent Film accompaniment on a whole other level of craft and sophistication. Like a sublime symphony, the beauty of the composition (or improvisation) lies in us being consciously unaware of it. Ideally sound opens a channel in the hearts and minds of the audience, which is exactly what art is for.

Au Bonheur Des Dames has a beauty that has nothing to do with Romance or glamour. We experience it in moments of human recognition, like Denise’s view as she stands alone in her uncle’s shop looking out onto the street, through a line of stripped mannequins. Outside dust and paper scatter in the wind and the sun feels like twilight. Piano chords anchor us to this moment of meditation on what is passing before our eyes. This scene reminded me very much of the early documentary stills photography of Eugène Atget (1857-1927), who tried to capture the architecture and streets of Paris before they fell to modernisation. However, in Au Bonheur Des Dames, this melancholic, end of an era feel of Atget is realised with unbridled violence. As buildings are reduced to rubble by machinery, the shattering physicality of destruction was communicated in a frenzy of articulated blows from percussion. It was expression carried mindfully through the hands and body, informing the viewer’s perception not just of the action on screen but the overwhelming forces behind it. Throughout the film, imagery and music suggested a more questioning world view than the trajectory of the plot. That tension is part of what makes this film so interesting. Shots of the department store shop floor, seen from above, take a god-like view of what humanity has designed, later scattered in panic.

On many levels, Au Bonheur Des Dames is a very contemporary film and the highly sensitive accompaniment, reserving silence for moments of the greatest gravitas, played to those strengths. Most Hippfest films are prefaced by archival shorts and I love the way these can expand frames of reference inside the feature. In this case, the short film Out for Value from the National Library of Scotland Moving Image Archive was the perfect companion piece, chosen by Hippfest student placement Maeve O’Brien and accompanied by Forrester Pyke on piano. Archival footage from Isaac Menzies, Aberdeen, an Emporium taken over by House of Fraser and purchased in 2018 by mega-discounter Sports Direct, brought themes in Au Bonheur Des Dames resoundingly home. Another Scottish connection made this screening possible, with sponsorship from the Falkirk District Twinning Association, paired with Creteil, outside Paris.

Moulin Rouge (1928) Directed by Ewald Andre Dupont

Building relationships with long term partners, such as the Confucius Institute for Scotland and China Film Archive, Hippfest is able to bring rare films to the UK, such as The Red Heroine / Hongxia (1929), the oldest surviving martial arts film, largely unseen outside China. International partnerships are also instrumental in commissioning new work, promoting artistic development and cultural exchange. Co-commissioned by the Goethe Institut, Glasgow, and Hippfest, the world premiere accompaniment for Moulin Rouge (1928) by Günter Buchwald (violin), Frank Bockius (percussion) and Johnny Best (piano) recieved stellar applause from the audience. The story centres on Parysia (Olga Tschechowa), an aging cabaret dancer, universally adored for her exotic onstage persona. Her daughter Margaret returns from finishing school with her fiancé Andre, who soon becomes obsessed with his future mother in law. Director Ewald Andre Dupont was one of the early pioneers of German Cinema, best known for Varieté (1925) and Piccadilly (1929), both screened at previous Hippfests. It’s gratifying to be able to explore the work of a director over several years, a rare gift of continuity, and to see the film performed live in a collaboration between German and British musicians. This was the first time the trio of Buchwald, Bockius and Best had performed together and hopefully not the last. Günter Buchwald has been accompanying Silent Film since 1978, collaborating with Frank Bockius for over 20 years and Johnny Best, who is Director of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival and a PHD researcher, has been accompanying Silent Film since 2014. The opportunity for musicians to learn and be inspired by each other, across borders and a variety of musical styles, is essential in preserving and developing the art of Silent Film accompaniment for future generations. The lavish production and arc of impending tragedy in Moulin Rouge was handled with great panache and gusto, hurtling towards the climatic scene at a heart-stopping pace and carrying the audience with it.  

Hindle Wakes (1927) Directed by Maurice Elvey

This year’s Closing Gala Hindle Wakes (1927), accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne, provided a world class conclusion to the festival, highlighting a largely unknown and strikingly progressive British Silent. Matching the right accompanist(s) with the right film is an art in itself and this performance illustrated what a skilled musician can bring to our perception of cinema. As Briony Dixon, curator of Silent Film at the BFI, London, stated in her introduction, ‘Stephen will accompany the film as only he can.’ Based on the 1910 play by Stanley Houghton and filmed by the UK’s most prolific director, Maurice Elvey, Hindle Wakes is a surprisingly radical statement of female independence. Set in a Lancashire cotton mill town, it’s a story of industrial slavery and ‘the ecstasy of freedom’, linking self-determination with a woman’s capacity to earn her own living. Accompanying the opening sequence on piano, stately, tonal pillars of expectation were contrasted with the excitement of heroine Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) and her best friend Mary, preparing for the annual mill closure and heading for the bright lights of Blackpool on holiday. Release from the drudgery of factory work into a fairy-tale world of leisure was captured by the otherworldly sound of the thumb harp, fragile music infused with human vulnerability. This sound aligned with a poignant shot of the Blackpool ballroom seen from above, a swirling mass of couples and confetti falling, as if the entire scene were held in time, inside a souvenir snow globe. Sparks of Romance and unease punctuated the soundscape, reflecting the central character navigating her way from youth to adulthood.

Horne’s ability to express the inner life of characters on screen is exceptional. When Allan and Fanny take their turn on the dancefloor amongst thousands of couples, a lesser accompanist might have simply played appropriately rhythmic period music over the sequence. Horne takes his cues directly from the frame and its visual composition, in the way that sound melts away, out of focus, creating an emotional depth of field around the couple and making the rest of the world disappear. We enter into what the dance means in that moment, and in life, temporarily suspended in reflection. This delicacy, attention and care, is what makes Horne such a master of the art and a multi award winning accompanist. Without giving too much away, the film’s conclusion doesn’t deliver what we’re conditioned to expect. The ending left me wondering at what point did stories such as this one cease being projected on screen? How many others have been lost and how many more were waiting to be discovered? Once again, a film that would be classified as Silent, historical or vintage delivers an unanticipated roar, revealing itself as more radical than many contemporary films would dare to be. Class representation, coupled with expectations of gender, make Fanny’s ultimate decision a revolutionary act, then and now. Regardless of when a film was made, if we don’t care about the characters on screen then the film is dead. The nature of Horne’s accompaniment brought reappraisal of a forgotten film to a wider audience. Bridging this gap between film archive and public consciousness is a matter of national importance. Beyond academia and dedicated organisations, the UK is slow to recognise its cinema history and champion its immense cultural value. Performances like this make the case very powerfully from the ground up, without saying a word.

In addition to the festival screening programme, workshops, talks and commissioning of new scores, Director Alison Strauss and the Hippfest team have exported the live Silent experience from Bo’ness, touring selected shows in the UK. Over the last nine years Hippfest has emerged as a national treasure and essential resource, enabling international collaboration and consistently punching far above its weight. In 2020, Hippfest will celebrate its 10th edition and I can’t wait to see what it has in store.

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film Website:
http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx Hippfest 2019 Programme: hhttp://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2019%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf

Bringing Silent Film Home

New Silent Film restorations Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Fanchon the Cricket (1915) produced by the Mary Pickford Foundation and released by Flicker Alley.

Mary Pickford in Little Annie Rooney, DVD Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

‘No role she can play on the screen is as great as the role she plays in the motion picture industry. Mary Pickford the actress is completely overshadowed by Mary Pickford the individual.’

Herbert Howe in Photoplay, 1924.

When I look around at the brightest, most popular female stars in Hollywood today, I can think of no one you could repeat Howe’s phrase about- at least not yet, while we are in the process of reclaiming our inheritance. The more we discover about the early history of cinema, the more it seems that successive generations have been duped into believing that female roles, behind and in front of the camera, have always been secondary. Surprisingly, when the artform was still in its infancy there were many more prominent women working in the industry at all levels, including Lois Weber, Ida May Park, Cleo Madison, Dorothy Arzner, Mabel Normand, Nell Shipman, Dorothy Davenport, Frances Marion and Mary Pickford. It shakes the contemporary view of linear progress to find examples of female stars like Pickford, with superior earning power to today, studio governance and creative control, writing, producing, acting and directing. As we grapple with the cumulative effects of gender disparity in the film industry- and the wider world, making the work of female pioneers of early cinema visible is an imperative.

Sadly, it is estimated that over 80% of all Silent Films are irretrievably lost. We can only see a mere fraction of what was created, an experience further reduced in quality by inferior online copies, which is why new restorations are so vitally important. Mary Pickford’s Silent screen career is inspirational, setting an example of what can be when women are able to shape their professions from the ground up. As a co-founder of United Artist studios with D. W. Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, Pickford ‘the individual’ was blazing a trail in the motion picture industry before the studio rule book as we know it was written. She forged a career with enviable creative control as a producer, a tide now finally turning in the world of Film and TV circa 2018.

New restorations of Pickford’s Fanchon the Cricket (1915) and Little Annie Rooney (1925) are very timely releases, not only in broadening our understanding of Pickford as an artist/producer, but as part of a wider reappraisal of women in film, integral in the history of World Cinema. These new deluxe, dual disc Blu-ray / DVD editions from the Mary Pickford Foundation, released by Flicker Alley, are ‘the first of a planned series of her films’ and what a delight it is to see them!  The care taken in both restorations has delivered clarity of vision, crisp tonal definition, exquisite colour tinting and a seamless flow of storytelling. Sensitively accompanied by new scores, there’s a fresh, exuberant spirit in how these films are presented, perfectly in keeping with the intelligence, empathy and wit we see in Pickford on screen. Big screen cinema/ live musical accompaniment experience aside, you won’t find a better introduction to Pickford’s work for contemporary audiences.

Annie Rooney and her gang. Image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration journey is a fascinating and painstaking process. The starting point for Little Annie Rooney was ‘the original tinted nitrate print from Pickford’s personal collection at the Library of Congress, preserved photochemically by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Film Archive (AMPAS). A new 35mm preservation master was scanned at 4K high definition’ to create a digital version, ‘evaluating the film frame by frame, removing dirt and other signs of deterioration to perfectly match the original nitrate tints and tones.’ Composer Andy Gladbach was commissioned by the Mary Pickford Foundation to create a new, original soundtrack. A DVD bonus feature and article in the DVD booklet explores Gladbach’s considered approach to the score. Also included in the publication are rare, ‘behind the scenes’ photographs from Little Annie Rooney in production and essays by award winning historian, documentary filmmaker and author Cari Beauchamp, enhancing appreciation of Pickford’s work.

Gladbach’s orchestration includes a variety of sound, with piano, viola, cello, bass, drums, flute, piccolo, clarinet, bass clarinet, trombone and bass trombone. It’s a suitably brassy, rhythmically driven score, bringing Broadway, TV sit-com, Comic and Irish Folk melodic elements aptly into the mix for the film’s ‘downtown’ setting. There’s aural familiarity for a contemporary audience that’s an immediate bridge to the 1925 film, rather than set painting with period music. Our heroine is ‘bold’, spirited, and as she grows up during the course of the film, the music admirably follows her lead. Gladbach successfully builds momentum in alignment with the action, enhancing comedic moments and characterisation with emotive commentary from woodwind and brass. The overall effect is youthful, upbeat and thoroughly enjoyable.

I first saw Little Annie Rooney on the big screen at Glasgow Film Festival in February 2017 and loved it.  It was by far the best feel good film I’d seen in a long time, from any century, and Pickford’s performance was a revelation. I immediately understood why she was so respected, adored and meteorically famous in her own time. I was also convinced that if people had the opportunity to see her work more widely, then she would have a Renaissance, inspiring future generations of filmmakers, women and introducing people to the joys and innovation of Silent Film. In many ways Little Annie Rooney is the perfect family entertainment, with more depth, diversity and heart than the standard fare. In the words of the Geena Davis Institute ‘if she can see it, she can be it’ applies behind and in front of the camera. Pickford wrote, produced and starred, with William Beaudine directing, to great critical acclaim and commercial success. Amazingly Pickford was 33 when she played teenager Annabel (Annie) Rooney, but you’d never guess it from her inexhaustible energy on-screen. The warmth and humanity of a performance that ranges from exuberant childhood innocence to adult understanding of loss, allows the viewer to suspend any disbelief. At base, Annie is a winning character who Pickford inhabits completely, engineered in part to satisfy fans, but also extending beyond the brand of “America’s Sweetheart” or “the girl in curls.”

Pickford’s naturalism is her star quality. That every-person appeal is expanded in the central character, a daughter of Irish immigrants living in a poor neighbourhood. Annie is a strong willed, street fighting, mischievous tomboy with a fiery temper. She’s also a smart, kind and determined young woman, who rises to what the plot throws at her in the most entertaining, endearing and heartrending ways. She’s the spirited embodiment of rising above reduced circumstances, which would have struck a particular chord with audiences during the interwar period. Annie’s neighbourhood is an environment of rival gangs, poverty and crime, seen initially in child’s play battles, with every kid in the neighbourhood out pelting each other with projectiles. At one point we see Annie manoeuvring a pram from the inside like a tank, aptly accompanied by comedic, military style percussion. Although multiculturalism is seen through the lens of the day, it is unusually present at a time when on screen characters were predominantly white. In this context, Pickford’s “mini league of nations” of the playground/ inner city waste-ground, was refreshingly inclusive.

On the domestic front, the relationships between Annie and the masculine world around her are nuanced. Her policeman widower Dad (Walter James) and amiable elder brother Tim (Gordon Griffith) take care of her and she of them, with Annie taking on the role of the absent mother in the household. Their bonds are tender and good natured, with an all-pervasive sense of fairness that doesn’t spill over into saccharine.  Altruism and unconditional love are part of the family, a source of strength and tragedy as the story unfolds. Outside the home, gang rivalries divide the community and descend into violence, with Annie’s future partner Joe Kelly (William Haines) caught up in the crossfire. As a heroine, Annie/ Pickford convincingly carries the film. She’s goodness personified, but without being a one-dimensional, saintly goody two shoes- look at her the wrong way and she’ll still sock you in the jaw! Comedy, tragedy, love and sacrifice are all there, conveyed with Pickford’s natural warmth, humour and skill, qualities that never date.

Fanchon the Cricket (1915) DVD image courtesy of Flicker Alley.

Made 10 years earlier and directed by James Kirkwood, Fanchon the Cricket, sees Pickford starring as a waif and social outcast, alongside her sister Lottie and brother Jack. Based on the 1849 novel La Petite Fadette by George Sand, this ‘adult fairy-tale’ was largely filmed outdoors on location in Pennsylvania. Fanchon lives in the woods with her unloving grandmother, labelled a witch by the local villagers. Wild and unspoiled by society, she is a child of Nature who craves human company and affection. Edward Wynard’s cinematography captures the natural setting and Fanchon’s predicament with stunning visual clarity. At one point, Fanchon’s isolation is expressed tonally in the frame, bisected by darkness and light. We see a circle of dancing villagers held aloft in the distance, while Fanchon watches them in our foreground, separated by a diagonal barrier of foliage. That evasive sense of human contact, longed for, but just out of reach, is communicated entirely by Wynard’s composition. It’s Silent, pure visual storytelling at its illuminating best. Wynard’s cinematography reminded me of the beautiful early stills work of Steichen and Stieglitz, combining the disciplines of photography and painting.

The popularity of Pickford playing a child never waivered throughout her career and this recurrent figure of the child/ woman is an interesting one in connection with the idea of the waif. Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ persona stylised this trope, almost to the point of caricature, but Pickford’s portrayal of a ‘homeless, abandoned and neglected person’ is cast in a mythic guise of childhood, affording the individual freedoms that adult society would never allow.  Until love enters the picture, Cinderella style, Fanchon may be in rags, but she is also her natural, uninhibited self, which is an essential part of her appeal as a character. Although lonely and vulnerable, she’s certainly no damsel in distress. Fearless and resourceful, she dives in to save the hapless “hero” Landry (Jack Standing) on more than one occasion.

Fanchon the Cricket 1915 production still, courtesy of Flicker Alley.

The restoration of this film is a triumph of international collaboration between the Mary Pickford Foundation, Cinémathèque Française and the British Film Institute, who each held elements of the original film in their archives, L’Immagine Laboratory, Italy, responsible for the photochemical and digital restoration of the film and Roundabout Entertainment, Los Angeles, who completed the digital mastering. ‘Colours were recreated using the original tinting notes on the nitrate print and on the dupe negative loaders’ and ‘a new negative and 35mm prints were created from the restored digital version.’ The Mary Pickford Foundation paired Julian Ducatenzeiler and Andy Gladbach to create a new score. The orchestration, for acoustic and electric guitar, flutes, violin, viola, cello, grand piano, electric piano, banjo, mandolin, upright and electric bass, drum kit, auxiliary percussion and vocals, brings a variety of textures and sounds to the interpretation.  The human voice (without lyrics) is used to good effect to invoke memory, together with the ephemeral use of percussion, suspending time in remembrance. Although the range of instruments is broad and contemporary, especially in the use of guitar and electric piano, there is clarity and depth of feeling in restraint. We feel complex emotions like longing underpinning dramatic scenes in the selective use of solo/ lone character instrumentation. Piano, strings and lower woodwind take us deeper into Fanchon’s shifting emotional states. It’s a musical partnership that feels suitably tempered by the soul of the film, something which can often be missing on Silent DVD releases and in newly commissioned live accompaniments, when contemporary musicians simply perform over the film. Thankfully the ethos of ‘serving the film’ shines through in Ducatenzeiler and Gladbachs’ musical accompaniment.

Fanchon The Cricket is a wonderful example of how digital technology, communication and international expertise can be used to put film back together again in a project of global importance. Pickford herself believed that the film had been lost, so there is something very poignant about this release as a found object, drawn from different continents, the Old World and the New. I wish she could see it and her continuing legacy in this DVD release, which includes essays by Cari Beauchamp, placing Pickford’s remarkable work in historical, professional and thematic context. These new releases are a great introduction to a largely unknown era in Film, via DVD, Blu-ray and high definition live streaming.

The late Scottish composer and multi-instrumentalist Martyn Bennett once said that in order to be pioneers, we must first acknowledge that we are heirs. This is certainly true of women working in all artistic disciplines, consistently written out of history. As we rediscover their incredible achievements, perhaps we can gain confidence in possibility, building careers from the ground up in new ways, redefining expectations, reshaping industry and the wider world in the process. Mary Pickford’s talent, imagination and business acumen were a visible leading light in her time and in our own. Yes, this is entertainment, but in the current climate, Pickford’s heroic determination and humanity steps right off the screen into our living rooms. This is an exciting start to an entire process of restoration, reappraisal and Renaissance, for Mary Pickford and for women in film.

https://marypickford.org/

flickeralley.com

8th Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Bo’ness

Directed by Alison Strauss, 8th annual Hippodrome Silent Film Festival was full of discoveries and exceptional performances- in my experience, the best year yet!  The convergence of international musical talent, new restorations and previously unseen films, presented under the heavenly dome of Scotland’s oldest cinema make Hippfest a highly anticipated and unique event, worth clearing your calendar for.  There is nothing quite like the live Silent era experience, bringing reinterpretation of cinema at its most ground-breaking and innovative to contemporary audiences.  The Hippfest celebration of music and movies in a relaxed, welcoming atmosphere is a restorative breath of fresh air. I always come away feeling connected to an expanded world of human creativity, experience and perception. This isn’t just about a film nerd finding her tribe, but the thrill of the new, the magic that happens when the right accompanist(s) align with the vision of a film and its emotional centre, responding to it in real time. You don’t need a degree in film studies to revel in it.  This is where Silent Film accompaniment comes into its own, not as a historical curio, but as a living Artform transforming how and what we see, not just inside the cinema but in the wider world. Being part of that flow of energy between the filmmaker(s), the stories projected on screen, accompanying musicians and fellow audience members is something very special that can’t be replicated anywhere else in the digital world.

Silent comedian Billie Ritchie

Among this year’s discoveries was Silent comedian Billie Ritchie. Who knew that this Glasgow born international star pre-dated Chaplin as “The man Who Makes the World Laugh”, appearing in 70 Hollywood productions from 1914 to 1920. Trevor Griffiths, author of the soon to be released Early Cinema in Scotland, delivered an intriguing introduction to Ritchie’s work in his Friday afternoon talk, prompting the question of how and what enables an artist to remain in public consciousness. With Forrester Pyke accompanying on piano, the audience were treated to tantalising snippets of surviving film, revealing Ritchie’s anarchic brand of humour. These glimpses left me wanting to see more and wondering where in the world Ritchie’s many lost works might be uncovered. There is certainly more work to be done in researching, celebrating and bringing Billie Ritchie home as an artist in the public imagination.

Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer.

The Hippfest Friday Night Gala is always buzzing, with people getting into the 1920’s party spirit. Fancy dress, pre-screening drinks, canapés and authentic live music, this year by the toe tapping Red Hot Minute Brass Band, are all part of the annual festivities. Ernst Lubitsch’s The Student Prince in Old Hiedelberg (1927), starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer was accompanied by Neil Brand on piano, delivering the perfect balance of charm, romance and drama. Hugely popular on its release, the story of an inexperienced, dashing crown prince falling in love with an honest barmaid was (and clearly still is) an appealing leveller. Brand’s music sensitively conveyed this human baseline of love, loss and regret. His enthusiastic presentation of the preceding archival short and main feature heightened the sense of occasion. Brand is a consummate showman with a broad reach, a passionate advocate for Silent Film and the expressive role of music in Cinema, seen in his television series and live performances. He always brings context to Silent Film as art and entertainment, the perfect match for Lubitsch’s highly accomplished and crowd-pleasing film.

Brand provided equally sparkling accompaniment for the Saturday morning Jeely Jar Double Bill, continuing the tradition started by the Hippodrome’s original proprietor Louis Dickson of discounted cinema tickets in exchange for empty glass jars. (In 2018, 2 for 1 tickets with a clean jam jar and lid, with the jars used for local honey). At the heart of both films are feisty, irrepressible and independent young women in the making, something still rarely seen in mainstream films and popular culture in the 21st Century. Dorothy Devore stars in the 22 min comedy of errors Saving Sister Susie (1921), as a younger sister forced to dress as a child by her mother, so that her older sibling can find a fiancée. Devore plays a character who is completely forthright and a free spirit – not at all the model of demure, feminine passivity expected by her Mother’s late Nineteenth Century generation.  In The Kid Reporter (1924, 20 mins) four and a half year old Baby Peggy plays an expert stenographer, crime solving sleuth and budding editor in chief! In his introduction Neil Brand revealed that Baby Peggy, who later became a reporter and critic, is still alive, well and living in LA where he interviewed her.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1924)

I have a low tolerance for cuteness, especially of the saccharine, Hollywood studio system variety, but Baby Peggy is something else in this film- four and a half going on forty in terms of her sharp expressions of thought and amazing execution of comic setups. Dressing like a professional male reporter and declaring that “if you want something done there is only one woman!”, she has real presence and personality on screen, convincingly carrying the film. The Kid Reporter was unexpectedly funny, progressive and contradictory in its depiction of a child/woman very competently in charge. Although the Jeely Jar Double Bill is comedy pitched for children/ families, there’s still plenty for adults to enjoy too. Seeing Baby Peggy in a film built entirely around her reveals the shortcomings of our own “liberated” age, where it wouldn’t be enough for her to be an intelligent girl with comic timing. Ironically the field of reference in the proceeding age of technicolour has progressively shrunk, fenced in by pink or blue- tinted expectations, which is what makes Baby Peggy’s sassy self- determination so refreshing! I can’t think of an equivalent character, certainly not one that young, in film or TV today.

Striving /Fen Dou (1932)

Initiating international musical collaborations and cultural partnerships is one of Hippfest’s great strengths, something that can only be created and sustained by proactive development and continuity of funding. The European Premiere of Striving /Fen Dou (1932) a new restoration from the China Archive accompanied by Stephen Horne (Piano, flute, accordion, melody harp) and Frank Bockius (Percussion) is a brilliant example of inspired international collaboration. Supported by the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh, this screening combined interpretative skill and musical transcendence, crossing multiple borders. Directed by Shi Dongshan, the story of a young woman, Swallow (played by 16-year-old Chen Yanyan) and her struggle to find happiness is a loyal work of Nationalist propaganda, humanised by musical interpretation in this live performance. Made during a time of internal political turmoil and escalating conflict with Japan, Striving was clearly intended to carry the moral message of virtue and nobility in serving the nation. The pairing at this screening of a BFI National archive short film newsreel, rallying young men in Trafalgar Square to serve their country, provided an interesting perspective on propaganda and nationalism on home soil. The Hippfest tradition of pairing archival shorts with features often provoke important questions about our relationship with history, film, collective memory and current affairs. These archival films can sometimes be just a minute long, but they provide an important pause and a lens for the feature, with the audience free to make their own connections. The perceptive distance between cultures, the time that the film was made and our own effectively shrinks, whilst the emotional field of reference expands due to the finest musical accompaniment.

Whenever I have seen Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany Silent Film I’ve been floored by their vitality, incredible musicianship, understanding of film as human expression and ability to communicate with audiences.  The energy they create in performance is pure, intuitive and totally transports the viewer, changing the way you watch, perceive and appreciate films of any period. They always enhance and elevate the films they are paired with based on respect, trust and total commitment to serving the film. Taking your cues from the film happens on many levels and both musicians dig deep. They allow the full range of their instruments, capabilities as soloists and a duo, to channel the film in such a unified way that the audience is carried away, beyond and within themselves. Seeing a film for the first time accompanied by Horne and Bockius is the best introduction you could possibly hope for in Cinema. They’re not serving their egos as performers, but the story, what is projected thematically on screen and the connective function of music, taking the art of Silent Film accompaniment to an entirely new level.  With Striving they effectively placed the audience in the emotional centre of the action.  Whilst this might sound very cerebral, there’s also a physical/ haptic aspect in performance that translates directly to the viewer. We experience the film spatially-like virtual reality, but in more dimensions than just three! It’s the difference between applying sound effects or a musical soundtrack over a film and highly skilled, unconscious interpretation through the nervous system- what we are all essentially hardwired for and what both artists resoundingly deliver.

Stephen Horne’s use of the interior workings of the piano, harnessing its expressive range, creates a sense of gravity, understanding and tension. He is able to ground the audience; physically, psychologically and emotionally. The muffled, rumbling lower register tension of a fight taking place upstairs, or the scraped wires of a slap/ fingernail scratch across the face transform the piano into physically articulate percussion. However, it’s the sonic recognition of what’s happening beneath the surface, in the heart and mind of a scene, that Horne really excels at. The musical suggestion of thought, attitude, character, motivation and feeling, powerful use of sound and silence, enables the audience to inhabit the world of the film and empathically project themselves into it. You don’t achieve that depth of experience with typical thematic manipulation, simply triggering a cause and effect emotive response.

Percussion is often used with all the subtlety of a hammer to the knee reflex in mainstream Cinema scoring, seeing Frank Bockius perform it becomes something else entirely. The human body becomes the percussive, resonant instrument of awareness, not just driving the pace of the action on screen but reimagining it. Arms, elbows, palms and fingertips, brushes, rods, sticks and the most unexpectedly delicate use of cymbals, extend the reach and depth of sound. We can experience foreboding, an abstract concept, as a reality, part of the wider story arc and as an emotional space the main character is living in, before we see/ are shown the abusive relationship between adoptive father and daughter. Crucially- we feel it first, and this guides our human response to the unfolding drama, providing the perfect counterfoil to the rather didactic intertitles and time/ culturally specific political agenda. The musical improvisation aligns with the pure visual storytelling of Silent Film and the art of cinematography, which are all about show don’t tell.

In the hands of these two musicians the clash of cymbals and major key striving of the piano isn’t a nationalistic celebration, but one of life itself. With years of experience and refined technique they can capture with the lightest touch, the trembling hesitation, shifting emotion and burgeoning awareness of two young lovers, or the furious trauma of war, branded “glorious” by the intertitles, sonically subverted. In moments of intimacy the alignment of both musicians is with the painted light of cinematography, the pin point illumination in the eyes of actors, becoming the projected light of Film and the human spirit. There is no orchestra or editing, yet we experience on a symphonic scale, visceral sounds of cannon fire and reverberating bullets that blister the skin of the drums/ viewer, while the piano shudders like a conductive pool of water on the battlefield at our feet. Anyone who imagines (and many people do) that Silent Film accompaniment is simply decoratively tinkling the ivories along to aged memory would have that myth exploded here. The connection is very powerfully made between the seemingly distant world of China circa 1932 and our own. Silent Film is the original art of global communication. It’s no wonder that contemporary filmmakers are increasingly being drawn to it to hone their craft.

Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928)

Another highlight of my Hippfest weekend was John Sweeney’s rapturous interpretation of Franz Osten’s Shiraz, A Romance of India (1928), a British-Indian-German co production, recently restored by the BFI. With an entirely Indian cast, including Himansu Rai, Enkashi Rama Rao Charu Roy, Seeta Devi and shot on location using natural light, this is a beautiful film and an epic love story. The tale of how the Taj Mahal came to be built has all the drama and intrigue of a Shakespearean tragedy, with the purity and agony of love at the heart of the film. John Sweeney’s highly sensitive lyricism as a pianist was the perfect accompaniment, seamlessly and magically morphing the piano into a sitar. The combination of rhythms and accents from Classical Indian music with the expressive capabilities of the piano, the ultimate musical embodiment of Western Romanticism, was simply stunning. Like an alchemist, Sweeney melded pinnacles of artistic expression from both cultures into gold, responding to the film and its themes with profound empathy. It was music fallen naturally from the stars, capturing human aspiration and adoration in full alignment with the architecture.

The love triangle between Selima, a lost princess raised from childhood with her adoptive brother Shiraz and the Emperor Shah Jehan is a complex one of class, fate, sacrifice and unrequited love. Ultimately it is Shiraz’s love and humility, that builds the monument and is the foundation of the film, rather than a story of two star crossed lovers finding each other. Crucially the piano dignifies and illuminates the design so that we see the inner trajectory of the devotional as a mirror- “not stone and mortar, but faith and longing”. When Shiraz attends the palace gate, leaning against a pillar, a single hand on the piano communicates his loneliness and the weight of sorrow he’s carrying as he returns to catch glimpses of Selima’s happiness, gradually losing his sight. Musical shimmers of light communicate the selfless acceptance of Selima not being his, it’s the blindness and helplessness of unrequited love.  What Sweeney’s understated accompaniment allows us to feel is the integrity of Shiraz’s soul. Glimmers of sunshine are played with supreme gentleness on the piano, befitting the invisibly raw, vulnerable state of a character who has given his whole self to a woman who can only love him as a brother. That emotive distance between Shiraz and his beloved is achingly acute in Sweeney’s music, because like the character he doesn’t announce these moments of passion and loss, instead they emerge out of the unconscious timbre of the music and into heightened awareness. Like Shiraz handing the amulet back to Selima, Sweeney passes the sonic core of the film to the audience and what a precious, heartfelt gift it is. This performance had me in tears, because it tapped into a baseline of experience and memory in such a humane way. Although the premiere of the BFI restoration of Shiraz at the 2017 London Film Festival with a commissioned score by Anoushka Shankar was much celebrated, you could really hope for no better live accompaniment to this heartbreakingly exquisite film than John Sweeney on piano.

Saturday night’s magnificent Silent Horror double bill featured the great Lon Chaney in The Penalty (1920), accompanied by a newly commissioned Hippfest score from Graeme Stephen (guitar) & Pete Harvey (cello). This was followed by the riotously bizarre Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), directed by Benjamin Christensen (Häxan), brilliantly accompanied by Jane Gardner (piano) and Roddy Long (violin).

I must confess that I have  (to date) a difficult relationship with newly commissioned scores for Silent Film, doubly so at a Silent festival where they are premiered alongside the work of musicians whose extensive experience and career focus is Silent accompaniment. The commissioned musicians chosen are usually fantastic in their own right and no doubt bring their existing followers to a screening, however the biggest pitfall for musicians doing Silents is this isn’t a concert or a music festival. It isn’t enough to simply get up there and do what you already know how to- the film is the thing you’re serving, not yourself or your fans. In this context it’s rare that a non-specialist musician (or musicians), however fashionable or acclaimed in their own genre, don’t fall short. To be fair, my expectations in a Hippfest context are incredibly high and I know that often, the actual time allowable for musical commissions is short. However, entering the medium of film and pushing the boat out musically are a state of mind, independent of time. Accompanying Silent film demands nothing less than imagination, if a musician isn’t engaged with theirs and with the film then the audience won’t be either. 

The Penalty (1920) starring Lon Chaney

The Penalty is a cracking film, full of psychological twists, ambiguities and moral dilemmas, it deals with the light and dark of the soul, the nature of creation, destruction and what makes a human being. Lon Chaney is “an evil mask of a great soul” and delivers a compelling, dynamic performance as the crippled, sadistic underworld boss “Blizzard”. There’s distilled malevolence, a fallen angel, an injured child and wounded humanity in his character. He’s a man physically and mentally crippled by greed, revenge, envy and loss. The pairing of classical guitar and cello was a missed opportunity in this new commission, not due to the instrumentation but the safe, concert-like quality of it, which outside the cinema wouldn’t be a criticism. Where this film takes you visually, thematically and psychologically isn’t congruent for example, with repetitively comforting guitar strumming while a violent act is committed- unless you’re being ironic, and my guts, together with the rest of the score, tells me it wasn’t. If you’re going to score for guitar and cello, a full exploration of both instruments, like the human content, is an imperative with this film. This doesn’t mean extreme sound necessarily, but giving the underutilised cello its voice back, taking your guitar into uncharted territory and getting under the skin of your audience. Beautifully played sound just isn’t enough on a cinema stage if it fails to connect with the nature of the characters and story. We all read films differently, but there are central themes in The Penalty that are unmissable for an accompanist, aligned with what the film shows us visually about ourselves as human beings. It’s this emotional tonality and complexity of human behaviour that Graeme Stephen’s doesn’t seem to pick up on. For me that’s what makes this film so rich and fascinating, even with a cop out ending of evil explained away by science. Whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the film and the musical performance, I wasn’t convinced by them being brought together. The scoring of guitar and cello lacked imagination and there were times when I wondered whether we were watching the same film, Stephen’s score for Nosferatu had a similar effect. Having these thoughts about the music whilst watching the film pulls you out of it to some extent, which is a shame considering such promising material, however Chaney’s marvel of twisted humanity and the visual exploration of themes kept pulling me back in. It could have been an amazing, transformative live performance, but there wasn’t a sense of the musicians becoming an essential part of the film and freeing themselves in the process.

Seven Footprints to Satan (1929)

In contrast Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) totally embraced the vision on screen, faithfully serving the “Carry On Devil Worship crossed with The Rocky Horror Picture Show” and Lynchian Twin Peaks spirit of the film. Starring Thelma Todd, Crighton Hale and Sheldon Lewis the story begins in familiar, late 20’s high society territory and then explodes it completely. Gardner and Long’s harmonic, rhythmic and tonal descent into escalating weirdness was genius! Together they captured the humour and dream-like chaos of bizarre characters and scenarios encountered by a society couple, abducted and imprisoned in a house belonging to the Devil. As David Cairns describes in his Hippfest film notes, the “succession of thugs, dwarfs, fiendish orientals, sinister cripples, phony gorillas, ludicrous grotesques and exotic women, all entering and exiting through secret panels, usually carrying pistols” “and uttering baffling warnings, plays like a Fu Manchu movie through an opium haze.” The transference of sound between piano and electronic keyboard heightened the sense of moving into another realm and Long’s inventive inflections on the violin conveyed an increasingly altered state of reality using all parts of the bow. The Surreal visual/ musical journey from fiery gypsy rhythms and gentile melody to sonically warped time and space was magnificently paced with the accelerating action. Seven Footprints to Satan has all the makings of a cult classic, aided by Gardner and Long who were clearly having as much fun as the audience. Their energy in performance was totally infectious and the audience buzzing from the laugh out loud, audacious and wildly entertaining marriage of sound and image. This late-night Horror was an absolute joy and the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time!  It would definitely make an outstanding repeat screening in any Film House (or mansion) and would be the perfect basis for event cinema.

Underground (1928) directed by Anthony Asquith,  British Film Institute

I’m always a bit sad when Sunday night comes around at Hippfest, a feeling hapilly dispelled by the closing night gala screening. This year Anthony Asquith’s Underground (1928) starring Brian Aherne, Elissa Landi, Cyril McLaglen and Norah Baring, accompanied by Stephen Horne (piano, accordion, flute) and Frank Bockius (percussion) positively raised the roof, closing the festival superbly.  The lives of four working class Londoners are tragically entwined in this unexpectedly gorgeous and darkly emotive film, restored by the BFI National Archive. I was especially glad to have seen it for the first time on the Hippodrome big screen with such adept accompaniment. What struck me visually was Stanley Rodwell’s cinematography, the way shadow play is used imaginatively in the film, from the illuminated bustle and ceaseless movement of the city, to projections of will and desire in the confined space of an underground stairwell. (Rodwell also shot Shooting Stars (1928) and A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) with Asquith.) It’s an interesting departure from the realist tradition of British cinema and brings a more European, expressionistic sensibility to the screen, minus extreme stylistic angularity.  Emotionally it’s permissible intimacy British style, with shadows merging into a surrendering embrace. The prospective lovers are brought closer together than they are physically. We see (and hear) what is unsaid in that moment; what one character is feeling, or projecting onto another. This typically constrained passion makes the flip side of jealousy and revenge an interesting driver in the story.

Another driver is the city, synonymous with the underground itself, sensed and felt in Bockius’s handling of percussion, always moving through a tunnel of darkness towards light. In the opening scenes we see the underground as a melting pot of life, with gestures, glances and exchanges between passengers beautifully animated by sound and the musical conversation flowing just as naturally in collaboration. There’s tremendous sensitivity in the unfolding interpretation of relationships at the heart of the story. For example, Nell’s gradual discovery of Bert’s deceit expands as a musical question with suspicion circling in her mind like the turn of the brush in Bockius’s hand. This growing awareness of the vengeful web Bert has woven around Nell, Kate and Bill is mirrored in Stephen Horne’s gently tentative, pressing shift in awareness on piano. This isn’t a case of simply illustrating an actor’s expression but enables the audience to feel the thought process and emotional state behind it in anticipation. The sound element encourages the audience to drive the realisation and consequent action forward in their own minds. It’s the beauty of accompaniment which creeps up on you in unexpected ways, imaginatively tapping into the motivation and internal movement of a scene.

When Kate discovers that Bert has betrayed her and her mind starts to unravel, the accordion breathes in this emptiness and counter clockwise movement on the skin of the drum amplifies the conflict in her imaginative orbit, of what could or should be. Her responses like the sound of the xylophone become increasingly vulnerable and childlike. The scarf round her neck which she bought to impress Bert scratches at her throat like scraped piano wires. Then the depth of the piano confronts the audience with the refined cause of this primitive, reactive state. She is mad with love and lost herself entirely, a casualty of Bert’s vengeful desire and gross indifference. The sense of oppression in Bert’s hold over Kate becomes an image of modernity, conveyed in the towering silhouette of the power station with its smoking chimneys dwarfing her. As she runs in a frenzy of need to see him, the sequence of movement becomes a blur like a train going past, with the audience as passengers. Throughout the unfolding story, the musical accompaniment provided untold levels of insight, eclipsing time. Underground may not be a film at the forefront of public consciousness, but in the moment, through this performance it became universal. Being able to communicate in this way matters. It crosses all borders and boundaries in such an exciting, enlightening way that the energy within the audience changes, seeing the world with fresh eyes, in the living presence of a miraculous, 90-year-old film and two astonishing musicians. What a festival and what a finish!

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/default.aspx

http://www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/venues/hippodrome/silent-cinema/docs/brochure/2018%20Festival%20Brochure.pdf