Following complete cancellation in 2020 and an online-only instalment last year, the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival returned to the Bo’ness Hippodrome for 2022. Housed appropriately at the oldest cinema in Scotland, the festival delivers perennial classic, new restorations, and recent discoveries from the early years of film. The beautiful art deco interior is the perfect environment for viewing the varied programme. Our film editor Kevin Ibbotson-Wight ignored the balmy Spring weather and sat down for a bumper weekend of great cinema and equally good live musical accompaniment. 

First up for the day was a talk delivered by Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the BFI national archive, on the on the life and career of Lydia Hayward, the renowned screenwriter of the ’20s and ’30s. The presentation expanded on the interview Bryony gave us in the run-up to the festival. Despite being regarded by contemporary writers as perhaps the finest scenario writer in Britain, she has been largely and unfairly forgotten. This is partly down to the films themselves being modest romantic comedies in the P.G. Wodehouse rather than broader slapstick or screwball humour come the advent of sound. As such the films were screened domestically, before being shelved for close to a century. Happily, this also means that the prints are in largely excellent condition and the audience were treated to two surviving films scripted by Hayward.

The first was The Boatswain’s Mate, a jaunty short ‘two-reeler‘ which sees an amorous former sailor adopting unconventional methods to woo Florence Turner‘s no-nonsense publican. He enlists a penniless soldier (John Ford regular Victor McLaglen) to pretend to rob the pub in order that the boatswain can swoop in and play the hero, confident that the landlady will swoon into his arms. Suffice to say it doesn’t go to play. The film is a little delight, both witty and admirably concise. The relatively sparing intertitles are accompanied with jocular line drawings that employs deft irony to undercut the characters’ dialogue. It’s a great encapsulation of Hayward’s talent, and it’s easy to see why she was held in such high esteem. John Sweeney provided musical accompaniment on piano.

The second Hayward film is Not for Sale. This is a twisty, class-conscious comedy of manners adopted from the novel by left-wing writer Monica Ewer. It follows the eventual romance between disinherited aristo Ian Hunter and Mary Odette, the proprietor of the rickety lodging house at which the newly destitute blue blood finds board. Loaded with acquisitive flapper girls, snooty spinsters, louche dandies and industrious maids, the house functions as a microcosm of inter-war England. As with The Boatswain’s Mate, the script is economical with dialogue but the actors fill their characters to bursting with distinctive tics and gestures. It’s not quite as tightly-constructed as the two-reeler, with a little more sprawl to narrative, but it’s still a consistently amusing work, with characters one really comes to care for. Stephen Horne provided the dextrous musical backdrop on piano, flute, and accordion.

Perhaps the most anticipated screening of the weekend, if the queue round the block was anything to go by, was F.W. Murnau‘s City Girl. Murnau will always be a draw, even if City Girl isn’t as celebrated as Nosferatu, or SunriseHowever, it’s likely that a significant part of the appeal for many people was the live accompaniment by the Dodge Brothers and composer Neil Brand. The film itself sees farm boy Charles Farrell head to Chicago to sell the family wheat crop. He meets vivacious waitress Mary Duncan, and after selling the crop for less than its worth after a sudden stock market dip, the pair get married on a whim and return to live on the farm. Kate suffers abuse from stentorian father David Torrence and the marriage seems instantly doomed. This isn’t helped when a group of lascivious farmhands take an unseemly shine to the new arrival.

Murnau brings his customary flare to the slight melodrama of the narrative. Where it really comes into its own is the real sense of dread in the scenes between the vulnerable Duncan and the farmhands. Pre-Hays code as it is, one does wonder just how dark the erstwhile German expressionist is willing to go. The Dodge Brothers’ accompaniment backs this up with an ominous clatter of percussion and stabbing keys. Afterwards, we learn from none other than Mark Kermode that despite having sheets of musical cues, they largely improvised. Apart from the odd moment where scenes ended slightly before a piece of music had reached a natural conclusion, you would be hard pressed to tell. Impressive indeed, and a rich accompaniment to an excellent film, giving a real vibrant sense of its bustling city scenes and more bucolic moments.

Saturday concludes with Jean Epstein’s superb interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. Apart from Roger Corman’s beloved Poe cycle, few have grasped the gothic atmosphere of the macabre miserabilist as the Frenchman. Epstein ups the Romantic (in the Byronic sense) stakes by changing the relationship between Roderick (Jean Debucourt) and Madeleine (Marguerite Gance, wife of Napoleon legend Abel) from siblings to spouses.

The experimental, surrealist take on the story (co-written by Luis Buñuel) emphasises the vastness of the crumbing Usher mansion in comparison to its occupants, and nature encroaching in various ways such as the constant billowing of curtains caused by howling wind. The result feels tonally similar to the first of Jean Cocteau’s ‘Orphic Trilogy’, The Blood of a Poet. On its own, it’s mesmerising. With the accompaniment from Stephen Horne once again, with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry on harp, it’s spine-tingling. Often using their instruments like foley artists they pair use veer from exquisite strings to cacophonous hammering. One well-timed and unexpected scream from Horne chills to the bone. A real highlight of the weekend.

Sunday begins with a great triple-bill of Laurel & Hardy two-reelers; Duck Soup, Two Tars, and Liberty. The first of these sees Stan and Ollie as vagrants who take shelter in a mansion to avoid being conscripted by park rangers to put out forest fires. They are taken for the owners by a couple who turn up to lease the place, and the pair play along, until the real owner turns up. Two Tars has our heroes as sailors on shore leave. They rent a car and charm two women to join them. The day ends with a large-scale traffic jam that becomes an all-out brawl that sees the destruction of unfeasible amounts of veteran automobiles.

The last of the triptych, and the best, is Liberty. Escaping from a chain gang, Laurel and Hardy get changed into stashed clothes. Realising they’ve put on the wrong trousers they get into increasing scrapes trying to find a place to swap. This culminates in a wonderful and terrifying sequence that almost out-Harold Lloyds Harold Lloyd on top of a construction. The three are a great Sunday lunchtime treat and it’s gratifying to see several children in the crowd as captivated as numerous generations down the years. All three are delightfully accompanied by pianist Jonny Best and drummer and percussionist Frank Bockius.

The next screening is A String of Pearls, one of the earliest surviving Chinese films. Based on a short story by Guy de Maupassant, the story follows a middle-class couple who are thrown into poverty by circumstance. The social-climbing wife convinces her husband to borrow a pearl necklace from a jeweller to wear at a party. The pearls are a big hit, but that night the necklace is stolen from their house. Suddenly liable for the cost of the necklace, the husband turns to embezzling from his company to pay for it.

A solid melodrama, A String of Pearls paints a different picture of China than we’re used to in the West. Downtown Shanghai is a thronging blaze of neon and commerce. It’s also beautifully shot, with something of a shadowy noir air to the cinematography. It does lean in to its melodrama, and wraps up its narrative in a neat and not particularly convincing. However, it’s a treat to see a slice of early cinema from outside of the regular places of Europe and the USA.

Our final film of the weekend – and the penultimate film of the festival overall – was Todd Browning‘s The Unknown, featuring Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. Something of a forerunner to Browning’s infamous Freaks, The Unknown focuses on murderer Alonzo who is hiding out at a circus, pretending to be an armless knife thrower who performs his act using only his feet. Alonzo has two arms, but wishing to marry the beautiful Nanon (Crawford), he goes to extreme lengths to conceal his secret and woo the girl.

A prime piece of villainy from Chaney, there is none of the empathy who brought to The Phantom of the Opera. Alonzo is rotten to the core, and Browning delights in pushing the narrative into weird and disturbing places. It’s a great little slice of the macabre, a proto-horror piece of grand guignol accompanied by pianist Jonny Best with an appropriately vaudevillian flourish.