The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920)

Hippfest 2018: I left my heart in Bo’ness

There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?

Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!

Hippfest, now in its eighth year, has a lot in common with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which celebrates its 23rd birthday this summer. I was lucky enough to visit the San Francisco fest last year and with several enjoyable trips to Bo’ness also under my belt I think I can make a few comparisons between the two. Both are deeply connected both to international archives, and to their local communities; both put a special emphasis on live music and supporting the art of silent film accompaniment; both, of course, are based in gorgeous vintage venues (the Hippodrome in Bo’ness, and the Castro in San Francisco), and put on extra silent film events throughout the year. And when all is said, and done, both extend one of the warmest welcomes I have ever experienced at a silent movie festival, and definitely know how to let their hair down and throw a good party. (At both events I have also encountered fierce sunshine and blustery winds, but perhaps I am stretching the comparison at this point!)

So here’s to many more years of Hippfest – the precedent has been set and this thing should run and run. I want to give you a flavour of my latest visit to the Hippodrome, just because I had such a cracking weekend, but I don’t have time to go into too much detail. Here’s a whistlestop tour of my Hippfest highlights in words, pictures, tweets and general excitement.

  • Great music. I liked everything I heard at the three days I spent at the festival. No, that’s a fib. I loved everything I heard except for one score, but hey, if you have been to one of these festivals, more particularly to an event that goes out on a limb with new commissions every year as Hippfest does, you know that is an excellent ratio. Anyway, one man’s trash is another man’s Schatz.

Striving (Fen Dou, 1932)

  • A heartbreaking rediscovery – Chinese silent Striving (Fen Dou, 1932) was my favourite first-watch of the festival. It made its European premiere at Hippfest, with a stunning accompaniment from Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, and it captivated me from start to (surprising) finish. It’s very much in the Borzage mould, to be frank, with an abused waif and a volatile youth meeting in terrible circumstances, falling in love and sustaining their connection through an absence caused by war. Despite everything, this is a film that makes you look more fondly on the human race, and its capacity to love, nurture and learn. That doesn’t happy very often at the movies.

  • Most fun I had at the festival was definitely Seven Footprints to Satan, with a sophisticated and witty score played by Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. I have long been a fan of Gardner’s compositions, but this was one of her very best, and I would not have expected this sort of film to inspire such a thing. Brava!

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg
  • The best Lubitsch silent? Maybe the best Lubitsch Hollywood silent, which is no bad thing. The sublime Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) is such a gorgeous evocation of youth and nostalgia, loss and love in every frame, it really feels sublime. And I am still pondering those quivering daisies on the hillside. Watching this film in the company of great friends, in the warm embrace of the Hippodrome, with Neil Brand at the keys – that’s what it’s all about.

  • We had an unusual lineup on Thursday night, which was devoted to botanist, explorer, poet, film-maker, writer and general inspirational figure Isobel Wylie Hutchison. Gerda Stevenson’s tribute, combining spoken word, poetry and song was absolutely spellbinding, which meant that when we finally saw a selection of her ravishing films of Greenland, I was ready to be bowled over. And I was. Especially when she popped up in front of the camera, and later, when the images burst into Dufaycolor.
Brigitte Helm in Abwege (GW Pabst)
Brigitte Helm in Abwege (GW Pabst)
  • Last but not least, it was a real privilege to share some of my thoughts and theories about GW Pabst’s fascinating female characters and female-led stories in a cuppa talk on Thursday afternoon. Thanks to everyone who came, to Mike Nolan for playing brilliant to the clips, to Ste Kelly for projecting those clips, Ali Strauss for inviting me and especially to the exceptionally talented and endlessly patient BSL and electronic note-taking team. I hope to take this lecture and turn it into either an article or a video essay to appear here or elsewhere, so you won’t miss out, even if you weren’t there on Thursday.

Intertitle of the festival: Surely it has to be “You bad ass!” from Striving, even if I think they really meant something like “You terrible fool!” instead.

Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1923)
Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1923)

Uncannily-accurate-representation-of-my-real-working-life-on-screen-at-the-festival: Baby Peggy in The Kid Reporter (1923). Nuff said.

Heroine of the festival: Superfan Nicky S, who braved snow and cancelled flights to get to the gala – from New York!

Critique-of-yours-truly of the festival: “Well, we don’t usually have female orgasms on a Thursday afternoon in Bo’ness!” You’re welcome!

Bo’ness shop of the festival:Inkspot and Silverleaf has an excellent selection of film and silent film related books in stock, including, right now, signed copies of my Pandora’s Box book and Lawrence Napper’s excellent history of late silent cinema.

Tweeter of the festival:@best2vilmabanky has the content, and the glamour, you need

  • Thanks to everyone at the festival, from Ali, Nicola, Emma and the rest of the team at Falkirk Council, to the venue volunteers, musicians and friends who made my festival such a good weekend. Shout out to The Richmond Park Hotel for looking after us all and its tasty vegetarian haggis too.
  • Find out more about Hippfest here. It continues today, closing with a screening of Underground.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
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