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British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 1

The Guns of Loos (1928)
The Guns of Loos (1928)

Comfort zone be damned. Here I am in Leicester, an hour or so north of the Big Smoke and the first movies that the British Silent Film Festival chooses to show are all talkies … OK, OK I am not going to pretend that they are a novelty to any of us, but kicking off the festival with early British sound films seemed initially to be either a bold move or an acknowledgment that a few of the delegates would still be on the train/in the office at the start of play.

After a day of dialogue films I was desperate for a real silent movie, and Thursday’s finale was worth the wait by any stretch. But more of that anon. While “talkie Thursday” was occasionally grating, it was always fascinating.

Laraine Porter introduced the first two films of the day with a fun whistlestop tour of the British film industry’s transition to sound. She showed us possibly my favourite talkie of the day, Up the Poll (1929), a short political satire featuring Donald Calthrop as a newly elected MP bungling a victory speech that was essentially a string of very funny gags, with “canned laughter” and heckling off-screen. Up the Poll used a combination of synch and non-synch sound, and I’d be intrigued to know whether the balance was as it seemed, ie synch for Calthrop and non-synch for everything else. I assume so, which is usually a dangerous move …

The W Plan (1931)
The W Plan (1931)

Porter also introduced our first feature, an ambitious war movie starring Brian Aherne and Madeleine Carroll called The W Plan (1930). At first it seemed that this one just wouldn’t catch fire, lots of awkward pauses and odd emphases, but boy did it start to blaze when Aherne was on the run in enemy territory. Punching German officers, hallucinating during a firing squad, leading a team of POWs to sabotage an enemy plan using a not-so elaborate code based on whist … Aherne was a dashing hero in a strange and exciting movie. Shame about Carroll – perhaps she will get another chance to show us what she can do.

After lunch, Geoff Brown took to the stage with a massively entertaining, not to mention informative, presentation on, yes, the first British talkies made in 1929. Was Blackmail really the very first? You can guess that the answer is both yes and no, can’t you? Yes, it was first to be released, but it had far less synch dialogue than its main rival High Treason, so go figure. Hitchcock v Elvey: fight! More interesting than the lead question was Brown’s exploration of those first homegrown talkies, which were a rather rum bunch. We went in for melodrama and thrillers, as a nation, it seemed, where the US favoured musicals and such. So these films, many of which we saw clips from, were a heady brew. Miscegenation and damp rot featured in White Cargo; a murderous epileptic led To What Red Hell. It made one long for the simpler pastoral pleasures of Under the Greenwood Tree, or Elsa Lanchester larking about on the old joanna in Mr Smith Wakes Up! 

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An introduction to silent Hitchcock: The Farmer’s Wife

The Farmer's Wife (1928)
The Farmer’s Wife (1928)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife. And every schoolchild knows that statement is never more true than when the gent in question is a farmer.

Jameson Thomas, whom you you may not recognise under his bristly facial hair as the dashing lead in Piccadilly, plays Samuel Sweetland, a widowed farmer whose thoughts turn to matrimony. Samuel surveys the village women and sets about wooing potential Mrs Sweetlands, with hilariously disastrous results. Disastrous, but not in the usual vein of Hitchcock calamity. Samuel isn’t a perverted sex killer bumping women off in the dead of night. The Farmer’s Wife is a comedy, a broad one too, and the only injuries sustained are bruised egos and spoiled dinners.

LIllian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas in The Farmer's Wife
LIllian Hall-Davis and Jameson Thomas in The Farmer’s Wife

Comedies are meant to have happy endings of course, and when I tell you Samuel is assisted in his quest for a new spouse by his sweet-faced and good-hearted housekeeper Araminta (Lillian Hall-Davis) perhaps you’ll be reassured that all will end well.

So how well does Hitchcock, acclaimed for his urban thrillers, succeed in staging a rural comedy? With flying colours. It’s not all down to the director, of course, this is an Eliot Stannard adaptation of a very popular play, but Hitchcock shoots The Farmer’s Wife as if it were a thriller, which somehow emphasises the poignancy of all these lonely people and their missed connections. His brisk economic style also ensure that the horseplay mostly doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Not exactly what you may expect from Hitchcock, but the silents rarely are, and there’s a huge amount to enjoy here.

Synopsis: 

A middle-aged widowed landowner decides to marry again. With the aid of his faithful housekeeper he draws up a list of all the eligible women in the neighbourhood, each of whom in turn rejects him.  (BFI Screenonline)

Hitchcock moment: Never mind the jelly and ice-cream, nor the awkward trouser situation. This proposal looks like one of Hitchcock’s murder scenes and features a very bizarre intertitle

Watch out for: The empty chair by the fireside. And what Hitchcock does with it.

Links worth clicking:

The Farmer’s Wife screens this summer as part of the BFI’s Genius of Hitchcock season. More information here.