The closing gala of this year's Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, held in in Scotland's oldest purpose-built cinema in the sleepy town of Bo'ness, was a real highlight. Hindle Wakes (1927) is not only a smart adaptation of a celebrated 1910 stage play (from the "Manchester school" of socially committed Northern realism that also gave us the source for David Lean's Hobson's Choice), it's proof positive that there was more to British silent cinema than Hitchcock—though there are strong connections, since the movie features character actress Marie Ault, the landlady from The Lodger, John Stuart, the staunch detective from Number 17, and was photographed in part by Jack Cox, Hitchcock's regular cinematographer at this time.
The story is set among the cotton mills of Lancashire in what was the U.K.'s industrial heartland. The young mill workers depart for their annual week's holiday in Blackpool, a sort of combination of Luna Park and a seaside Gomorrah, where spunky lass Fanny Hawthorne (Estelle Brody) hooks up with boss's son, Allan Jethcoate (Stuart), absconding in his two-seater for a long/dirty weekend amid the fleshpots of Llandudno. She arranges to have a friend mail a postcard to her parents, establishing her alibi.
But things go awry—tragically!— when the friend drowns, and the unposted card is found among her possessions. The truth comes out, and Fanny's ambitious mother (Ault) sees a chance for betterment by forcing the rich boy to marry the girl he has "debauched."
Several things are striking about this film, apart from its strong, serviceable narrative framework. It's interesting to see working class lives being documented with sympathy and detail in a film of this time, with the workers' houses reconstructed at the Gaumont British Studios, and extensive location filming in Blackpool. This includes a spectacular ride on the "Himalayan Railway" (a rollercoaster to us), and an aerial view of a dance hall where literally thousands of couples swarm around in an abstract Brownian motion as spotlights drift over their hypnotically circling forms.
The performances are uniformly strong: Ault turns in a ferocious display of snarling and chuntering (lovely Northern word, worth adding to your vocabularies), while her downtrodden husband, Humberston Wright offers a contrasting portrait of melancholic modesty, underplaying his mildness as she overplays her ebullience.
But the film belongs to Brody, a minor American starlet who brings a modernity and sassy attitude to everything she does. And of course, supplied with suitably idiomatic intertitles, she's perfectly credible as a Lancashire lass in a silent film.
This modernity is central to the film's interest. While later versions of the film tampered with the ending to appease the censor or more conservative audience members, this adaptation of Stanley Hoghton's play (by future Hollywood director Victor Saville) preserves the shock-for-its-day denouement, where Fanny exerts full agency and throws the plans made for her completely off-balance. As a friend said, every time you expected the film to jump to a safely conservative stance, it doubled down on its progressive, modern, and sex-positive take on the fun-loving Fanny.
Elvey makes only one error in his staging: when Ault is standing in the street loudly declaring that her daughter must leave her house at once, the play would have won a huge laugh by having the defiant girl appear behind her from the front door, suitcase all packed, leaving of her own will. Elvey, mistakingly thinking that cinematic values must be preserved, cuts to the inside of the house to show Fanny finish her packing and leave, thereby sabotaging the comic turnabout. But that's a quibble. The scene still works and is immensely satisfying.
Added value: Victor McLaglan's little brother Cyril, a more handsome version of his famous relative.
Director Maurice Elvey was insanely prolific: he has 196 directing credits on the IMDb, but that's a very conservative estimate. Hindle Wakes is probably his finest film ("It was about something," he would say with satisfaction), but interested punters are directed to his notable early science fiction thriller High Treason...
One more point of interest, but a hypothetical one: Stan Laurel was famous for borrowing and repurposing gags and story ideas from his English music hall days when he became a filmmaker in America. And one idea he evidently liked, for he used it twice—in the short We Faw Down (1928) and the feature Sons of the Desert (1933)—is a scenario where he and Oliver Hardy attempt to deceive their wives as to their whereabouts and activities, but have their story destroyed by a disaster (a theatre fire; a shipwreck) which makes the papers and causes their spouses to first think them dead, then, when they turn up alive with an impossible tale, to wish them dead.
Well, isn't that the underlying premise of Hindle Wakes and its incriminating postcard? Stan could easily have seen the play before his departure for America, especially as he had Northern roots himself. True, director Leo McCarey claimed credit for the plot idea of We Faw Down, based on his own prodigious career as philandering husband, but McCarey liked to claim credit for everything. It is possible that in this tragi-comedy, the origins of an altogether different set of slapstick farces can be found.