Hippodrome Silent Film Festival director discusses the ninth edition of the popular event
'Just generally in life, knowing where you come from helps you understand where you are now,' says Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo'ness, which this year celebrates its ninth outing; she's discussing her love for silent movies, the subject of the festival she founded in 2011. 'For me, there's a real richness in seeing a reel that Hitchcock did in 1929 or whenever, and then comparing it to The Birds. It's unthinkable why anyone wouldn't want to preserve these films – you would keep books that had been written a hundred years ago, but our medium is just so fragile.'
Held in and around the oldest cinema building in Scotland which is still being used for that purpose, HippFest began as a three-day event, and its popularity has seen it expanded to five. It began two years after the 2009 renovation of the long-neglected cinema as a year-round local concern. 'Even though the Hippodrome was well-loved, it was felt we needed something to pit it on the map,' says Strauss. 'A festival is an obvious thing to raise the profile, and because it's Scotland's oldest cinema, having a festival which celebrated the birth of the medium and the heritage of film seemed to make perfect sense.'
Considering it deals exclusively in silent movies – each of them soundtracked by a live musical score – HippFest draws a wide group of supporters from far and wide. 'We get all ages, but there's a core audience from Bo'ness who feel it's their thing, because of the town,' says Strauss. 'We get a lot from the Central Belt, from Edinburgh, a live music audience from Glasgow, from Inverness, from London … People even come from China and America. Our audiences like the accessibility, the intimate, small, welcoming feel; there isn't a hierarchy, there's no rope separating you from the musician. People visit because they like the film star or the venue or the period or the story, of they just want to give silent cinema a whirl.'
Richard Oswald's Hound of the Baskervilles / credit: Deutsches Filminstitut
Among the highlights of this year's festival are director Richard Oswald's 1929, German-made adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles, the final Arthur Conan Doyle adaptation of the silent era. 'It has a Scottish writer, German director and a cast from six different nations,' says Strauss. 'It's a really international production, and Conan Doyle would have seen it himself in Europe. But it was lost, and it became a Holy Grail of Sherlock Holmes films. It turns out a priest in Poland had hidden away a collection of old films during the war, and when he died and the new owners of his house discovered this, they donated them to the Polish Film Archive. It took a long time for them to realise what they had, and restore it alongside the San Francisco Silent Film Festival; this is the first time it will have been seen in the UK since before the war.'
The opening gala film is William Kellino's 1922 Rob Roy, which was filmed around Stirling and in the Trossachs. 'We always like to show representations of Scotland where we can, and I don't think this has been seen since the silent era,' says Strauss. 'Scotland was a big film-going nation and people here were hungry to see their stories; when it showed in Glasgow it was on every night and queued around the block, although with the coming of sound it became an irrelevance.' A country not so well-known for its silent movie production, however, was Norway, although Laila (George Schneevoigt, 1922) is an exception, a film which tells of a young girl who is separated from her parents and raised by the nomadic Sami people. 'Part of the job I enjoy is finding musicians for each project,' says Strauss, 'and because of the theme of the film I've chosen a folk duo in Marit Falt and Rona Wilkie.'
Peace on the Western Front (Fred Swann, Hans Nieter, 1931) acts as a kind of companion piece to Peter Jackson's recent They Shall Not Grow Old, which was also restored through the Imperial War Museum, and shows a German and British veteran returning to the Front together. The Blot (1921) is a film by the unsung silent film pioneer Lois Weber, a drama which shines a light on economic inequality of the era, while the Friday night red carpet gala is Ernst Lubitsch's international, sexually-charged drama Forbidden Paradise (1924). 'He was one of the few directors who continued to work in the sound era, and this film is so much fun,' says Strauss.
Laurel and Hardy
The Harold Lloyd comedy The Freshman (Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor, 1925) is this year's family 'jeely jar' performance, which revives the tradition of cinema entry (or in this case, two for one tickets) on production of a clean jam jar and lid, while Julien Duvivier's Au Bonheur Des Dames (1930) is set in a Paris department store. 'People like to see the world as it was in the 1920s, and this is full of Paris street scenes and fashions,' says Strauss. The Red Heroine (Wen Yimin, 1929) is one of the rare Chinese silent films remaining from the era and the oldest surviving Chinese martial arts film, with Fan Xuepeng as its female star.
The Railroad Stowaways and The Railway of Death (1926 and 1912) are a pair of railroad-themed movies showing as a double bill outdoors at Bo'ness and Kinneil Railway; The Parson's Widow (1920) is a disarming comedy from the normally very serious Swedish director Carl Theodor Dreyer; and The Cat and the Canary (Paul Leni, 1927) is a haunted house mystery which Strauss describes as 'Agatha Christie meets Scooby Doo'. Stan & Ollie fans will welcome a triple bill of Laurel and Hardy films, a HippFest musical commission alongside the Goethe Institut Glasgow is EA Dupont's 1928 spectacular Moulin Rouge, and the closing night gala is Maurice Elvey's Hindle Wakes (1927), set amid the factories of Lancashire and the booming resort of Blackpool in its heyday.
In addition to all of these films, the programme also includes exhibitions and educational and community engagement events. 'People trust us now,' says Strauss, 'and HippFest has attracted more and more people who wouldn't necessarily badge themselves as movie geeks or silent cinema aficionados. Our programming is democratic, it's all about the enjoyment of cinema and it's broken down preconceptions about what early cinema is. People think it's all going to be jerky or black and white, which isn't true – when the lovely restorations we have from archives around the world are shown at the right speed, they're cleaned up beautifully and they look really good.'
Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2019, various venues, Bo'ness, Wed 20–Sun 24 Mar.