I don’t want you to get the idea I am wanted by the authorities, but I tend to move around a lot. So for the second year in a row, I was only in town for the first half of Hippfest – or the early, funny stuff, as I like to think of it.
I’ve said before that the programming at Hippfest, now in its 13th year, is impressively eclectic. I’d say that with extra emphasis during the midweek portion of the event. Actualities, fantasy, action, adventure, comedy, and a sheepdog smoking a pipe. What is not to love?
The opening night film falls into that particular category of films that are well known, but rarely screened. I admit, for a long time all I knew about The Blue Bird was the relevant sequence in Ballet Shoes, but Maurice Maeterlinck’s 1908 play was a sensation at the time. Maurice Tourneur’s filigree 1918 adaptation wasn’t even the first film to tackle the story of Mytyl and Tyltyl and their journey to find the Blue Bird of Happiness. This is a really beautiful film, with sensational lighting and shadow effects, not to mention the trick camerawork, which brings the fairy magic to life. The print showed a fair bit of damage, but still, some of these images can take your breath away.
Music was provided by inclusive ensemble Sonic Bothy, a newly commissioned score that hung back and left a lot of room for interpretation. The band seemed to be enjoying the textures of the film, more than the narrative, underlining the surreal quality of this Oz-land journey into a realm of spirits and unborn babies, accompanied by the souls of Things.
The Blue Bird was made during a time of war, and austerity, and its has sharper teeth than you might expect. The distance of 105 years dissolved in an instant when this 2023 audience encountered the land of luxuries, where, the “Luxury-of-being-rich” and the “Luxury-of-being-a-landowner” were shown in all their slothful disgrace.
On Thursday, more films. Or fillums should I say? I may not be Irish enough to get away with saying that. Kathy Rose O’Regan, senior film restorer with the San Francisco Silent Film Festival presented an absolutely fascinating and very poignant collection of short actualities from 1920s Ireland. This marvellous cache of films, shot by Chicago ornithologist Benjamin True Gault, captured the human and animal life of rural County Kerry and Cork in 1925 – in all their beauty and good-humour. The restoration began with 6k scans, so you know every precious detail of life gone by has been preserved impeccably. Witness Irish set-dancing, the races, market day, now-antique framing practices, and all the windblown splendour of the landscape. Rest assured, Banshees of Inisherin fans, the donkey gets a close-up. And the sheepdog smokes a pipe, but that is another story.
We were very lucky to Günter Buchwald and his violin to accompany these films. A really gorgeous afternoon. Buchwald returned for the evening show, with Frank Bockius, to give an absolutely staggering accompaniment to the evening’s feature – a performance they movingly dedicated to the late, and much-missed, Russell Merritt. The evening feature had something in common with the Gault films, and also nothing at all. The Silent Enemy (1930), is a Hollywood feature based on Canadian Indigenous life, specifically the Ojibwe tribe. All the leads but one were indigenous, and much is made in the film, a la Headhunters, of showing traditional practices, mostly in relation to hunting and trapping – but also in the details of canoes and camp life. It’s not quite as authentic as it claims to be, and yet those hunting scenes are real enough to be hard to stomach, and the living animals are captivating – from the two adorable bear cubs tamed by the tribe’s youngest hunter, to the villainous wolverine A dramatic, if rather well-worn, storyline sets a love triangle alongside the tribe’s long march north to hunt the caribou and stave off winter starvation – the silent enemy of the title. On paper, it’s very easy to be cynical about this one, but let me tell you, the caribou stampede as the climax was a big-screen spectacle I won’t forget, and I thank Buchwald and Bockius for leading us through this film with such pace and verve.
Friday’s films were far more familiar to me. In fact, I had the honour of introducing the matinee screening of Dreyer’s exquisite domestic comedy-drama Master of the House (1925). Always a joy to be on the stage of the glorious Hippodrome Cinema talking about a film I love, although today, much like the tyrannous husband in the film, I learned a valuable lesson. Best not, I realised, to tell people in advance that this film is funny. Mostly because the humour arises from such sad and stressful situations, that it’s better to be prepared for the drama and then be taken pleasantly by surprise when the film springs a joke on you.
The beauty of this film is that it is built on so many tiny details of character and situation – dusty trouser-knees, a scrape of butter on rye bread, damp stockings hanging up to dry – and so very many perfectly placed edits, that you’ll see something new in it each time. John Sweeney said much the same thing to me, and it was evident in his glorious accompaniment for the film, which was subtly alert to every twist and turn in the domestic power dynamic. If you don’t know the film, it’s a family drama about a husband (Johannes Meyer) who takes his wife (Astrid Holm) and daughter’s efforts in the home for granted. When the missus reaches the point of exhaustion, hubby’s imperious childhood nanny (Mathilde Hielsen) moves in to teach him a thing or two. Feminist in conception, funny and touching in execution, it is one of the finest of Dreyer’s early, funny films, and a superlative silent drama.
No such concerns about the Friday-night gala. Reginald Denny and Otis Harlan are out for laughs and laughs alone in William Seiter’s steamy cross-dressing stag-night farce What Happened to Jones? (1926). Not to mention a scene-stealing Zasu Pitts elevating the stock role of ditzy maid with her delicate deadpan expression, and a slightly unsettling obsession with kissing bishops. This sort of comedy isn’t usually my cup of earl grey but I am delighted to report that shrieks of laughter threatened to raise the roof of the Hippodrome tonight. For me, I could definitely see Reginald Denny, with his gymnastic comedy and wry demeanour ,as the link between the silent era’s classic slapstick comics and the debonair antics of Cary Grant in the 1930s. It helped, of course, that we had Neil Brand and Frank Bockius on hand to turn the volume up on the humour. Bockius’s percussive report of an off-screen fistfight was a particular highlight, and Brand has an excellent way of launching into a theme that just screams “Watch out gang, this is going to be terrific.” Irresistible fun.
And the fun continued into the night after the film ended, with some surprise variety acts (a very impressive contortionist, and a witty magician) to remind us of the early days of silent cinema in northern Britain. For a moment there, it could almost have been 1912 again.
Thanks to Hippfest for a wonderful event, and I hope to return next year for more adventures in silent cinema. That’s if they haven’t caught up to me by then. Remember: you didn’t see me come in, you didn’t see me go out, you didn’t see nuthin’.