Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2024, Bo’ness, Falkirk

Reviewer: Adrian Ross

Festival Director: Alison Strauss

For those in the know, silent film with live music is a rich and beautiful artform. This, Scotland’s only silent film festival, takes place each year in Bo’ness, a small town on the Firth of Forth, between Edinburgh and the Grangemouth oil refinery. Its full name is Borrowstounness.

It may be slightly out of the way, but don’t let the location put you off. This year the festival has livestreamed three of the movies and two of the talks, so you could enjoy these anywhere.

For people using public transport, festival shuttle buses run between Linlithgow train station and the Hippodrome, a gorgeous venue that happens to be Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema, dating from 1912.

The movies are carefully selected and sympathetically accompanied. There are introductions by distinguished film historians such as Bryony Dixon and Pamela Hutchinson, who also provide some online programme notes.

Musicians include Neil Brand, Meg Morley and Stephen Horne, the latter often switching between instruments in an amazing and inspired way.

For festival regulars, the clarity of the visual images, which are as diverse as they are captivating, always takes you by surprise. As silent movies became more sophisticated, all sorts of visual techniques were used to tell their stories, reducing the number of inter-titles required.

This was certainly the case in the stand-out film, Our Dancing Daughters (1928), starring a young Joan Crawford in her breakthrough performance. One of several events in this festival to celebrate the ‘flappers’ of the 1920s, and to explore the changing social role of women a century ago, this film unspooled much of its thin yet engagingly romantic plot in terms of glances and body language.

Archivist Jenny Hammerton opened up a neglected world of film with her entertaining introductions to shorts from Eve’s Film Review, a movie magazine that ran for twelve years in the silent era. Like other shorts in the festival, each was accompanied by live music, bringing out its essential charm and tone. To improve access, talks and introductions were also live-captioned.

The feature film Stella Maris (1918) starred Mary Pickford in dual contrasting roles, as a privileged but disabled beauty, and as a plain orphan, sometimes appearing in both guises in the same frame, via double exposure. Another very watchable melodrama, Just Around The Corner (1921) notably had a woman director, Frances Marion, who was also an accomplished screenwriter. It told the story of a doting but ailing mother who longs to see her grown-up children settled and happy.

Overseas archival gems included The Norrtull Gang (1923), from Sweden, in which four female flatmates negotiated a male-dominated office culture. There was social comment a-plenty here. From China, we were treated to Queen Of Sports (1934), in which an outstanding athlete eschewed individual achievement in favour of mass exercise and fitness.

Close to the Hippodrome, there was an excellent free exhibition in the Bo’ness branch library. Pen-to-Picture celebrated the popular Readers Library books that tied in with famous silent movies, each sporting fabulous jacket art. This was just one example of the many ‘added value’ elements in which the festival team excels.

Altogether, ‘HippFest’ is a high quality, internationally significant event in the cultural calendar. It deserves to be more widely known. It’s also something Falkirk Council, as the host authority and a festival sponsor, can be enormously proud of. We may be done for another year, but the fifteenth edition will come around soon enough. Why not join the party?

The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival ran from 20-24 March and is scheduled for 19 to 23 March 2025.

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