This year may have seen a recognition of how good silent filmmaking can be thanks to the release of The Artist, but in the small Scottish town of Bo’ness they’ve been in on the secret for 100 years.
The Hippodrome was designed by local architect Matthew Steele and opened on 11 March 1912, under the management of Louis Dickson. Showing the latest silent movies alongside films shot locally by Dickson, the Hippodrome quickly became a success at a time when Bo’ness, near Falkirk, was one of Scotland’s largest export shipping ports.
Following its conversion into a bingo hall in the 1970s and subsequent closure, the Hippodrome was restored to its former glory in 2009, just in time for this year’s centenary celebrations and the second annual Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, running from Friday 16 to Sunday 18 March.
Here, two local residents recall their cinemagoing days at a time when the Hippodrome was first a vibrant part of the community:
Returning to Bo’ness after helping to put it on the festival map in 2011 was silent film pianist, Neil Brand. Along with Festival Producer, Shona Thompson, and Director, Alison Strauss, Brand decided to ride on the coat tails of The Artist’s success by programming King Vidor’s 1928’s comedy, Show People, as Friday’s Opening Night Gala.
Tickets soon sold out and the audience arrived dressed for a Hollywood premiere, albeit 84 years too late. With the auditorium decked out in bunting and period detail, the scene was set for a night of splendour.
In his introduction, Brand noted his delight at coming back to Bo’ness, the importance of such live events and some of the similarities between The Artist and Show People.
Here’s the audio of Neil Brand’s introduction to Show People, after a few words from Alison Strauss:
Before Show People, Brand accompanied some footage from the Scottish Screen Archive shot by Louis Dickson and featuring youngsters taking part in the Bo’ness Children’s Fair Festival, a film that would have been shown in the same room a century ago.
Made by MGM, Show People is a self-referential delight which takes an affectionate look behind-the-scenes of the silent movie industry, long before The Artist got in on the act. Marion Davies and William Haines are perfectly cast as Peggy Pepper and Billy Boone, a couple who fall for each other when Peggy arrives in Hollywood with her father (Dell Henderson) to make it big.
Featuring cameos from some of the biggest MGM stars of the era, including Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin, Show People gave Davies a chance to prove both her dramatic and comedic skills while the audience of the time lapped up the then-contemporary film references. The film also featured plot points uncannily similar to those of The Artist, primarily the rise and fall of Peggy and Billy’s careers, although director Michel Hazanavicius doesn’t mention Show People in any interviews about his film.
Unlike some silents, which demand the accompanist work hard to keep things moving for a modern audience, Show People appeared to be part of a tag team with Neil Brand, each one enhancing the other. This was no mere mechanical process for Brand but one which saw him work in tandem with Vidor’s direction to complement the action and emotions, almost as if he were keeping his end of an unspoken bargain with the director to ensure the film remained as fresh as the day it was unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
A unique screening in a unique venue, the Festival of Silent Cinema Opening Night proved yet again that the only way to properly watch a silent film is with an appreciative audience, preferably with a glass of champagne preceeding it.
In this video interview, Neil Brand discusses his decision to screen Show People, why silent films screenings are a theatrical experience and his appreciation for the Bo’ness Hippodrome:
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Finally, here’s a shot of two not-quite local lads taken on the way out of Bo’ness…