By Ray Young
Estelle Brody and John Stuart
Produced and directed by Maurice Elvey. Produced in conjunction with Victor Saville. Screenplay by Mr. Saville, based on the play by William Stanley Houghton. Cinematography by Jack E. Cox and William Shenton. Edited by V. Gareth Gundrey. Starring Estelle Brody, John Stuart, Norman McKinnel, Marie Ault Humberstom, Peggy Carlisle. Two original music scores, by In the Nursery and Philip Carli. Originally released in 1927. B&W, 117 minutes.
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Directed by Maurice Elvey, Hindle Wakes
(1927) was the second of a small handful of film and television adaptations of William Stanley Houghton’s once-controversial play. Nearly forgotten today, Houghton’s English dramas were often marked by the influence of Henrik Ibsen, as he shared the Norwegian playwright’s empathy for women and the abhorrence for domination and the unwritten rules of a man’s world.
Elvey was a prolific journeyman who directed dozens of features over a forty-five year career. (Among his young protégés were Michael Relph, Val Guest, Ronald Neame, Jack Cardiff, David Lean, Freddie Young, and Oswald Morris.) He had, in fact, directed the first version of Hindle Wakes
in 1918. But given the rapid evolution of cinematography and montage between that year and 1927, after Griffith and Eisenstein and German Expressionism, the second film erased all memory of the first. Set before a backdrop of Dickensian England switching over to the industrial age, it blends socio-sexual drama with elaborate technique and gimmickry to moderate success.
A play concerned with contradiction and double standards, I’m not sure if Houghton was conscious of the stir caused by Hindle Wakes
, as it was published just shortly before his death. (Biographical data is sketchy, but he died in 1913 from meningitis at the age of thirty-two.) Set over the course of a week-long holiday, the story of a young, unmarried working-class woman (Fanny, played by Estelle Brody) allowing herself a few days of casual sex with the single son from an affluent family (Allan, played by John Stuart) finds them prosecuted afterward by disapproving parents. Even though pregnancy’s not an issue, the elders believe that their children should marry for appearances. When Fanny walks away from her parents (and, by Houghton’s implication, community standards) to forge a life on her own—without fatherly male guidance—was revolutionary stuff at the time.
In an obituary written in 1914 by feminist radical Emma Goldman, she noted that Houghton “had the courage to touch one of the most sensitive spots of Puritanism—woman’s virtue. Whatever else one may criticize or attack, the sacredness of virtue must remain untouched. It is the last fetish which even so-called liberal-minded people refuse to destroy.”
Although they were once viewed as archaic concerns, “women’s virtue” and virginity until marriage have crept back in the margins of our current climate of right-wing conservatism. A hundred years ago they were at the core of Hindle Wakes
, which Goldman seized to illustrate her arguments: “It is beginning to be felt in ever-growing circles that love is its own justification, requiring no sanction of either religion or law. The revolutionary idea, however, that woman may, even as man, follow the urge of her nature, has never before been so sincerely and radically expressed…The message of Hindle Wakes
is therefore of inestimable value, inasmuch as it dispels the fog of the silly sentimentalism and disgusting bombast that declares woman a thing apart from nature—one who neither does nor must crave the joys of life permissible to man.”