Film Review
By Ray Young


Estelle Brody and John Stuart


Hindle Wakes

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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hindle01.jpg     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.”

Estelle Brody as Fanny, looking in the mirror to see if she’s ‘changed’ after spending the night with a man. The noirish window blinds and their shadows are used to signal the prison she’s about to step into by not heeding societal expectations.


    A cursory glance at Elvey’s filmography confirms an inherent, inescapable banality: the fringe cult item Transatlantic Tunnel (1935), a stiff remake of Hitchcock’s The Lodger (with Ivor Novello reprising his role; 1932), and a series of archaic Sherlock Holmes movies in the ‘20s all reek of the grave. To be fair, he used Claude Rains to excellent effect in The Clairvoyant (1934), an otherwise fair picture struggling to be better; and The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918) is an epic pushing to break free from studio confines. Likewise, Hindle Wakes abandons the literary and theatrical underpinning of its source, albeit temporarily. The first half of the film is purely cinematic—the Metropolis-style portrait of workaday lives in an industrial microcosm, fleeting introductions to principals and their divergent economic ranks, and the exodus to Blackpool, England’s seaside amusement park resort.
    There are some splendid effects here, whether when Elvey uses images of shoes to convey social standing (a common practice of the time was to determine a person’s class by the quality and condition of their footwear), or mounting the camera to roller coasters and other rides. (Ascending an attraction called ‘The Tower’ predicts the dizzying scaffold climb taken twenty years later by King Vidor for the end of The Fountainhead [1949].) An overhead view of Fanny and Allan dancing among hundreds of couples across the vast pavilion floor is an intoxicating fantasy—marvelously enhanced by the new musical score performed by In the Nursery—while “The Lights o’ Blackpool” is a sequence that prods the darkened nightlife for its sensuality and the prospect of sex.
    The natural flow and visual bravura is unfortunately stymied by the second half’s committed relapse to the stage. A myriad of significant moods and concepts are crammed together, ostensibly by obligation rather than necessity: the schemes of calculating parents, male and female and mother and father role reversals, and the series of shocks manipulating Fanny away from her family—these significant developments are delivered without enthusiasm, flair or flourish. Although expertly acted and staged, it’s an entirely different picture from the first half, a disappointment after such promise and energy.
    Elvey’s middlebrow interpretation of Fanny’s departure from her family is less a triumph of her will than a convenient means for him to end the story. There is no evidence of a critical eye, no awareness of women’s rights, no remorse for the people she’s lost. Oblivious to the conflict of sweat shop labor versus corporate greed, the screenplay’s most compassionate figure becomes the town’s millionaire industrialist. Elvey sorely lacks the caustic irony of Lang or Buñuel, while Houghton’s play demands their brand of deft perception. Nor does Elvey appear willing to scrutinize his character’s personality quirks, silent scorn, lust, humility, shame and fear. These are the things that motivate the world of Hindle Wakes, and they’re clearly at hand. Yet once stripped of substance and dimension, such attributes float without purpose in a film just partially conscious of its own beauty and potential.


External links:

  • Maurice Elvey at the BFI

  • The Emma Goldman Papers

  • Samples of soundtrack music by In the Nursery

  • Blackpool, England

  • .

    For more information contact Milestone Film & Video—or call them at (800) 603-1104


    Copyright © 2005 by Ray Young