Judge Mike Pinsky remains dubious about some of the social and sexual politics in this film, but the scenery sure is pretty.
"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."—Emma Goldman, regarding the play
In the mills of Lancashire, the furnaces all have female nicknames. On Cotton Street, everybody works—men and women, rich and poor. Even peglegged Ted Hollins, who wakes the employees of Nathaniel Jeffcote's (Norman McKinnell) mill for their day's work. Everything in Lancashire is gray, from the sooty flats of the workers to the oppressive opulence of Jeffcote's mansion. This gray, this haze, permeates the world, reminding everyone of their tedious daily obligations. To be born, to marry, to work, and to die.
Once a year, however, the young women of the mills are allowed a week of vacation. This "Wakes Week" is a breath of freedom in the form of a breath of clear, salty air. Fanny Hawthorn (Estelle Brody) climbs aboard the train for Blackpool with her best friend Mary. Meanwhile, wealthy Allan Jeffcote (John Stuart, who would reprise the role for a 1931 sound version of the same story), scion of the great capitalist, takes a break from his fiancée and drives his fancy car down to the same resort.
Ah, young love. Fanny and Allan run off together, not even pausing to notice that Mary tragically drowns. Mary's death unfortunately blows Fanny's alibi, and her family insists on arranging a marriage with the powerful Jeffcote family. After all, Allan must do the honorable thing by the girl he has so shamefully used. Fanny, however, will not be used by anyone…
Hindle Wakes is one of a slew of social-problem plays that grew out of the British stagecraft of George Bernard Shaw. Such plays attacked the hypocrisy of the British class system, Victorian sexual politics, and even (as World War I approached) European colonialism. Stanley Houghton's 1912 play is notable primarily for its rather balanced treatment of class warfare. The mighty capitalist Nat Jeffcote really does want to do the honorable thing for both his old friend Chris Hawthorn and young Fanny. The Hawthorns, especially the mother, love their daughter, but they see an opportunity to exploit her situation to elevate their own social status. And rakish Allan comes across as more pathetic than manipulative, as his fiancée dumps him as a moral failure, and he finds himself unable to understand why Fanny ultimately rejects his (admittedly insincere) marriage offer. While Houghton's play was a big deal back in 1912, it has not aged quite as well as some of its contemporaries.
Houghton's play was popular enough in Britain to spawn three film versions prior to World War II. This 1927 version of the film is actually the second effort by Maurice Elvey to adapt the play. No evidence of Elvey's 1918 version is offered on this DVD release, or any of the later sound versions by other directors. Also, apart from some snippets included in Emma Goldman's essay, we learn little here about the contents of the original play. Considering the remarks on the back of the packaging, that the film version of Hindle Wakes extends the scope of the play by developing the physical presence of its locations and providing character backstory, I am surprised that Milestone did not include a copy of Houghton's text for comparison (I cannot imagine reprint rights are very expensive for it, assuming it is not in the public domain). The implication here is that the 1927 film version is valued more for its skillful use of location than as a record of a somewhat dated social-problem play that echoes the more famous work of Ibsen or Shaw.
And it is this location work, particularly the extended sequence in Blackpool, that makes Hindle Wakes of real interest to film buffs. In Blackpool, we are treated to some wonderful footage of amusement park rides, some of which I have seen recycled in later films about the period. Breathtaking Ferris wheel perspective shots of the town, great old roller coasters, and even some impressive night footage that shows off the lights of the park. Maybe I am just a sucker for this stuff, as one of my critical academic interests is in amusement and theme park history. Elvey might have meant this as padding to replace the dialogue of the original play, but this amounts to both a fascinating display of British popular culture and a skillful use of handheld cameras and location shooting for the period.
The drawback to this more evocative approach is that the rest of the film is fairly slow moving. Character scenes in the early part of the film—setting up the relationship between Allan and Beatrice Farrar, for instance—are interspersed with long sequences of industrial machinery and the lives of workers. And in Elvey's effort to emulate a sort of low-key documentary feel (he loves shots of moving legs), the film lacks the visual fire of, say, similar sequences of industrial workers in the more fantastical Metropolis, made the same year.
Indeed, on this level, Hindle Wakes might make a nice companion piece to the rather two-dimensional depiction of class conflict in Fritz Lang's epic. In Lang's film, the wealthy cavort, while the nameless workers are herded like sheep. Hindle Wakes shows how the British class system obligates all its participants to limit themselves and conform. Fanny's father is an assistant to Nat Jeffcote, and we are told that he was offered the opportunity to invest years ago—suggesting that he could have moved between classes—but Chris treats his loyalty to his family and neighbors on Cotton Street with a sort of bemused regret.
Overall, Elvey seems more interested in the visual aspects of this story than in capturing the dialogue of the play. Indeed, in a scene between Fanny and Mary after Fanny returns from her first night alone with Allan, the discussion between the two girls is shown without any intertitles. Are we to assume the audience is familiar with their exchange from the original play? Whatever the case, the effect is that the sequence plays out with the emotional content abstracted. Elvey makes it clear that this is his film, and that the camera is in control. Indeed, the narrative actually seems a bit of a distraction here. I found myself waiting eagerly for plot points to end so that I could see more of the sets and locations.
For those interested in the film as a social critique, this Milestone Collection DVD does offer a short essay (as a DVD-ROM feature) by anarchist Emma Goldman, praising the play for its argument in favor of sexual freedom. "When the Fannies become conscious of that right," she announces, "the relation of the sexes will lose the shallow romanticism and artificial exaggeration that mystery has surrounded it with, and assume a wholesome, natural, and therefore healthy and normal expression." What made the movie (and the play) controversial in its own era is its critique of working-class gender politics. The play begins as a fairly standard fairy-tale romance: the poor but pretty girl scores with the handsome prince. Hollywood cinema has made hundreds of these patronizing tales. After all, this is a staple of Western literature in general. When plugged into a class critique, the story tends to take two forms. In the more traditional and conservative version, the girl runs off with the handsome (and wealthy) prince to his castle. In the more critical approach, the wealthy man uses the idealistic girl, then throws her away, thus reinforcing the larger theme of the exploitation of the working class.
Here, Fanny is in charge of her own destiny. Caught between the expectations of her family and her desire for Allan, she defies convention. In a sense, she is the one who uses Allan, rather than the other way around. During the somewhat stagebound climax of the film, Fanny sarcastically announces that she will not turn up "meek as a lamb" and marry Allan. "Romance is all very well," she tells her "little fancy," "but marriage would be a failure." The very notion that a woman might have a man as a "little fancy" was quite radical at the time, even though a brief final scene suggests all works out for Fanny in the end.
The Emma Goldman essay is really the only special feature of note on this DVD edition of Hindle Wakes. There are some photo galleries (including some shots of the 1912 Manchester stage production). The original piano score is available on one audio track; the other track offers a warm, if somewhat soporific, new synth score by soundtrack band In the Nursery.
Ultimately, I suspect that Hindle Wakes will appeal to viewers more as a historical curiosity than a strong story in its own right. The first half is an intriguing portrait of working-class Britain, even as the second half gets bogged down with a standard, if well acted, social melodrama.
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Studio: Image Entertainment
• Alternate Music Track by In the Nursery
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