Saturday, 25 March 2023

Hipp at last! Master of the House (1925)/What Happened to Jones (1926), Hippfest 2023 Day 3

Perhaps the contortionist was the main surprise, even more so than the magician with his cup and ball, but they were entirely in keeping with the spirit of the evening and the connection between variety/vaudeville theatre and early film as projected in Bo’ness’ Hippodrome, Scotland’s oldest purpose-built cinema dating from 1910 and the glorious hub of this fascinating festival, this jewel of the Forth.

Out of the mists of the Firth, it came, a mixture of Brigadoon and Eldorado, I place I have been waiting to get to for years (Covid Interruptus); McPordenone, the friendliest silent film festival in Britain and beyond, a place you have to work a little to get to, cars, trains, taxi drivers that mysteriously arrive just when you need them at Linlithgow Station, and a robust landscape - that’s just between my hotel and the town centre – but which richly rewards the effort. Immediately you know it’s been worth the wait, friendly staff who clearly love what they do, a whole community willing to help you and an invading community of passionately informed and engaged silent cineastes from the World over.

It's like the World Cup being played in Tobermory. The best films, the best players, the best audience. and the best atmosphere. And, I do love a bit of atmosphere! Friday on the Firth showcased everything I’d hoped to find with two cracking films, superb accompaniment and brilliant company.

Johannes Meyer and Astrid Holm

Master of the House (1925), with John Sweeney

Du skal ære din hustru translates as Thou Shalt Honour Thy Wife and shows Carl Theodor Dreyer at his most observational and heart-warmingly comic. It’s the story of an abusive relationship told with context and compassion; the ironic tone set from the first title card which tells us that this is a story of husbands no longer found in Denmark but still persisting elsewhere. Clearly this subject matter was just as loaded in 1925 as it is now and, if Dreyer handles the subject with such a light touch it’s only to underline the misery often experienced; he knew his audience well enough to know the prod of recognition was all they needed.

As Pamela Hutchinson’s eloquently informed introduction pointed out, Dreyer builds his characters up with forensic control and he’s careful to fill out each one, even the villain of the piece, especially him for love is not merely about taking sides nor winning the debate it is about support and understanding, family and, ultimately, going at each other’s pace.

Viktor Frandsen (played by Johannes Meyer, such a striking performer) is disappointed in his life, his business failed he is unhappy at the work he can get and makes his whole family miserable with his diktats and heart-hardened daily cruelties. His wife Ida (Astrid Holm of The Phantom Carriage, Häxan and more) is the centre of his ire and the film starts as she enters their living room, opens the curtains, empties the bird cage and starts the boiler as her day of relentless chores begins.

Karin Nellemose and Mathilde Nielsen

As Pamela suggested, this film changes our view of bread and butter for good as Viktor annoyed by what he sees as a few scrapes of butter on his breakfast forces Ida into scrapping butter from her own food to give to him and his gratefulness is strictly limited to “So, you’re not short of butter?”. He’s not able to bring enough money into the house and blames her for poorly managing the domestic budget, holes in his shoes as his other pair remain in the cobblers, Ida unable to divert funds from her already restricted budget.


The children fare little better Karen (Karin Nellemose in her debut) the oldest taking the brunt and also her brother Dreng (Aage Hoffman), forced to stand facing the corner, hands behind his back after a snowball fight, all of this to come for the youngest Barnet (Byril Harvig). All of this is watched over by Mads (Mathilde Nielsen) an older woman who once looked after Viktor when he was young and who know only feels anger at what she sees that he’s become. She helps with the family chores and is urged by Ida to keep her counsel knowing Viktor’s retaliation will only be in one direction. But everything must come to ahead, Ida’s health is failing and as Mads brings in her mother (Clara Schønfeld) to look after her, she devises a plan to bring her former charge back to sanity.


The bare bones of the plot don’t credit the skill with which Dreyer and his players make this drama work. Mads is rescuing both parts of the couple and is a very modern hero in this sense in a morality tale not just with shades of grey but tints of compassion and understanding. Dreyer’s humanity goes the distance as always.


Accompanying with wonderful grace and invention of his own was John Sweeney who recognised the soulful humour in this patient work and responded as he always does, a part of and in tune with the emotional narrative.

What Happened to Jones (1926) with Neil Brand and Frank Bockius

A complete change of pace for the evening’s Gala which was unlike anything you’ll find in Bologna, Pordenone or London, a champagne reception, canapes and fancy dress, evening gowns for the women and more bishops than you’d find in the Vatican even at the weekend! Travelling light the best I could muster was looking like a cast member of The Archers according to one well-known composer, writer and TV presenter, and he wasn’t wrong.

Hippfest Supremo Alison Straus adds so much personality to the festival and leads the team effort from the front with enthusiasm and invention. This much I would have confessed to her husband The Bishop, but you know how taciturn we Methodists are.

Between the fore and after-party was one of the funniest of Hollywood comedies with the irresistible Reginald Denny playing the titular Jones, a man more sinned against than sinning… just about. He’s Tom Jones, a smart “out of towner” who’s about to be married the next day to Lucille Bigbee (Nixon) one of the local favourites and whom even her parents (Melbourne MacDowell and the fearsome Frances Raymond) would prefer to wed scion of respectability, Henry Fuller (William Austin, always so wide-eyed and fretful in these roles).

The night before the wedding and all is well… what could possibly go wrong? Friend of the family Ebenezer Goodly (Otis Harlan) suggests a quick game of poker, Tom get’s lucky with his first hand and decides to cash in but before he can, the police raid, chaos breaks out and Tom and Ebeneezer just about escape into a women’s Turkish bath… what could possibly go wrong? The next day Tom wakes up in the Goodly’s house and has to dress up as a Bishop, Ebenezer’s brother, the man who is dues to officiate at the wedding which now looks to be between horrible Henry and Lucille… what, indeed, could possibly go wrong?


Reginald Denning and Otis Harlan try to explain.

This is a farce and it is indeed like Brian Rix on speed, especially with the sprightly accompaniment of Brand and Bockius accelerating the action and fuelling the fun. There was almost telepathically intricate interplay between the two with percussion leading in some parts and the piano delivering sexy speakeasy jazz in others; also, some excellently timed swanee whistling!

ZaSu Pitts also features as a biddable housemaid, she steals every scene!

As a programming finishing touch, the film was proceeded by a short involving the smashing of cases of whiskey in the cause of Prohibition in 1922 and then a film advertising a DIY home sauna kit which, in addition to looking unworkable and dangerous, foreshadowed Jones perfectly. Then we had the magic and the contortion… 112 years or so since these arts would have been commonplace on this stage and others. It’s these flourishes that finesse the fuller programme, surprises and a commitment to not only the business of silent film but also its enduring celebration and, had the coaches not arrived well before midnight, that process would have continued well into the morning.

Still, it’s now only Saturday… More anon, as I have Charlie to Chase along with some dogs this morning plus a stand-up quiz involving the use of body parts in a live setting that might be best kept secret in the interests of the participants…

You don’t have to be mad to be at Hippfest but you do have to be happy and ready for anything.

If you're in the area, or even if you're not, there's a wealth of informtion on the Hippfest site including Pamela Hutchinson's programme notes.

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