A remarkable synthesis of proto-feminist ideals and visionary aesthetics, Maurice Elvey’s Hindle Wakes, adapted from Stanley Houghton’s controversial play of the same name, begins with a loaded shot of two male factory workers shoveling coal into two small round-like ovens. Even without the names “Alice” and “Sally” scrawled in chalk above the fiery holes, the implication of this one shot is already extraordinarily clear: that women are the architects of life, a dominant view echoed in just about every scene in the film, including the ensuing image of factory chimneys pumping smoke into the morning air like excited phalluses. Elvey makes poetry out of the mundane, using images of clocks and machines and paralleling views of his characters’ behaviors and routines to set up the vice-like class inequity of the time. Nearly everyone wants a reprieve from this banal, almost sinister clockwork, and as such its no surprise that when Franny Hawthorne (Estelle Brody) and her friend Marcy Hollins (Peggy Carlisle) go to Blackpool—Britain’s version of Coney Island—for vacation, Hindle Wakes transforms itself into an orgiastic celebration of freedom. Elvey’s images of rising and falling carnival rides, fox-trotting bodies, and sumptuous night lights are all implications for sex, their metaphoric energy matched only by their sumptuous visual sweep. In Blackpool, the collective effort of the people doesn’t empower the state but the individual, a feeling of independence Franny looks to enable back home when she learns that her father, Chris (Humberston Wright), and his boss and childhood friend, factory owner Nathaniel Jeffcoate (Norman McKinnel), have learned of her affair with Nathaniel’s son Allan (John Stuart). Social customs rule that Franny and Allan do one thing but Franny does something else entirely, a decision she makes not only for herself but the oppressed women of her time. Though the film’s Victorian milieu may not be ready for her, Franny nonetheless remains true to her own sense of freedom, and as the opening spectacle of sexual codes repeats itself and night descends on the Lancashire mill town of the film, this fierce woman warrior charges straight into the 21st century.
Great image restoration by the British Film Institute for this DVD edition of Hindle Wakes but the triumph here is the disc's soundtrack, not so much in quality but meaning. There are two musical scores available for the film, an original traditional by Philip Carli and a more modern accompaniment by the industrial British group In the Nursery. In the Nursery's percussive track is the default, a radical move that doesn't exactly usurp Carli's original contribution as much as it more accurately conveys the modernist battle being waged in the film. Even when the story is at its dreariest, Carli's score remains comparatively bouncy and cheery, but In the Nursery's intoxicating arpeggios (think Debussy on Ecstasy) truly approximate and compliment the film's many seesawing emotions and visual moods.
A gallery of stills from the film and, most stunning, the original Manchester production of the play, which nearly caused riots when it was first put on. Also included here is a Milestone press kit and an article by feminist anarchist Emma Goldman available only if you plop the DVD into your computer and power up your Adobe Acrobat Reader. (Fans of the film may not be as impressed by The Flapper, also out this week from Milestone Films and Image Entertainment, but fans of Olive Thomas won't want to miss the thorough 2004 documentary Olive Thomas: Everybody's Sweetheart directed by Andi Hicks and narrated by Rosanna Arquette that's also included on the disc.)
Not only is Hindle Wakes ripe for rediscovery but it looks to teach our film and human culture a few lessons.