Arguably the Greatest British Movie of the Silent Era


From the magic-hour year of 1927 comes this semi-forgotten, plaintive melodrama, arguably the greatest British movie of the silent era. Directed by journeyman Maurice Elvey from a hot and repeatedly filmed 1912 play by Stanley Houghton, the story centers on the Lancashire mill industry and its “bond slaves,” including a few girlfriends who meet up with tragic fates during the “wakes week” holiday. Initially as righteously indignant about labor and class inequity as any Soviet film of the time, Elvey’s version eventually cascades into protracted passages of Victorian hand-wringing. But the filmmaking is something else: imagistic details, Ozu-like still lifes (the factory unattended etc.), a nearly two-minute pan over a surging crowd of dancing vacationers, even p.o.v. shots aboard carnival rides, a year before Vidor’s The Crowd. The new soundtrack, by In the Nursery’s Klive and Nigel Humberstone, may be anachronistic, but its mournful arpeggios peg the film as an elegy for lost time. With the music’s help, even the overacting becomes a rueful kind of social commentary. Ancillary materials include the original press kit, stills from the play’s first production, and—an inspired bonus—a PDF article on the film by Emma Goldman.