The Silent Film Industry of Old SY

20 01 2018

The Silent Film Industry In Old SY

In an earlier article we looked at Stornoway’s thriving B-movie industry of the 1950s, but now let’s look a bit further back, to the golden era of silent cinema. Few nowadays are aware that there was a time when Stornoway and Hollywood were running neck and neck to become the film capital of the world, but old SYs will tell you that back in the 1920s it was a close run thing. If it hadn’t been for our ruppish weather, Stornoway would have got Sunset Boulevard, the Oscars, and thon place with the stars in the pavement, and Los Angeles would have got the sheep subsidy and the Gut Factory.

It was Lord Leverhulme himself who inadvertently started the golden age of black and white silent film (known as “suylant filllim” to the urban sophisticates inside the cattle grid, and “obair an t-Shàtain” to those outside). When his dreams to turn Stornoway into the fishing capital of the Western Hemisphere came to naught, his various factories, kipper sheds and assorted paraphernalia were put to good use as ready made film studios. Canning Factories became Soundstages (and this is actually where the phrase ‘It’s in the can!’ came from), the yard behind a textile mill became a backlot that could be transformed into almost any outdoor location (so long as it required scenes featuring rain or midges) and the swanky houses at Oliver’s Brae became the luxury mansions of the celluloid heroes.

(It’s interesting to not that the present day Media Village on Seaforth Rd is precisely on the very spot where the movies were once produced).

Almost overnight a host of film companies came into existence. Amongst the most well known studios were Uniperceval, Maragmount, Essan-Y Films, Mawtro Goldenroad AlecMairsShop (or MGM as it was known), its bitter rival Mehhhtrough Goathill Mayerybank (aka MGM (Continuing)) and, of course, 20th Century Lochs.

Among the earliest pioneers of comedy in the silent era was conflicted church elder/drouth Macs Synod, who founded Keose-stone Studios in 1912. Keose-stone began life in a close between Point Street and North Beach that was equally handy for access to Synod’s favourite watering hole and the open-air gospel meetings that took place in Perceval Square in these days.

Keose-stone Studios served as the early springboard for many of the greats of silent cinema. Stars such as Gloria Swainbost (the screen siren who went on to star in countless films including “Sunset Banacheard” and “Beyond The Rubhachs”, with Rudolf Balallantino). Or Harold Leòid (famous for his spectacular stunt hanging off the Nicolson clock tower in the 1923 classic “C*l*msafety Last”). Keose-stone also employed the young Bing Crossbost (some say his singing was at its best in these early silent works), and made some of the earliest films featuring the great Barley Chaplin.

Many of the studio’s films featured perennial favourites the “Keose-stone Kops”, a shower of useless Lochie wegs who raced around Stornoway at high speed, falling off their tractor and truncheoning themselves over the head instead of the bad coves. So successful were they that rival studios began to churn out poor quality imitations, featuring the likes of the Kliasgro Kops, the Kallanishstones Kops, the Kearnphabaidh Kops (who were always very busy) and the Kuiream Kops (who wouldn’t chase anybody on Sundays).

But it wasn’t all comedy – oh no. Many great dramatic epics were made in the silent era too, by giants of cinema such as Cecil B De Stickysmill and DW Gravir. Indeed, one of the first feature-length silent films made in Stornoway was DW Gravir’s controversial ‘Birth of a (Denomi)nation’, which was about the civil war that led to the formation of the Free Church as it broke with the Church of Scotland. It was based around a screenplay called ‘MV Clansman’ and focused on two families, on each side of the divide. It caused a bit of a furore as many of the maw characters were played by townie actors putting on really bad country accents – which was very confusing for audiences seeing as how it was a silent film.

“Birth of a (Denomi)nation” featured Lillian Guershader, who became the leading actress of the era until she fell out with MGM studios in the mid 1920s The reason was never entirely clear, but it was reputed to involve a bitter dispute between MGM’s 2 top female stars over the peat-cutting rights on the studio back lot. Whatever happened, Lillian Guershader left the movie business and returned to theatre, appearing in countless Stornoway Thespians productions over the ensuing 80 years. A week later, her great rival, the enigmatic Greta Garrabost, (her most famous movie line being ‘I vant to be a blone’) turned up at MGM with a tairsgear and cut 4 tractorloads herself in a Saturday afternoon.

With free peats, 4-crown, Woodbines, salt herring and sheep’s heads on tap courtesy of the studios, the screen stars of the day must have felt invincible, as if their pampered lives of untold luxury would go on forever.

But the days of the Suylent movies were numbered….

The writing was on the wall (of the toilets in the Clachan) for the silent era when the first musical appeared. Well known Mod Gold Medalist Al Galson hit superstardom when he appeared as the lead character in The Chazz Singer. This film was about a Townie who went about dressed up as a Maw whilst singing Gaelic songs badly. Memorable songs in the film included ‘Suet Suet Tootsie, Good Pie’ and ‘Mo Mhathair’ (later covered by Calum Kennedy).

The talkies killed off the career of many a silent star who failed to sound as good as they looked. Among these were Lewise Brùgs (whose glittering silent career in films such as “A Girl In Every Portnaguran” came to a sudden end when the advent of sound revealed her uncontrollable belching), Bosta Keaton, Fatty Arnishbuckle and of course, the great Mary Pickfordterrace (“Aird Tong’s Sweetheart”), who famously ridiculed the idea of sound in the movies as being like “Putting lipstick on Lady Matheson’s monument”.

On the other hand, several actors who’d never really made it big in the silent era suddenly became megastars due to their hitherto undiscovered ability to speak. Among these were the Macs Brothers (see our article from a while back), their rivals the Marags Brothers, and drunken town council toilet repairman WC Plasterfields.

Perhaps the most successful stars to cross over to the talkies were the legendary comedy duo Liobag & Fleekeenhardy… But more about Stan and Oliversbrae in a forthcoming article.

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The Rubhach Revolution. There’s a lot of fuss this month over the centenary of the Russian Revolution, but Old SYs will be chuckling to themselves as they remember that Russia wasn’t the only empire to the East where violent revolution overthrew a despotic monarch and established a hard-line communist regime that would endure for decades. Oh no – For 1917 was also the year that the dictatorship of the proletariat came to the Eye Peninsula – the year of the Rubhach Revolution. Prior to the Revolution, Point had seen a turbulent few decades. This was in no small part due to the ineptitude of their ruler, Tsar Nicolsoninstitute II; the last of the HoVansNaHeeHoRubhamanov Dynasty and a bit of an amadan. He was blamed for many of the ills befalling Point. Chief among these was dragging the empire into the Graip War, a pointless but acrimonious family feud over a Branahuie potato patch in which the Tsar hurled millions of unfortunate Rubhachs into battle against the superior armies of his cousins; Kaiser Uilleam of Guershader, Emperor Fank Josef I of Austro-Knockgarry and Sultan Mehhh-med IV of the Dòtaman Empire. Adding to the public distrust of the Tsar was the growing influence of a strange feusagach Episcopal Priest from Benbecula who had wormed his way into the court. Despite his crippling bouts of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Creagorry Ra-spùt-in became a close advisor to the Tsarina. His influence was short-lived however, as a group of nobles invited him round to the house for a strùpag and proceeded to feed him scones and pancakes laced with organophosphate sheep-dip. The sheep dip had no effect on Ra-spùt-in, so they shot him instead and dumped his body in Loch an Tiumpan. Tsar Nicolsoninstitute was eventually given the boot in March 1917 and exiled to Sheshader, so he viewed it as something of an improvement when in 1918 he, too, was shot. A fractious assortment of parties including Anarchists, Mehhhnshearviks, and Suardalist Revolutionaries took over the running of the Peninsula, but spent all their time arguing about bin collections and after 6 months had failed to improve the lot of the workers and peasants. Eventually the least disorganised faction, the Bolsheepviks (Continuing) rose to prominence and in October 1917 nicked the keys of the Rubhach Parliament in St Peatersburg (later renamed Upper Paiblegrad), and locked everybody else out. This “October Revolution” was spearheaded by Bolsheepvik leader Vlaiginish Ilyanovich MacLenin, a local bus operator who was heavily inspired by the writings of Newmarket builder and philosopher Cal Max. His left-leaning political ideology spread throughout the peninsula as church-goers travelled from house to house at the òrduighean. Thus, the movement became known as Communionism. While MacLenin was the theorist of the revolution, he wasn’t all that great in a scrap, so he relied on his pal, a moustachioed hard cove with a liking for the deoch, to do the violence. Partly because nobody could spell his name, but mostly because of his preference for a certain Stornoway drinking den, the dreaded Comrade J. Dzhulishadervili was known to all as “Josef Starinn”. As the revolution unfolded, few would have predicted that the drunken bleigeard with the daft tache would exert a reign of terror anns a’ Rubha for 30 years. Another significant figure was Revolutionary Portnaguran fisherman Liù-on Trosg-y, a leader in the fledgling Communionist Party until his opposition to Starinn’s work placement schemes led to his being exiled to Melbost – and to his eventual assassination with a tairsgear, at the hands of disgruntled church elder Ram-on Seceder. The Rubhach Revolution had a huge impact on the geo-political situation in the Hebrides but also had an equally valid impact on popular culture outwith the Communionist Bloc, particular in the 1960’s and 70’s. Amongst the many films taking the Revolution as a focal point was the famous film set during these turbulent times ‘Dr Sheshedervago’ starring Julie Christiespier and Omarg Sharubhach. Based on the book by Maw-ris Paible-stearnag and produced by David Ling. Another famous film, but this time produced as a form of Rubhach propaganda was ‘The Battleship Po-Tiumpan’, directed by Sergei Eisenclachstein, which depicted a mutiny by the Portvoller fishing fleet against the Tsar’s Customs Officers. The film also depicts the famous massacre on the Obh-obh-dessa steps leading down to Bayble Pier. Ra-Spùt-in was immortalised in the late 1970’s by the hit song ‘Ra-sput-in’ from the Harris Tweed craft-loving group Bonny Hem. This reached number one in the Radio Ranol Charts. All together now!!!!! ‘Ra,ra,Ra-spùt-in Lover of the Rubhach Queen There was a cove who’s bowel is gone Ra, ra, Ra-spùt-in Rubhachs greatest cac machine It was a shame how he cac’ed his toin’

19 01 2018




You’ll probably have heard that thon Playboy publisher cove Hugh Hefner has passed away. Famous (or should that be infamous) for producing naughty magazines and having a gang of Bunny Girls wandering about his Mansion. Old SYs will recall that, back in the 50s, Hugh tried to establish a foothold on Lewis by producing “Playcove” Magazine, but this only lasted a few months as the centrefold models couldn’t sit still long enough because of the midges. However, his Leodhasach cousin Uisdean “Pew” Heifer, who has also just passed away at the grand old age of 91, had much more success in producing a ‘specialist’ magazine for a niche market of discerning island gentlemen. Pew Heifer was also in the publishing business, and in the post-war years he noticed a gap in the local magazine market. Up until the 1950’s there wasn’t really anything to appeal to the growing demographic of increasingly affluent island Ministers and Elders, especially lonely bachelor ones. Pew came up with “Prayboy” magazine, a monthly mag aimed at the sophisticated cuireamach cove-about-town, rather than the stereotypical trusdar in a dirty boiler suit (honest). On release it caused all sorts of controversy for its lurid pictures of blones going to Church wearing little more than a heavyweight ankle-length dress from Nazir’s Shop, support tights, a bobban cardigan, full length tweed coat and even – shockingly – a beannag and/or a hat worn at a jaunty angle. But as well as featuring photos of blones and cailleachs in their Sunday finery, “Prayboy” also had many articles on a range of topical issues (such as herring, tweed and modernist peatstack architecture). Contributions from renowned authors such as Norman Mailboat and Gabriel Grazingscommittee Maraquez gave the mag a veneer of legitimacy not enjoyed by its competitors. Readers could therefore claim to be buying it “chust for the writing” and convince themselves that some amadan might actually believe them. Each month the magazine featured a number of ‘hot’ Praymates (hot in the sense that their Harris Tweed Sunday outfits were buttoned up to the neck). To be a Praymate of the Month was a highly sought after position, and many cailleachs chosen for this role went on to become well known MawDells. At its height, Prayboy’s prestige was such that famous celebrities such as Marvig Mon-Rubha, Madonnald, and Pamela Andersonroad were queueing up to appear as the magazine’s Precentorfold. Heifer’s headquarters was the Prayboy Manse, where wild òrduigheans were reported to go on, and where he held court surrounded by a large troupe of cailleachs in matching black outfits with Free Presbyterian hairstyles – the Bun-ny Gyurls. The early success of Prayboy did not go un-noticed, however, and it was not long before a number of similar publications came on the scene – Heifer’s bitter rival, Ness minister the Rev Bobban Gugaccione, launched “Repenthouse”, while the top shelves of the island’s religious bookshops were soon groaning under the weight of lesser periodicals such as “Prayfair”, “(Church) Nave”, and “Seceders’ Wives”.

19 01 2018