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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