My second trip to Bo’ness for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema allowed me to spend the whole day there, seeing shows from 10.30am until 7.30 pm — Keaton, Bowers, Chase, Von Bolvary, Murnau, Ozu. In the company of delightful people such as Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London, ace accompanist Neil Brand, writer and Edinburgh Film Fest director Chris Fujiwara. With a weird tartan theme going on.
I’m no expert on tartan. I think my own family pattern is the Clan MacCavebear. What was peculiar was that from the Charley Bowers film on, every movie had a strong tartan presence. THERE IT IS (1928) features cinema surrealist Bowers as Charley MacNeesha of Scotland Yard (visualised as a pen full of kilted men, milling about aimlessly), who investigates crimes too baffling and stupid for the ordinary police, assisted by his kilted flee, MacGregor. Pamela pointed out that Bowers kilt, an obscenely short plaid pelmet, grows mysteriously longer in the final scene where he’s wed Keaton co-star Kathryn McGuire. What is the hidden significance of this?
In LIMOUSINE LOVE (1928), Charley Chase, on his way to his wedding, gets saddled with a naked lady (quite a good role for Viola Richard, since she has to be filmed in close-up throughout). The tartan this time is worn by Josephine the monkey (who also co-starred with Harold Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and Buster Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN). She crops up quite gratuitously here, wearing an adorable little monkey kilt. Inexplicable.
German cabaret star Ilse Bois in DER GEISTERZUG/THE GHOST TRAIN/LE TRAIN FANTOME (1927, an Anglo-German co-production screened via a French print) plays a temperance campaigner all in plaid, which is stretching a point but her name is Miss Bourne — and in the Hungarian version of 1933 it’s “Miss Burns,” which does sound Scottish. Given her surliness, I suspect she’s meant to have Celtic qualities.
When I spotted two tartan blankets draped over extras in THE LAST LAUGH, I felt confident in predicting that Ozu’s DRAGNET GIRL (1933) would feature some example of the Scottish national pattern. I knew that tartans are not unknown in the east due to Tatsuya Nakadai’s tartan muffler in YOJIMBO. Thanks to an interview he gave to Alex Cox, I even know the Japanese for “tartan muffler,” which I believe is “tarutana muffura.”
Handsome Joji Oka’s is a particularly fine example.
When I got home, I had to re-check Buster Keaton’s THE BLACKSMITH, as I hadn’t been watching out for tartans in that one. There’s a fair bit of plaid on display. And also an acrobatic lady who MAY be a young Charlotte Greenwood. I’m no forensic identification expert, but how many comediennes could do the splits back then? Perhaps somebody else with a DVD and a keen eye could look into this for me?