The Silent London calendar
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
Colleen Moore, first among flappers, is so universally adored among the silent cinema crowd that she can get away with anything. Case in point: today’s screening of the irrepressible Synthetic Sin (1929), in which La Moore plays an aspiring actress whose talents lie further towards comedy than tragedy. So much so that she interrupts a dance show to perform a wigglesome, gigglesome routine of her own … in blackface. She wins the crowd in the movie, and perhaps a little more guardedly she repeated the trick in Teatro Verdi today. You can’t edit the past, and you can’t deny the crowd-pulling power of Colleen Moore.
Synthetic Sin was a winner today, a restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone project; this film has been primped back to its best, and even comes with a snippet of its original sound-on-disc score. That blackface moment wasn’t only thing that was “of its time” about the movie, but Moore’s personality, and charm, and sheer comic talent brook no obstacles. An early scene in which she mimics “Paderewski playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude” was far funnier than such a skit had any right to be. A thunderous round of applause ensued, from a live audience 85 years too late to catch the real thing.
But Moore only arrived four screenings into the day. We’re calling this a Manic Monday, with three heavyweight movies in the morning alone: two Barrymores (Ethel and Lionel) and a treat from the Russian Laughter strand: Zakroischchik iz Torzhka (The Tailor from Torzhok, Yakov Protazanov, 1925).
Yes, the name of the Russian Laughter strand has raised some sniggers in the hotel corridors and café terraces of Pordenone already, but we don’t listen to haters here at Silent London. And we’re right, as usual, because The Tailor from Torzhok was a hoot. This is Soviet cinema’s first feature-length comedy, and it’s definitely western-style in its reliance on physical stunts and romance. It was intended to promote the state lottery, but enjoyably not a single likable character gives two figs for the lotto – the government bond is sold on, rejected, crumpled and, ahem, fixed to the wall with nasal mucus. Ick. Great comic work from Igor Illiinsky in the lead role, whether pratfalling or winningly rubbing shoulders with his pretty miss.
How much excitement can one person handle on a Sunday morning? For myself, the opportunity to see – finally – Raoul Walsh’s classic crime drama Regeneration (1915) and on 35mm no less, with music by John Sweeney, was more than reason enough to get out of bed. That it was preceded by a film packed with vice and violence (and fabulous clothes), made this a far-from gentle Sunday morning. But the biggest surprise of the day was to come later in the afternoon. Call that a cliffhanger, if you will.
To the vice and violence first, with Hans Steinhoff’s Das Frauenhaus von Rio (1927), a German crime saga adapted from a novel by Norbert Jacques. That the film is set mostly in Hamburg rather than Rio, and barely in the “Frauenhaus” (a particular kind of lady, a particular kind of house, if you get my meaning) at all, is hardly false advertising. Concerned with what was called the white slave trade in those days, and also that silent-movie staple, international jewel theft, Frauenhaus was florid, schlocky and tremendously good fun – and very niftily directed. French actress Suzy Vernon made a winning heroine, although Ernst Deutsch as a puckish chancer and Vivian Gibson as a tigress of a villain stole the show.
But Regeneration was the main event of the morning, and it did not disappoint. This story of a tenement toughie reformed by a guilt-stricken socialite soars past your cynicism, because it is so exquisitely, tenderly photographed. It’s realism, but editorialised. And those performances! Rockliffe Fellowes has the best name in showbiz, hands down, and is reminiscent of a young Brando here as the angsty hero. Anna Q Nillsson (yes, a “waxwork” from Sunset Boulevard) puts in a heartfelt turn as his goodhearted ladyfriend. And oh, the photography, those truncated tracking shots and oh, the ensemble cast of characterful and possibly threatening faces. Everything Scorsese ever did is here, and it’s compelling, enthralling to watch.
This season the colour to be seen in is a mid-blue, almost teal, with accents of lime green. The autumn collection also features motifs of a certain scruffy character with a square ’tache, and a charming floral detail. Hemlines are low, and hats are definitely “in” … Milan fashion week was so last month sweetie, I am reporting to you direct from the catwalks of Pordenone, instead, where the 33rd Giornate del Cinema Muto has begun, in fine style.
The stars of this year’s Giornate are yet to be decided, but the wise money goes on the Barrymores, an acting dynasty of stage and screen and recipients of their own retrospective at the festival this year. So starstruck are we all by the (virtual) presence of John, Ethel, Lionel et al that for Pordenone’s opening night, that we attempted an almighty feat – travelling through time and space (and the march of feminism) to New York, February 1927. But more of that adventure anon. Here’s how the first day unravelled.
In anticipation of the Gala, the first session of the Giornate was devoted to The Drews, that is mostly Sidney Drew (uncle of John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore), but often accompanied by his lady wife, in a series of mostly slight domestic comedies (and one roughly sketched drama about an elderly painter, his pretty niece and his young apprentice). Antiquated and inconsequential they might be, but don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Of the films here directed by Drew himself, some parlayed familiar gags, as in Her Anniversaries (1917), a wordy skit in which a husband fails to remember the “special” days when his wife chooses to celebrate their relationship. But there were some enjoyably bizarre elements. Drew’s flexible features were stretched in A Case of Eugenics (1915) when his babyish husband outdoes the brattish, oversized child his wife is “sitting” for infantile antics.
In the strangest of the lot, Boobley’s Baby (1915), Drew is a harassed commuter, sick of giving up his trolley seat for parents of small children – so he totes around a doll, which unfortunately causes him problems with the ladies. The whole endeavour was just the right side of distasteful – for the most part. Kudos as ever, to expert accompanist and Barrymore/Drew expert Dr Philip Carli for some smart, witty playing for this selection – I particularly enjoyed the rock’n’roll diversion during a badly damaged segment of Boobley’s Baby.
As the night drew in, we snuggled up with a love letter to film archivism, film archivists and Pordenone itself. The Soviet silent animated cartoon Pochta or Post (1929) was shown at the Giornate last year and delightful it was too. This year, a two-part documentary, Searching for “Pochta”, explored the search for its sound 1930 remake, long thought lost. Richly detailed, and not afraid to scurry down rabbit-holes, but accessible and witty, this was a tribute to the stuff that film discoveries are really made of: diligence, chance, persistence and collaboration. You can order those however you think fit.
Just because a film has proved to be massively influential, it doesn’t follow that it will look modern. For evidence, I present Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920) – without which, the movies that followed could look very different, but which barely cares to look like a movie at all. I’m exaggerating, which itself is very Caligari, of course, but watching the gamechanging new restoration of this cinematic titan, I am struck by how much of its power comes from the arts of set-painting and stage-blocking rather the magic of the moving pictures.
Although there are some eyeline cuts, irises, close ups and unsettlingly low-angled shots, Caligari heart belongs to its theatrical forebears. When I heard that this film had been restored, even when I saw the first YouTube clips of the work that had been done to bring crispness, brightness and vibrant, slick colour back to Caligari, I didn’t appreciate what all that labwork would reveal. This is Caligari the spectacle, a testament to design and showmanship – a world away from the current trend in horror cinema to ramp up the realism and immerse the audience in a grey and gruesome world.
Watching this Blu-ray, you can make out each brushstroke on the canvas backdrops, the clumps of white powder in the Doctor’s hair, Lil Dagover’s spidery painted-on eyelashes. Lean in, you might just be able to lick the greasepaint off the screen. The power of Caligari, of course, is that it’s no less terrifying for being artificial. In the same way that the framing story in the asylum, which was tacked on to make the film less scary, actually contains some of the film’s most disturbing scenes, Caligari‘s high-concept design strategy is so daunting as to be horrifying. There’s a lengthy, and very useful excerpt from Lotte H Eisner The Haunted Screen in the accompanying booklet and her summary of the power of Expressionism bears repeating:
If HG Wells could fix it for you to travel back to the silent era, you surely would, right? And while no doubt it would be enlightening to talk shop in the studios and editing rooms of 1920s Hollywood, it’s arguable that the real action would be in the nightclubs and hotel suites. Take it from me, the catering would be … interesting.
Many of you will know Jenny Hammerton and Nathalie Morris. Jenny Hammerton works as a film archivist, and runs the wonderful Silver Screen Suppers site on the side. She’s researching a forthcoming book of recipes from classic film stars, you see. Nathalie Morris works at the BFI as an archive curator, and also blogs about food: the Food on Film site recreates meals from movies. She is working with Jenny on a different book, along the same lines, but dedicated to the most important meal of the day – the cocktail hour.
Such a noble pursuit deserves all our support, of course, so myself and a few other selfless souls tripped up to Nathalie’s flat on the weekend to sample some cocktails and canapés. As the evening was undertaken in the name of research, not simple fun, here is what we learned.
- We may remember Greta Garbo and Gloria Swanson as health freaks, but they let their hair down occasionally, culinary speaking. Garbo layered bacon over healthsome cottage cheese and rye bread to create a rather unwieldy canapé. Swanson deviated from the ways of brown rice for, what else, tempting bites topped with caviar.
- Edith Roberts‘ sweetcorn fritters require a LOT of lard for deep-frying. Fear not, though, as our group couldn’t quite choose between the lighter veggie versions and the lardy originals in the final analysis.
- Solid and unexciting to look at, they may have been, but Charles ‘Buddy’ Rogers’ potato and nut croquettes were seriously savoury – with a rich seam of nuts down the centre. Unexpectedly toothsome.
- Zasu Pitts is an idiosyncratic one. We all loved her omelette with hot spanish sauce. But the Greed star cheated us of any actual spice in that sauce – hot in name only. And there was baking powder – yes, baking powder – in the omelette.
- The parties thrown by Marion Davies may have gone down in Hollywood legend, but her cheese patties were unlikely to get anyone hot under the collar – tasty yes, but rather chunky and bland for a canapé. Perhaps they were just there to soak up the booze?
It’s remarkable what you can pick up in three minutes and 45 seconds. This short video by Gary Chapman, author of London’s Hollywood: the Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, is an excellent introduction to the British Famous Players-Lasky outpost.
This is the time and the place where Victor Saville and Michael Balcon began their ascent through the British movie industry, where Ivor Novello smouldered for Graham Cutts, and where Alfred met Alma, while making a film or two you may have heard of …