I couldn’t possibly imagine a more heartwarming finale to my first Pordenone trip than Saturday night’s midnight show of The Boatswain’s Mate (Horace Manning Haynes, 1924), with our own Neil Brand on the piano. This vigorously witty, quintessentially British comedy is a neat three-hander starring Florence Turner, Johnny Butt and Victor McLaglen, as a pub landlady, her buffoonish admirer and an out-of-work soldier. I loved it when it showed at the British silent film festival in Cambridge, and the Giornate crowd lapped it up too. The humour of the film comes not just from three strong comic performances, but from the pen of Lydia Hayward, who as with the other films in this strand, adapted the scenario from a WW Jacobs short story. Here though, her pithy intertitles are augmented with cute line drawings that underline – or comically undercut – the text. A 25-minute, 88-year-old gem of British cinema.
But I am getting ahead of myself. The final day of the Giornate began in the unfamiliar, but very comfortable, surroundings of Cinemazero, while Carl Davis rehearsed the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra in the Teatro Verdi for that evening’s gala screening. We assembled for a double-bill of late Thanhouser features, with all the tightly plotted melodrama that entails. A Modern Monte Cristo (1917), transplanted the classic tale’s theme of long-simmering revenge to California, as a shipping magnate frames his love rival for a crime and lives to regret it. Fifty-six minutes of storms, shipwrecks and Machiavellian machinations later, the assembled audience were thoroughly awake and heartily entertained. The wronged hero (played by Vincent Serrano) bore a passing resemblance to George Clooney I felt, and the heroine was played vivaciously by Gladys Dore as an adult and long-time Thanhouser actor Helen Badgley as a child.
Badgley returned, this time as a boy, alongside Jeanne Eagels in the second film of the morning, Fires of Youth (1917), which appeared to be an early pilot for the reality TV show Undercover Boss. Misunderstood foundry owner Pemberton (Frederick Warde) disguises himself in order to live and work among his staff, to regain the spirit of his long-forgotten childhood. As a bonus, he learns to appreciate his workers – and give them the payrises and safe working conditions they have long petitioned for. Or at least I think that’s what happened. Due to a mixup, the intertitles were unexpectedly in French and so no translation was available. A sweetly moralistic, but energetically played film, although this substitute print was abruptly abridged towards the end. Special mention here must go to Bruno, an “aspirant” from the Pordenone accompaniment masterclasses, who played beautifully and sensitively for both films – even more of an achievement considering the surprise switch.
Stephen Horne provided the music for the next screening, one of the most hotly anticipated British films in the Giornate: Herbert Wilcox’s highly enjoyable The Only Way (1926), an adaptation of a long-running play that was itself a free-ranging take on Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Theatrical giant John Martin-Harvey made a fine Sydney Carton: understated in the drunk scenes and powerfully charismatic in the courtroom. It’s a shame that he was so much older than his opposite number Charles Darnay, which rendered the crucial mistaken identity aspect of this grand story rather ludicrous.
A return to Teatro Verdi – for what? A sound film? Rest easy, this was the silent (but with recorded musical soundtrack) Italian release of Anna Sten’s German film Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion, Robert Siodmak, 1931). Tempestuous it was indeed, with Emil Jannings as a released convict, Sten as his wandering wife and Siodmak rehearsing his noir moves in a precociously hot-headed drama. Sten sang, quite well in fact, but with her highlighted hair, slinky satin wardrobe and sultry pout, she came across best as a silent hybrid of Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. Steamy stuff: the perfect prep for watching Greta Garbo and John Gilbert circle each other lustily later that night.
Before the gala’s main feature came many speeches, thank yous and prize-givings, culminating in the unadulterated joy of Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carriere’s 1961 short Rupture. All by itself, this virtuoso comedy proved Étaix to be, in festival director David Robinson’s words: “the last of cinema’s great silent clowns”. If you don’t;know Étaix’s work, read more here, and take any opportunity you can to see his wonderful films.
Finally, Garbo and Gilbert took to the stage, introduced in a short film clip by one of the film’s other stars, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and accompanied by Carl Davis’s hearty score. Doomed romance, barely repressed sexual passion, treachery, sublimated homosexuality, alcoholism and reckless driving: A Woman of Affairs (1928) had it all. Garbo here is elegant, seductive and a million miles away from the grubbiness (and greasy kohl) of Die Freudlose Gasse; Gilbert is dapper and heartbroken; Fairbanks Jr handsome and unhinged.
Yes, it’s a little over-the-top, and there was more than one dramatic tracking shot too many, but this was silent Hollywood at its starry, crowd-pleasing, beautiful peak. If you didn’t swoon just a little, you weren’t, I would contend, paying proper attention. Not my favourite film of the festival, but well worth the applause.
So that’s it for the 31st Giornate del Cinema Muto – it’s been utterly intoxicating, a feast of cinema and cinema appreciation. Will I return next year? Just you try to stop me.
Unsolicited advice of the day: Would you take makeup tips from Emil Jannings? Both he and John Gilbert admonished their lady-friends (Anna Sten and Dorothy Sebastian) for daubing on too much “lip rouge”. Hmmm…
- Eight days in Pordenone.
- 47 hours, 37 minutes and 12 seconds of silent cinema watched.
- 18 cups of caffé espresso.
- Eight blog posts.
- Four Aperol spritzes.
- One frico.