They say the world is divided between night owls and early-rising larks. Here at the Giornate, we split in two similar camps: are you up and at ’em first thing for Felix the Cat, who opens each day of the festival, or up all night with curtain-closer Koko the Clown? Your humble correspondent, it seems, is very much a cat person.
And by lunchtime today I was longing for the narrative simplicity of our lovable early morning Felix cartoon (Felix Loses Out, 1924). There was much to enjoy in the morning screenings, but either my mind was especially feeble or the plotting in some of the comedies was needlessly complex. First up, we had a Czech Anny Ondra double-bill. Chytÿte ho! (1925) was a romp and a half – Ondra plays a young lady whose guardian was a chronic gambler. There is a charming but dissolute artist, a gang of robbers and all kinds of shenanigans involving a stolen dowry. Ondra is all impish charm when in front of the camera, but most of the running time was taken up by male lead Karel Lamac undertaking a series of increasingly inventive comic stunts – the only shame was that the execution fell short of the imagination. Still lively stuff, and for me, preferable to the following film, Dáma S Malou Nozkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1920). A couple of amateur sleuths, one wily, one scrappy and dwarfish, attempt to recover a case of stolen money. It’s a strange film, made stranger by a missing length of film that renders one subplot barely intelligible. Strange too, in that it resists the expected narrative resolution. As it says in an intertitle, it’s a “comical piece about a detective, who discovered nothing, but found his true love”. Anny Ondra appears briefly as a young lady who has feet that are small, shapely and completely irrelevant to the plot. Anny, meet the “MacGuffin”, your friend Alfred will tell you more later …
I had little time for Polis Paulus Paskasmäll (The Smugglers, 1925) in the Swedish strand, though others heartily enjoyed it. Its stars were a famous comic duo in Denmark, though as far as I could tell their humour was based on the fact that one was shorter and fatter than the other, who in turn had a ridiculous moustache. Bucketloads of plot here, too, as love affairs, criminal schemes and old rivalries cause havoc among the residents and staff of a ski hotel. There was some excellent slapstick here (a sequence in which the taller comedian dressed himself in a bearskin rub, notably) but though you may call me shallow for it, my favourite thing in this film was leading lady Lili Lani’s chic winter wardrobe.
By contrast, our final film of the morning, Il Gallo nel Pollaio (The Rooster in the Henhouse, 1916) had a storyline simple enough to make Felix blush. “Ladies man” Vincenzo (the actor and singer Vincenzo Scarpetta) must urgently get a message to his betrothed who is, ahem, at boarding school – so he breaks in and attempts to evade capture, by (what else?) dressing up as a woman. Broad, boisterous and fairly predictable, to be honest. But it was interesting to hear a collage of his recorded songs used in place of a score.
I did not see all of the Soviet animation programme today, but I was very taken by the industrial-moral fable Vintik-Shpintik (The Little Screw, 1927) and a trailer for a short documentary about the search for a lost animated film, partly shot at last year’s Giornate. Great advice for film-hunters from Kevin Brownlow, along the lines of: “Write an article, and make it funny so people will read it right until the very end, then publish it somewhere where people will read it.”
The day took a darker turn with the Ukrainian drama Dva Dni (Two Days, 1927), but it was more than welcome. This was a neatly structured, if harrowing, Civil War story directed by Heorhii Stabovyi, with fantastic lighting effects, astonishing montage sequences and a stunning lead performance from Ivan Zamychkoskyi as an old man trying to defend his employers’ home from the Bolsheviks (led by his own son), before slowly learning whose side he is really on. A realist film with a sharp edge and unforgettably poignant – it was my highlight of the day. I had noticed before this screening, rather lightheartedly, that there was a distinct canine theme to the festival, with pampered lapdogs and detective hounds aplenty. But the poor puppy in this film … well I can’t tell you what happens, but the audience around me gasped. The only fly in the ointment was that the print we watched was marred by a crashing electronic score. The abrasive music I could live with, but the sound effects I found less easy to forgive.
Emotionally wounded by Dva Dni, we turned for comfort to Hollywood, and Louise Brooks, who smoulders even when dressed in men’s clothing, half-starved and advanced upon by Wallace Beery. Beggars of Life (1928) is a tremendous flick, directed by “Wild Bill” Wellman with the pace and precision of a musical – hopping from one immaculate setpiece to another. Gunther Buchwald et al AKA the European Silent Screen Virtuosi provided nimble and emotive accompaniment as Brooks battled Beery, and true love triumphed in a difficult world.
For a darker vision of working-class life we turn to the Soviets and a weighty number directed by Viktor Turin called Borotba Veletniv (The Struggle of Giants, 1926). The giants in question are the forces of Communism and Capitalism, and while there was some affecting melodrama deep within this film – the crowds, as so often, won the day. A hybrid of Strike and Metropolis with a dash of L’Argent and more than a pinch of The Workers Leaving the Factory, Borotba Veletniv was packed with action but never quite managed to equal the sum of its parts. Perhaps that’s because this is Turin’s first feature, or also because this is not quite what he intended: a cut-down German version in place of the lost original.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here
- Update: My Guardian report from the Giornate is here
- Pordenone post No 1 is online here
What-a-way-to-go of the day
A doctor in The Struggle of Giants diagnoses “death of wine intoxication”.
Absurd sexual innuendo of the day
“The pink goal”. You can thank The Lady With the Small Foot for that one …
Silent cinema fact of the day
On 6 October 1927, The Jazz Singer premiered in New York. It’s all downhill from here, folks … Until the first Giornate, that is.