Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 4

A Day With John Burroughs (1919) George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection
A Day With John Burroughs (1919) George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection

It was another strong day, and an emotional one too, not least because we were saying our first farewells to the Corrick Collection. There’s just one more batch of these strange and vivid early films to go (on Saturday) before they depart the Giornate schedule for good.

Première Sortie d'une Cycliste (1907) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra
Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra

Today’s selection brought us an increasingly rare moment of comedy in the form of the three-minute romp Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907), fascinating early 1900s street scenes from China and Japan, a stencil-tinted biblical drama by Louis Feuillade (Aux Lions les Chrétiens, 1911) and some outrageous examples of animal cruelty, from quail-fighting to a brutal twist on archery in Distraction et Sport à Batavia (1911)

There was more early cinema to savour in Patrick Cazals’ documentary portrait of French star and film-maker Musidora. There was far more to her career than Les Vampires and Judex. She was a prolific writer (of letters, poems and scripts); a painter; a director; a film historian at the Cinématheque; a feminist icon; and yes, a muse to many. Where Musidora, la Dixieme Muse (2013) succeeded best was in interviewing her relatives – who could speak to her personality as well as her polymathic achievements. An affectionate hour. A recording of the woman herself included in the doc captured her opining that films should be produced like good books, with images worth revisiting 20 years after they are made. As the Verdi crowd watched, rapt, as clips of Musidora in her first screen appearance (Le Misères de l’Aiguille, 1913) played, we can fault her only on the scale of her ambition.

A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) Fången 53 (1930)  Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1927 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929) Fången 53 (1930) Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1927 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

Another good day for the Swedish cinema strand, with the first film of the day having special resonance for British silent cinema enthusiasts. Fången Nr 53 (Convict No 53, 1929) is the Swedish cut, more or less a remix, of Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor. This is an ironed-out, simplified version in many ways: it’s a pure silent, so no “talkie” at the flicks; there are no flashbacks, it’s all told in a forward-facing straight line; those little montage inserts are gone too. But the differences are not all so glaring: a rearrangement of shots in certain sequences; altered intertitles give scenes, and the entire film, a subtly different air. It’s less violent, despite that macho title, and perhaps more dare-we-say-it romantic. And one more thing: it’s set in London, until the prison-break, when we are transported to “the highlands of Dartmoor”. Sterling accompaniment was provided by Stephen Horne who, after scoring the UK version, is far more alert to all these details than most of the rest of us.

Hans engelska fru (1927) Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1927 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.
Hans engelska fru (1927) Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1927 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

The second Swedish film of the day, Hans Engelska Fru (Matrimony, 1927), was as we have come to expect, elegant, emotional, romantic, repressed – and just a little too slow and lengthy for many people’s tastes. I was smitten. Lil Dagover plays a society widow on the London party circuit who falls in love with a wealthy Swedish landowner who lives in splendid isolation near the Pole. The path of true love hits a glacier or two: notably the suave personage of Gosta Ekman as an avaricious playboy loitering in the London scenes and ready to pounce. Praise be, also, that both Karin Swanstrøm and Stina Berg were on hand to play the mothers-in-law. It wouldn’t be the same without them. Kudos to this film also for, despite being silent, having a crucial plot point balance on a radio broadcast.

The day closed with a really terrific film, one well worth the late night, so I will keep you hanging out for just a moment longer while I deal with some miscellany. I missed Turksib on this occasion, but kicked myself when I heard reports of John Sweeney’s score. You live and learn. I did watch the Soviet animation programme, however. I feel the important film to mention here is Pochta (Mail, 1929), the equivalent of our beloved GPO shorts: a charming mixed-media cartoon in which a global team of diligent postmen send a letter all the way around the world, from pillar to, um, post, as its recipient switches addresses. The blink-and-miss-it butterfly in the final frame was the finishing touch.

Pochta (1929) Gosfilmofond
Pochta (1929) Gosfilmofond

The biggest treat in the bunch, however, was the wacky Hollywood fantasy of Odna iz Mnogikh (One of Many, 1927) in which a Russian fangirl is magically transported to LA to cavort with her idols: Mary, Doug, Charlie, DW, Harold, Buster … and the Danish comedy duo Pat and Patachon, whom we endured on Sunday.

Khlib (1930) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev
Khlib (1930) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev

Soviet film-making of an altogether grimmer nature cropped up in the early evening show. You know that when a Ukrainian film is landed with a title such as Bread (Khlib, 1930) you can bet your collective farm that  there won’t necessarily be much of it about. A young solider returns from the front full of socialist fervour, but finds his father and many in his starving hometown resistant to his ideas. This film started incredibly strongly and nailed its message firmly to the screen (collective farming + centralised grain distribution = rich harvests for all), but lost its way towards the end. Ukrainian musicians Port Mone Trio provided a modern, powerhouse of a score, though. The Ukrainian strand is never dull.

Prior to Khlib we saw 13 minutes of rural American bliss in blistering Prizmacolor: A Day with John Burroughs (1919) was a joyous nature walk in the company of the literary naturalist and three eager-to-learn scamps. Insects, petals and leaves in closeup; rippling landscapes of forest and wheat. I could have watched for hours, especially with Donald Sosin’s lyrical piano accompaniment.

Unter der Laterne (1928) Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin
Unter der Laterne (1928) Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin

But then, a good 13 hours after the day had begun, we voluntarily spent two and a half further hours, locked in urban hell with Gerhard Lamprecht’s emotional assault-course of a street film, Unter der Laterne (Under the Lantern, 1928). It’s Berlin in the 1920s and good girlkultur goes bad as Lissy Arna’s sweet Else falls through social strata like Alice down a rabbit hole: a bullying father, sexual double standards, the sleaziness of show-business and a thriving sex trade are no match for her morals and her romantic dreams. It’s like Pandora’s Box with less glamour and more heart and I savoured every wounding moment. The clever score provided by a group led by Donald Sosin and a record player made great use of a drinking song that features prominently in the stunning freehand intertitles: “Drink, drink, brothers, drink.” The inescapable circular structure, an insistence on escapism through oblivion – rarely has a song so jolly sounded so terribly sad.

And on that note to bed. We’ve got unseen Orson Welles tomorrow. I’m more excited about the next Lamprecht, though, to be honest.

Intertitle of the day

“Romantiska dumheter!” Yes, it very well may be romantic nonsense, but I nevertheless enjoyed Hans Engelska Fru very much, thanks.

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