Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 1

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014

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.

The Feudists (1913)
The Feudists (1913) – Sidney Drew, far left

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.

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This Vitaphone lark will never catch on … #gcm33

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So, from the archives and cellars of the 21st-century to the Selwyn Theatre, New York in 1927, and our date with John Barrymore, Delores Costello and magic of Vitaphone. Introducing the opening gala David Robinson likened it to the vogue for streamed theatre – instead of coming live from the National Theatre, our entertainment for the evening had a serious time lag. Through the wonders of AV restoration, we were to see an entire programme from the heyday of Vitaphone, the sound-on-disc system that prefigured the talkies.

First up, Verdi in the Verdi – three nicely staged snippets from Rigoletto. Then, the musical stylings of Van and Schenck. Hmmm… I don’t really have the frame of reference to discuss Van and Schenck, well I think I do, but perhaps it is best to be charitable and just say that it was of its time, and I won’t be wishing for an encore of their Hard-to-Get Gertie later in the week …

John Barrymore and Delores Costello in When a Man Loves (1927)
John Barrymore and Delores Costello in When a Man Loves (1927)

To pre-revolutionary France for the main feature, and if there is one thing that can unite pauper and prince, it’s the desire to dive into Delores Costello’s pantaloons. Sorry to be so blunt, but while When a Man Loves (1927) is handsome, it’s also hokum, and of a most pernicious kind. No matter if you haven’t seen it, it is so precisely The Duelling Cavalier from Singin’ in the Rain that you may consider yourself an authority on it forthwith. Half of Paris is vying for teenage Manon’s (Costello) virginity whether with cold hard cash or brute force. Even her own brother has a horse in the race – eventually the King of France joins in too, and she’s not safe even midway across the Atlantic ocean. Manon’s prancing sweetheart Fabien (Barrymore) is a man of faith, though, and truly loves her. You can tell this because he throws coins in her face and chucks her to the floor. “I’m just a woman,” she pleads and drops to her knees. And suddenly it’s off with the surplice and back to bed for Fabien. Barrymore could do more than this gurning ponytail stuff, and any actress would be wasted in Costello’s part. It’s gorgeous to look at, needless to say, but rather unpleasant to think about. Enjoyable enough if you don’t, though I suspect the biggest laughs were unintentional.

I hope I don’t sound grumpy. I have had a long and interesting day, and tomorrow’s schedule has my mouth watering already. I must also apologise for missing the Thanhouser documentary I was so looking forward to – my early start has caught up with me and I don’t want to do it the disservice of sleeping through it.

And don’t forget: “Welcome home!”

Blogging advice of the day: He was talking about something else, but Kevin Brownlow pops up in Searching for “Pochta” to say wisely: “Write a short article, and try to make it amusing so people will read all the way to the end.”

Cute animal of the day: There’s always one (at least). And the pampered handbag pooch being undressed for bed in When Two Hearts Are Won (1911) melted the entire Teatro. Honourable mention to Costello’s beribboned kitten. What happened to Fifi, huh, Fabien?

Festival scuttlebutt of the day: Drew Barrymore is definitely here, but she’ll probably only show her face for Nibelungen.

Unsolicited fashion update of the day:

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