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.
“The best of the Barrymores,” opined Ian Christie after seeing Lionel B in The Copperhead (1920), this morning’s early film. This battle is going to run and run I think, we’ll be pitting film against film, and also sibling against sibling in the Barrymores strand all week.
The Copperhead keeps the crown for now, though. Undeniably a little lumbering, and the supporting cast can’t hold a candle to the star, but this American Civil War drama had a slow, strange magic. Lionel Barrymore plays a northerner who refuses to join the fight, but who may not really be a “Copperhead” after all. His is an understated performance at its best, and although the film’s storyline is heavy weather, the devil was in the detail here. I found myself caring intently about these characters and their conflicting allegiances. A rather sinister Lincoln impersonation, though, I must admit.
Sister Ethel plays a saloon bar singer with big plans (and a big grudge) in The White Raven (1917), a glamorous tale of opera houses, high finance and indecent proposals. Barrymore herself is wonderful, and Walter Hitchcock makes a memorable Wall Street villain, but the plot was so ludicrous it overbalanced the whole business. Still, when Barrymore’s conniving diva hides a telephone in a vase of flowers in order to broadcast a private conversation, it was an eerie glimpse of all those early talkies with microphones in plantpots yet to come …
Cesare as Horatio Nelson, Caligari as Lord Hamilton? You’d have to see Lady Hamilton (1921) to believe it, and even then, well I’m not sure I trusted my own eyes. Conrad Veidt and Werner Krauss star in this German take on British scandal with Liane Haid as the “Lady” herself. It’s picturesque and lavish in all the ways one would hope, though the acting style on show is about as far from both received ideas about British reserve, or private, epoch-defining passion as you could expect. It’s all a little quivery and cold. Haid is gorgeous, but oddly unaffecting, and Veidt’s stuttering walk is only exaggerated once Nelson loses an arm and he appears to risk toppling over altogether. The real trouble here is that the film is currently a patchwork – with missing scenes and titles, and a collage of sources of varying quality. There’s some incredible material here but it barely amounts to the sum of its parts as it stands. Let’s hope there is more Hamilton out there, but this is definitely a rough diamond.
There is no way to adequately summarise the evening’s main event – an elegantly structured selection of early shorts (hat-tip Federico Striuli) from the AIRSC archive to celebrate the society’s 50th anniversary. We began with merry domestic mayhem, courtesy of maniacal vacuum cleaners, vicious inkwells, killer toothache and charmed feather dusters (think Mary Poppins), all brightly accompanied by Philip Carli. The mood turned, with an abandoned wife trudging through snowy mountains (Il Cane di San Bernardo, 1907), and a 13th-century siege on a tower (Napo Torriano, 1910). The final film, a Nordisk drama called Kærlighedens Styrke (The Power of Love, 1911), was a little gem, a touching half-hour romance with delicate patches of stencil-tinting, all sweetly accompanied by Stephen Horne.
These compilation screenings are rather addictive and if, as here, the films are sourced from several different countries, they represent a little sampler of Pordenone in miniature. I note we have three separate compilation screenings on the schedule tomorrow. I better start reading the screening notes …
‘Happiest’ ending of the day: I won’t post a spoiler here so I’ll keep the film anonymous, but in a manoeuvre I’m calling the “popup priest” one movie today climaxed with a “I’m so glad you feel the same way darling, because the vicar is just outside” moment that cracked up the entire audience. Quite rightly.
The new HQ:
Divided double-bill of the day: A winning short from the evening’s AIRSC50 show, Firula Ha Vinto Alla Lotteria, would have been a perfect match with The Tailor from Torzhok, which played in the morning.
Money-spinning TV pitch of the day:
Historical curio of the day: A swastika on a Carlsberg sign outside a bar in the Danish film Tandpinens Kvaler (1906).