Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
Lionel Barrymore is undoubtedly a heavyweight, but I did rather expect Jim the Penman (Kenneth Webb, 1921) to be a trifle. Well it was and it wasn’t: an initially rather sketchy tale of a man who unwittingly devotes his life to counterfeiting cheques for a coterie of evil bankers, the movie built up to an unexpectedly dramatic conclusion. Remember the old advice about never going to a party on a boat next time, you Wall Street devils. As with The Copperhead, Barrymore hulks around the set as if he’d rather be anywhere else, but the acting is mostly in those subtle eyes and the sly smile dancing around his mouth. I think I’d put him on my dance card, no forgery required. Does anyone else think he looks a little like Cary Grant?
Barrymore also appeared to be the best thing about The Eternal City (George Fitzmaurice, 1923), of which we saw just a fragment this lunchtime. Well, the second best next to the architectural wonders of Rome itself. It’s a strange film, which champions (and features) Mussolini and his Fascisti in florid update of a Hall Caine novel. Fascinating, but … it hasn’t aged well, shall we say?
So many compilation shows today, but the most invigorating was surely the morning’s sampler of Ukrainian animation. Naturally there was much here about dam-building and coal and efficiency and collective working. And why not? My favourite was the promo clip for the Soviet Palace of Art, in which various artworks, materials and performers (and a movie camera) rush and tumble into the gleaming new building – Palats Mystetstv SSSR (1930).
To linger a little longer in Soviet waters, the followup to The Tailor from Torzhok (1925), Yakov Protazanov’s Protsess O Trekh Millionakh (The Trial Concerning Three Million, 1926) also features many of the same actors. It is a sprightly comedy about a three-million-rouble burglary “in a bourgeois state”, which kicks up a notch after a hapless pickpocket Tapioka (Igor illiinsky) is arrested for stealing the cash. Citizens of every estate from the clergy to the proletariat acclaim him as a hero, women lust for him, his gaolers pamper him and top-hatted lawyers queue up to defend him. It culminates in a gleefully eccentric trial scene. Uplifting and clever and something I would love to see again.
Hard to pick a highlight from such a busy day, but Herr Arnes Pengar (Sir Arne’s Treasure, Mauritz Stiller, 1919) is a strong contender. I thought it wasn’t going to work – for me, that is. I was stuck at the back of a mob trying to get into the theatre, and took my seat while the film was already underway and I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. But slowly, happily, I was hypnotised by the faces, the delicate light and the growing sense of anguish. This is a film of great restraint and yet raw emotion. This film, from Swedish cinema’s “Golden Age”, is an adaptation of a short novel by Selma Lagerlöf, a story of love and grief and madness in a very cold climate. The treasure of the title is cursed, and this is a story that lives either side of realism – with both very human and other-worldly pains to torment our isolated characters. It is all precisely, eerily perfect, with especially memorable performances by Mary Johnson as the young heroine Elsalill, and Axel Nilsson as Torarin, a friendly and wise face in the spiritual storm.
Best booze euphemism in translation of the day: Ukrainian animation Prohulnyk (The Absentee, 1929) warned us of those who skip work following a night on the “giggle bottle”.
Best opening intertitle of the day: “Edo is a rough town”, Hot-Tempered Yasubei. Cue 29 minutes of near non-stop carnage.
Bad date of the day: “Sir Archie, Sir Archie, why do you always make me think of the dead?” Herr Arnes Pengar. Because Elsalill darling, he murdered your entire family and stole your uncle’s cursed treasure. But other than that he’s quite a catch.
Aperol-Spritz count: Zero. Still zero. This is utterly shameful.
Today I learned: Some of these blogposts are being pinned up in the Teatro Verdi alongside the bona fide press clippings. If you are reading this in the foyer while queuing for a film then give us a wave. Nice shoes.
- I wrote this for the Guardian on Charlie Chaplin, tramps, Kid Auto Races and City Lights in January
- My blog from the first day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the second day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the third day of the Giornate is here.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here