By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …
Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.
I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …
My morning was rather topsy-turvy: super-excited about the cheap and cheerful B-movie, I wasn’t at all prepared for Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (The Love of Jeanne Ney, 1927). It was playing in the Canon Revisited strand, which, combined with the weighty name of Pabst, leads one to expect greatness. And greatness we got, in many parts. Plenty of plot, perhaps a little too much, and plenty of style too, perhaps a little sporadically. In post-revolutionary Crimea, Jeanne, sweet Jeanne (Edith Jehanne), is in love with Andrew (a very handsome Uno Henning) who is gasp, a Bolshevik, and implicated in the death of her father … Oh never mind, that is just the beginning. The action swiftly moves to Paris, where Jeanne lives with her miserly foster-uncle and sweet blind sister, played by Brigitte Helm (might have preferred to see her in the title role). There is lots of romance, and flair (what a fellow festivalgoer called quite rightly “cool shit with the camera”) and it is all rather marvellous, if not quite what I expected. One to watch again, when my mind is not so befuddled. I found myself playing silent cinema bingo with this one, I confess: international jewel thieves, Russian Revolution, a blind girl, a sinister man with a moustache, a fateful train journey … Maison!
But I was excited about seeing the final Yakov Pratazanov film. I said so yesterday in fact. And it was excellent, but viewing conditions made it a strange one also. This was a silent movie, which was rereleased in sound form (both times a massive hit). A “talkie” framing plot is wrapped around the silent story, which comically contradicts what we are seeing on screen. However, for the first third or so, the spoken dialogue was not translated, so the framing device became a bit of a distancing device for the dummies like me who don’t speak Russian. However, Prazonik Sviatogo Yorgena (The Feast of Saint Yorgen, 1935) was a sharp and well-played anti-clerical satire (many familiar faces in the cast from the other Pratazanovs). Another one well deserving of a rematch.
My to-watch schedule is filling up, it seems, so I will save time by never, ever seeing The Mysterious Island (1929) again, much as I kinda enjoyed it, and I have a very soft spot for Lionel Barrymore. This two-strip Technicolor adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea was hugely ambitious, but terribly creaky. Time has not been kind to its special effects, and the intertitles in this Czech print were hugely wordy and scientifically nerdy too. I was transported back to watching films on TV during half-term as a wee mite. And I also quite fancied a trip to the aquarium …
We do get well looked after at Pordenone, though – The Mysterious Island was preceded by a few enticing Technicolor scraps, including a real highlight: Clara Bow in Red Hair (1928). With red hair, naturally. And this beauty too:
So it was left to Chaplin, and his City Lights, to bring down the curtain. A triumphant screening, with Gunter Buchwald conducting the orchestra as they played Chaplin’s notes around, atop and in between Chaplin’s jokes. The film is particularly suited to the lush orchestral treatment, structured as much musically as dramatically, with comic set pieces punctuated by sentimental interludes and the occasional jolt of big-city drama. And the seats of the Verdi rocked as the audience shook with laughter – it was a rousing finale to a tremendous week.
Goodbye all – until next year, this is my last edition of the Pordenone Post.
So, this finally happened:
- I wrote this for the Guardian on Chaplin, City Lights and the Little Tramp earlier this year.
- 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.
- My blog from the fourth day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the fifth day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the sixth day of the Giornate is here.
- My blog from the seventh day of the Giornate is here.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here