This, too, is history – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You can blame it on too much caffé espresso, or Douglas Fairbanks withdrawal, or the collective post-Les Mis comedown. Whatever the reason, I saw two comedies today that I could only just follow, and which just occasionally made me laugh. If I tell you they were Soviet comedies, you might jump to a conclusion. But trust me, I have form in this area – I normally laughalonga-Lenin.
Tonight’s evening screening was Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik (The State Official, 1931), a cheeky caper about a faceless state underling tempted by the chance to pilfer a suitcase of roubles for him and his missus and their young daughter. I suspect it is gentlest of comedy anyway, but with a propagandistic framing story about renovating the rolling stock on either end of it, it truly is, as I was warned, not a “comedy-comedy”.
Rating higher on the laughometer but lower on comprehensibility for my poor failing brain was Krupnaia Nepriyatnost (Big Trouble, 1930), in which the culture clash between old and new in a provincial village is exemplified by, at first, the rivalry between old-style carriages and imported American cars. The scene thus laid, the real set-to involves a mixup of of speakers at local events: the director of the new arts centre rocks up to the church, and the priest appears to address the culture vultures. Horror, and then an “exchange of hostages” ensues. This was much brighter, with vivid casting, compositions that took us by surprise and a real sense of pace and energy. Plus, inventive musical accompaniment courtesy of a Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin collaboration. We were still a little flummoxed though. The same director as Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga and a similar sense of fun, but not as successful.
Far more suitable to my delicate sensibilities was the third programme in the City Symphonies strand. The highlight of this package was of course Doura, Faina Fluvial (1931), a portrait of Portuguese river life directed with grace, rhythm and humanity by Manoel de Oliveira. My second favourite had to be Anson Dyer’s A Day in Liverpool (1929) purely for the glimpse of my hometown and its all-but vanished industry in this doc that is far more factual than fanciful. Two brisk pictures of Prague risked blending in to each other, but I preferred Zijeme v Praze (We Live in Prague, 1934) despite its heavy debt to Ruttman’s seminal Berlin film.
I’m taking the schedule entirely out of order, but the next three films I want to talk about were by far the most talked about, and anticipated screenings of the day. First, to 221b Baker Street, for an appointment with Sherlock Holmes, via the Essanay Studios. Sherlockmania abounds, and so this rediscovered film serial spinoff of William Gillette’s influential portrayal of the gentlemen sleuth (Sherlock Holmes, 1916) has set tongues wagging. In truth, it feels more like a serial than a play and nothing like a short story. Gillette is so louche and laid-back as to almost fade into the damask curtains at times, and he is a little long in the tooth for the role. But still, you can see why people loved him in this – he has all the haughtiness you need, with a clever-clever smirk too. Static camera setups make this opening-out of the play seem stagey all over again, although those neat lap dissolves pick up the pace a little.The plot, and the Sherlockiness, only really get going in the third of these four episodes, with Holmes going up against a thuggish Moriarty and his gang of goons. Very watchable, if not essential viewing, and irresistible to Holmes fans. Although it went down a treat in the Verdi with the B Boys (Buchwald, Brand, Bockius) providing dramatic music on the side.
The second Bert Williams programme offered far more to chew on. We first saw a simple Biograph short featuring Williams as ever in blackface, playing a version of a story related to his hit song Darktown Poker Club (A Natural Born Gambler, 1916). This was knockabout, stereotype heavy stuff, nothing to write home about until the final scene in which, alone in a jail cell, Williams plays a hand of poker, all by himself, miming his interactions with the other players. What is really astonishing is that he loses. But after that, an introduction by Ron Magliozzi ushered on to the screen an engrossing presentation of a film that was shot, but never released, Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). Magliozzi gave us a spin through the context and history before showing us, seemingly, all the material that was shot for the film. A reel of flashing out-takes was followed by a supercut of all the takes for the movie – about an hour of footage for maybe a scant two-reeler. The film is gorgeous, despite the blackface – a handsome cast, including Sam Lucas somewhere in the crowd, frolic at the fair, dressed up to the nines in clothes from the leading lady’s (Odessa Warren Grey) own boutique. Seeing Bert Williams and co rehearse these lighthearted love scenes and physical gags is fascinating, for sure, but especially so as we have the chance to see the actor, underneath the outdate makeup and mannerisms, and understand both the seriousness and the good humour with which he approached his work. Donald Sosin was back at the piano keys for a jaunty and spirited accompaniment to such fractured, odd material.
The greatest surprise of the day was a six-minute animation, which preceded the Soviet feature in the evening. Prologue (2015) has been many years in the making, a labour of love for Oscar-winning animator and friend of the Giornate Richard Williams. It is the beginning of something bigger, as you may have already guessed. But all by itself, it is astonishing. A delicate pencil sketch that grows into a vicious battle between four soldiers. And when I say vicious … this was powerful stuff, for the eyes, the stomach and the heart too. I’m not sure that I have ever seen anything like it, and that is all that I am going to tell you.
Intertitle of the day
“I know this place … it’s the Stepney Gas Chambers.” Sherlock foils another of Moriarty’s dastardly plots.
Distraction-technique ending of the day
“Look, they’re rolling out the new locomotives!” ushered in the final card of The State Official. Entirely unrelated to the plotline we most cared about.
Tote bag update
Yes, we have already heard of at least one broken strap. Be judicious in your book-shopping, people.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available here