Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 7

The Battle of the Century (1927) Lobster Films, Paris
The Battle of the Century (1927) Lobster Films, Paris

Laughter is sunshine, it chases winter from the human face – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Sometimes, a seven-hour epic will come along to sweep you off your feet. At other times, 18 minutes will do the same job, or even just a few seconds. Friday at the Giornate was Laurel and Hardy’s day and no mistaking. The happy discovery of the missing reel of The Battle of the Century (1927) has been dominating the runup to the festival, and with good reason. The house was full for the evening screening, one of the first in the world, of the nearly restored, almost complete two-reel comedy. When I say full, yours truly was perched in the gods, nearly touching the ceiling. But if I was giddy, it was with excitement, and as Battle unspooled with its restorer, Serge Bromberg at the piano keys, we all felt a little thrill I’ll bet. The central pie fight sequence is slapstick gold – expertly orchestrated, constantly inventive and teasing us with the escalating violence. So often a group are poised with pies in hands … we know another splat is on its way, but we don’t know where it will come from. And because of that, seeing it in proper context, as a counterpoint to the damp squib boxing match in the first reel, was hugely satisfactory. The pie fight’s no longer a scene, but part of a real movie, albeit one with one sequence still missing.

And with that, Stan and Ollie were gone. To be replaced by something else entirely. Days don’t tend to have themes here at Pordenone, The programme is far too wide-ranging and eccentric for that. But Friday, I like to think, was also western day – with a feminine twist.

The morning dawned with cowboys – and what you might call cowgirls too. These short movies from the 1910s were equal-opportunity adventures, with women exploring the west along with their men. Of the few I saw, I most liked How States are Made (1912), in which a pioneer family must lay stake to their plot in the Cherokee Land Rush, but with hubby out of action due to a gunshot wound, it’s up to the missus (Anne Schaeffer) to ride west and beat their rivals in the big land rush. 

The Call of the Canyon (1923) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
The Call of the Canyon (1923) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

A double-bill (of sorts) of Victor Fleming westerns followed, and picked up the theme too. After a snippet of The Call of the Canyon (1923) in which young Carley must decide whether to follow her man out of the city and into the frontier land, we were treated to To the Last Man (1923), which was a real triumph. This film is based on a novel, which was based on a real family rivalry, a blood feud no less, which claimed several lives. In the fictional version at least, a youngster from each family have fallen in love, Romeo and Juliet style. As the two lovers, Richard Dix was a solid and handsome hero, and Lois Wilson was fantastic as young Ellen, seemingly the only woman for miles and miles around, whose reputation was cruelly slandered as a result. Lushly shot by James Wong Howe, with plenty of ferocious action (which Stephen Horne wrung the most out of), this was a winner from beginning to end. Except for one thing: this was a Russian print, and so were the intertitles, which means we now had third-hand versions of each line, which were often baffling, and sometimes incomprehensible. “And then your kisses were come-at-able,” for instance. This was really a minor inconvenience, but added a sour note to what would otherwise have been a sweet, sweet movie.

Ramona (1928) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
Ramona (1928) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

Talking of sour notes in the sweetness, recently rediscovered Hollywood romance Ramona (1928), was gorgeousness itself – until the final scenes. Delores Del Rio is the eponymous heroine, loved by her adoptive brother Roland Drew, but in love with Warner Baxter’s Alessandro, with whom she shares both a grand passion and a heritage: Ramona, her cruel foster mother reveals with a flourish, is the daughter of a Native American – although that is not the word the film uses. Life for Ramona and her Alessandro initially seems blissful, but a few harsh knocks later, and our heroine is alone, bereaved and left for dead, after a violent raid on the village (brilliantly, violently shot I might add). I won’t ruin the ending, but it did ruin the film for me a little … However, in many ways the film, and presumably the source novel, does more good than bad. Is the identity erasing denouement the price we pay for progressiveness elsewhere?

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Back to Europe and even closer to home, this morning we beat our chests with pride to see a British film in the schedule, in the Canon Revisited strand, no less. Parisian potboiler The Rat (Graham Cutts, 1925) is always good fun and the Verdi audience were pleasingly enthusiastic today. Wy shouldn’t they be? Ivor Novello is devilishly handsome in the title role, as a jewel thief and professional breaker of hearts, with Mae Marsh emoting winsomely as his taken-for-granted missus. It’s a ride, with fantastic costumes, and ersatz evocations of the Paris underworld. There were gasps during the “Apache dance” and sighs all around every time we saw Novello’s perfect profile. His performance is simply outrageous here – camp yes, but also revelling in every pose and posture with utter seriousness. That kind of thing would overbalance most movies, but here it’s seems just right for The Rat‘s lurid subject matter and garish design.

Picture (2015) Paolo Cherchi Usai
Picture (2015) Paolo Cherchi Usai

The day closed with two films that could not be more different – 1928’s Show Girl, a Vitaphone film shown here in the silent Italian release print, complete with elegant script intertitles, came first. This is essentially a 1930s backstage musical without any numbers, as our girl Dixie makes her way to Broadway with Brooklyn and into the arms of her true love, in a brisk hour or so of crossed paths and cheesy gags. Her true love is a hard-bitten journalist type, which always gets my attention, who works for the “Daily Tabloid”. Dixie is played by the beauteous, wide-eyed Alice White with plenty of charm, and her father by the hilarious James Finlayson. Trouble is there’s so little to this that it’s a mere wisp – and I suspect I will have plumb-forgotten it by next year, when we are promised the full Vitaphone version.

After that, I felt the need for action and drama and art and noise. And I got it, with Picture (2015), an experimental feature film by Paolo Cherchi Usai, with live accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. In fact, for this film the music came first. Cherchi Usai collaborated with the Alloys on a piece of music, which he then sent to a drummer in Tasmania, who played along with it, while he also sent miles of film to a calligrapher, Brody Neuenschwander, to draw on and dance on, while listening to the music. The resulting collage of photography, ink on film (Len Lye style), leader tape, flashes of black and white (and more surprises) is an invigorating watch. I wasn’t, as the Giornate catalogue promised, disturbed, but I was thrilled by the collision of image and rhythm for its own sake, and not in the service of eg Soviet propaganda or the depiction of violence as we have seen elsewhere this week.it may not be new but it is effective stuff, especially when shown on the big screen at the Verdi, to an audience of sleepy cinemutophiles*, with the Alloy Orchestra playing full tilt. What did it mean? It meant that film is exciting, has possibilities, is alive. That moving pictures move us. That silent film-making is not dormant.

* That coinage © Prof Uli Ruedel

Intertitle of the day

“The bored woman looked at her luxuriant world and found it wanting.” That’s Isabel Jean in The Rat. And all of us, really.

Millinery misdemeanours

Hats came in for a tough time today – stabbed by a flick-knife by Novello in The Rat, and shot in the saloon in To the Last Man.

Poignant death-knell-for-the-silent-era moment of the day

Yes, I know this wasn’t what the chap was getting at, but mid-audition in Show Girl, Dixie is asked to model a bathing suit: “It’s not the girls’ faces they look at any more.”

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