At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.
KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.
We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.
We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall.
As the gala loomed ever closer, and the reality of saying goodbye to Pordenone for another year along with it, we were diverted for an hour or so by a bumper packet of early cinema from the Sagarminaga collection: riding to hounds, humorous sketches, trick photography (as when a chicken “un-lays” its eggs), Breton peasants carousing in a tavern, and the Lumiére favourites of trains and factory doors were all present and correct. So that’s a few more silent film clichés dealt with. Not that anything felt hackneyed as we smiled and laughed at distracting snippets such as The Kiddies and the Rabbits, which offered the simplest, and you’d have to say most enduring of cinematic pleasures.
Suddenly, it was dark outside, the Verdi was full of glamorous Italian strangers and we had to admit to ourselves that the festival was nearly over. We just had time for one last farewell to David Robinson, with a standing ovation and booming applause. And then, well The Phantom of Opera (1925) is as unstoppable force: glamorous, romantic, gothic and madly entertaining all at once. Strange to think it had such a convoluted production history when what we see today is so slick and majestically defined. Lon Chaney is a beautifully ugly as the Phantom, and Mary Philbin is just beautiful, if more than a touch wooden in the ingenue role. And if for a minute you thought you could resist, Carl Davis’s score, played by a local orchestra, would claw at your solar plexus until you caved. The lighting effects and tints in the black-and-white scenes, and the lavish use of colour in the two-strip Technicolor sequences combine to make this seem a movie out of time, appearing far more modern than it should. This one is liable to play like the shower scene in Psycho – lingering in the memory far more luridly than it appeared on film at the time.
And with that, I can no longer linger myself. Thanks for reading, if you’ve got this far, and thanks to the good people of the Giornate, David, Jay and their team. Thanks to everyone who brought a film to this event, or contributed to a tipsy chat about those films in the Bar Posta with me. Thanks to the lovely people at the Hotel Moderno too. And thanks to the gods of silent cinema, who were surely in attendance here all week.
Until next year!
Intertitle of the day
“Oh, it would be great if we could arrange a decline in rabbits.” Such evil scheming from the dodgy currency speculators in Serotsa I Dollary. Boo hiss.
Intertitle of the day: runner-up
It is only in second place because it is so familiar, but I couldn’t miss out this line from The Phantom of the Opera, in which Lon Chaney is clearly having a bad hair day: “Feast your eyes –– glut your soul, on my accursed ugliness!”
Matinee idol of the day
Today and every day, Gary Cooper in Wolf Song.
- For more information on all of these films, the Giornate catalogue is available online here.