Ever fallen in love with a film you shouldn’t have fallen in love with? I did, tonight, I must confess. I am utterly besotted with a Polish silent that isn’t a silent at all, really, but a musical of sorts that has long since parted company with its Vitaphone discs. What remains of Janko the Musician (Janko Muzykant, 1930) is a very poignant film, with easy charm and visual lyricism.
Young Janko is a peasant boy in rural Poland, and although he is a gifted musician, he hasn’t the funds to develop his talent, or even practise it. His homemade rustic violin is ingenious, but far from sufficient. In fact, for a young man of his class, artistic endeavour is so far off-limits that he is criminalised for his love of music, which destroys his poor mother and nearly breaks him. Even when it seems that he has used his talent to transcend these social divides, his past catches up with him.
Janko is played by two strikingly handsome actors, Stefan Rogulski and Witold Conti, and the supporting cast, notably his two partners in demi-crime in the second half of the film are excellent. Without the sound discs, it is still very easy to follow the film, as the dialogue was always intended to be carried by the intertitles, but we are left with longish sequences when Janko plays, or others sing. To fill these silences, we had a very sympathetic live (improvised?) score from Günter Buchwald, Frank Bockius and Romano Tadesco, which left the Verdi every bit as spellbound as the crowds who gathered to hear Janko play. The first third of the film is especially successful, and the first two-thirds very good indeed. If it felt slower in that last third it is because we have left Janko’s natural habitat and his essential conflicts behind. This film is at its best in the countryside, and wherever people gather, not in high-class drawing rooms and court offices. It was also 35 minutes longer that advertised, so I guess it was actually slow, but I didn’t hear anyone complaining about that.
But first thing this morning, oh The Silent Shame! Not some late-night Bar Posta gossip, but this morning’s Who’s Guilty? drama, another Pathé Exchange gem from 1916. Anna Q Nilsson has married badly again, and in this hotheaded melodrama the situation was twice as dire because there were two of her, as she played mother and daughter in love with the same man. No room to recount the plot here, but it included a fake divorce, blackmail, a poisoned ring, and a Romeo and Juliet ending … these Who’s Guilty? dramas are an invigorating way to start the day.
I was less confident about the prospect of two hours of Al Christie comedies – with this sort of rowdy early Hollywood comedy, a little goes a long way. But I need not have worried. You might call it a triumph of programming, or the fact that I am a softer touch than I thought, but I mostly enjoyed this marathon of one- and two-reel comedies. Readers, I even chortled. And I was not alone, the Verdi seemed to take to this package very well, and with Philip Carli on the piano, that was no surprise. It was a triumph of programming, whichever way you look at it. The cartoon antics of Mutt and Jeff (A little bit of rhyming slang there for you real Silent Londoners), while diverting, began to grate before their two episodes were up. Then we moved briskly on to a varied mixture of comic treats ranging from the similarly cartoonish (explicitly so as a comic strip came to gurning life in Father’s Close Shave (1920) surgery was botched in Operating on Cupid (1915)or kidnapped newborns were slung around in a wheelbarrow in A Pair of Sexes (1921)) to sitcom fare such as Somebody’s Widow (1918) and His Friend the Elephant (1916).
The best of these films showcased some very strong female performances, with Billie Rhodes emerging as a regular winner, and a brief glimpse of our old friend Laura La Plante. Another catalogue of Christie films will appear later in the week to introduce some of the studio’s strongest comediennes, and this served as an excellent taster for that. Although the swimwear fashions of the early 20th century continue to astonish. Fascinating too to see the work of Hollywood’s first studio – Christie refitted Blondeau’s Tavern in 1911 – and there was plenty of location LA shooting in these sunny adventures.
We will move swiftly over a Russian film called Liudi Gubnut za Metall (People Die for Metal/The Bartered Soul, 1919), an intriguing number that no one can conclusively pin to a particular director. This was pleasing to look at in many ways, but its cold-hearted Faaustian premise was marred by rather bland characterisation of villains and victims alike.
With far greater success, a programme of films directed by John H Collins, an Edison director from what we might called the Early Modern period of silent cinema (1914 until his early death aged 29 in 1918) kicked off with four early works today. The first two of these dramas, The Man in the Dark (1914) and The Everlasting Triangle (1914) were particularly strong, revealing Collins to be a very fine director of actors, with a knack for slick, economic storytelling and no squeamishness over a violent end. The third of the shorter films, The Mission of Mr Foo (1915) was as above but sillier, and marred by yellowface nonsense, while a three-reel film On the Stroke of Twelve (1915) was a fine intrigue, but far less coherent than its fellows. Still, Collins pulled this one back from the brink of confusion for a punchy final quarter of an hour. I am very keen to see more – and we shall, later in the week.
Intertitle of the day: “Desperate over his loss, Raymond plunged on the stock market.” I don’t understand much about high finance, and I suspect The Man in the Dark doesn’t either.
Animal performance of the day: It was going to be the elephant in His Friend the Elephant it really was. But Janko’s blackbird really knew how to tug those heart strings …