Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 5

“It’s Christie Cristo day,” quoth a witty fellow Pordenaut today. And that was true – we were expecting more Al Christie comedies and Henri Fescourt’s lavish Monte-Cristo (1929) too. It also neatly encompasses the range of material one can expect from 14-odd hours in the Verdi. Slapstick comedy to prestige literary adaptations – plus today we had drama, poetry, newsreels, satire, political advertising and more … But it’s all that obscure niche they call silent cinema, right?

MONTE-CRISTO (FR 1929) ZZ Productions, Paris
MONTE-CRISTO (FR 1929) ZZ Productions, Paris
Then again, my day began, and ended, with the Napoleonic era. Tonight’s epic screening, a marathon treat we have come to expect on a Wednesday in Pordenone, was the aforementioned adaptation of The Count of Monte-Cristo, running at almost four hours, and as lavish as you please. It was, as Lenny Borger promised, “the full Monte”. Comparisons were inevitable with last year’s Les Misérables event – this film was less picturesque, less self-consciously serious, but just as vivid and awe-inspiring, with greater pace and suspense. The restoration was nicely done, but Monte-Cristo was not the living oil-painting we saw in 2015 – this was dynamic monochrome, boosted with a few tints, with a handful of showy camera movements, deep and pointed shadows, wicked interior lighting effects and some truly monumental sets. A feast for the eyes, but in a more classically cinematic way.

In a big film, as I have said before, the small things matter so much more, and the eerily lit cross-section of the tiny prison tunnel our hero forces himself into may well be the most memorable shot in a picture crammed with them. And for all the stunning locations, the venal sequence in the smugglers’ tavern with the unfortunate jeweller was my clear highlight. I was not so keen on the count’s oriental paradise, but let’s just save all those feelings up for a big rant after The Thief of Baghdad on Saturday night shall we? At the risk of stressing  a point, the performances didn’t stand out in the way that those in Les Mis did either, though my internal jury is out as to whether that is a Good or Bad Thing. Take my advice, and see this movie though, whenever you can. And if you are really lucky you will hear something to match the sterling music that Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius provided for us tonight – a close accompaniment that applied drama, but with a light touch. An epic has rarely felt so weightless. And that is definitely a Good Thing.

WHY WILD MEN GO WILD (US 1919) The Museum of Modern Art, New York

I had high hopes for the next serving of Al Christie comedies, having enjoyed the first course. I was especially psyched for today’s screening, at the risk of sounding like a parody of myself, because this programme would feature the studio’s female comics. Of course it was a mixed bag, and although female performers were prominent in each title, they were not always leading the comedy. Still it was a hoot to see Billie Rhodes again in Waltzing Around (1918) and a spirited Vera Steadman trying to bag a caveman in Why Wild Men Go Wild (1919). No Parking (1921), with Helen Darling trying to keep track on her own baby in a new town was heaps of fun, but so completely a diluted version of One Week that it lost a few points. My clear favourite was Saving Sister Susie (1921), an eyebrow-raising caper in which Dorothy Devore is forced to dress like a child while her sister is trying to catch a beau in an oceanside resort. That the poor chap still found her distracting in her Buster Brown gingham frock (“keep her young for me”) was a tricky area to manoeuvre in, but this breezy comedy made its peace with that sitch early on. Devore was more than ably supported by lanky Katherine Lewis as her unfortunate older sister and Eugenie Forde as her widowed mother.

Comedy is a little thin on the ground in this year’s Giornate programme, and likewise newsreel and actuality. So when I was forced to make a difficult choice this afternoon, I plumped for the programme of material related to US presidential elections, rather than the enticing John H Collins title that followed it. I was glad I saw the political films – it was a mild thrill to see long-passed presidents in the almost-flesh. Like audiences for the first films a 120 years ago, I felt I was seeing photographs come to life. Theodore Roosevelt demonstrating his passion for tree-cutting and nearly landing the stump on the camera crew, Warren G Harding on the campaign trail … And the political film drumming up donations for Roosevelt’s 1912 campaign may have lampooned political corruption rather broadly, but it was a world away from today’s “negative ads”. In fact it all seems very different from 2016’s contest, which might be better staged by Al Christie’s repertory rather than captured on 24-hour rolling news.

PAN TADEUSZ (PL 1928) Filmoteka Narodowa / National Film Archive, Warszawa

But before all that, this morning, after my breakfast fix of Who’s Guilty? (passim) I saw something rather special. Pan Tadeusz (1928) is not the most beautiful film I have ever seen, nor is it the strangest, but it ranks high on both fronts. This film, running at a stately time of just over two hours, is a loving adaptation of an epic story – Poland’s national poem, more or less. It is a story of national liberation, led by recurring minor character Napoleon and of a family feud between two houses. There is much discussion of Poland’s greatness, a little enchantment, a makeover montage (see picture) and some love affairs and shenanigans with hidden identities. I couldn’t really tell you the plot to be honest, as there was clearly too much for the film, which instead prioritises mood-setting and strong characterisation above catching unfortunate non-Poles up with the story. So one must proceed through the film with an open heart and eyes agog, ready to immerse oneself in the landscape and to be caught up in secondhand national pride. It’s beautiful, even if each rhyming intertitle arrives like a baffling non sequitur. When it ended, with an elaborate wedding complete with the polonaise, I would have been happy for it to continue. Perhaps somewhere it still is …

It must be said that we were guided through the film by the sympathetic and alert accompaniment provided by Stephen Horne (on piano, flute, accordion … at least) and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry on the harp. The score is a fantastic achievement and I doubt that without it I would have enjoyed Pan Tadeusz so much, or been so alert to the strengths of the film and distinctions between the individual characters. There’s a good advert for the Giornate itself. Where else would you see such a film, presented with such care, in a day of other similarly impressive presentations?

Intertitle of the day: “Goodness, gracious, we’ve built on our house on the kid.” The couple in No Parking (1921) were forever misplacing their infant.

Century-old trade news of the day: In the corner of the newspaper insert in Inoculating Hubby (1916) could be glimpsed a report that “Allen Dwan” had just finished shooting his “Kentucky picture” with Lillian Gish. A reference to the lost film An Innocent Magdalene?

Accidentally apt technical glitch of the day: At the close of the US Presidential Elections parcel we were supposed to be viewing a sound film of Calvin Coolidge (the first president to feature in a talkie) giving a speech on the White House lawn. Unfortunately, the sound had departed the DCP at some point, and we were left with “Silent Cal” to the life.

Babe London
Babe London
Pordenone pinup of the day: How can this blog resist the ample charms of Babe London? She’s now our unofficial mascot.

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