Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 6

Was this the perfect Pordenone day? Very likely. Sunshine, coffee and great films in abundance. Plus, not one but two appearances from Ivan Mosjoukine. Giornate excellence achieved.

First things flipping first. Best. Who’s Guilty?. Ever. Anna and Tom are in love, a bit. Anna considers marriage but doesn’t come close. And the backdrop is a factory, which soon becomes embroiled in a workers’ dispute. Yes there is a strike! Much broader, bolder drama here, with nice location shooting and some sharply composed long shots. if Eisenstein had made potboilers. Maybe. And before the morning’s main event, a now-obligatory trip to an ersatz pre-revolutionary Russia with Ivan Mosjoukine in Der Adjutant des Zaren, a charming Japanese animation about a boy grown from a peach who became gentle and strong – but mostly badass enough to slay a shedload of ogres.

This morning also featured a quartet of City Symphonies to delight the eyes. I especially liked a very elegantly shot look at the reconstruction of Tokyo in 1929 (I know!), Fukko Teito Shinfoni and a zoom up Chicago’s main drag in Halsted Street (1934). A tour of Belgrade was pretty enough but lacked direction and so outstayed its welcome. I am very fond of these films though, and look forward to more.

SALLIE’S SURE SHOT (US 1913) BFI National Archive, London

After lunch, we were back in the early days of the Western, but with a special focus on what the programme calls “Cowgirls”. Not enough to captivate me I am afraid, although I quite enjoyed the heavy emotional weather of The Craven (1912) in which a wife takes up the shootin’ duties her fraidy sheriff hubby can’t perform.

But then, joy of joys, a programme of early cinema and trick photography, the likes of which the Giornate excels in. We were in Britain, courtesy R W Paul, and so of course this is the genteel world of the late 1890s and early 1900s. Nothing to frighten the horses here, except skeletons in cupboards, superannuated infants, ghostly apparitions, mindless brutality, drunken mirages, fake mediums, deranged motorcars and so on. So many delights here, and not least an amazing gag in Artistic Creation (1901) when an artist draws a beautiful woman, piece by piece, who comes to life. But when he paints her a baby, she runs away screaming. Particularly adept accompaniment came from Elizabeth-Jane Baldry scoring the full hour of shorts live on her enchanted harp, and never a string out of place.

Talking of screaming, the most controversial screening of the day was definitely Behind the Door (Irvin V Willat, 1919). I don’t want to spoiler this one, if you haven’t already seen or read about it, but it is a rape-revenge thriller, pure and simple. Well maybe not so pure or simple. It is set during what was a very recent war, and concerns an enlisted taxidermist having cause to wreak vengeance on the German submarine captain (Wallace Beery) who assaulted his wife. It’s nasty stuff, more for the rape than the (off-screen) grisly revenge. But the early sequence in which the denizens of a small American town take firmly against a descendant of German immigrants immediately after the declaration of war is hugely upsetting and horrifically timely.

DER ADJUTANT DES ZAREN (DE 1929) Det Danske Filminstitut / Danish Film Institute, København


But to be fair, you are all here for the Mosjoukine, n’est-ce pas? The dreamy Russian actor starred in both Der Adjutant des Zaren and tonight’s featured presentation, Kean ou Désordre et Génie (1924). The former was a hugely glamorous story of two strangers falling in love and yes, sigh, one turning out to be a Russian revolutionary spy out to snare a senior player in the Czarist regime. That player being Mosjoukine, this was a super-sexy drama, which began as Lubitsch-lite and ended in a far more dour place. No kissing in the snow here. Props to Mosjoukine for making such nonsense believable and also throwing in some It Happened One Night style comedy in a sleeper car. Those silk pyjamas were very hot, as were his knee-high leather boots. And lawks, that man can smoulder.

KEAN OU DÉSORDRE ET GÉNIE (FR 1924) Cinémathèque française, Paris

Which brings us to Kean, in a new 2k restoration from the Cinématheque Francaise. This could have been ludicrous, as Mosjoukine plays 19th-century theatre star Edmund Kean, in an adaptation of the Dumas play illustrating the star’s tragic downfall. It was booze, and maybe women, that done him in sir.But he burned up the stage and screen both. This was a Shakespearean tragic life, with many “flashes of merriment” before a very drawn-out death scene. For sure, the locations were clearly Parisian and not authentically London, and as before mentioned, the death scene was uncommonly long. But good lord I was transfixed. By his beauty and by the way he acted everyone else off the screen and it didn’t matter one jot. He breakdown, during a performance of Hamlet, was authentically moving. The tragedy of manners in which his proffered gift of flowers to a high-born lover brought humiliation rather than esteem was just brilliant. His relationship with his best friend, the Drury Lane prompter Saloman, was incredibly touching, and funny too. And this film features one of the greatest drinking scenes ever made, a complex montage as Kean carouses and jigs in a London tavern (erm, The Coaly Hole), and the vibrancy of the scene explains his addiction, rather than condemning it.

We were treated to an energetic and always ambitious piano score by Neil Brand tonight, and he brought a sympathetic degree of theatricality to a tale of a life lived on stage and at a higher key than most of us will ever know. Really this film demonstrated beautifully how engrossing high silent cinema can be, as the words unspoken were not left hanging, but burned the more fiercely into the audience’s brain. Frequent quotations from Shakespeare enhanced the passion and the drama, and then, at the very end when Kean was lost to us for ever, we bid our sweet prince goodnight.

The rest is silence.

Intertitle of the day: “Polly was scolded by her older sister for too informal behavior with a young man.” You can’t let a man playfully lasso you until you are married. Everyone knows that … from A Girl of the West (1912).

Animal performance of the day: The “Polish Rin Tin Tin” did tricks on a ladder on a construction site in Amerykanizacja Stolicy (1931-32). Not just cute and talented, but brave too.

“Animal” performance of the day: Kean’s best mate Salomon dressed up in a tiger skin to intimidate his creditors was unbelievably hilarious, and effective too.

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