The parade’s gone by for another year. The projector is empty, the Verdi is empty, even the Posta is empty. Yet again I can say watched a ridiculous number of films, but still missed many I wished I had seen. The Giornate was full to the brim with silent spectacles this year. And while it may be too early to speculate about Key Trends of the Weissberg Era, we can say the festival is in safe, and loving, hands. It was a vibrant schedule, crammed with exciting films. I had an especially good Giornate. How about you?
Today was always going to be bittersweet, but I offset that sharp tang of sadness with some great films and some enjoyably ludicrous ones, too. If we are going to remember this year as the year of big, beautiful movies (and I am at least), I enjoyed a fitting final day.
First question of the day: Who’s Guilty? Me, because I missed the final instalment in this diverting series, but I did arrive at Cinemazero in time for some Al Christie funnies. My eye was caught by a cross-dressing romp called Grandpa’s Girl (1924), but that wasn’t what I had stepped out for this morning.
I had a date with cinematic greatness, in the form of Ozu’s I was Born, But … (1932), the most sensitive and character-led of comedy dramas, shown in the Canon Revisited strand. Wonderful to see this projected, with Maud Nelissen’s ambitious and sensitive accompaniment. As a smart companion said: it’s a film about children but it’s really about all of us, at any age, at any time, in any place. This film is funny and wise and always beautiful: even when the camera is focused on the scruffy and mundane stuff of our scruffy and mundane lives, there is harmony and freshness. And oh, just make sure you never miss the chance to watch (and rewatch) this one. Promise? And the perky Momataro cartoon beforehand was a treat too.
Talking of things you mustn’t miss, the final film this week from John H Collins was brilliant. D. W. Who? 1918’s Riders of the Night was sadly missing a lot of footage, but in the 44 minutes we saw there were some unforgettable shots (the bloody nail-scratched palm of a woman being led to the gallows, silhouetted shooters, a pair of watchful eyes seen through a slit in the mesh door, a close-up of the rolled-up sleeve of a bully wielding a whip, a fondled gun, a chimney descent and climb) and another indelible performance from Collins’ wife, soon to be his widow, Viola Dana. Really striking, stirring filmmaking, with its heart in the right place too. I loved the clever use of superimposition and the way that the interiors of Dana’s home were shot to make them look as claustrophobic as possible. And the final shot, of the lovers kissing in the least romantic of places. No wonder the censors attacked it so much, but that was still a shame. Most of those cuts have been reinstated I think, but I would to see the rest of it some day.
Before dinner, we were treated to another film in the sumptuous William Cameron Menzies programme: The Woman Disputed (1928), starring Norma Talmadge, Gilbert Roland and some seriously old-fashioned sexual politics. We are in 1914 yet again, with a Russian soldier and an Austrian one and the “fallen woman” they are both in love with. There is a dramatic crisis, which is handled in a very unpleasant way, but Talmadge is wonderfully imperious when she has been wronged, and Roland so broodingly gorgeous that despite a few stray giggles we mostly swallowed it whole. The design of the film is lusciousness itself, and so was the music from Gabriel Thibeaudeau.
The closing night gala began with a cavalcade of speeches (including Weissberg’s gleeful comment about how directing the Giornate meant only programming good films and not having to deal with troublesome directors because they are all dead), and a recently discovered Baby Peggy short. This was joy itself. The wee scamp was pulling all sorts of practical jokes in a fancy mansion, mixing up boot polish and shaving foam, electrifying a suit of armour and most delightfully of all, wiggling into a brief Chaplin impersonation. Too precious, both as her younger alter ego and as herself, Diana Serra Cary. A beloved star, at her very best on the screen tonight.
On to the headline event. The Thief of Bagdad (1924), directed by Raoul Walsh, starring Douglas Fairbanks, and accompanied with aplomb by the Orchestra San Marco, conducted by Mark Fitzgerald, playing the original score by Mortimer Wilson. There are many reasons to love this film, and they are as follows: 1) Douglas Fairbanks, most of the time, 2) Fairbanks’s kinky chiffon trousers, 3) Anna May Wong, 4) The magic carpet ride, 5) William Cameron Menzies’ sets. It is the last one that is most important. Yes, even Fairbanks is second to the art direction here, and more posing than acting. The film has a pantomime plot, but embellished with great style, and inventive special effects. It’s far from my favourite Fairbanks film, but it is perhaps his most spectacular. In the end, it wasn’t my cup of Earl Grey, but I don’t care, I had already seen some magic in the morning.
Fino al prossimo anno!
Intertitle of the day: “Look at him. He has the face of a germ!” from I was Born, But … Nope, not a clue.
Villainous prop of the day: Silent film watchers know to look out for the ever popular whip. But have you ever seen a birthday cake destroyed by a riding crop? I told you you should watch Riders of the Night.
Freudian image of the day: The drying-up sequence in A Woman Disputed was so blatant, Pabst would have blushed.