Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.
It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.
However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.
Brooksie’s not-so-big moment was followed by The Reckless Age (Harry Pollard, 1924). This, I thought was going to be fun, a smart little rom-com about an insurance agent whose one job is make sure a wedding takes place, falling in love with the wavering bride once he’s in situ in Florida. It was fairly predictable sadly and a by-the-numbers Hollywood silent comedy – down to the potted palms and jewel theft. A nice car stunt, and top-notch slapstick brawl in a newspaper office were the highlights.
It was a handbrake turn from that into the final film of the night – the baroque Expressionism of Arthur Robison’s Warning Shadows (Schatten, 1923). Due to my recent obsessions, I got a kick out of seeing Fritz Kortner on the same bill as Brooksie, but this really is a very different beast to Now We’re in the Air. And hats off to Daan van den Hurk and Frank Bockius for accompanying this strange film with aplomb.
I can’t lie, this was an odd day all round. There were three programmes of shorts today for one thing. Tricky blighters, these. Variety is vital, I’d assume, but it also helps to keep a uniform tone, which the first package of films from a strand called The Effects of War, definitely didn’t – with Cretinelli popping up to have a wedding in the middle of an air raid between harrowing footage of devastated towns and maimed and malnourished infants. The rather lengthy footage of a swish charity concert in Belgium was also an odd choice. This sort of thing puts the history in film history, though, and entertainment isn’t the prime objective I suppose.
Far more consistent was this morning’s package of comedies from the Nasty Women strand. So consistent perhaps, that if one didn’t appreciate the minxy antics of Léontine (as yet unidentified) and Rosalie (Sarah Duhamel) their charms would surely pall before the 11 films were through, and they might have been better parcelled up across the week instead of programmed in one jolly blast. I say that, but to be honest, I found them completely hilarious and really quite refreshing. The highlight of my morning to be sure. I especially enjoyed Rosalie et son Phonographe (1911), in which playing a gramophone caused all the furniture and people in the room to rotate like a record. What fun to have seen this films as a young girl or woman in the early teens. Or even 2017!
The final programme was pitched somewhere in between the two. I always enjoy these selections from the wonderful Desmet collection, held in the Netherlands. Still, this too was a rum bunch. The theme was blindness, so we had the occasional actuality and a comedy about a shortsighted hunter, but mostly this was a programme of mini-melodramas. It seems that blind acting, fake eye surgery and horrific eye accidents cannot be counted among the many achievements of early cinema – all three were frequently unconvincing, which was occasionally something to be thankful for. The dramatic mood was frequently punctuated by guffaws of laughter at scenes that were clearly not intended to be humorous. As ever, the Verdi crowd takes a healthily democratic approach to the sacred cows of cinema. Even DW Griffith’s A Flash of Light (1910) provoked hoots at its swift conclusion. Oh well.
It was a good day for female-led films, thought. I skipped the lesser-spotted Aasta (not Asta) Nielsen in Fante-Anne, having seen it before (and even I need to work sometimes), but caught Anna Fougez (subject of an exhibition in the Verdi itself) emoting beautifully, if rather at length, in the slight, but gorgeous Fiore Selvaggio (1921). And I also saw Trappola (Eugenio Perego, 1922), a sparkling Italian comedy starring Leda Gys, which was my favourite film of the day, hands down.
And when I say sparkling, this film was like a frosted bottle of prosecco on a hot summer’s day. Leda is an orphan, the brightest and most mischievous students in a Catholic girls’ boarding school. And the film is just as vivacious as she is – frenetically paced but quirky and sweet. Leda’s best friend Laura leaves the school, which breaks her heart. But when a cad breaks Laura’s own heart in turn, Leda takes action to take revenge. The comedy steps up a whole other notch when Leda joins an Italian film studio. To see her resisting the demands of the costume department is a hoot, and her romantic machinations are artfully engineered so as to appear whimsical not contrived … All of it is hilarious but believe me, today a sendup of diva shtick was exactly what the doctor ordered. More Leda Gys please. Where has she been all my life?
- Intertitle of the day: “Your husband’s glory surrounds your beauty like a halo. But I prefer the painting to the frame.” The phony Baron makes his move in Fiore Selvaggio (1921)
- Bargain of the day: Mr Meyrick in The Reckless Age buys The Evening Post for $20,000. He’s got the best part of a century before the decline in print ad revenue decimates his profits and crushes the spirits of his employees, too.
- Hairstyle of the day: You’d have to pull off something pretty special to beat Leda’s dark curls and pigtails combo. But the ornate ponytail on the wife in Schatten was extremely special.
- Important update: I had my first Aperol Spritz of the Giornate today. Bellissimo!
- Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website