“Why are your thoughts in America when you tell me your heart is in Italy?” Well, Theda Bara, since you ask, it’s because the Giornate showed a mid-period silent American classic on Friday night. A Fool There Was (1915), or as I prefer to call it, The Cabinet of Dr Libido, is a bizarre film, by turns prosaic and ethereal. The plot is slight, but the imagery is immense, with Bara as an especially vampirish vamp, her long dark hair framing a milk-white face in the most demonic way. She can bat away a revolver with a rose and drive a man to distraction with a glimpse of ankle or shoulder – these are superpowers, not seduction techniques. No wonder the image of Fox’s foxy lady endures even when so many of her films are lost, burned up in the heat of her own fiery screen presence. And as silents go, A Fool There Was has great words, not least in the recurring appearance of Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’, but in a few killer lines of dialogue, one of you which you already know is going to appear below. And speaking to the film as well as for it, tonight, we had a brilliant new score written by Philip Carli and played by a quintet, which kept pace with the film’s many twists and dramatic moments and also added some much-needed nuance, as in the heartbreaking scene in New York traffic when Schuyler ignores his own daughter’s pleas, so engrossed is he in his new paramour’s charms.
After Theda Bara, Hollywood turned to Pola Negri for a more authentically exotic vamp, although a more romantic one too. So it was fitting that one of her early German films, Mania (1918) closed the evening’s viewing. I’ve written about that one before, a couple of times, so I skipped it tonight.
But it was a great day for strong leading women, from a selection of cheeky Nasty Women shorts (I loved Lea causing havoc in an office full of besotted men) and beyond. We had the rich, psychological drama Thora Van Dekan (John W Brunius, 1920), for example – a story of a woman trying to protect her daughter’s inheritance from her wayward ex-husband, in the face of opposition and judgment in her village. Pauline Brunius is hypnotic in the lead role as a spiky, often unlikeable, singleminded and clearly emotionally brutalised woman trying to do her best by her child. This was a sombre piece, all the more so with Maud Nelissen’s downbeat improvisation, and just the sort of thing that nestles into your brain cavities and makes itself at home for days.
Mary Warren, the young American lead of The World and its Woman (Frank Lloyd, 1919) had a crushing Cinderella complex and was unfortunately part of a ludicrous anti-Communist drama, in which the heartless Reds go so far as to, yes, “nationalise women”. But she was played by opera-turned-movie star Geraldine Ferrar, so she gets extra points and a little forgiveness. This was a quite silly film, shown here as part of the Giornate’s Red Peril programme as a counterpoint to the celebration of the 1917 revolution continuing elsewhere. Still, some striking moments, such as a shot of abject women awaiting their allotted men, and an extended fight sequence between the two female leads that gives They Live a run for its money, or even, as the catalogue more aptly notes, The Spoilers.
Today, however, belonged to a good woman, noble woman, a British woman: the World War I nurse Edith Cavell, as played by Sybil Thorndike in Herbert Wilcox’s pitch-perfect Dawn (1928). Cavell masterminded the rescue of around 200 Allied soldiers, smuggling them out of German-occupied Belgium, before she was executed by the Germans despite global appeals for mercy. This screening was an immensely moving experience. Like Cavell herself, the film is slightly austere, almost business-like in its devotion to simple, clear framing and authentic details, but bursting with compassion and humanity. Cavell was a real hero – as a nurse, she even had a cape – but she went about her life-saving work stoically and calmly. Apparently her line was: “I can’t stop while there are lives to be saved.” The wold needs more people like her.
There was a warmth to the film and a sly British humour too – not least, in the spectacle of a trio of middle-aged women saving young men “of fighting age” – and so much grace too. Cavell’s contract was clearly not with the war office, but with her maker. Dawn caused controversy in Britain even in pre-production and the firing squad sequence that ends the film was censored, so this morning we saw both the more complete European version (a Belgian DCP and very smart too) and then the final reel of the slightly harsher British version too. So many people in the Verdi this morning had a discreet weep, and many of them twice. Surely some of the credit for that goes to Stephen Horne’s graceful, fluid accompaniment. “Patriotism is not enough,” Cavell and the film conclude. That’s a fine sentiment, but no film ever made me feel so much of it.
- Intertitle of the day: You know it has to be Theda Bara’s majestic: “Kiss me, my fool.”
- Intertitle of the day, runner-up: “Do you know I will have the immense joy of seeing Norwich again?” A young soldier begins to taste freedom in Dawn.
- Passive-aggressive parenting of the day: Thora Van Dekan makes it simple for her daughter, who wants to start a new life with handsome pastor Gosta Ekman – “You have your free will. Do you choose the stranger or your mother?”
- Signature flourish of the day: the way Thorndike-Cavell twitched her cape over one shoulder and got down to work was simply inspirational.
- Cuties of the day: the stencil-tinted monkeys in La Chasse aux Singes (1912), were so sweet I was delighted they survived the film more or less intact.
- Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website