I’m a Europhile, so imagine my shock to see ‘Frexit’ posters on the streets of Paris. In one respect at least, I hope France can learn from our own messy example. Our own deed has not yet been done, and even when it has been, and we have well and truly Brexited, I suspect there will still be yellow stars looped around my heart. So in the spirit of European togetherness, I am always happy to pop over to Paris at the drop of un chapeau to watch old movies and connect with my silent-film-loving friends.
This weekend was just such an occasion – I am posting this on the train home to London. Toute La Mémoire du Monde AKA the International Festival of Restored Cinema, takes place in the drizzly days before spring has truly sprung, at the Cinématheque Francaise and a handful of other cinemas in Paris. This is the sixth edition, and it’s a slightly odd festival, very serious in atmosphere for one so young, despite the fact that it features such populist events such as Russ Meyer all-nighters, and celebrity guests including, this year, Wim Wenders. It’s as diverse in scope as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but not as welcoming or as easy to navigate. Still, I think of it as a rather shy friend, who always has something fascinating to say if you can coax it out of her. With that in mind I spent two and a bit days in Paris this year, seeing as many silents as possible, and some talkies just for luck. I do it all for you, mes amis!
So on to the films. What did I see in Paris? Not the Eiffel Tower, that’s for sure . Silents first. Heck, why not go for Silence (1926) first? This thriller directed by Rupert Julian and Cecil B DeMille was considered lost for years but was recently found and restored into a very fine print. HB Warner is brilliant here as Jim, an anguished convict just minutes away from facing the death penalty, who recalls in flashback the events that led to his execution, and why he is protecting the real culprit with his silence. Yes, that sounds a little like Varieté and this film also has a touch of Expressionism about it, especially in the terrific opening sequence, with the clock ticking on Jim’s existence – but as the catalogue points out, it is perhaps closer to Eisenstein’s ideas about visual sound. In fact, it’s a remarkably effective use of implied sound for a silent film called Silence. Although the early hard-boiled scenes are very strong, especially with a cameo from Virginia Pearson as a bar landlady, it all slows down towards the finish. Well worth hanging around to see the way Raymond Hatton puts out a cigarette though.
A triple-bill of restorations of films from the Balboa Amusement Producing Company was a real revelation to me. Henry King both in front of and behind the camera, working at this obscure Long Beach studio in the teens. The three films shown, two melodramas Maid of the Wild (1915), The Coveted Heritage (1915) and comedy Twin Kiddies (1917) showed remarkable skill and finesse, especially with the use of natural light. More ambition than budget, for sure, but that’s endearing in itself. The star of the triple-bill was undoubtedly Baby Marie Osborne who took a small role in the first film as an exuberant four-year-old urchin, and played two leads in the last film – as identical cousins from very different social stratas, mixed up by their nannies. She’s a delight, sharp as well as cute and refreshingly natural on camera in contrast to the adult performers. We enjoyed beautifully sensitive accompaniment from Maud Nelissen for this screening – which really enhanced the experience. I’d love to see more such accomplished accompanists at the festival.
On Friday I dipped my toe into a strand playing at Paris’s dedicated silent cinema (I know, right?), Fondation Jerome Seydoux-Pathé. This was devoted to London in silent cinema, so a home from home for me. The strand included such favourites as High Treason, Piccadilly, Asquith’s silents and Blackmail as well as presentations by Bryony Dixon of early films from the Big Smoke and the Wonderful London films. I dropped by to see The Runaway Princess, which I hadn’t seen before. This is a featherweight romantic comedy, an Anglo-German co-production that was co-directed by Fritz Wendhausen. Mady Christians stars as a pampered German princess who takes flight when she is faced with an arranged marriage on reaching her 21st birthday. She runs to London, where she gets into shenanigans with a secret admirer and a gang of forgers. There are just enough flourishes (a choppily edited car accident, some visual comedy in the courtroom) to reassure you that Asquith really was there on set, but it lacks the darkness and bite of his other silents. That means it is very different in tone to Underground and Shooting Stars, but as with the former film, Norah Baring stole the show for me here too. Her insouciant counterfeiter was a far more interesting character than the sweet, ditzy princess and she had such alluring swagger.
My final silent of the festival, and indeed my final film of the festival, was Gustav Machaty’s Erotikon, presented here as a ciné-concert with a live psychedelic-jazz-electronica score from a Czech band, a three-piece called Neuvěřitelno. And actually the music mostly worked well, supporting this rich and heady film. Talk about going out with a swoon. Erotikon is every bit as sensual and suggestive (and orgasmic) as his famous Ecstasy, but with more wit and plot, and less sledgehammer symbolism. This was a real hit with the audience. A young woman has a one-night stand with a travelling cad, which leaves her pregnant and desperately in love. While he takes up with his married lover in the city, she is left to face the consequences alone. But after that, the story takes a more complex, and ultimately tragic, turn. Well worth seeking out. Unfortunately this was not a new restored print but I think a digital version of an older restoration and there was still a lot of damage. It would be a stunner if it were cleared up. But really very effective as it is – the comparisons in the catalogue to L’Atalante are well deserved, in parts. Though the references to Neue Sachlichkeit and Pabst more so.
Before we go on to the talkies, a word about language. I have reported on Toute La Mémoire du Monde a few times now, and last year, after I filed a report to Sight & Sound and a gentleman wrote into the letters page perturbed that I hadn’t revealed whether the films were shown with English titles or not. The reason I didn’t say was … well I could say that it was because I was writing about the films themselves rather than their presentation. But without being snotty, the answer is, largely not. There are the odd exceptions (not that you can always spot them in the listings), but this is decidedly a French-language festival. All the English-language silents I saw this week had French intertitles only except for The Runaway Princess, which was screening from a BFI print (I assume the rest of the London films followed suit) and Erotikon, which was a Czech print – those two had French subtitles. Silence, for example, a US silent jointly restored by the Cinématheque Française and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival was screened here with French titles only, just as it was screened with English titles only in California last year. I am sure Cinématheque Française has their reasons, and it sure is an incentive for me to keep up my French, but if you can’t speak, or at least read, the language, this festival isn’t for you.
There’s a strange pleasure in watching American woodsmen, hoodlums and flappers appearing to speak perfect colloquial French, especially if one can translate it oneself, but to be honest I am sure I missed out on a few nuances of language. The easiest films for me to follow in French by far were the Balboa silents – the titles had been imaginatively reconstructed using reviews in the trade press, so they tended to neatly summarise the plot without the flourish of wordplay I so enjoy in English cards.
If you hadn’t guessed, this is the main reason why my talkie viewing at this festival is confined mostly to English-language films. For sound films, the festival seems to operate a strict VOSTF policy – movies are shown in the original language with French subtitles. It’s a shame I can’t be more adventurous, but I blame my own feeble language skills. I’d have loved to have seen some of the Hungarian films, especially, but I decided to concentrate on work I could absorb more thoroughly.
Anyway, this is just to say that I was thoroughly put to shame by my fellow festivalgoers at a screening of short comedies restored by the Cohen Collection. For this screening, the French subtitles were MIA, and an apology was duly given. Well, either everyone there was an Anglophone, or these sophisticated European festivalgoers know English well enough to laugh at every single one of Robert Benchley’s wry innuendoes in The Sex Life of the Polyp. I’d have been lost if the situation were reversed. Back to Duolingo for me. Anyhow, this screening was a joyous one. WC Fields starred in my favourite of the four shorts, as a hapless drugstore owner beset by intractable family members, entitled customers and eventually gangsters in The Pharmacist. And I never thought that I would see Bing Crosby crooning his way through a Mack Sennett caper, complete with mischievous gorilla, in such a sharp and clear print, but now I can say I have. Sing Bing Sing is a saccharine oddity, and I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it.
One of the most enjoyable screenings of my festival was the slick and long-awaited new restoration of a lesser-spotted Universal horror: James Whale’s JB Priestly adaptation The Old Dark House (1932). What a hoot to see this house-of-horrors flick with an enthusiastic crowd at the bijou Filmotheque in the Latin Quarter. I nearly jumped when Boris Karloff loomed into view as monstrous majordomo Morgan, but mostly I just beamed through the whole thing. I enjoyed the intro by Tim Lanza from the Cohen Collection too, which highlighted the role that festivals such as this one play in getting these restorations to the screen – important deals can be done in a short taxi-ride in Bologna. It’s not all gelato and jollies.
At this kind of festival, the archive kind that is, you often gets to see work on the big screen that you have only ever previously seen on TV. Those blow-up moments can be a real kick, and transform your appreciation of a film too. Having been lucky enough to review some of the Cinerama restoration Blu-rays from Flicker Alley last year, I was very keen to seen them on a broader canvas – and the Salle Henri Langlois at the Cinématheque Française is broader, and taller, than most. So this wasn’t quite the full Cinerama experience but it may be as near as I am ever going to get. The visuals in the film I saw, The Seven Wonders of the World, were astonishing, and all the better for having more room. The camera swoops under Manhattan bridges and over the top of dormant volcanoes, rushes alongside waterfalls and glides across the Rio beachfront. The voiceover from Cinerama host Lowell Thomas felt more oppressive in the cinema than at home, however. We all see the world from our own special point of view, it’s true, and Thomas’s imposition of his WASP worldview on other cultures grated very rapidly. But still, this was a feast for the peepers, and as always it is instructive to see how new cinema technologies exploit, and attempt to expand on, the travelogue and phantom ride techniques of early film.
My Friday night treat (because blogging from film festivals is work, people) was touch of Hollywood nostalgia, from a strand dedicated to, yes, Hollywood nostalgia. Sinking into the Technicolor arms of Meet Me in St Louis (1944) in a preternaturally fresh-looking DCP (seriously, how was this made, with a sacrifice to the film gods?) was a balm indeed. Especially with a crowd that could barely restrain themselves from singing gleefully along. This film does annoy me a little – those spoiled brats sulking until their father throws over his presumably hard-won promotion – but there’s so much sweetness to enjoy on the surface. Everyone in this film is luminous, and Judy Garland herself is simply luminous. In his brilliant introduction to the film, Bernard Benoliel said. “La mise en scene de Vincente Minnelli est sublime.” Never a truer word.
You wouldn’t know from my report that Wim Wenders was there, would you? He was, I’m told, and there were far more strands on offer than I could do justice to in a couple of days. Read all about it, why don’t you, and maybe I will see you there next year. Au revoir!
- Read about the festival on the Cinématheque website.
- Speaking of Gustav Machaty, I wrote this piece for the Guardian about Hedy Lamarr – you might like it.