Sunday in Pordenone, and it’s time to get this John M Stahl show on the road. We spent the morning with the master of melodrama, give or take an hour or so in the company of Jean Epstein and it was … exhilarating, actually.
Most mornings the Giornate will be showing instalments from The Lincoln Cycle, a series of standalone, two-reel dramas taken from the life of the 16th POTUS. The impetus for these films came from Benjamin Chapin, a renowned Lincolnalike, known for plays and monologues in which he impersonated the great man. He’s credited here as writer, director and producer – which I think we should be discreetly booing by the end of the week. JMS directed these beauties, very early in his career and got no credit for it. I must admit, honest Abe, that the prospect of the first two instalments, devoted to each of Lincoln’s parents, respectively (Chapin plays Lincoln Sr), didn’t sound too thrilling. But, that’s where Stahl (perhaps) comes in. Delicately directed, nuanced performances (especially Madelyn Clare as Abe’s mother) and brisk, smart storytelling – these were actually gems, and though these childhood episodes never featured in Chapin’s stage shows, so we could be tempted to assign praise to our man Stahl, I suppose we’ll never know exactly how much influence he had. Can’t wait to see more though. Sadly some dramatic-sounding stories are missing, but let’s treasure what we have. Gorgeous prints too.
The main Stahl attraction this morning was the epic melodrama Sowing the Wind (1921) starring Anita Stewart as a convent girl turned actress done wrong by various chaps and fighting for her own happiness, and for her own sex. Let’s be blunt with this one. Everyone in the Verdi saw the twist coming a mile and a half off, and the film makes you wait and wait for its revelation. It’s far too long. But, there is so much to treasure here. A heroine with an explicitly feminist interpretation of her own situation, comic relief from William V Mong, some beautiful deep compositions that seem pure Stahl, and an exquisite evocation of powerful and conflicting emotions. Yes, like many a Stahl movie, it pivots on at least one coincidence too many, but it’s really very strong. Isn’t it wonderful how he paints relationships that are both loving and terribly melancholic at the same times? Well, I cannot wait for the Pordenone crowd to see Suspicious Wives later in the week.
Sandwiched in between the Stahls was a Blazac adaptation: Jean Epstein’s L’Auberge Rouge (1923) This was spooky and impressionistic and bloody, and fantastic really, except something was missing for me. It’s a tale told on a dark and stormy night of a man tempted to murder and it features Gina Manés in a small but significant role. Half-burned candles, buckets of blood, grim fates read in the cards, strong wine nervously sipped … and even a wonderful multi-instrumental accompaniment from Stephen Horne this had much to recommend it. Another time!
Gertie the Dinosaur provided a charming diversion mid-afternoon today, with Donald Crafton’s “playlet” Winsor and Gertie, which re-enacts Winsor McCay’s stage show presentation of the dancing diplodocus, with context. This was a hoot, really, and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s rendition of the Gertie Glide is the banger of the festival, no question.
This evening faced us with two very different epics. First, Der Kampf Ums Matterhorn (1928), a mountain movie and a half from Mario Bonnard, co-directing with Nunzio Malasomma, in a very fine restoration. In this, several men defy their wives in an attempt to conquer the Matterhorn. Repeatedly. Let’s face it, the plot got in the way here. All we wanted was those fine, fine shots of the Alps, and the thrill when it all went wrong, or threatened to. I have never seen such convincing mountaineering accidents in a silent film. That’s a niche compliment, but I mean it. Luis Trenker, who played one of the moutaineers, was a genuine mountaineer, and from the Tyrol too. First-class entertainment, terrible for the blood pressure. Loved it. And Clifford McLaglen as a malignant mountain man was just a bonus.
Tonight’s main attraction was EA Dupont’s Das Alte Gesetz (The Ancient Law, 1923), a beautiful and beautifully restored film about a young Jewish man who leaves his family, fiancée and faith behind to be an actor. It’s like The Jazz Singer, but far, far better, and makes room for Henny Porten as an Arch-Duchess besotted with young hero Baruch. Emotional, funny, clever and grand in ambition, this is really wonderful film-making, and tonight we were treated to a magnificently smart and sympathetic score too, courtesy Alicia Svigals, Donald Sosin, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius. A wonderful conclusion to a rich and romantic day. More tomorrow, please!
- Intertitle of the day: “Majestic, the Matterhorn raises its hump in warning to the sky.” Hands down, the best description of a mountain I ever heard.
- Scholarly feat of the day: In Das Alte Gesetz, Baruch’s father reads the complete works of Shakespeare in fine print in the course of one night. All I have achieved is this lousy blogpost.
- Stahl conundrum of the day: There’s a Helen in Sowing the Wind and another in Her Code of Honor and another in The Woman Under Oath. How many Helens and Ellens in the Stahl oeuvre? Let’s start counting …
- Must-read book of the day: Order The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama here – or if you are at the Giornate, pop along to the book fair .
- Visit the Giornate del Cinema Muto website
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