Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

It’s always a joy to travel the world in a day at the Giornate, but we tarried a little in  Sweden this afternoon. A screening of Victor Sjostrom’s deathless The Phantom Carriage was preceded by two less well-known Swedish films, a recent rediscovery of an early work by Sjostrom and a reconstruction of one by his compatriot Mauritz Stiller that survives only in fragments.

Accompanied expertly and very melodically by John Sweeney (coping heroically with the amount of stills in the Stiller), this was an intriguing and very enjoyable double-bill. They were both three-act drama, which unfolded swiftly and with a rich emotional impact. Sjostrom’s recently discovered Judaspengar (1915), starring Egil Eide and John Ekman was a story of betrayal, naturally, as a hard-up worker resorts to increasingly desperate measures when his wife is sick. The attraction here is the aesthetic more than the drama – with interior shots framed prettily by windows on several occasions. The opening is very striking, when the camera glides through an open window to the sick room. Elsewhere, dramatically lit scenes in a gloomy attic contrasted well the open countryside, where our heroes came cropper out poaching.

The Stiller-in-stills-form, Balettprimadonnan (1916), stars two heavyweight silent film personages. Lars Hanson, who captured our hearts on Saturday night, plays a poor violinist, while ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist plays his sweetheart, a dancer. The malignant machinations of a devious count come between the two lovers and the dispute must be settled like men. Remarkable, given how much of this drama was conveyed by cards and stills, how clear it was the villain of the piece was not so villainous. His crimes were committed for love and he really did care for the young dancer. What material survived of the original thankfully included some wonderful footage of Hasselqvist dancing – first naively in her first class, and then sublimely on stage, as a success.

Benjamin Chapin THE LINCOLN CYCLE (US 1917) di John M. Stahl Credits: The Library of Congress, Washington DC
Benjamin Chapin in
THE LINCOLN CYCLE (US 1917) di John M. Stahl Credits: The Library of Congress, Washington DC

No prizes for guessing that Stahl made an appearance today also. First a couple of Lincoln Cycle episodes with the president once again looking back to his childhood. And at lunchtime the coincidence-heavy Suspicious Wives (1921, but shot in 1919). Mollie King plays a young wife who suspects her hubby of infidelity after a shooting at their wedding breakfast casts doubt on his character. He in turn suspects her of running around with their friend Robert (a very young Rod La Rocque) and it all gets resolved thanks to a motorcycle accident, infant mortality (a running theme) and a divine intervention. There were hoots from the audience at some of the twists and turns, but I contend this is a well-made piece, if clearly an early work. Some nice mirror work here though not as much as in later films, and lots of use of wide and deep architectural space – not to mention glimpses of New York, especially the brights lights at night through car windows. Wonderful to see Mollie King’s striking features projected on the the Verdi late at night – it really is a marvellous face. Her career was a short one (she retired after marriage), but on this evidence not without promise. Luckily, we had a fine accompaniment by Daan Van Den Hurk to make the film flow beautifully too. On the evidence of this and The Child Thou Gavest Me, I’ll say this: Stahl could shoot a wedding so lavish it would make Crazy Rich Asians blush.

I suppose there are two poles of silent Hollywood that seem a little indigestible to us now. Some can’t stomach the ripe melodramas, such as the Stahls. I am happy with those, but I find the epics and swashbucklers, such as this morning’s Captain Blood (1924), make me queasy. You know that feeling, when you can tell something is good of its kind but not really for you? Still, Captain Blood had plenty of gusto and spectacle (and the support of Philip Carli on the keys) and I was sorry I had to duck out early and do some work.

AssuntaSpina1915

The evening brought some further exotic travels, down to southern Europe to soak up some sunshine. First, Naples and the marvellous Assunta Spina (1915) starring the legendary Francesca Bertini. As the kids probably no longer say, this had “all the feels” Love, passion, sacrifice, hate, revenge, violence … and the incandescent Bertini, with or without that telltale scar. The energy of this perked me right up after the wine we supped following the Stahl book launch. What Stahl book? now, come, you haven’t been paying attention …

To finish, a visit to Lisbon with the semi-City Symphony Lisboa Cronica Anedotica, José Leitão de Barros’s first feature. I do love this film. This is about the bodies in the city as much as the city machine itself: bodies dancing, flirting, exercising, working, talking on the telephone. Split-screens and slow-motion recall Man with a Movie Camera but this is a far more fluid and human movie: an avant-garde portrait of a classically picturesque city, fusing ancient and modern in each frame. A wonderful way to end the night.

  • Fashion accessory of the day: that magical shawl in Assunta Spina. So tight, and yet so voluminous; such fringe, much wow.
  • Longest and most breathless intertitle of the day: the backstory of Suspicious Wives was summarised in one card, thusly: “It was Helen’s poor- half demented mother who killed my father – thinking that Helen could claim half his wealth – and he, blaming himself, pledged me to secrecy – so that Helen might not suffer further – and so that my brother’s dishonesty might not be dragged out of the past to disgrace us.”
  • Tearjerker intertitle of the day: in the Lincoln Cycle – “Men are only boys grown tall/ the heart doesn’t change much after all.” Hat-tip to Lawrence Napper for the that one.
  • The brilliant Paul Joyce is also blogging daily from the Giornate. Catch his excellent posts here.
  • As is the marvellous Ali Strauss from the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival here.
  • And Ivo Blom with his beautiful postcards here too.
  • Hang on … is this a trend now?
  • Blimey.
  • 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
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
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