I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl. Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.
The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.
I found less joy in King Baggot’s The Home Maker(1925), though others were all smiles. Eva Knapp (Alice Joyce) is a fiercely capable housewife, and her husband Lester Knapp (Clive Brook) is a less-than competent office worker, unable to win the promotion his family needs to stay afloat. Dramatic circumstances eventually (this film is slooooooow) force him to stay home, while Eva goes to work and is soon being paid more than double his meagre wage as she’s a whizz at sales as well as everything else. Meanwhile, Lester is cheerfully relaxed as a house husband (and who wouldn’t be, as unlike Eva he has a maid?). The house is dirtier, but the kids are happier and so are the parents – not to mention the money. This sounds like it has the makings of a cracking film, but I found the pace slow, and the characters thin – especially the caricature of a shrewish spinster living next door to the Knapps. I shouldn’t admit it, but I wasn’t even that moved by Billy Kent Schaefer as the Knapp’s perky toddler.
That said, The Home Maker was preceded by something very special, albeit something I had seen before. A 1922 British advertising film: the hand-coloured Changing Hues, which hymns the praises of Twink fabric dye. Not only was it a joy to watch and coo at, but it genuinely made me want to go and makeover my wardrobe. Shocking pink, please.
The best child acting of the day came from, you guessed it, a Stahl movie. He has a way with bairns, and in the case of Memory Lane (1926), manages to pull a captivating comic performance from a baby. Wow. This slight but charming film plays like a comic version of When Tomorrow Comes. Like many of Stahl’s 1930s melodramas, in fact, this is all about holding a torch. Why did Stahl never direct an adaptation of Persuasion? “Loving longest, when existence or when hope is gone” is one of his major themes.
Anyway, on the eve of her wedding, Mary (Eleanor Boardman) hooks up with her old flame Joe (William Haines) for a trip down the titular road. What’s more, on the night of the wedding itself she accidentally spends the night with him in a broken-down car. Three years later, she is blissfully married to Jimmy (Conrad Nagel) who forgave her for the wedding-night debacle and the mother of said precocious babe, when Joe comes into town. It’s an interesting ending – perhaps not very convincing, but very Stahlian, with a note of uncertainty and unhappiness. Well played by all three, and the baby, and with a first-rate accompaniment on this occasion by Donald Sosin, which incorporated the song of the same name. Somehow he managed to play and perform as a one-man Barbershop Quartet all at the same time. Very moving.
This afternoon I had a Japanese double-bill. First up, Ozu’s 1929 A Straightforward Boy, an irresistible abbridged comedy short about a young lad (Tomio Aoki) who outwits, or rather exhausts his would be kidnapper. It’s a good day for kids. Second up was a dramatic feature, one of the Saundo-ban early sound movies. I really enjoyed these last year, but this one, Tokyo Ondo (1932), directed by Hotei Namura, didn’t gel for me. I’m not sure but I think it was the format I found alienating, not the film. All that silence, but then sudden bursts of pop music and sound effects. I was not immersed. That said there was much drama to enjoy among the romantic entanglements and familial obligations of the various characters – and I loved the number at the end, which resolved all the various relationship in a song-and dance number about the wonders of Tokyo.
And then we came to our Forbidden Paradise, after a short introductory ceremony in which Camille Blot-Wellens and Russell Merritt were honoured with this year’s Jean Mitry Awards and spoke movingly about their work, their love for silent cinema and the spirit of collaboration that characterises this field. For Blot-Wellens, it’s international collaboration that defines her work; while Merritt talked about the generations of scholars past, present and future that explore this territory together. And then Jay Weissberg gave us all a smile by recounting the confusion of a Giornate attendee who asked him earlier in the week, why all of the films in the festival seems to be programmed “against Donald Trump”. His pithy answer was to the effect that he had been happy with the programme before, but now he was delighted with it.
Now can we talk about the Lubitsch? I have longed to see this one – for Lubitsch and Negri both. And we were honoured tonight to watch the film in the company of Nicola Lubitsch, the director’s daughter. (True fact: I met her in the lift and she is delightful.) I hope she was heartened tonight by the laughter and glee ringing around the auditorium. It was a soldout show and I nearly missed out on getting a seat altogether. But it turns out that yes I am prepared to stand at the back of the fourth balcony for a Lubitsch film. Of course I am, and I bet you are too.
This is a MOMA restoration, of course, which was betrayed by dropped frames and reconstructed intertitles, but not by the quality of the image. Simply gorgeous – every detail of costuming, design and Negri’s minxish face were crisp and clear. She plays the Czarina as wicked but also unpredictable, and not for the first time this week we find a woman faced with out-and-out misogyny, and a film that is unafraid to confront that fact. Don’t believe what you have been told about the timidity of silent cinema.
We saw some familiar faces in the supporting cast – Rod La Rocque plays the Czarina’s bodyguard Alexei, ten times sexier than he was in Suspicious Wives earlier in the festival. Pauline Starke plays her lady-in-waiting and Alexei’s fiancée, ten times less sexy than she was in Captain Salvation. And Adolphe Menjou was, as always, Adolphe Menjou – although perhaps a little more so, with Negri to spark off. Hearts and reputations are won and lost. Moustaches are twirled. Fingers and furtive glances are everywhere. A revolution rages and is quashed, and always, behind a door Negri is making a conquest or throwing a plan into disarray. It’s ironic and light, but also physical and passionate. I can’t tell you what a treat it is. Seek it out and savour if you can. And we were thrilled tonight to have the most sparkling, sophisticated accompaniment from Günter Buchwald and Gabriel Thibaudeau. A night to remember.
And don’t forget, mes amis, we have another date with Catherine tomorrow.
- Intertitle of the day: “Lester proved a bungler even at dying” – a withering assessment courtesy The Home Maker, which also gifted us the marvellous insult “blatherskite”!
- Neologism(s) of the day:This is not mine, but David Mayer’s. He says, the Stahl strand is dividing the audience into the Stahlwarts (pro) and the Forestahls (con). Kind of like the Sharks and the Jets, I guess. Except I have only met one Forestahl so far … I know who is winning.
- Dating advice of the day: Find yourself someone who looks at you the way Pola Negri looks at the buttons on Rod La Rocque’s uniform.
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