Still mooning about the goat-herder? Another Giornate blogpost will take your mind off it, Marion.
One of the beauties of Pordenone is the fact that the programme is so omnivorous, ranging far and wide over the first four decades of film history, and the audience are equally diverse. No doubt the main attraction of today, the headline act as it were, was the Hollywood comedy double-bill that played this evening. While I enjoy Marion Davies and Laurel and Hardy as much as the next silent cinema blogger, like everyone here I have my own particular passions that draw me back to the Verdi every year.
So it was that I woke up this morning most excited to see an eleven-minute film playing in the middle of the morning: Gerolamo Lo Savio’s 1909 Otello. Yes, I am a silent Shakespeare fan and this was my treat for the day. Stencil-colour, Venetian location shooting, a passionate but hardly Moorish Othello (I think it was the divine Michelle Facey sho said that meant he was surely “lessish”) and a nicely malevolent Iago made this a Shakespeare to savour, even if inevitably one had to devour it in one small mouthful. The colour was especially memorable here – notably a brief bloom of scarlet at Othello’s throat as he dies. An attractive and unexpected gory entry in the silent Shakespeare canon.
Talk about variety: this gem was preceded by a Scandinavian advert for cigarettes that was a cheeky pastiche of Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Baghdad and followed by an elegant though somewhat narratively baffling adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun (Il Fauno Di Marmo, 1920), directed by Mario Bonnard, who was also, for the eagle-eyed, to be spotted in the background of Otello. I admit I was a little confused by what was going on in the Bonnard film, but apparently there was a reel missing, and what narrative the intertitles withheld was provided instead by Stephen Horne’s eloquent accordion.
There was a clearer narrative in the day’s second Italian melodrama, La Morte Che Assolve (1919), in which a rather muted but still luminous diva, Elettra Raggio, played both a mistreated, tubercular mother, and her adult daughter, returned to Italy after being raised by an American foster mother. She needed to resolve her father issues, and he needed to resolve pretty much all of his issues. Simply beautiful this, if a little quiet until the spectacular finale, which arrived with great lighting effects, bursts of violence and, in the final minutes, a bit of that divine diva magic as Raggio clutches her dying [redacted] in her arms.
But the rest of the day was for comedy, not tragedy, and before lunch, we enjoyed another collection of shorts featuring Nasty Women, this time accompanied by Maud Nelissen: Alice Guy’s A Sticky Woman, Percy Stow’s Milling the Militants, two scintillating escapades with Léontine … so much goodness here. And of course it’s all very funny. But please allow me to be serious for a minute. I am lucky to know many, many brilliant women working in the fields of silent cinema archives and research. I bet you do too. One of the joys of my job is celebrating their work. And yet, sometimes, some of the places where silent cinema is screened and studied are now or historically have been a little unwelcoming to women’s film history and feminist film scholarship. So I applaud Jay Weissberg and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto for programming Hennefeld and Horak’s Nasty Women, and so many other great films by, or featuring women, and strands by female curators. The films may be funny but this kind of thing is seriously important.
And now, back to comedy, with Reginald Denny playing a helpless hypochondriac in the zippy little number Oh, Doctor! (1925). This is a little like an early Douglas Fairbanks picture crossed with a thrill comedy like Safety Last! and just as much fun as that sounds. Denny’s vegan malingerer begins to realise there is more to life than waiting to cark it when he is assigned a beauteous nurse (Mary Astor). And in one witty sequence he subsequently realises that everyone around him is coupling up, from his spinster aunt, to the household servants to the family dog. So he embraces dangerous hobbies to prove his bravery, much to the chagrin of a) Astor, b) a trio of very enjoyably played investors who for complex reasons are invested in him staying alive for at least three years. Denny is fab, and so was Philip Carli who played this with what sounded like true enjoyment of its sharp comic pacing, and knowing him, an in-depth knowledge of the swanky cars and motorcycles on display.
Tonight though, it was the turn of a killer Hollywood double-bill: the early and very boisterous Laurel & Hardy short Duck Soup (1927), long considered a lost film, and the ruritanian cross-dressing romp Beverly of Graustark (1926), starring Marion Davies as an American girl playing a prince and falling hard for Antonio Moreno’s “goat-herder” in between pratfalls. As both films contain a spot of drag it’s little wonder they both riff on the same gag. Stan is acting up as Agnes the housemaid and gets into a fluster when the lady of the house asks him to prepare her bath; Marion is yet more steamed up when she’s pretending to be Prince Oscar in a palace full of men, several of which have been appointed to assist in her ablutions.
The Graustark affair is the kind of thing that has so many familiar friends that it will always suffer comparisons and therefore has to live somewhere on a spectrum between pantomime and the best of Ernst Lubitsch. At its best it’s Lubitsch-ish (the drinking scene, any moment that male nudity makes Marion blush), at its worst it’s fairly good panto. I really enjoyed it, despite the utter lack of surprise or suspense. Those Moreno-Davies flirtations were a low-key thrill and the gags piled up in the most pleasing ways. Plus, John Sweeney and Frank Bockius really helped to add a touch of sparkle to this froth with their accompaniment.
Davies is divine as a boy, a girl or somewhere in-between, and the glittering two-strip Technicolor finale simply felt like a way to pay homage to her incandescent beauty. Which of course, like the rest of the film, it most certainly was.
- Trend of the day: applauding stars. From Léontine to Laurel and Hardy, we love to support our marquee names
- Intertitle of the day: It has to be the stark, startling command from Le Pile Electrique de Léontine (1910): “Electrify yourself!”
- Dating ad of the day: According to a pivotal scene in Oh, Doctor!, this is what women seek in a man – “He must have a car, be able to dance, order a good dinner – and not be afraid of nothin’”
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
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