“You must go to the KiPho!” That was the message of the morning, where KiPho means cinema: kino + photografie. It takes a certain frame of mind to rise early in the morning to learn “how to be modern” from films that are nearly a century old, but here in Pordenone it seems perfectly natural. So today’s Weimar shorts selection began with Kipho, AKA Film from 1925, a speedy run-through of the medium to that point, flipbooks and all. That was followed by the most bizarre, and brilliant, ad for a motor show I have ever seen (featuring a martian, fallen to Earth and revived with lager, and that was just the start of it), some tips on kitchen design and lighting and a couple of comical films offering hygiene advice. And that’s how to be modern.
This concoction of the weird and the well-meaning was followed by Cecil B DeMille’s 1916 epic Joan the Woman, starring opera singer Geraldine Farrar, gorgeously accompanied by Philip Carli. All 11 reels unspooled today, although I confess that I couldn’t stay for all of them, which is a shame as what I saw was h-y-p-n-o-t-i-c.
After we learned earlier in the week that France alone invented cinema, it was time for some re-education, with a programme from the Films on Film strand that gave the Brits their due. Perhaps a little too much of their due. A couple of pictures celebrated the contributions of, it says here, “Father of Kinematography” William Friese-Greene, including some moving scenes of his funeral. We saw plenty of behind-the-scenes studio action, from developing prints to Jackie Coogan touring Stoll in 1924. We concluded with two absolute comedy tonics, both, possibly, by Adrian Brunel: Cut it Out! A day in the Life of a Censor (1925) and even funnier for an intertitle addict such as myself. What’s Wrong with the Cinema? (1925), which is all captions and utterly hilarious.
We had more treasures from the Desmet Collection too, including a very short comedy, possibly by WKL Dickson, and a short drama, Twins (1913), which featured two Lois Webers playing sisters separated at birth. But was she behind the camera too? Very likely … if so this wasn’t her best but it was wondering to see her act with such emphasis, the very same energy she brought to her storytelling.
And so to the evening, where after two well-deserved Jean Mitry prizes were awarded to Margaret Parsons and Donald Crafton, and a couple of fancy Scandinavian advertisements for cigarettes, we settled down to the main feature.
Sally is a moth, Irene a dreamer and Mary an innocent. Together, played by Constance Bennett, Joan Crawford and Sally O’Neill they were the stars of tonight’s evening screening. Sally, Irene and Mary (1925) has been hard to see for most of us, and what we saw tonight was a little choppy – perhaps there are some snippets missing still. It’s a Broadway comedy-drama, and none of our heroines will stay innocent for very long dancing at the “Dainties Theatre” every evening and partying with the wolves of Wall Street all night. Sally has a rich lover, and a lavish apartment, Irene is a poor Irish trouper torn between two admirers, and Mary is a stage newbie with a faithful boyfriend (William Haines), unprepared for how her life will change when she starts doing the Charleston on a glittering stage, in front of hundreds of pairs of lascivious eyes night after night…
They say that dancing is the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, which must explain why Sally’s after-hours dance parties required quite so many floor cushions. Director Edmund Goulding was well known to host a few horizontal parties of his own and the girls he invited certainly weren’t there to dance. Which puts Sally, Irene and Mary in a very trepidatious position. So much here is innuendo – touching on some things that are a little sexy, and others that decidedly sinister. Of course, it’s a little coy, it’s a studio picture from 1925, but given its relation to reality does that make it dishonest or merely disingenuous? There is simpering talk of “youth untouched” and marriage and being a “good girl”, but the real subject matter here is something that Goulding, Bennett and no doubt Crawford too knew all too well. It’s hinted at often enough – most strikingly in a tangle of limbs that entangle Crawford as she allows an admirer to kiss her. And I suspect the 1925 audiences would not have been as innocent as Mary.
The film is quite bold in other ways perhaps – I noticed some graffiti reading “go home” in an early street scene, which adds a little grit to its otherwise sweet and wholesome depiction of the New York Irish community. And a scene with Irene watching a young African American boy dance the Charleston in the street before doing the same on stage with her fellow white chorines tipped its hat to the origins of the jazz-age dance.
I certainly liked this film more than a few of my companions, who were understandably disappointed with the racing plot and what many felt were unsympathetic leads. I was quite taken with jaded Sally and her companions following her to the hell that is “Broadway”, but perhaps extended exposure to silent and pre-Code cinema has addled my values. The film was based on a 1922 play and then remade in 1938. Remake it now and it would probably be 18-rated, but it might make a little more sense. Anyway, I especially enjoyed the accompaniment, by a Pordenone super-group led by Donald Sosin. A provocative end to the day in more ways than one.
- Intertitle of the day: There was a motorway pile-up of intertitles at the start of Joan the Woman but the one that puzzled me was this: “Founded on the Life of Joan
of Arc, the Girl Patriot, Who Fought with Men, Was Loved by Men and Killed by Men – Yet Withal Retained the Heart of a Woman.”
- Intertitle of the day 2: “There she is with the body of a truck trying to turn herself into a ukulele.” What NOT to say when you see your neighbour doing her morning exercise, from Sally, Irene and Mary.
- Patriotic music cue of the day: Stephen Horne playing ‘Rule Britannia’ just when the Friese-Greene adoration was at his frothiest.
- Uncertain theme of the day: Uncertain authorship. Who even wrote this blog? I’m not saying.
- Outfit of the day: Hands down, Constance Bennett’s black silk pyjama suit.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
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