Ladies Should Listen (1934)

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Day Two of Il Cinema Ritrovato, in this sala at least, was filled with cinematographic splendour, and I am not just talking about Mr Grant’s dimple.

Today we’re dividing the films geographically rather than by era. Don’t @ me, I don’t make the rules. Well, I do make the rules but a) I make them up as I go along, b) I am usually too busy watching films to reply to constructive criticism.

Italy

The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)

Has Italy ever looked more beautiful on screen that it does in Bertolucci’s Borges adaptation The Spider’s Stratagem (1970)? Each frame is as delectably sweet and cool as a sugary gelato, all the better to hide the corruption within, as  Athos Magnani (Giulio Brogi) returns to his hometown to discover who really killed his father, with the help of the deceased’s mistress (Alida Valli). His father’s heroic status as a resistance fighter who became the victim of a fascist assassin slowly crumbles, as Athos spends more time in the beautiful Tara, AKA Sabbioneta in Mantua. The truth may be ugly, the monuments defaced, but in Bertolucci’s camera, and the Italian sunshine, everything looks sublime. This 2K restoration is truly something to treasure.

But the views of Italy that really tugged on my heartstrings were a trio of tourism promos, one from 1912, Bologna Monumentale, and two from 1954 and 1955 respectively, both directed by Renzo Renzi: A Guide to Walking in the Shadows and Where God Finds a Home. All three provided poignant shots of our beloved Bologna. To see the Piazza Maggiore, so close I could almost touch it – projected on my living-room wall! The first a series of views of key locations, travelogue style: panning postcards of the city’s gorgeous monuments.

The last was all about the churches of the city, whether used for worship or repurposed. The middle film was the most fascinating: a history of the city’s famous porticoes, one of Bologna’s most distinctive architectural features. If you’ve ever attended the festival, you’ll know that stroll down these cool stone corridors is the perfect way to refresh between movies.

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

America

Italy has Borges, America has Steinbeck. And continuing the strand that celebrates Henry Fonda as an American icon was John Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), adapted from the novel of a year earlier. Hard to take your eyes away from Gregg Toland’s magnificent photography, which doesn’t glamorise the poverty but somehow reveal all its intricate layers, but Fonda’s Tom Joad really is a peach worth picking. Without the humble viewer projecting too much of his private life on to the role, he seems to isolate Joad’s most unusual quality: a true people’s champion, illuminated by humanity, invigorated by the fight for social justice, but all too aware of his own moral failings. As the film runs, his initially appealing innocence drains from his face – it’s heartbreaking. In some ways you could find some kinship between Joad and the hero’s father in the Bertolucci, at least in Steinbeck and Borges’s shared understanding that a struggle needs a popular figurehead.

Fonda’s climactic speech is justly famous (“Wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there.”) and horribly timely. But it’s Jane Darwell as Ma Joad in the final moments of the film, asserting “We’re the people” that truly destroyed me on this viewing.

Later this day, Fonda could be seen once more playing an American hero for Ford in Young Mr Lincoln (1939). I hope to get to that tomorrow. Once more I had to cut the day short due to commitments in the real world (or the Nolan universe to be precise), so this festival blog will be a rolling affair.

And so to Ladies Should Listen, Frank Tuttle’s 1934 comedy starring Cary Grant, Edward Everett Horton and Francis Drake. Now, strictly speaking this film is set in Paris, but it’s about as French as I am (before or after That Event That Must Not Be Named). This is pure American screwball: droll, wealthy loafers falling in and out of love, mischief, expensive motor cars and long satin gowns. Shakers full of martinis compete with the dialogue for driness, etc etc, you get the picture.

It’s a great early comic role for Grant, who plays a player, breezing through shallow romance after tawdry affair, untouched by true passion, until… He is slightly wrongfooted by the exotic Rosita Moreno, and the unwelcome attentions of Nydia Westman playing a gawky heiress, but the women who really takes the shine off his dancing shoes is Francis Drake as a meddling telephone operator. She sees right through his romantic scheming, far more shrewdly than he does. After all, she’s placing his calls every evening. Drake nearly runs away with this one, despite Grant and Horton’s best efforts. It’s not a world-beater but it is an excellent example of a frivolous, glamorous Pre-Code Hollywood comedy.

To borrow a phrase used in the film in an entirely different context, it’s one of the most enjoyable “nonsensical nitrates” I have seen in while. And it’s a treat to see Grant doing the light comedy he revelled in, at a time when he wasn’t always doing what suited him best. We’ll see him again, later in the week, opposite Mae West in I’m No Angel (1933). Hold on to your hats!

• For real-time reports and reviews from someone who is actually in Bologna for the festival, follow friend of the site Philip Concannon on Instagram.

• Visit the website of Il Cinema Ritrovato for more information.

The full streaming lineup is available here. I am watching what I can, in and around work and life … but there will be plenty I miss (weep).

• 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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