The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.
The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.
The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.
Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …
The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.
The real climax of the week is Saturday night, of course. Jay welcomed us into the Verdi itself, alarmingly empty, to introduce a joyful anthology of five comedies, an apt way to top off a week that had been so celebratory, all about sharing the pleasures of silent cinema in defiance of distance, and social distancing. For maximum bliss, the films were all accompanied by Neil Brand.
The films themselves were arranged in a programme called Laurel or Hardy, and featured either Babe or Stan on screen, but not both, except for Moonlight and Noses (1925), which featured neither, but was directed by that Great British star of silent Hollywood, Mr Laurel himself.
What could be more delightful? Well, those of you have followed this blog carefully may remember that I have somewhat sacrilegious opinions about Laurel and Hardy, let alone Larry Semon, who turned up here with Oliver Hardy in The Rent Collector (1921).
However, even this sour-faced toad had to crack a smile at this little lot – Brand’s spirited and witty accompaniment kept the pace flying too. Hardy ran the old comedy gamut from a hapless musician in The Serenade (1916) to a gang boss in The Rent Collector, who heavily resents Semon’s efforts to squeeze the arrears out of him (heavy shades of Chaplin’s Easy Street and Keaton’s Neighbors in this urban farce). A nice seasonal pumpkin gag in this one.
Laurel often reported for spoof duty, and here he was in comic-chivalric mode, in the loopy surviving reel of When Knights Were Cold (1923) and also as a man mistaken for a criminal in the brilliantly inventive Detained (1924). Some great moments in these, not least the famous, recently rediscovered gag in the latter, in which Laurel’s neck is surreally streeeeeetched by the hangman’s noose. He was also in attendance as the director of gravedigging caper Moonlight and Noses (1925), which featured an appearance from the young Fay Wray.
At the very real risk of stating the obvious, you don’t get Laurel & Hardy without Laurel and Hardy, and the appeal of these overlooked films is both novel and familiar. Being this funny is an inspiration-perspiration split, and one has to raise a bowler hat to these legends. Honestly, just watching Stan Laurel eat a pie is funnier than many a comic feature.
To discuss these films, tonight the Limited Edition Pordenone brought us wisdom from Rob Stone (author of Laurel or Hardy: The Solo Films of Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy), Serge Bromberg (whose Lobster Films has restored these films), Maestro Brand and Victoria Riskin (Wray’s daughter and biographer). Spoiler alert, but the assembled experts were later joined by a cameo appearance from David Robinson – former creative director of the Giornate, and a font of wisdom on all things silent and comic.
I don’t want to do an injustice to Brand’s eloquence in the post-film chat, these films have been giving audiences a much-needed release, real comic relief ever since the teens and twenties, and they are just as effective, and essential as ever.
• Intertitle of the Day: “Music and Macaroni, not a pleasing combination for a headache.” The Serenade. Ah, that must be why I find my head a little sore in the mornings at the Giornate: too much music and pasta!
• Prop of the day: Has to be the lumpen pills provided for the duel in Balletten Datter
• Statistic of the day: Most online visitors to the festival came from the US, Italy, and the UK, in that order. But the city with the most Pordenone streaming hours? That was London. Roll out the barrel, Silent Londoners. We showed up!
• Disturbing biographical fact of the day: Rita Sacchetto retired in 1924, after a friend of her husband’s accidentally shot her in the foot.
• Aperol spritz count for the festival: None. Literally not one. a shocking state of affairs. There have been a few coffees, though …
• Plenty to look forward to in 2021, according to the Giornate: “For the return of our Silent Film Festival to Pordenone itself, we put our hopes in the New Year. Our 40th edition, from 2 to 9 October 2021, will focus, together with many special events, on the thematic sections that could not be produced in 2020, including a programme of Korean cinema, a tribute to American women screenwriters, and above all an extensive retrospective on Ruritania, a mythical Balkan kingdom which provides the setting for films from various nations, (including Italy), so numerous that they constitute a true cinematic genre. After a period of crisis like the present one, in which we hunger for some form of even temporary escape, Ruritania – a place of exoticism and mystery, of femmes fatales and adventure – represents an idea of cinema through which we can imagine and hope for a better world.”
• Visit the Giornate website for more information.
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This post is an extended version of the screening notes and on-screen introduction I contributed to the recent Hippodrome Silent Film Festival screening of Prix de beauté (Augusto Genina, 1930), with accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Every film fan knows the face of Louise Brooks. The jazz-age dancer from Kansas who shimmied her way from Broadway … Continue reading Prix de beauté (1930): Louise Brooks pays the price of beauty
“A friendly place to get some laughs and forget all the craziness”: A year of the Silent Comedy Watch Party
Time flies when you’re getting nothing done. So I will forgive you if you don’t believe me, but this weekend the Silent Comedy Watch Party will webcast its 50th edition, a year to the day since the first show, back at a time when we were just getting our heads around this new word “lockdown”. … Continue reading “A friendly place to get some laughs and forget all the craziness”: A year of the Silent Comedy Watch Party
The best thing I’ve seen so far at this year’s online Slapstick Festival is the French film Siren of the Tropics (Mario Nalpas & Henri Étiévant, 1927), starring one of the all-time greats of the dance world, Josephine Baker. With this movie, Baker became the first Black woman to star in a major studio picture. … Continue reading Siren of the Tropics (1927): Josephine Baker is reborn on screen