Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 2

Here in Pordenone, life is an endless round of parties, each more glamorous than the last. Sorry, that’s not my lifestyle but that of Ellen Richter and co in  Leben Um Leben (Richard Eichberg, 1916). This film is a sequel so abandon all hope of following the plot all ye who enter in. What I can tell you is that Weimar star Ellen Richter, subject of a retrospective here at the Giornate, plays a scheming Princess in this glitzy romp. There was a costume ball, a “jolly hunt”, some stolen pearls, a run on the “Volksbank” and non-stop shenanigans and all of it was entertaining but it didn’t quite add up to a whole film. Still there was a marvellous multi-tinted dance sequence, as if the star of the floor show was grooving under coloured electric lights, which was far more than set-dressing – it was an attraction all of its own, a very modern throwback.

Still, even if I didn’t have it on the highest authority that more and better was to come from Ms Richter, there was this morning’s showstopping second feature. In Aberglaube (Superstition, Georg Jacoby, 1919) Richter plays Melita, one of many sensual Gypsies (yes, I know) on her CV. Melita drives men wild, and inadvertently straight to their destruction, although unlike many a silent vamp she does seem genuinely tortured by the havoc she causes, and there was a rather distressing dream sequence in which she was revisited by all these tormented souls, including her colleague from the circus, a jealous clown, and his glistening knife.

Richter, who was Jewish, often played such “exotic” parts and here when the townsfolk turn against her with pitchforks, rocks and mystical texts, there’s a bitter shadow of both the anti-Romany and anti-semitic prejudices that were rising in Germany at the time. Both films were spectacular, though this one had a little more substance behind the style – as John Sweeney emphasised in his deft, lively accompaniment.

The day ended with another double-bill from 1916 and 1919, from the other side of the pond, where romantic troubles were far more lighthearted, even if the plotting was every bit as outlandish. This was a twofer from the pen of Anita Loos. First, the Douglas Fairbanks caper American Aristocracy (Lloyd Ingraham, 1916), in which the elasticity of the author’s puns and the vigour of the star’s athleticism were pretty much at a dead heat. We were among the well-to-do-but-dull set in “Narraport, Rhode Island”, where Fairbanks’s eccentric but high-born Cassius won the heart of Jewel Carmen away from a traitorous industrialist. And won the war too. Or at least helped to. Which made us all happier that a hatpin with two humps. As did Donald Sosin’s accompaniment, which kept time with each spring and bounce that Fairbanks could muster

In the second feature, A Temperamental Wife (David Kirkland, 1919) Constance Talmadge plays the eccentric but high-strong wife of a noble senator, who is madly jealous of his secretary “Smith”, who – gracious! – turns out to be a lady. Lots of queer coding about in this one, though mostly misdirected. The intertitles were witty and the action increasingly frenetic. Somehow, “Dutch” Talmadge kept this away from the brink of utter daftness, as did Gabriel Thibaudeau at the keyboard, though a supporting character called Count Tosoff de Zoolak didn’t help matters. One can’t help but thinking that the film’s lesson, about all women wanting a whole husband and family of their own and not just to share might have been a bone of contention in the Anita Loos-John Emerson household, but let us refrain from vulgar speculation …

When, let’s be real, there was plenty of gleeful vulgarity about this afternoon in the welcome return of the Cinema’s First Nasty Women strand, programmed by Laura Horak and Maggie Hennefeld, who are both incredibly nice, actually, but don’t tell them I said so. As is Daan van den Hurk, who was tasked with accompanying the most varied and vigorous programme so far.

The theme was contagious revenge, and here was all manner of maidenly and matronly mayhem, courtesy Cunégonde, Rosalie and co. I really enjoyed the adventures of Bertha Regustus as Mandy in Laughing Gas (1907) and her infectious giggles that could bring a city to a standstill, and Minnie Devereaux starring opposite Roscoe Arbuckle in Keystone comedy Fatty and Minnie He-Haw (1914). Anyone else remember seeing a Native woman wielding a gun in such an early film, especially a comedy? And there was yet another great double-bill today, though not for the lactose-intolerant, from the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in 1899: The Finish of Mr Fresh and The Dairy-Maid’s Revenge were both satisfyingly suggestive – and more of which anon.

The highlight of the programme and of the whole day, though, had to be La Grève des Nourrices (The Nurses’ Strike, André Heuzé, 1907). This truly inspired comedy worked on the escalation and variation principle, and made a serious point about the low value placed on women’s labour, but with belly laughs and charm. The nurses down toddlers for the day, leaving babies on carpets and pavements across town. So the Gendarmes step in to manhandle the infants, but the nannies (many of whom appeared to be male actors in drag) won’t have that, and in all the excitement eventually the sprogs form a union of their own. Vive les biberons! Then there is a bovine reinforcement drafted in, but I will leave the details of that to your imagination… Somebody here is poking fun at early women’s lib, but there’s a truth here that resists the lampooning. Such plaintive cries from their abandoned charges, such valid reasons for underpaid women to protest. So many causes to be a Nasty Woman.

Intertitle of the Day

“My life has been as restless as the sea – and I have never loved a man!” Tell me you are a silent movie vamp without telling me you are a silent move vamp, eh? That’s Ellen Richter in Superstition, of course.

  • The Anita Loos guide to romance: from “Oh yes! You’re the man I kissed!” in American Aristocracy to “Hey you! We’re going to elope!” in A Temperamental Wife. We have no time to dawdle.
  • Most violent death of the day: among stiff compeition, it has to be the poor pastor in Superstition, whose pulpit was struck by a thunderbolt, purely for the sin of loving Melita.
  • Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
  • You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
  • 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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