The lure of distant shores drew us into the Verdi this Monday morning, though initially it looked a little like false advertising. Ilka Schütze’s In Den Dschungeln Afrikas/In the Jungles of Africa (1921-24) was a stop-animation story of two dolls travelling via “balloon” not to another continent but only as far as their garden, or their dreams. If dolls can dream. I hope so, don’t you?
The story was rooted in offensive notions about cannibalism etc, enough to make anyone raise a painted eyebrow, but Gabriel Thibaudeau’s delicate accompaniment seemed to remind us that these were dolls, supposedly posed and animated by an innocent childlike imagination. It had charm on that basis, however we might condemn its outlook.
From thence, to Australia, and our first encounter with Snowy Baker, athlete-turned-actor, though in truth be told his field of excellence was stuntwork rather than thespianism. A kind of Jason Statham for the silent era, perchance. Someone else said that he had a look of Lon Chaney too, the white-blond hair that had inspired his youthful nickname having substantially darkened by the time he got into the movies.
In The Man From Kangaroo (Wilfred Lucas, 1920), Baker plays John Harland, a preacher with the fists of a pugilist, the heart of a lover and an eye for justice. He’ll never last in a corrupt small town, and although the beautiful Muriel (Brownie Vernon) is equally besotted, fate will conspire to keep them apart, for at least four reels. This started well, brightly shot and with an engaging story, though the plot got a little lost in the second half and Baker’s extended stunt sequences (diving, chasing, “brumby-breaking”) were perhaps a little too distracting. Still, a lot to like here, including elegant art titles adorned with antipodean slang (lollies, wowser, etc) and witty captions. I mean, any film whose final intertitle begins “Why bother you with details” has a little piece of my impatient heart already.
Another chance to spin the globe and trace a dotted line across the oceans came with this evening’s Korea programme, on The Legacy of Korean Silent Cinema. Two of the earliest surviving Korean silents and what an intriguing pair they made. If You Work Hard, There Will Be No Poverty (Lee Gyu-seol, 1925-9) was an unexpectedly playful fable about the value of hard graft and kindness, although there was something more insidious in there too, a message from the days of Japanese colonial rule. Animation, SFX, trick intertitles, handheld camerawork and comedy enlivened this morality play no end.
Which was as well because Crossroads of Youth (Ahn Jong-hwa, 1934), which followed, was melodrama of the heaviest kind, saturated in a forlorn atmosphere of regret, despair and deeply unpleasant sleaze. Which is to say that I loved it. Young women from the country are exploited in the big city and so our timid hero (Lee Won-yong) must – eventually – take his violent revenge on the people who seek to ruin the young women he loves. This was a quite disturbing film, though a beautiful and absorbing one. Unusual camera movements and compositions combined with powerful performances, especially from Lee Won-yong to make this something very special indeed, if rather hard to place. And we were lucky to have Daan van den Hurk’s nimbly emotive accompaniment for both of these Korean gems.
In Europe, though, it was party season again, and not just for Ellen Richter. Although La Richter did work her way across half the continent as the titular nimble adventuress in Lola Montez, Die Tänzerin des Königs (Willi Wolff, 1922). She’s the kind of woman that could bring an empire to its knees, and this time it’s no accident but the product of male(volent) design.
This was epic storytelling, and had benefited from a thorough and impressive restoration. However some was still missing and so there was a pileup of titles in places to fill in the gaps. A condensed epic is a little hard on the brain. I might need to watch again to make sense of it all. Though I feel bad lamenting too much dialogue in a silent movie, especially when we were blessed with such a vivid multinstrumental soundtrack, courtesy the dynamic partnership of Gunter Buchwald and Frank Bockius.
And in the US too, with At the Masquerade Ball (Ashley Miller, 1912), showing here as an example of the screenwriting work of Maie B. Havey (real name Marie Judge, which is even better). It’s a short sweet drama about a young stenographer’s adventures at a posh party where she snares herself a husband – much lighter in tone and topic than Havey’s later work.
It was the perfect opener to tonight’s final film, Jokeren (The Joker, Georg Jacoby, 1928). Nothing to do with Gotham thank heaven, but a delectable Film Europe broth: a Danish/German film with two English stars, Henry Edwards and Miles Mander, set in Nice, at carnival time. Edwards plays the Joker (ha ha), a sexy, flamboyant high-roller with extra shares of charm and good luck, while Mander is a sleazy lawyer called Borwick, who dabbles in blackmail (and clearly who knows what else) on the side. When the drippy but pretty Powder sisters are blackmailed by Borwick over some old love letters, the Joker steps in to save the day.
Steps? You might say dawdled. The blackmail plot could have been wrapped up in an hour tops but this enchanting film was prolonged by scene after scene of dancing, and elegant debauchery. This is not a complaint by any means. The whole affair is a romp, each frame crammed with action, glamour and a little appealing eccentricity. You have never seen so many streamers and glasses of champagne. Well not this side of lockdown. It may be what some would call paper-thin entertainment but Jacoby and his cast have coloured right to the edges, and I was nothing if not entertained. The perfect match to such visual hyperstimulation was the vivacious, high-energy score provided by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Even if the story paused, the fun never did.
We’re having our own masked ball in the Verdi this week. Which is to say that I’d like to share little word on health and safety, should you have any concerns about Pandemic Pordenone. There are fewer programmes each day this year, so the theatre can be cleansed between screenings, and the seats are separated with every other one roped off in a chequerboard pattern. Inside the hall (good quality) masks are mandatory, seats have to be pre-booked and there are temperature checks on the way in to each event. No credentials were issued without a Green Pass (or local equivalent) and the same is required for entry into cafes and restaurants. As far as I can see everyone is sticking to the rules, without grumbling or pulling faces (though who knows behind the masks?). The obligations placed on us punters are nothing in comparison to how the organisers and workers of this festival have moved heaven and earth to make it happen, so why would we do anything else but gratefully play our part? It’s so, so good to be back.
And of course, for those who can’t be here, there’s an online version too!
Intertitle of the Day
“I’m not afraid of bullets – so I am not afraid of writers!” Tough talk from Richter in Lola Montez, Die Tänzerin des Königs
Supporting Character of the Day
The cardboard sun in If You Work Hard, There Will Be No Poverty smiles down on people who are diligent and kind. So judging by the weather forecast for the next couple of days, we are all a bunch of sinners.
Subverted Silent Movie Trope of the Day
When we’re introduced to the lovely Muriel in The Man From Kangaroo she is lounging on a sunny lawn playing with two kittens. Standard. But she has set the kitties on each other, paws and claws flying. These feline fisticuffs tell us all we need to know about our combative heroine and her tough community.