Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 5

Anna Q Nilsson! Tom Moore! Dark deeds with gold mines, wedding regrets and stock certificates! A mysterious, abrupt finale! It can only be the welcome return this afternoon of the 1916 serial Who’s Guilty?, which we loved so much in 2016. This was a classic example, with Nilsson and Moore marrying in haste and repenting at leisure but Nilsson’s ex proving to be no better option. And that was before the mine gave up its gold. What a nostalgic treat.

But let’s begin in the morning, as the film programme for today slowly crossed the pond from America to Europe. This morning’s programme was from the American female screenwriters strand, so we began with a short melodrama (with a violent opening) scripted by Maie B. Havey: A Sea Mystery (1916). A woman shoots her husband and runs away to safety, but she will never be free, perhaps until she has a new man lined up, her first husband is thoroughly dead, and crucially she can take no blame for his demise. What a knot of seaweed to untangle.

It reminded me of last night’s selection, playing before Fool’s Paradise: The Good in the Worst of Us (1915), written by Elizabeth R. Carpenter. A woman escapes a sordid life for a fresh start on a dairy farm, and a new man, but what exactly is she running away from? And what, I wondered, would the only acceptable answer be to that question?

Anyway, this morning’s main attraction was the deeply enjoyable domestic comedy-drama from 1922, Miss Lulu Bett, written by Clara Beranger from a Zona Gale novel, directed by William C. de Mille.

I loved this. A near-perfectly crafted drama about female labour, and marriage rights, with pace and humour. Lulu (Lois Wilson) is living with her sister’s family, including her oafish hubby, and slaving away as an unpaid housekeeper for the privilege. When a dinner-table joke turns sour she finds herself married to said oaf’s brother. Why does she go along with it? To escape her hellish home-life of course. When she discovers that her husband was married before and he is unsure as to whether his first wife is still living, she moves back ‘home’. Bigger mistakes have been made (Geddit?). She’s preserving her dignity, but at the cost of local gossip. And the sorrow is, the local schoolteacher has been sweetly in love with her the whole time. Lulu is a great character, and the moment when she really turns, like really turns, sending the crockpot and the dirty dishes flying around the kitchen, garnered a spontaneous and hearty round of applause from the audience. There was another, well-deserved round at the end, for Maud Nelissen’s spirited and sensitive accompaniment.

Riddle me this about the ending, though, dear Pordenauts. The film closes with the schoolteacher’s marriage proposal, on the classroom blackboard. Before Lulu can write more than the letter Y in response, it’s time for a clinch. Did this female-authored film really end with a man interrupting a woman as soon as she started to write? Or was it simply an illustration of the “show-don’t-tell” principle, in which a great (female) writer can do with one letter what a lesser one could do with a page of text?

I did not love Ham and Eggs at the Front (Roy del Ruth, 1927), a Hollywood WWI comedy focusing on two dopey privates from a Black regiment: ‘Ham’ (Tom Wilson) and ‘Eggs’ (Charles ‘Heinie’ Conklin). Yes, the two leads are white actors in blackface, as was the Myrna Loy as French girl “bronze-coloured Fifi”, while most of the extras were Black. I’m not a huge fan of the “look at these two dopes muddling through to unlikely triumph” comic scenario at the best of times, and not only was this fairly light on laughs, but putting white actors in Blackface always means the jokes are punching down and drawing on racist typing, making each gag (eg Ham darning a sock in the trenches on a live grenade) a little queasy. I did enjoy aspects such as the cards scene, the “haunted house” sequence, and the animal appearances, especially a smart card-sorting pooch, but this was mostly a nope from me. Loy doesn’t mention it in her memoirs. I can see why. Kudos to Philip Carli for getting the most out of thin material with his music, and those in the audience more attuned to Hollywood comedy certainly found more to enjoy than I did.

From thence, via a hairpin bend, to the actual WWI front, and La battaglia dall’Astico al Piave (1918), a documentary record of the second battle on the Piave in which the Italian army eventually defeated the Austro-Hungarian forces. It is, of course, an Italian film. This was an utterly remarkable film, if a hard watch, with the cameras placed close to the action (so much cannon fire, shaking the trees), and capturing some stunning aerial footage from the bomber planes. But also so much wreckage: architectural, mechanical, and human. Devastating. Grateful as always to the intuitive partnership of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius, who thundered when the film did, but also mourned with it too. A film such as this is not just a document of military capacity and strength. As the years pass it is hardly that at all. It is a tribute to the fallen and a warning to the future. The music underscored this sentiment at each turn. A very moving experience.

Five years ago, Pordenone showed a Swedish film by the same name as tonight’s headliner. Wag that I am, I wrote: “Erotikon? Erotic con more like.” I will leave you to judge whether my jokes have got any less painful, but the Giornate midweek event was a stunner. I do like this film by Gustav Machaty, having seen it before, but tonight’s score from Ljubljana’s Orchestra of the Imaginary was so much better than the one I had previously experienced. The film is still an all-timer. A night of unexpected passion transforms timid Andrea’s (Ita Rina) life and seems to ruin it with a heartrending tragedy, but fate throws the dice and soon she is in an unexpected position, and understanding more deeply the power of her own sexual choices. The star here is the sensuous, giddy cinematography and the suggestiveness of the way that Machaty shoots his love scenes. Steamy, from first to last. And so, as they say, to bed.

Intertitle of the Day

“What kind of mister are you – a Miss mister or a Mrs mister?” Miss Lulu Bett asked the crucial question, but answer came there none.

Merchandising Opportunity of the Day

What does Erotikon perfume actually smell like? Pheromones? Or regret?

The Pordenone School of Egg Cookery. Part Two

A lesson in continental cuisine from this afternoon’s comedy. Ask for “ham and eggs” in France and you get … spaghetti carbonara, apparently?

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