Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 6

Pordenone 6

Unprecedented scenes in the Teatro Verdi tonight, as the audience of customarily meek silent film enthusiasts stamped their feet, booed and exclaimed “outrageous!” “Close the curtains!” and “Down with this sort of thing!” But more reports on the incident the papers are calling the 2021 Giornate riot later.

If I weren’t here, I’d be at the London Film Festival instead (shocking place, full of talkies), where this morning I could have watched Pablo Larrain’s Spencer – the sinister dramatization of the Christmas that Princess Diana spent at Sandringham with her hostile royal in-laws, where she finally determined to leave her husband, Prince Charles. Well, quelle coincidence that here in Pordenone I was watching All’ombra di un Trono (In the Shadow of the Throne, Carmine Gallone, 1920-23). Young Violeta (the wonderful Soava Gallone) marries a prince in haste and repents at leisure. As the pressures of royal life become too much for his elder brother the Prince Regent to bear, Violeta and her man become dangerously close to the “supreme sacrifice” that is the promise of the throne. The Queen does not approve of her new heir’s marriage, and soon Violeta is forced to sign divorce papers just to keep custody of her son. How very unlike the home life of our dear… etc etc. A chilling and engrossing story, this, although a little prolonged in the latter stages, when we were especially grateful for Gabriel Thibaudeau’s nimble accompaniment.

As the catalogue points out, the setting in the source novel was clearly Britain, complete with noxious fog, but on screen we were in the mythic realm known as Ruritania, so popular in the silent era, and with any luck we’ll be back there next year, in Pordenone that is.

This afternoon we had another date with the Nasty Women and a Franco-American double-bill no less. I hugely enjoyed Le Ménage Dranem (1912) in which comic Dranem plays a put-upon house husband, stuck with the chores of cooking, cleaning, nursing and darning, while his wife goes out smoking, drinking, and playing backgammon with Léontine. With shades of Alice Guy’s Les Résultats du feminisme (1906), Dranem reaches breaking point eventually and a more conventional domestic hierarchy is re-established. Ah, it was fun while it lasted.

This was followed by US comedy feature Phil-For-Short (Oscar Apfel, 1919) scripted by Clara Beranger and Forrest Halsey. Here two Greek nerds find themselves in a Hepburn-Tracy kind of romance: she’s an unconventional tomboy (Evelyn Greeley), he’s a bookworm who’s scared of women (Hugh Thompson). There’s cross-dressing, flirtation, pranks and some delightfully graceful Greek dancing to complicate their path to marital bliss. Essentially, she’ll have to provoke him out of his prejudice. It’s a queer deal in two sense. Lots of queer coding and Sapphic references, but also while Phil (Greeley) is vigorously trying to shake up the status quo, the intertitles contain a roster of repetitive anti-women jokes – that we’re supposed to read ironically, for best effect. Charm, innuendo and cleverness abound, however, so we’re on to a winner. And thanks to John Sweeney bringing all these qualities to his lively accompaniment for the programme. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say he was having a ball.

The piano keys were about to take an extended break, however, as this afternoon’s Korean feature, from 1948 no less, came with a commentary soundtrack from Sin Chul, Korea’s famous “last byeonsa” or Benshi. So utterly odd to hear a recorded voice booming around the Verdi, especially just one, talking so constantly. Geomsa-Wa Yeoseonsaeng (A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher, Yun Dae-ryong, 1948) was shot silent on 16mm, but would have been fairly incomprehensible without the commentary, although the plot was endearingly slight. A teacher’s (Lee Yeong-ae) kindness to a poor, orphaned pupil is repaid later in life when she needs it most. The kind of story to leave your heart a little aglow, but not to engage your brain too much. Perhaps that is as it should be.

This evening belonged to Ellen Richter, quite rightly, and her wicked Weimar frolic Moral (Morality, Willi Wolff, 1928 ) – a stunning restoration from multiple sources, really a work of art in itself. It was also precede by a kaleidoscopic dance sequence taken from a another Richter/Wolff film, the fantastically titled or Die Schönsten Beine von Berlin – The Loveliest Legs in Berlin, or Saucy Suzanne (1927)

In the witty caper Moral, with shades of Professor Unrat/The Blue Angel, but in the comic rather than tragic mode, the ‘morality society’ of a small German town splutter outrage at the arrival of a racy Berlin revue (featuring actual Tiller Girls) in their wholesome home of Emilsberg. But then of course, they’re all queuing up for “piano lessons” with its sexy star Ninon (Richter) under assumed names. With stealth camerawork and a sense of fun and justice in perfect balance, Ninon skewers their hypocrisy and avoids their censure, all while demonstrating the most stunningly distracting wardrobe (who wears gold lame pyjamas and heels to the police station? Ninon does). It’s a righteous but rollicking romp, and with even more innuendo than Phil-For-Short. The local aristo confessed himself a “passionate trombonist” in his youth. Well, quite.

As to that nefarious audience behaviour, well I must confess it was all orchestrated from the pit. Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius did more than provide vivacious, multi-instrumental score for what is basically a silent musical, with many and varied musical cues – they encouraged those of us in the hall to join in. As the moral guardians of Emilsburg interrupted the revue with jeers we were to play the role “Outraged of Pordenone”. Many of us yelled or stamped or whistled. Reader, I was one of the lucky ones to have been handed a plastic rattle before I took my seat. What a hoot! My debut as a silent film accompanist.

At the close of the film, Ninon makes the assembled shame-faced censors promise to return to her show and instead of throwing brickbats to offer “thunderous applause”. As the lights went up, we did too.

Intertitle of the Day 1

“My husband’s all right – but he’s not vital!” A candid confession from Phil-For-Short.

Intertitle of the Day 2

“Your trousers – are in police custody!” The art titles in Moral were snazzily designed and frequently hilarious.

The Pordenone School of Egg Cookery: Part 3

In Moral we had both a pancake recipe disguised as pornography and raw eggs used as missiles – hitting one dancer right in the eye. Yikes.

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