Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 7

This is my tenth Giornate, which means I have graduated from newbie, all the way to novice, but also that I have been present for a quarter of the festival’s history. This is the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – an annual celebration of silent cinema that began with a short retrospective of Max Linder films at Cinemazero in 1982, viewed by around eight people. Tonight in the Verdi, it seemed like every other seat was taken for a rendez-vous with Linder.

We began the day with an adventure of high altitudes, high stakes and haute couture, as Ellen Richter played an impeccably dressed aviatrix in Der Flug um den Erdball, another “long serial” – just over two hours, in two parts. Richter was accompanied on her flight around the world against the clock by Anton Pointner as another handsome Englishman, this time one falsely accused of murder, and an accident-prone, but nonetheless resourceful insurance agent, Piquet (Hans Brausewetter). So many changes of international location, and saboteur shenanigans, but Ms Richter kept her cool throughout. In fact she was a little overshadowed by the rest of the action, and the scenery. Still, this had humour and a good pace, and an unexpected encounter with an alligators – them and crocodiles are an unexpected thread through the festival.

Speaking of which, the Female Screenwriters strand threw up a small curio from the pen of intertitle writer par excellence, Katherine Hilliker this afternoon: Up in the Air After Alligators (1919). Essentially she seemed to have been hired to make sense of and light of, some footage of seaplanes and alligators. Here were some snappy (!) one-liners to savour, but it was merely a morsel before the anthropomorphism to come.

Dorothy Yost’s screenplay for Kentucky Pride (John Ford, 1925) presumes to speak in the voice of its equine heroine, Virginia’s Future, a little like the North Korean sheep did on Saturday but somehow far less agreeably. You know you’re about to squirm when the first title pronounces that “With us Kentuckians, pride of race is everything”. So hold on to your hats, folks. This is not Yost’s best work (she wrote gorgeous things for Fred’n’Ginger, among others), and for me it didn’t work. I have no beef with sentimental stuff, even of the animal kind, but this didn’t pull on my heartstrings. Well maybe just one or two, as when our heroine was left out in the rain without supper … I suspect Philip Carli’s lovely accompaniment was helping there.

More hearbreak was to come. An early evening interlude was spent not in Japan but in “Japan” with a programme of ‘Japonisme’, pretty to look at and pretty to listen to, thanks to John Sweeney and Frank Bockius in the pit. Three Vitagraph short melodramas shot in Flatbush using visiting Japanese actors and an extravagant flower budget to tell tragic and tragicomic tales were very diverting, But my favourite discovery of the day was diminutive dancer and actress Ohta Hisa, known as Hanako, starring in two Pathé-Russe melodramas that both build towards sad and violent ends. Orientalist clichés abound, I grant you, but Hanako was a STAR, with a knack for tragedy, but also for a certain kind of darkly dry comedy, as when she is canoodling with her boyfriend seemingly unaware that her precious cargo (an errand for the prince) is being stolen, but she nods her head in the fateful direction once or twice – some stage schtick that really worked on camera. Her face worked on camera. She was one you couldn’t take your eyes off, even amid such elaborately decorated sets.

Before the final film, there was a quadruple ceremony for the Jean Mitry prize as last year’s awards were handed out too. All worthy winners and inspirational stories, but of course here at Silent London we were very touched to see Ronald Grant accept an award on behalf of himself and Martin Humphries for their tireless years of work on the (award-winning, itself) Cinema Museum in London. I clapped until my hands were sore.

Tonight’s headline film  was Max Linder’s moment, and it also belongs to one of my very favourite micro-genres, the black-and-white circus movie, like that one by that fella (was he taking notes?) and La Strada and Wings of Desire and Yo-Yo by Pierre Étaix (who bizarrely gets a mention here). The film is Max, der Zirkuskönig, made in Austria in 1924 and the restoration project has ben an epic one, as Serge Bromberg explained in his intro: material from 11 countries, eight restorers and … well he said “You’ve been waiting 96 years to see it!”.

And this film was slapstick joy to the absolute Max. Classic scenario: Linder plays a champagne-swilling wastrel who must clean up his act to impress the father of the girl he likes, Ketty (Vilma Banky). The twist is that Ketty is a trapeze artist (our second flying woman of the day) and Max has to cram circus skills to win her hand. He and his butler rig up some practice gear in his room at the Hotel Royal but ah, he will need to resort to subterfuge – a clown in a lion suit. It’s a series of comic sequences strung together (as it should be) and it’s a hoot, with a sublime drunk routine to begin with, bicycles going down stairs, a flea circus, and more. (And those fleas created quite a painful moment for those of us in the audience suffering with autumnal Pordenone bites, I tell you.)

Although the materials in this resto vary you can see it is a glorious film to look at, especially for fans (such as myself) of this particular aesthetic – the final shot in particular. But we didn’t just have to look at the film, we listened, with glee. Neil Brand, who really does know how to throw a slapstick party on a piano stool, and Frank Bockius beside him on percussion gave us all three rings and more. I’d have sworn there was a full band at times, because Brand’s music was so rich, and energetic and every bit as sleek as our glamorous hero. Friday night, done right.

Intertitle of the Day 1

“Dear Uncle, I can’t get married … I’m a vegetarian!” No vegetable love for Max Linder

Intertitle of the Day 2

“Even if a woman flies around the world … she lands … on the arm of a man.” Well that’s true of Ellen Richter at least in Der Flug um den Erdball.

Invention of the Day

Is it a train, is it a plane? No it’s railway-plane – faster than both apparently, as long as the signals are in your favour. This from Ms Richter once more.

Unexpected Gore of the Day

Pointner sustained a spurting arm wound in Der Flug um den Erdball, which then dropped blood on Richter from the top bunk. But both were outdone by Hanako’s two gruesome throat-slitting scenes. In the first, the red stuff seeped right under the door. As someone pointed out, imagine if there had been Pathé-colour! Time to X-Certificate the Giornate?

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