This, too, is history – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
You can blame it on too much caffé espresso, or Douglas Fairbanks withdrawal, or the collective post-Les Mis comedown. Whatever the reason, I saw two comedies today that I could only just follow, and which just occasionally made me laugh. If I tell you they were Soviet comedies, you might jump to a conclusion. But trust me, I have form in this area – I normally laughalonga-Lenin.
Tonight’s evening screening was Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik (The State Official, 1931), a cheeky caper about a faceless state underling tempted by the chance to pilfer a suitcase of roubles for him and his missus and their young daughter. I suspect it is gentlest of comedy anyway, but with a propagandistic framing story about renovating the rolling stock on either end of it, it truly is, as I was warned, not a “comedy-comedy”.
Rating higher on the laughometer but lower on comprehensibility for my poor failing brain was Krupnaia Nepriyatnost (Big Trouble, 1930), in which the culture clash between old and new in a provincial village is exemplified by, at first, the rivalry between old-style carriages and imported American cars. The scene thus laid, the real set-to involves a mixup of of speakers at local events: the director of the new arts centre rocks up to the church, and the priest appears to address the culture vultures. Horror, and then an “exchange of hostages” ensues. This was much brighter, with vivid casting, compositions that took us by surprise and a real sense of pace and energy. Plus, inventive musical accompaniment courtesy of a Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin collaboration. We were still a little flummoxed though. The same director as Dva Druga, Model I Poodrugaand a similar sense of fun, but not as successful.
Of what does a revolt consist? Of everything and nothing, a spring slowly released, a fire suddenly breaking out, force operating at random, passing breeze
– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
On a gloriously sunny day in northern Italy (and I do mean glorious) there is nothing to be done except to duck into a dark theatre and watch Soviet cinema, right? Right? Well, that’s how we roll here in Pordenone. Today I expected to be dominated by the screening of Eisenstein’s monumental October (1928), but as ever, the Giornate caught me by surprise. My day began with a simply stunning, and very refreshing Soviet comedy. Just as last year, the Russian Laughter strand is shaping up to be one of my favourites. And it ended with a Japanese film that I feared I wouldn’t get the most out of. Perhaps I didn’t, but I did love it all the same,
Back to Russia. That comedy, Dva Druga, Model I Podruga (Two Friends, a Model and a Girlfriend, 1928) was a real sparkler: it was gorgeously photographed, with sunlight dappling the river our heroes were pootling along, and brightly funny too. Unlike pure slapstick affairs, the comedy here was largely contained in the composition rather than the action – it was, if this is a thing, pictorially funny. Like a newspaper cartoon. Our heroes, the two friends, are seemingly daft soap factory workers who invent a machine, a contraption really, for making packing crates. They think it will increase efficiency at the factory (a noble Soviet aim, for sure) but their villainous overseer disagrees – they’re paid to work, not invent. In the end, the pals, a girl who has run away from her fiancee and this crazy “model” must travel to the big city by river to prove its worth. Endless fun, visually inventive at every turn, and so gentle it undercuts all one’s preconceptions of Soviet bombast at once. Please take any chance you get to see this one.
But if you ordered bombast, today delivered. A two-hour-plus silent movie is a weighty proposition to be honest, but October, with its “catalogue of inventions” is so dazzling, energetic, ferocious and breathtakingly geometric that it feels more like a weekend than a month. Eisenstein’s document of the Russian revolution screened in the Canon Revisited strand, and it is certainly a film that repays the revisiting. Today we were especially lucky to have Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the orchestra pit – performing a stirring score that was no doubt an exhausting feat. I am continually dumbfounded to find that some people are immune to this rousing strain of cinema. These Soviet classics were an early staging post on my route into exploring the silents. I came to them well before the Hollywood films, and they constantly define for me what silent cinema can achieve, which is to say what cinema in total can achieve. So there. The raising of the bridge sequence in October never fails to stop me in my tracks – from the naked viciousness of the bourgeoisie to the white horse martyred several feet above the Neva. And that poor young girl’s trailing hair … As the film continues there is far more to savour than I could even hint at here. The Women’s Death Battalion could furnish several blogposts of political-sexual analysis by themselves. By the time it was over I was ready to storm the palace of silent cinema and loot for more such treasures.
Spies are cool. Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.
“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi, is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.
By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …
Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.
I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …
You know it’s Pordenone when you’re still having a conversation about melodrama, cliché and the difference between parody and sendup as you turn the key in the lock of your door at midnight. Or maybe that’s just me and the people I choose to hang out with. Still, I think it’s telling, because the penultimate day of the Giornate had plenty for us to chew on, get lost in and provoke the temper too.
But first, let me lay the scene: a medium-sized town in northern Italy, it’s Friday, spitting with rain. Interior: a bell rings, it’s nine am in the auditorium and it is clear that quite a few people in attendance have that Friday feeling. You know, the one was manifests itself in a splitting headache and grey circles under the eyes? But if there is one thing that we have learned this week, it is that Yakov Pratazanov is worth getting out of bed for.
And Chiny I Liudi (Ranks and People, 1929), a portmanteau film comprising adaptations of three Chekhov short stories, was another great “serious comedy”, leading me to kick myself that I missed last night’s Don Diego I Pelageya (1928). Each story deals with the problems of living in a rigorously stratified society: a clerk fears he has offended a high-up and apologises to death; an officer is caught between asserting his authority and sycophancy to a general; a poor woman marries a heartless rich man, but has her head turned when she experiences high society. It was all beautifully done, as witty as it was tenderly heartbreaking. A false perspective frame of the clerk approaching his senior’s desk, and a high-angled shot pretty Anna admiring herself in her finery were particularly memorable. I’m more keen than ever to see tomorrow morning’s sound-era Pratazanov. Another 9am Soviet film, just how I like it.
Knocked for six by the German dubbed/scored version of Potemkin. From gruff mutterings to blood curdling screams on the Odessa steps #GCM33
Russian cinema, but not as we know it, before the midday break without a curio from Germany: Panzerkreuzer Potemkin (1930). This is the “talkie” adaptation of Eisenstein’s classic, of course, featuring the Meisel score (in his own arrangement) and a lot of dubbed dialogue. All the intertitles apart from act breaks have been removed from the body of the film and historical explanations tacked on either end, read out in a thumping German voiceover. So it runs shorter than the original, but for me slightly less smoothly, which I freely admit may simply be due to my familiarity with the rhythms of the silent original. It seems strange to hear the men mutter their complaints rather than seeming to rise instinctively to a collective understanding of their circumstances. And because the film was conceived without so much dialogue, a lot of what we hear in this version is simply redundant. There’s an interesting, unintentional effect whenever dialogue runs over a montage cut, actually, as when an officer shakes a sailor awake or another sailor throws that fateful plate. But anyway, it would be very hard to kill the majesty of this movie – the images speak so eloquently that even if Stephen Horne were to reprise his kazoo routine from yesterday, the audience would still be moved. And of course, for a native German speaker, this may be the Potemkin they have always imagined. See what you think (please excuse the “Verdi tidemark”):
Today was a tale of two Fairbankses, both of them Douglas Sr, and of two Barrymores, both of them John, whom I think we can all agree was a bit of a beloved rogue. In the film of the same title, which came first today, he plays a gadabout poet in a 15th-century Paris so smothered in snow that it looks like a Christmas card. And this is Barrymore a la Fairbanks, just to confuse you, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with a goblet of wine in his hand and a jaunty feather in his cap. You just know that he is going to save France (despite the best efforts of feeble-minded King Louis XI, played creepily by Conrad Veidt with a finger up his nose), win the heart of a fair lady (Marceline Day as a poetry-loving aristo), complete some audacious stunts and compose lots of jaunty (terrible) verse on the spot. There is also a completely gratuitous loincloth scene, for the keener Barrymore fans among us. The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927) is total bunkum, but much more fun than, say When a Man Loves. The only way to enjoy this sort of thing is to commit totally to it, and we were helped along by sparkling accompaniment from not one musician but four: a harmonious grouping of Donald Sosin, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Frank Bockius and Romano Todesco.
But John won’t win my heart that way: I crave romance, and splendour, and something beautiful to soothe my fevered brow. Beau Brummel (Harry Beaumont, 1924) will do the trick nicely thank you. It’s gentler, and more tender than the other JB films we’ve seen this week, even if equally as preposterous. Barrymore is the foppish captain deemed too lowly to marry his lady-love (an excellent, if teenaged, Mary Astor), who therefore plots to take obscure revenge on “society” by insinuating himself into the Prince Regent’s inner circle and fighting the system from within, yeah. But dear me, he does it in style. Skinny britches, umpteen rows of frogging, diamond buttons on his frock coat and a powdered wig – and still all you can concentrate on are those flashing eyes and his wicked comic timing. Preening in front of the mirror, practising his poses, or repeating the same lines to another pretty woman until he almost believes them himself … ah he’s a belov-able rogue here too all right. And in the end, it’s very touching, if both overdone and overlong. Stephen Horne was there for the duration (the Giornate showed the fullest print possible, of course), with a light touch on piano, flute and accordion bringing out the best of the comedy and plucking on our collective heartstrings. Good for the soul.
Douglas Fairbanks is just as reliable a star as JB, if a simpler proposition all round. We were lucky enough to see The Good Bad Man (Allan Dwan, 1916) today, a western that went about its business as swift and straight as an arrow. Fairbanks is a Robin Hood cowboy, stealing from the rich-ish and giving to illegitimate children. Is there a dark secret in his past? Will he discover it, have his vengeance and live to make eyes at Bessie Love another day? I thought he just might – but was I right, kids? Kudos to London-based musician David Gray who accompanied the movie with verve and accuracy – he has been partaking in the Giornate’s musical masterclasses all week and this show marked his graduation.
Our second sighting of Dougie was far more epic. The evening show brought another eye-popping collection of two-strip Technicolor treats, including a bizarre set of out-takes from The Gaucho (1927): a reel of attempts to shoot Mary Pickford as a vision of the Virgin Mary on a rockface. Shimmering loveliness its very self until an assistant hovers into view with a clapperboard. Fairbanks showed his face, and his biceps for the main feature, the unstoppable force that is The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926): as gruesome as it is gorgeous and grand, this is a hard film to take against. If only because that dagger-down-the-main-sail makes you catch your breath each time. And in case you were wondering, John Sweeney can even make a sea shanty sound elegant. Classy stuff.
Almost time to turn in, and Whoozit (Harold L Muller, 1914) was our first bedtime story. Now, if a whole Charley Bowers movie makes very little sense at all, then I think it’s fair to say a single rediscovered reel will be a puzzler indeed. Great larks though: oysters with eyes humping across the bathroom floor, a teddy bear growing a beard, magic spectacles and an ogre sharpening a giant razor. Deeply enjoyable, brilliantly surreal.
One last thing before we go. The return of Sidney Drew, paired up here with Clara Kimball Young, to prove that the silent movies were spoofing silent movies long before pesky 21st-century scamps thought to do so. I thought Goodness Gracious; Or Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1928) was ragged, but good clean fun, with hapless Gwendoline careering through loopy scenarios while chomping on her chicklit and waiting for her “brave youth” Cornelius to rescue her from another poorly framed misadventure. Undercranked and overegged and mad as a box of oysters. But a wiser soul than I caught up with me and raised a valid question: if this is the parody what is the original? Especially bearing in mind that this was made in 1928. Hmmm …
Corpse of the day: Bessie Love’s dear old pa in The Good Bad Man, God love him. Flat out on his front porch and breathing like a freshly landed fish.
Absurd romantic metaphor of the day: Home is where the hearth is for John Barrymore and Marceline Day in The Beloved Rogue – “Your eyes have swept my heart clean and kindled a fire there that will outlast me.”
Tiny things I love about Pordenone No 36: When the logo appears before a film and a group of dedicated colleagues cheer their own archive. Adore it.
My blog from the first day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the second day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the third day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the fourth day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the fifth day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the sixth day of the Giornate is here.
It was another strong day, and an emotional one too, not least because we were saying our first farewells to the Corrick Collection. There’s just one more batch of these strange and vivid early films to go (on Saturday) before they depart the Giornate schedule for good.
Today’s selection brought us an increasingly rare moment of comedy in the form of the three-minute romp Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907), fascinating early 1900s street scenes from China and Japan, a stencil-tinted biblical drama by Louis Feuillade (Aux Lions les Chrétiens, 1911) and some outrageous examples of animal cruelty, from quail-fighting to a brutal twist on archery in Distraction et Sport à Batavia (1911)
Shock of the day was short of Javanese 'sport' where they used a live duck as an static archery target. One right in the neck, yeesh. #GCM32
There was more early cinema to savour in Patrick Cazals’ documentary portrait of French star and film-maker Musidora. There was far more to her career than Les Vampires and Judex. She was a prolific writer (of letters, poems and scripts); a painter; a director; a film historian at the Cinématheque; a feminist icon; and yes, a muse to many. Where Musidora, la Dixieme Muse (2013) succeeded best was in interviewing her relatives – who could speak to her personality as well as her polymathic achievements. An affectionate hour. A recording of the woman herself included in the doc captured her opining that films should be produced like good books, with images worth revisiting 20 years after they are made. As the Verdi crowd watched, rapt, as clips of Musidora in her first screen appearance (Le Misères de l’Aiguille, 1913) played, we can fault her only on the scale of her ambition.
An outstanding day at the Giornate: a varied programme of astonishing films, and excellent musical accompaniment. So while it was drizzly and grey outside, inside the Teatro Verdi all looked bright, even if most of the films tended towards bleakness. After the delightfully sugary surrealism of Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925) for breakfast, the Giornate hit us with some heavy emotional dramas today – and I relished them.
The slow but seductive tearjerker Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927) is the title track of the Swedish strand and it was a real beauty, directed by Gustaf Molander. Karin Swanström, director-star of Flickan i Frack pops up again (all too briefly as a jealous wife) in this Italian-set romance between a convent schoolgirl and a married English painter. Misunderstandings, emotional repression and heartbreak reverberated against a backdrop of stunning scenery, and with a nuanced, textured score by Stephen Horne too. All I spoke to agreed that the show was stolen by Stina Berg (also seen in Polis Paulus Paskasmäll) as the snuff-snorting nun Sister Scolastica – at her best when engaged in a comedy double-cat with a recalcitrant donkey. The opening sequence, in which Scolastica attempts to take her young charge to the train station was a beautifully simple idea, warmly and expertly played out.
The second Swedish title of the day came with a warning attached: it starts slow, cautioned the Giornate programme, but soon warms up. Did it ever. In Den Starkaste (The Strongest, 1929) two sailors compete for the hand of the skipper’s daughter, and despite her clear preference for one, and via many complications, they take their macho competitive streaks out into the Arctic Ocean where they are hunting on rival vessels. Blood is spilt on the glaciers, most of it belonging to seals – and in the staggering last reel, polar bears. Polar bears! The Arctic photography is crisp and gorgeous (especially when soundtracked by John Sweeney on the piano), and comes courtesy of expert Swedish cinematographer Axel Lindblom – who is also said to have photographed A Cottage on Dartmoor, more of which tomorrow.