Tag Archives: Giornate del Cinema Muto

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

The New Janitor (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor (1914)

Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.

Pansidong (1927)
Pansidong (1927)

There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.

Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)
Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)

But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.

The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)

Colleen Moore, first among flappers, is so universally adored among the silent cinema crowd that she can get away with anything. Case in point: today’s screening of the irrepressible Synthetic Sin (1929), in which La Moore plays an aspiring actress whose talents lie further towards comedy than tragedy. So much so that she interrupts a dance show to perform a wigglesome, gigglesome routine of her own … in blackface. She wins the crowd in the movie, and perhaps a little more guardedly she repeated the trick in Teatro Verdi today. You can’t edit the past, and you can’t deny the crowd-pulling power of Colleen Moore.

Synthetic Sin was a winner today, a restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone project; this film has been primped back to its best, and even comes with a snippet of its original sound-on-disc score. That blackface moment wasn’t only thing that was “of its time” about the movie, but Moore’s personality, and charm, and sheer comic talent brook no obstacles. An early scene in which she mimics “Paderewski playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude” was far funnier than such a skit had any right to be. A thunderous round of applause ensued, from a live audience 85 years too late to catch the real thing.

The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)
The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)

But Moore only arrived four screenings into the day. We’re calling this a Manic Monday, with three heavyweight movies in the morning alone: two Barrymores (Ethel and Lionel) and a treat from the Russian Laughter strand: Zakroischchik iz Torzhka (The Tailor from Torzhok, Yakov Protazanov, 1925).

Yes, the name of the Russian Laughter strand has raised some sniggers in the hotel corridors and café terraces of Pordenone already, but we don’t listen to haters here at Silent London. And we’re right, as usual, because The Tailor from Torzhok was a hoot. This is Soviet cinema’s first feature-length comedy, and it’s definitely western-style in its reliance on physical stunts and romance. It was intended to promote the state lottery, but enjoyably not a single likable character gives two figs for the lotto – the government bond is sold on, rejected, crumpled and, ahem, fixed to the wall with nasal mucus. Ick. Great comic work from Igor Illiinsky in the lead role, whether pratfalling or winningly rubbing shoulders with his pretty miss.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 2

Das Frauenhaus von Rio (1927)
Das Frauenhaus von Rio (1927)

How much excitement can one person handle on a Sunday morning? For myself, the opportunity to see – finally – Raoul Walsh’s classic crime drama Regeneration (1915) and on 35mm no less, with music by John Sweeney, was more than reason enough to get out of bed. That it was preceded by a film packed with vice and violence (and fabulous clothes), made this a far-from gentle Sunday morning. But the biggest surprise of the day was to come later in the afternoon. Call that a cliffhanger, if you will.

To the vice and violence first, with Hans Steinhoff’s Das Frauenhaus von Rio (1927), a German crime saga adapted from a novel by Norbert Jacques. That the film is set mostly in Hamburg rather than Rio, and barely in the “Frauenhaus” (a particular kind of lady, a particular kind of house, if you get my meaning) at all, is hardly false advertising. Concerned with what was called the white slave trade in those days, and also that silent-movie staple, international jewel theft, Frauenhaus was florid, schlocky and tremendously good fun – and very niftily directed. French actress Suzy Vernon made a winning heroine, although Ernst Deutsch as a puckish chancer and Vivian Gibson as a tigress of a villain stole the show.

Regeneration (1915)
Regeneration (1915)

But Regeneration was the main event of the morning, and it did not disappoint. This story of a tenement toughie reformed by a guilt-stricken socialite soars past your cynicism, because it is so exquisitely, tenderly photographed. It’s realism, but editorialised. And those performances! Rockliffe Fellowes has the best name in showbiz, hands down, and is reminiscent of a young Brando here as the angsty hero. Anna Q Nillsson (yes, a “waxwork” from Sunset Boulevard) puts in a heartfelt turn as his goodhearted ladyfriend. And oh, the photography, those truncated tracking shots and oh, the ensemble cast of characterful and possibly threatening faces. Everything Scorsese ever did is here, and it’s compelling, enthralling to watch.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 1

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014

This season the colour to be seen in is a mid-blue, almost teal, with accents of lime green. The autumn collection also features motifs of a certain scruffy character with a square ’tache, and a charming floral detail. Hemlines are low, and hats are definitely “in” … Milan fashion week was so last month sweetie, I am reporting to you direct from the catwalks of Pordenone, instead, where the 33rd Giornate del Cinema Muto has begun, in fine style.

The stars of this year’s Giornate are yet to be decided, but the wise money goes on the Barrymores, an acting dynasty of stage and screen and recipients of their own retrospective at the festival this year. So starstruck are we all by the (virtual) presence of John, Ethel, Lionel et al that for Pordenone’s opening night, that we attempted an almighty feat – travelling through time and space (and the march of feminism) to New York, February 1927. But more of that adventure anon. Here’s how the first day unravelled.

The Feudists (1913)
The Feudists (1913) – Sidney Drew, far left

In anticipation of the Gala, the first session of the Giornate was devoted to The Drews, that is mostly Sidney Drew (uncle of John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore), but often accompanied by his lady wife, in a series of mostly slight domestic comedies (and one roughly sketched drama about an elderly painter, his pretty niece and his young apprentice). Antiquated and inconsequential they might be, but don’t say that like it’s a bad thing. Of the films here directed by Drew himself, some parlayed familiar gags, as in Her Anniversaries (1917), a wordy skit in which a husband fails to remember the “special” days when his wife chooses to celebrate their relationship. But there were some enjoyably bizarre elements. Drew’s flexible features were stretched in A Case of Eugenics (1915) when his babyish husband outdoes the brattish, oversized child his wife is “sitting” for infantile antics.

In the strangest of the lot, Boobley’s Baby (1915), Drew is a harassed commuter, sick of giving up his trolley seat for parents of small children – so he totes around a doll, which unfortunately causes him problems with the ladies. The whole endeavour was just the right side of distasteful – for the most part. Kudos as ever, to expert accompanist and Barrymore/Drew expert Dr Philip Carli for some smart, witty playing for this selection – I particularly enjoyed the rock’n’roll diversion during a badly damaged segment of Boobley’s Baby.

As the night drew in, we snuggled up with a love letter to film archivism, film archivists and Pordenone itself. The Soviet silent animated cartoon Pochta or Post (1929) was shown at the Giornate last year and delightful it was too. This year, a two-part documentary, Searching for “Pochta”, explored the search for its sound 1930 remake, long thought lost. Richly detailed, and not afraid to scurry down rabbit-holes, but accessible and witty, this was a tribute to the stuff that film discoveries are really made of: diligence, chance, persistence and collaboration. You can order those however you think fit.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 1

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema – documentary coming soon

thanhouser poster

The story of the Thanhouser Film Studio follows a rise-and-fall pattern familiar to all aficionados of early cinema: innovation, success, expansion, loss, obscurity. But there is a gratifying twist in the Thanhouser tale that marks it out among its fellows.

Edwin and Gertrude founded the studio in 1909 in New Rochelle, New York as an independent outfit. They were successful for many years and made more than 1,000 films, shown all over the world, including some truly fantastic early literary adaptations. The biggest star on their books was probably the wonderful Florence LaBadie, heroine of the serial Million Dollar Mystery. You may also be familiar with the precociously winsome Marie Eline, AKA “The Thanhouser Kid”. Sadly, after many profitable years, in 1917, the downturn in the movie industry forced Edwin Thanhouser to close the company for good.

The Thanhouser Studio in 1914
The Thanhouser Studio in 1914

The story would end there, with Thanhouser another footnote in film history, were it not for the tireless efforts of Edwin and Gertrude’s grandson. Ned Thanhouser has spent the past three decades hunting down the movies that his grandparents made, as well as preserving and exhibiting them all over the world. Two-hundred-odd films later, Thanhouser is a name to conjure with, and the world is lot wiser about early American film-making. Just last year, a screening of Thanhouser films played to an appreciative crowd in London at the BFI Southbank.

But Ned has been working on another film project: a documentary about the family business.

This 50-minute documentary reconstructs the relatively unknown story of the studio and its founders, technicians, and stars as they entered the nascent motion picture industry to compete with Thomas Edison and the companies aligned with his Motion Pictures Patents Corporation (MPPC). Ned Thanhouser, grandson of studio founders Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, narrates this compelling tale, recounting a saga of bold entrepreneurship, financial successes, cinematic innovations, tragic events, launching of Hollywood careers, and the transition of the movie industry from the East Coast to the West and Hollywood. It will be of interest to scholars, archivists, early film historians, and everyone who loves the intriguing stories about the people who pioneered independent movie-making in America.

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema had a little help over the finishing line from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and it will be released next year. Excitingly for those of us Pordenone-bound in October, the film will have its premiere at this year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto. I’ll be there, will you?

Read more about studio, and the documentary on the Thanhouser site.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone Promises

 

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone promises

John Barrymore and Delores Costello in When a Man Loves (1927)
John Barrymore and Delores Costello in When a Man Loves (1927)

Have you booked your fights yet? The 33rd edition of the world’s most prestigious silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy is looming – it will take place from 4-11 October, and tantalisingly, a few details have already been released. There are a few screenings already listed on the official website, and a shiny new press release (written in Italian) too. With the help of Google translate, let me tell you what I learned on the internet.

  • I can tell you that there will be a gala screening on the last night of Chaplin‘s City Lights, with an orchestra playing the director’s original score, as reconstructed byTimothy Brock. Günter Buchwald will conduct. Elsewhere in the festival, four Chaplin shorts will screen with Benshi narration by Kenka Yasubei, who will also voice a classic Japanese film.
Ben Hur (1925)
Ben-Hur (1925)
  • Did you know that this year marks the centenary of Technicolor? A dedicated strand at the Giornate will screen 30 full-length films and clips that showcase the pioneering colour technology. Watch out for The Black Pirate (1926) and Ben-Hur (1925).
  • Hollywood royalty will be celebrated at Pordenone with a showcase for the silent films made by the Barrymore acting dynasty, including Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920), The Copperhead (1919), The Beloved Rogue (1927) and Beau Brummel (1924) – plus the two surviving reels of The Eternal City (1922). Films starring John, Ethel and Lionel Barrymore will be shown across the week, with When a Man Loves (The Loves of Manon Lescaut), 1927, starring “the Great Profile” himself and Delores Costello opening the Giornate on 4 October. When a Man Loves will be presented with its original Vitaphone soundtrack, composed by Henry Kimball Hadley, and will be supported by a programme of Vitaphone shorts.
  • A section entitled Russian Laughter will present comedies directed by Yakov Protazanov, selected by Peter Bagrov of Gosfilmofond in Moscow.
Die Nibelungen (1924)
Die Nibelungen (1924)
  • The Canon Revisited, curated by Paolo Cherch Usai, is always popular and this year will feature Raoul Walsh’s gangster drama Regeneration (1915), both parts of Fritz Lang’s Die Nibelungen (1924) and Pudovkin’s epic Storm over Asia (1928). Also: GW Pabst’s Die Liebe der Jeanne Ney (1927) and Mauritz Stiller’s Herr Arnes Pengar (1919)
  • Hand-coloured films by George Méliès will be shown by AIRSC .
  • New discoveries and restorations at the festival this year will include Conrad Wiene’s adaptaion of Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness (1924).
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
  • And finally … the sound version, yes sound version of Battleship Potemkin – a 1930 German release with a soundtrack recorded on disc.
  • Want more? This Nitrateville post from a few weeks ago contains a few extra titles – some of which are very exciting indeed. Premature? Out of date? Who knows? More fuel for the rumour mill, anyway.

Register for the Giornate here.

My Guardian report from Pordenone

The Freshman (1925) Harold Lloyd Entertainment, Inc.

Orson Welles and a Spanish Snow White make for a diverse Pordenone

After blogging the whole festival day-by-day, there was just one job left to do: a quick wrap-up for the Guardian film blog. How nice to see a picture of Mabel Normand on a national newspaper website!

You can always keep up-to-date with my non-Silent-London writings (should you wish to), here on my website.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8

Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation
Mabel Normand in Won in a Cupboard (1914) National Film Preservation Foundation

Update: My Guardian report from the Giornate is here

That’s all, folks. I don’t know about the other festival delegates, but I am utterly and completely scherben*. it has been a fantastic festival: eight days to wallow in the full diversity of what we call silent cinema. I have learned a lot, met some wonderful people and enjoyed many, many movies.

The final day began with rain, a sleepy trek to the Cinemazero and some really quite startling footage, completely unsuited to the tender hour. I am not talking about Felix the Cat, who entertained a select crowd with his adventures as a wildlife documentarian in Felix the Cat in Jungle Bungles (1928). I am talking about the new documentary feature by David Cairns and Paul Duane, Natan. This award-winning doc tells the truth, or attempts to, about Bernard Natan and his incredible life.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 7

Earth (1930) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev
Earth (1930) Oleksandr Dovzhenko National Centre, Kiev

Lucky number seven. Today was a red-letter-day in Pordenone for many reasons. I rewatched one of my all-time favourite films, Anny Ondra finally came good, and I managed my first Felix-to-Ko-Ko shift (with a few breaks in between). No wonder I’ve got that Friday feeling.

Excluding the charming cartoons (although strictly we shouldn’t) the day opened, and closed, with rippling cornfields. First up was Zemlya (Earth, 1930): Dovzhenko’s classic hymn to nature. It played in the Ukrainian strand, with an impressive recorded score by DakhaBrakha. Just sublime and well worth the early start.

Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013
Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013

The day’s final cornfields came courtesy of the Swedish programme, and Rågens Rike (The Kingdom of Rye, 1929): a sumptous rural romantic drama with extra mysticism, sex and violence. Very Thomas Hardy. Gorgeously photographed, with flashes of Expressionism, it was directed by Ivan Johansson and adapted from a Finnish poem. Like so many of these Swedish films, it concerns a couple happily in love and the complications keeping them apart. The ending is beautiful, but as we’ve come to expect, slooooooow. It couldn’t be much more different from Earth, but there was a pleasing unity to the day, really.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 6

Konstgjorda Svensson (1929) Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1929 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

Another disappointing Anny Ondra performance – but in an unforgettable movie – two Mothers, a part-talkie that wants to be a silent, a Lamprecht with a happy ending, and Buster Keaton with a Benshi. Day six at Pordenone, coming right up.

Let us begin with Anny Ondra. It has been extremely stressful. On paper, a programme of early films made by the bewitching star of The Manxman and Blackmail, Czechoslovakia’s first true silent movie star, promised to be my festival highlight. The reality has been brutal. In these early roles Ondra has had terribly little to do and been physically encumbered by towers of curls on her head and tentlike, unflattering dresses too. She has also, I would venture, been horribly underdirected. Hitchcock may have been a brute, but he would not have stood for her gazing into the near distance, twiddling her hair, when the camera was turning. Maybe she just needed a decent part to get her teeth stuck into; maybe the Czech film industry just didn’t know what they had in her. Maybe …

Otrávené svìtlo (1921) árodní filmový archiv, Praha
Otrávené svìtlo (1921) árodní filmový archiv, Praha

Anyway, we’ve seen some enjoyable if occasionally hamfisted movies in this strand, and while there has been not as much as we hoped to see from Ondra, I am calling her sometime husband Karel Lamac as the hardest-working man in the Prague movie industry at the time. We have seen drama, action and slapstick from this chap. And he even directed some of these flicks, including today’s absurdity, which was admittedly early in his career. Otrávené Svetlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921) was a bizarre concoction almost like an adventure serial, with a meandering plot, ever-present danger and nonsensical movie-science of the highest order. Lamac stars as well as directs, in a story that contains much codswallop, but principally codswallop concerning a series of assassinations carried out via toxic lightbulbs. When the filament gets too hot, the glass shatters, releasing … poison gas! Thus, late in the movie, we have the threat of murder courtesy of a desk lamp. An anglepoisoning. Ondra appears to be tranquilised, Lamac is heaving the whole messy endeavour on his broad shoulders and, yes, the quarry sequences are quite nice. I bust a gut laughing: definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good-OK-maybe-it’s-just-bad-no-stuff-it-I’ve-not-had-this-much-fun-in-years camp. Camp being the operative word.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 5

Giornate 32

Today at the Giornate was dominated by the early evening show – the premiere of Orson Welles’s lost-and found experiment Too Much Johnson (1938). So much so that it gets its own post to itself. For everything else from day five at Pordenone, read on …

My Wednesday began, as Tuesday had ended, on the street corners of Weimar Berlin, with Gerhard Lamprecht. Die Verrufenen (The Slums of Berlin/The Fifth Estate, 1925) was not as immaculate as Unter der Laterne, which I adored, but it was close. It’s another social problem film – the issue here being the struggles faced by prisoners on release. Our hero is a middle-class engineer emerging from a short sentence for perjury: dumped, disowned and unemployed, he finds himself suddenly among the “outcasts” in the slum districts. You may raise a cynical eyebrow and suggest that the posh boy lands on his feet and does rather better for himself than his fellow down-and-outs. Your assumptions would be correct. A (mostly) vividly drawn cast of characters, some poignant confrontations and yet more wonderful child performances tugged at my heartstrings and overcame my scepticism, though. Excellent, excellent stuff.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 5

Too Much Johnson (Orson Welles, 1938): Pordenone review

Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli
Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli

I have just attended the world premiere of an Orson Welles movie.

The above statement is almost true. What we saw tonight in Pordenone was the restoration of a work print, not even a rough cut, of a theatrical device. The scenes Welles filmed in New York in 1938 were to be shown as part of a Mercury Theatre production of the 1894 play Too Much Johnson. It’s an elegant solution: replacing pages of expository dialogue with silent prologues, shot slapstick-style to suit the on-stage farce and add a wash of nostalgic charm. Welles never completed editing the prologues, and in any case, the theatre the play first appeared in could not accommodate the projector. In fact, Too Much Johnson folded due to bad reviews before it ever came to New York and these 10 reels were abandoned for decades.

And yet, Too Much Johnson is not just a curio from theatre history. These reels are not quite a film, but something far more than fragments. The experience of watching them on a big screen, projected from 35mm, with expert piano accompaniment from Philip Carli, and commentary from Paolo Cherchi Usai, was dream-like, exhilarating and occasionally laugh-out-loud hilarious. Because we don’t have a final cut of Too Much Johnson, the footage includes retakes, gaps and mistakes. The extant material is a hint of what might have been – but also the heights that Welles was to achieve later in his career.

Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli
Joseph Cotten in Too Much Johnson (1938) George Eastman House/Cinemazero/La Cineteca del Friuli

This is slapstick, ostensibly of the rowdy Keystone school, but from the off it is enlivened by some decidedly arty touches: this is a very good-looking piece of work. All the footage was shot undercranked to create that Keystone feel, a blanket measure that creates some queasy side-effects. An early argument scene is edited so frenetically, with so many extreme closeups, that it is more Eisenstein with Mack Sennett. An anarchic running gag in those first interior scenes has pot plants bursting into the frame, not least in what I can only describe as an arthouse comedy sex scene, an ultra-high-speed bedroom farce. And as Joseph Cotten (our reckless hero) and Edgar Barrier (the outraged husband of his lover) pursue each other up and down fire escapes and across rooftops, the camera records it all from the acute Expressionist angles Welles was so well known for. A scene of Barrier patrolling Manhattan knocking men’s hats off their heads is shot from high overhead – as Barrier attacks the crowds and the crowds form into mobs to attack back, the effect is of a musical dance sequence, a street ballet. And the sight of the ground after his spree littered with discarded bowlers and boaters is almost surreal, surprisingly poignant. In fact, Barrier’s leering, moustache-twirling closeups, which may be intended to evoke melodramatic early cinema villains, are unsettlingly camp. The scenes set in Cuba (actually a quarry in Tomkins Cove, New York) are exercises in economy – and its limits. With a few rented (and comically precarious) palm trees dotted across the rocky ground, Welles shoots from low angles to transform the quarry slopes into cliff-faces, with his actors tiny stick men brawling on the skyline.

Continue reading Too Much Johnson (Orson Welles, 1938): Pordenone review

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 4

A Day With John Burroughs (1919) George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection
A Day With John Burroughs (1919) George Eastman House Motion Picture Department Collection

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.

Première Sortie d'une Cycliste (1907) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra
Première Sortie d’une Cycliste (1907) National Film & Sound Archive, Canberra

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)

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.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 3

Die Unehelichen (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1926)
Die Unehelichen (Gerhard Lamprecht, 1926)

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.

Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925)
Felix Trips Thru Toyland (1925)

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.

Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927)
Förseglade läppar (Sealed Lips, 1927)

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.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 2

Chytÿte ho! (Lupicÿ nesÿika)
Chytÿte ho! (Lupicÿ nesÿika)

They say the world is divided between night owls and early-rising larks. Here at the Giornate, we split in two similar camps: are you up and at ’em first thing for Felix the Cat, who opens each day of the festival, or up all night with curtain-closer Koko the Clown? Your humble correspondent, it seems, is very much a cat person.

And by lunchtime today I was longing for the narrative simplicity of our lovable early morning Felix cartoon (Felix Loses Out, 1924). There was much to enjoy in the morning screenings, but either my mind was especially feeble or the plotting in some of the comedies was needlessly complex. First up, we had a Czech  Anny Ondra double-bill. Chytÿte ho! (1925) was a romp and a half – Ondra plays a young lady whose guardian was a chronic gambler. There is a charming but dissolute artist, a gang of robbers and all kinds of shenanigans involving a stolen dowry. Ondra is all impish charm when in front of the camera, but most of the running time was taken up by male lead Karel Lamac undertaking a series of increasingly inventive comic stunts – the only shame was that the execution fell short of the imagination. Still lively stuff, and for me, preferable to the following film, Dáma S Malou Nozkou (The Lady with the Small Foot, 1920). A couple of amateur sleuths, one wily, one scrappy and dwarfish, attempt to recover a case of stolen money. It’s a strange film, made stranger by a missing length of film that renders one subplot barely intelligible. Strange too, in that it resists the expected narrative resolution. As it says in an intertitle, it’s a “comical piece about a detective, who discovered nothing, but found his true love”. Anny Ondra appears briefly as a young lady who has feet that are small, shapely and completely irrelevant to the plot. Anny, meet the “MacGuffin”, your friend Alfred will tell you more later …

Polis Paulus' påskasmäll (1925) Filmografinr: 1925/11
Polis Paulus’ påskasmäll (1925) Filmografinr: 1925/11

I had little time for Polis Paulus Paskasmäll (The Smugglers, 1925) in the Swedish strand, though others heartily enjoyed it. Its stars were a famous comic duo in Denmark, though as far as I could tell their humour was based on the fact that one was shorter and fatter than the other, who in turn had a ridiculous moustache. Bucketloads of plot here, too, as love affairs, criminal schemes and old rivalries cause havoc among the residents and staff of a ski hotel. There was some excellent slapstick here (a sequence in which the taller comedian dressed himself in a bearskin rub, notably) but though you may call me shallow for it, my favourite thing in this film was leading lady Lili Lani’s chic winter wardrobe.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 1

Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013
Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013

Hello. Has it really been a whole year since this? Hold on to your bonnets, because we are back in Pordenone and it’s Saturday night. It’s time. To face. The silents.

Which is another way of saying the the 32nd Giornate del Cinema Muto has begun, and just a few hours in, we have have had a sampler of diverse treats to come.

Flickan i frack (1926)
Flickan i frack (1926)

My highlight of the first day comes from Sealed Lips, the Swedish strand of the programme that I had big hopes for. Flickan i Frack (The Girl in Tails, 1926) is essentially a teen rom-com, but one saturated in enough intersectional goodness for a PhD dissertation or two. The population of a small provincial town get themselves into terrible muddles by going about various kinds of drag – dressing up or down socially, mostly, but there is also moral posturing, intellectual pretension and, crucially, some audacious transvestism in the mix. Despite such a heavy burden of subtext and inference, Flickan i Frack is light on its feet, witty and winningly romantic. It was directed by Karin Swanström, better known perhaps as an actress – and it is very much a female-oriented film, from its bright heroine who attends her graduation ball in a man’s dress suit (just to make a point, with seemingly no fear that her boyfriend might dislike it, and looking utterly fabulous) to the malevolent matriarch upon whom her future happiness depends (played brilliant by Swanström) and the “wild herd of learned women” who loiter ambiguously in the background.

Gilly poprvŽ v Praze (1920)
Gilly poprvŽ v Praze (1920)

But I am getting ahead of myself. My first glimpse of the festival, as I scurried in late to the first session, was of Anny Ondra, plonked on a hay cart and throwing a fit. The minutes I caught of Gilly Poprvé v Praze (1920) were a lively, rowdy introduction to the Giornate’s Ondra retrospective. It was also far shorter and sweeter than the following feature. Setrele Písmo (The Missing Letters, 1921), was a messy, rather over-extended and patchy film about (bear with me) two sculptors (one morally lax and successful, the other upstanding and impoverished) the former’s two models (one vengeful and brunette, one blonde and rather dull), a couple of palimpsests, some hidden treasure, the construction industry and public arts funding. Nice funicular sequence. Ondra, in an early and atypical role as the second model, was called on to do little more than pose on a pedestal, play with a puppy and pout prettily. To be fair to the film, as we must, it was the product of a garbled production process, incorporating footage from an earlier movie. No wonder its plot had as many layers as one of those palimpsests.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 1

Bernard Natan, Musidora and Alice Guy-Blaché: French pioneers remembered on film

Bernard Natan
Bernard Natan

You may notice the widget on the righthand side of this page, ticking down the days until this blog dispatches itself to Italy, to report from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. We have many reasons to get excited about the arrival of the world’s most prestigious silent film festival. There’s the debut of the lost-and-found Orson Welles short Too Much Johnson, the premiere of a new restoration of The Freshman with a score by Carl Davis, Italy’s first glimpse of Blancanieves, an Anny Ondra retrospective, a programme of Swedish silents, more treasures from the Corrick collection, Ukrainian classics, Mexican rarities, a strand devoted to Gerhard Lamprecht and much more.

I had a smile on my face this morning, however, when I learned that a documentary co-directed by none other than a fellow classic/silent film blogger – the marvellous David Cairns of Shadowplay – will be showing at the Giornate. Natan takes a look at the controversial life of French film-maker Bernard Natan, and the various scandalous assaults on his name. Natan was a Jewish French-Romanian film produced, who was at one time the head of the Pathé studio. Financial troubles, antisemitism and allegations that he was a pornographer degraded his reputation in the industry. His story ends on an even darker note – he died in 1942, in Auschwitz.

Cairns blogged about the film earlier this year:

Bernard Natan used to sign his films — literally, his producer credit was an animated signature inscribing itself on the screen. And then, as Natan’s reputation was destroyed and his company taken away from him, a lot of his films were shorn of their signatures. When the movies got re-released, it was considered embarrassing for their executive producer’s name to be seen. And during the Occupation, many Jewish filmmakers were quietly erased from title sequences.

Since then, Natan’s name has been restored to some of his films, and a few historians have attempted to restore his reputation. That’s the effort Paul and I hope to contribute to with our film, which should tell a dramatic and tragic story, shine a light upon some neglected corners of cinema history — but also help give Bernard Natan his good name back ~

Musidora: la dixieme muse
Musidora: la dixieme muse

The film has already shown at several festivals, including Edinburgh and Telluride – and it plays at Cambridge film festival this week. The Pordenone festival will also be screening a documentary about another French cinema legend: Musidora: la Dixieme Muse. The documentary, by writer and filmmaker Patrick Cazals, promises to trace the actress’s career right form the early days of Vampires and Judex, to her work in later life as a producer and director as well as at Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque, positioning her as a cornerstone of French cinema as much as a legend.

So that’s a nicely themed double-bill at Pordenone for us to savour, but French cinema pioneers are in vogue right now – you can’t have failed to miss the successful Kickstarter campaign for the Jodie Foster-narrated Alice Guy-Blaché documentary.  It has been a massive campaign, conducted enthusiastically and cannily across social media. The line they have been using is that Guy-Blaché’s name is forgotten now because she has been written out of history by her male colleagues and successors. That may be true for many film fans, but just like Musidora, her name is already well-known in silent cinema circles – if Be Natural is to redeem her reputation, it must spread her fame to a far wider audience. While certainly impressive, Be Natural‘s 3,840 Kickstarter backers represent a drop in the ocean. The movie looks like it could be great though – and it’s the popularity of the documentary, rather than the worthiness of its intentions, that will return Guy-Blaché’s name to global renown.

Catch Natan at Cambridge if you can, or if you have already seen it or Musidora, do let me know your thoughts below. There’s a Variety review here. You can also like Natan on Facebook. I have to say, I am looking forward to all three of these films.

PS: I think Lady Gaga, for one, has been mugging up on her early French film – spot the Méliès refs and Musidora costumes in her latest video, Applause

Too Much Johnson restoration to premiere at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, 2013

Orson Welles directs Too Much Johnson
Orson Welles directs Too Much Johnson

It’s an unbelievable discovery, “stranger than fiction” as Paolo Cherchi Usai of the George Eastman House told me. Orson Welles’s 1938 silent movie Too Much Johnson, believed to be lost, destroyed in a fire, has finally turned up. Not only that, the film, which is admittedly just a work print, was discovered in a warehouse in Pordenone, home of the prestigious Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Rejoice, if you are going to Pordenone this year, because Too Much Johnson will have its premiere at the festival, on 9 October 2013, before screening at the George Eastman House (where the film was restored) in the US the following week. Cast your eyes on this lovely video preview of the film – and then click here to read a short piece I wrote for the Guardian about the film and its rediscovery. In it, Cherchi Usai tells me that the Welles film this lost-and-found work reminds him most of … is none other than Citizan Kane.

The Pordenone countdown starts here – read more of the programme for this year’s festival, including Harold Lloyd’s The Freshman, with a score by Carl Davis, and the gorgeous modern silent Blancanieves, here on the Giornate website.

Phono-Cinéma-Théatre at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

Cléo de Mérode dances Photograph: Cinémathèque française / Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Cléo de Mérode dances Photograph: Cinémathèque française / Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand.

Among the gorgeously designed pavilions on the banks of the Seine at the Paris Exposition of 1900 was a small, ornate theatre called the Phono-Cinéma-Théatre, which contained a screen and a small musical ensemble.  Across the screen moved the greatest actors, dancers, mimes and clowns of the day – they spoke, they sang, they moved to music provided by musicians playing live and they were often in exquisite, hand-tinted colour. Five years after the birth of cinema, film and recorded sound brought France’s finest theatrical artists to mechanical life for the lucky generation of fin-de-siècle Paris. It was ephemera among ephemera, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters pulled aside to reveal the artists that inspired him, and, of course, not made to last – half a century of progress and war on an industrial scale would sweep away those films and the spirit of The Banquet Years, as well as millions of those lucky or wealthy enough to experience them, leaving the rest of us with just the books, the posters, a few photos … until last week.

Phono-Cinéma-Théatre poster. Photograph: David Robinson Collection
Phono-Cinéma-Théatre poster. Photograph: David Robinson Collection

On Thursday last the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, showed 23 surviving films of the 41 originally shot, most complete with their hand-colouring, many with their synchronised sound, almost all accompanied live by a small ensemble directed and arranged by John Sweeney. John had spent months finding as much of the original music to the dances and songs as possible, then rehearsed synchronising them to the pre-recorded singing and dancers’ steps, which were set in stone over a hundred years ago – the result was an astounding time-bridge that placed us all more viscerally in the Paris Exposition auditorium than any sound and image record could have done – the artists were now  performing for us, their movements driven by John’s piano, their eyes returning our gaze and their efforts aimed at pleasing us.

It was all so relaxed – Little Tich missed a catch with his hat but just picked it up and carried on as if nothing had happened, the odd dance step was fumbled, but unlike the stiff subjects of so much still photography of the time, our performers did what they did for the camera just as they had done on stage for years (in some cases decades), blissfully uncaring of giving a “definitive” performance or of the legacy of our critical response from an unimaginable distance of posterity.

Sarah Bernhardt fought Hamlet’s duel beautifully, despite her 56 years, and with the addition of Frank Bockius’s uncannily precise sword clashes on triangle; Emilio Cossira sang Romeo’s aria from Gounod’s opera silently, his voice reproduced by Romano Todesco’s single notes on accordion, the intent of feeling vibrant in his features and his genial return for a second bow – Mariette Sully wrung genuine comedy out of singing and dancing “La Poupée” and Cléo de Mérode, La Grande Horizontale to many of the crowned heads of Europe, danced in the way that had turned those heads in the first place.

Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

We found out what made 1900 audiences laugh, thanks to Jules Moy’s anarchic dancing master and Polin’s Troupier Pompette singing about, among other things, stroking a lady’s leg, wondering at the lack of resistance and, on raising her skirt, realising he is touching up the table leg. The entire 90-minute show was a triumph of 1900 and 2012 technology – I have worked with early film for 30 years, and never have I felt so privileged to see these wonders more clearly than any generation before, even the one for which they were intended.

Little Tich Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Little Tich Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

Above all, I now feel I understand turn-of-the-century Paris with a profundity that was impossible before last Thursday night – its potency, its sexuality, within which the highest arts of performance were also the most immediately sensual and arresting, its gaiety and love of sensation, the vibrancy and diversity of its entertainments. The combined efforts of the Cinémathèque Française, Gaumont, Lobster Films, Olivier Auboin-Vermorel and the historical and aesthetic energy of Pordenone director David Robinson have brought not just a corpse but a memory back to life – theatre as film as theatre, a heady concoction only available through the medium of “silent film” – in London, the equivalent would be seeing a complete night at the music hall from 1900, in full colour and with synchronised sound – for now, London must get to see this show, preferably in the perfect surroundings of Hackney Empire where the artists can emerge from the proscenium arch of a Matcham theatre – but maybe after Paris has seen its own long-lost child, this November at the Cinémathèque Française – and, of course, John Sweeney and his ensemble will be there to assist at the rebirth.

Neil Brand

The Silent London podcast: Pordenone special

Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer (1923)
Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer (1923)

Greetings! I’m just back from spending a week at the 31st Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy. Between sipping espresso and circling my favourite films in the schedule, I spoke to some of my fellow travellers about their experiences of this wonderful week of silent cinema. You’ll find full coverage of the festival on Silent London by clicking here, but in the meantime, enjoy this short podcast.

The Silent London Podcast is also on iTunes. Click here for more details.  The music is by kind permission of Neil Brand.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast, email silentlondonpodcast@gmail.com, tweet @silent_london or leave a message on the Facebook page: facebook.com/silentlondon.