The town was like a loaded gun, needing only a spark to set it off – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables
“It’s the last time I shall say it, so I shall say it,” began David Robinson, introducing what is surely not his final Giornate, but the last over which he will preside as artistic director. The Robinson era will close with the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, which looks on paper at least as if it will be a very special festival, with a jewel-studded programme. And he hands the baton to the surest of hands: the marvellous Jay Weissberg of Variety, who joined him on stage tonight by way of introduction, and performed as Robinson’s personal interpreter too. We said another goodbye on Saturday evening – this festival will be dedicated to the memory of one of its staunchest supporters, Jean Darling, who passed away in early September. A snippet of her singing Always at a previous festival began our gala evening, as Robinson took to the stage to say… what was it? Ah yes. “Welcome home!”
But before we get to the gala, and the speeches and the changing of the guard, we have a full afternoon of films to catch up on. Fasten your seatbelts, fellow Pordenauts*, we’re going on a journey.
Our world tour began with trip to Berlin – this was not classic Symphony of a City territory mind, but a visit to Gypsy Berlin – from the camp to the racetrack to the streets. Terrifying to think what lay in store for the people featured in this film, Grossstadt-Zigeuner (1932), but it was a true gem, directed by the Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with great verve and edited with playful intricacy. Despite its many stylistic flourishes, it’s a warm, humane portrait, and served as an excellent introduction to the main feature in this afternoon’s bill from the Other City Symphonies strand. The longer film was a document of Chicago, made by a German film-maker Heinrich Hauser in 1931. Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht uber Chicago (A World City in its Teens. A Report of Chicago) carried itself at an unexpectedly relaxed pace, puttering up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer for the longest time before reaching the metropolis, and even then, we moved slowly, until the film suddenly discovered the residents of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the poverty caused by the Great Depression, etched in the faces of men being turned away from labour exchanges. When workers unloading banana boats at the dock empty the rotten fruit into the river, another group of men in row boats appear to scoop them out of the water. Elsewhere in the city, too, on the south side in the streets largely populated by African Americans, on the lake beach bursting with sun worshippers, Chicago was defined by its people, not its towering skyscrapers. Hats off too to Philip Carli, for fantastic piano accompaniment for both films.
Back to the studio for a full-length edition of the Silent London Podcast. I’m joined by Pete Baran to talk about the festival scene, discuss the first silents we ever watched and catch up on the news. We’re joined by London Symphony director Alex Barrett, who tells us about his favourite silent film, The Passion of Joan of Arc, and we preview the British Silent Film Festival as well as reviewing the great Hollywood silent Flesh and the Devil.
We also make inappropriate comments about Greta Garbo, and I get a little bit over-excited about Pordenone. Just another day in the office really.
Following the rediscovery in June of the missing reel of Laurel and Hardy’s classic comedy short, featuring the pie-fight to end all pie-fights, I can bring you even more good news. A near-complete restoration of The Battle of the Century (1927), by Lobster Films, will screen at the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy this October.
The festival will open with a gala screening of the newly restored Italian film Maciste Alpino (1916), a first world war epic written by Giovanni Pastrone, and the closing gala will be The Phantom of the Opera (1925), starring the amazing Lon Chaney, with Carl Davis’s score performed live by Orchestra San Marco di Pordenone.
The midweek feast will be Henri Fescourt’s epic 1925 adaptation of Les Misérables, in four sittings – it’s six and a half hours long, after all. I am already preparing for that one.
Other anticipated highlights include a celebration of black performers on screen, including 100 Years in Post-Production, a reconstruction of the rushes of Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913), a never-completed comedy starring African American stage star Bert Williams among its all-black cast. I am very keen to see the new restoration of Daisuke Ito’s Diary of Shuji’s Travels (1927) accompanied by a benshi as well as live music, and the recently discovered western To the Last Man (1923).
That last title leads one of the programme’s most exciting strands: a retrospective of the silent films of Victor Fleming. It also ties in neatly with a very promising strand devoted to the beginnings of the western in the silent era.
Two modern silents, at least, will feature: a short Iranian animation inspired by Tim Burton, Junk Girl, and a feature-length experimental film, Picture, conceived by Paolo Cherchi Usai. Judging by his past form, you may want to grab the chance to see that one when you can.
Not a modern silent, but a modern silent cinema mockumentary, Love Among the Ruins is “a faux documentary about the miraculous discovery and restoration of a long-lost Italian silent film”, featuring music by none other than Donald Sosin. It will be interesting to see how this one goes down at Pordenone.
Italian “strong men” Albertini and Aldini made dramatic “thrill” films in Germany in the 1920s, and the Giornate will screen a selection of these. I don’t know too much about these chaps – but I have been browsing these postcards …
From other sources, but not, so far, the festival itself, I hear that we will seen the freshly restored 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring the role-defining William Gillette also. Very exciting.
Early cinema is represented by more German Tonbilder films, selections from the Spanish archive the Sagarminaga collection, and a retrospective ofLeopoldo Fregoli.
We’re promised lots besides, including “alternative city symphonies”, more Russian Laughter (this strand was brilliant last year) Mexican films including El Automovil Grisand El Tren Fantasma.
And finally, I don’t have 100% confirmation on this, but it is likely that the Vitaphone Project’s restoration of the Alice White film Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) will get a runout at the Giornate this year … watch this space
Hello, this is an updated version of a post I wrote in time for last year’s festival – there are a few new tips for 2016 and other updates.
Do you know the way to Pordenone? It’s about 80km north-east of Venice, but that’s not important right now. When I say Pordenone, I mean Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: the world’s most prestigious silent film festival, which takes place in the town every October. This year will see the 35th instalment of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, a veritable institution, which showcases the best (and some of the rest) of silent cinema, accompanied by the world’s leading musicians. It’s eight full days of silent cinema, and a chance to meet the most knowledgeable early film enthusiasts around.
Never been? I think I understand why. Something about the words “prestigious” and ”institution” can be a little daunting. For years I thought Pordenone was not the place for me – it was for the real experts. I was intimidated too by the website, which is actually phenomenally useful, but a little hard to navigate and very text-heavy in two languages.
But as soon as I arrived for my first Giornate in 2012, I knew I had been a fool to stay away. Pordenone isn’t intimidating at all. And if you love silent cinema, which I know you do, it’s an essential indulgence. You can call that the Pordenone paradox.
So here’s a short guide to planning and enjoying your trip to Pordenone for this year’s festival. If you have any more tips – please share them below:
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.
Two Barrymores today, two appearances from Little Tich and too much, as usual, to recount here. But like the hard-working Cupid in La Rose Bleue (Léonce Perret, 1911), I’m going to give it my best shot. So if you’re sitting comfortably …
Today's highlight easily @professorvaness' brill Edwardian Entertainment program. Color fireworks, M&K, palmistry, clowns, fairs etc #GCM33
In a move designed to cure, or provoke, homesickness in weary British bloggers, this morning we were treated to 90 minutes of Edwardian Entertainment courtesy of Bryony Dixon and Vanessa Toulmin. Accompanying the 40-odd shorts and fragments on piano, percussion voice and everything in between were Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius on stellar form (Horne’s witty use of a kazoo, yes kazoo, in a telephone sketch was priceless). This was a peek at England in its Sunday best and some more outlandish costumes. It was all fun, fun, fun with trips to the seaside, the Punch and Judy show, fireworks, the cinematograph, barrel jumping, the fun fair, the panto and many wonderful processions showcasing our forefathers and mothers’ considerable talent in the fields of costume design and formation dancing – and not just Morris troupes and maypoles. It’s enough to make one crave a stick of rock and a trip to the illuminations. Certainly my northwestern heart leapt at a panorama of Blackpool. And who could resist the sight of a row of Mutoscopes on Morecambe beach with the sign “Look at this and get a laugh”. The perfect solution for those of us who want to watch the flicks all day without depriving ourselves of vitamin D.
If you really want sunshine at this time of year, a trip to Greece is in order, and Oi Peripeteiai Tou Villar (The Adventures of Villar, 1924), the oldest film ever restored by the Greek Film Archive, was a sketchy comic caper, doubling as a sun-dappled tour of Athens. Larky nonsense, but great shots of the Acropolis etc. And now I can say I have seen a Greek silent movie, which is sure to wow the folks down at the Rose and Crown on my return.
But if you want something really gorgeous … the second Dawn of Technicolor compilation had many diverting treats inside, culminating in The Toll of the Sea (1922). This was an exceedingly picturesque melodrama, a reboot of Madame Butterfly in which Anna May Wong plays a young Chinese woman in love with an American. But the bond of love and “marriage” is held more sacred by her than him … Oh and it all ends in sadness and sacrifice and another word beginning with S. Not before Wong’s sumptuous wardrobe and elegant garden (complete with peacock!) have been given the full Technicolor treatment, though. The sweetest of sorrow and the sugariest of eye candy.
We have passed the halfway point of the Giornate now, but some would argue we have taken the long route round. Because Wednesday night was epic, you’d have to agree. Tonight we witnessed all five hours of Fritz Lang’s towering, geometric monument to mythic nationalism, Die Nibelungen (1924). And arguably, grandeur was the order of the day: from a spot of early morning swashbuckling to mist-covered mountains and a trip to the opera.
Waking to grey skies and a slick of drizzle on the pavements can only mean one thing here in balmy Pordenone. To merrie Englande! To Ye Olde London Towne, in truth, for The Glorious Adventure (J Stuart Blackton, 1922) – and I have a feeling that the cleansing flames that purged in the spider cave in Tuesday night’s Pansidong are about to smite these half-timbered streets. Do I spy Nell Gwyn and Samuel Pepys in yon King Charles II’s court, as well as carriages and banquets and taverns and bodices aplenty? Of course I do, but while this film’s only concession to realism may have been to cast a real-life aristo (Lady Diana Manners) in the lead role of Lady Beatrice Fair, it’s really far better than it sounds. Of course, the reason that The Glorious Adventure is on the schedule, and the reason it is notable, is that it was shot in Prizma Color – it’s a full-colour silent, of sorts. And while the colour work does have its flaws (mostly “fringing” on movement) the skin tones are realistic, and despite the limited spectrum the shades of dresses, fruit and foliage are mostly rich and clearly defined.
It’s a touch hokey in plot, with an earl hiding his true identity from his childhood sweetheart due to “an excess of chivalry” and such like. But the fight scenes are strong, particularly a clash of swords in The White Horse early on, and Victor McLaglen makes a memorable villain as heavy Bulfinch – more memorable than the real villain Roderick (Cecil Humphreys) for sure. And when the fire comes, the Great Fire of London that is, it’s really quite something: with pools of molten lead around St Paul’s Cathedral, and silhouetted timbers framing the rich reds and yellows that signal destruction. Sarah Street points out in her notes for the film in the Giornate catalogue that the fringing may actually enhance the effect of the flames – the perfect marriage of content and form. A veritable British triumph then, so can we have the Italian weather back now?
Midweek #GCM33. What with a late night Chinese 'spirit' film and early morning Prizmacolor feature I have now upgraded to 'doppio' espresso.
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.
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.
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 mountain footage in 'Colored Views from the Entire World' with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne was particularly magical. #GCM33
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.