Tag Archives: Giornate del Cinema Muto

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.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 8

A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions
A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions

I couldn’t possibly imagine a more heartwarming finale to my first Pordenone trip than Saturday night’s midnight show of The Boatswain’s Mate (Horace Manning Haynes, 1924), with our own Neil Brand on the piano. This vigorously witty, quintessentially British comedy is a neat three-hander starring Florence Turner, Johnny Butt and Victor McLaglen, as a pub landlady, her buffoonish admirer and an out-of-work soldier. I loved it when it showed at the British silent film festival in Cambridge, and the Giornate crowd lapped it up too. The humour of the film comes not just from three strong comic performances, but from the pen of Lydia Hayward, who as with the other films in this strand, adapted the scenario from a WW Jacobs short story. Here though, her pithy intertitles are augmented with cute line drawings that underline – or comically undercut – the text. A 25-minute, 88-year-old gem of British cinema.

But I am getting ahead of myself. The final day of the Giornate began in the unfamiliar, but very comfortable, surroundings of Cinemazero, while Carl Davis rehearsed the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra in the Teatro Verdi for that evening’s gala screening. We assembled for a double-bill of late Thanhouser features, with all the tightly plotted melodrama that entails. A Modern Monte Cristo (1917), transplanted the classic tale’s theme of long-simmering revenge to California, as a shipping magnate frames his love rival for a crime and lives to regret it. Fifty-six minutes of storms, shipwrecks and Machiavellian machinations later, the assembled audience were thoroughly awake and heartily entertained. The wronged hero (played by Vincent Serrano) bore a passing resemblance to George Clooney I felt, and the heroine was played vivaciously by Gladys Dore as an adult and long-time Thanhouser actor Helen Badgley as a child.

Badgley returned, this time as a boy, alongside Jeanne Eagels in the second film of the morning, Fires of Youth (1917), which appeared to be an early pilot for the reality TV show Undercover Boss. Misunderstood foundry owner Pemberton (Frederick Warde) disguises himself in order to live and work among his staff, to regain the spirit of his long-forgotten childhood. As a bonus, he learns to appreciate his workers – and give them the payrises and safe working conditions they have long petitioned for. Or at least I think that’s what happened. Due to a mixup, the intertitles were unexpectedly in French and so no translation was available. A sweetly moralistic, but energetically played film, although this substitute print was abruptly abridged towards the end. Special mention here must go to Bruno, an “aspirant” from the Pordenone accompaniment masterclasses, who played beautifully and sensitively for both films – even more of an achievement considering the surprise switch.

Anna Sten
Anna Sten

Stephen Horne provided the music for the next screening, one of the most hotly anticipated British films in the Giornate: Herbert Wilcox’s highly enjoyable The Only Way (1926), an adaptation of a long-running play that was itself a free-ranging take on Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities. Theatrical giant John Martin-Harvey made a fine Sydney Carton: understated in the drunk scenes and powerfully charismatic in the courtroom. It’s a shame that he was so much older than his opposite number Charles Darnay, which rendered the crucial mistaken identity aspect of this grand story rather ludicrous.

A return to Teatro Verdi – for what? A sound film? Rest easy, this was the silent (but with recorded musical soundtrack) Italian release of Anna Sten’s German film Stürme der Leidenschaft (Storms of Passion, Robert Siodmak, 1931). Tempestuous it was indeed, with Emil Jannings as a released convict, Sten as his wandering wife and Siodmak rehearsing his noir moves in a precociously hot-headed drama. Sten sang, quite well in fact, but with her highlighted hair, slinky satin wardrobe and sultry pout, she came across best as a silent hybrid of Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. Steamy stuff: the perfect prep for watching Greta Garbo and John Gilbert circle each other lustily later that night.

A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions
A Woman of Affairs (1928) Photograph: Photoplay productions

Before the gala’s main feature came many speeches, thank yous and prize-givings, culminating in the unadulterated joy of Pierre Étaix and Jean-Claude Carriere’s 1961 short Rupture. All by itself, this virtuoso comedy proved Étaix to be, in festival director David Robinson’s words: “the last of cinema’s great silent clowns”. If you don’t;know Étaix’s work, read more here, and take any opportunity you can to see his wonderful films.

Finally, Garbo and Gilbert took to the stage, introduced in a short film clip by one of the film’s other stars, Douglas Fairbanks Jr and accompanied by Carl Davis’s hearty score. Doomed romance, barely repressed sexual passion, treachery, sublimated homosexuality, alcoholism and reckless driving: A Woman of Affairs (1928) had it all. Garbo here is elegant, seductive and a million miles away from the grubbiness (and greasy kohl) of Die Freudlose Gasse; Gilbert is dapper and heartbroken; Fairbanks Jr handsome and unhinged.

Yes, it’s a little over-the-top, and there was more than one dramatic tracking shot too many, but this was silent Hollywood at its starry, crowd-pleasing, beautiful peak. If you didn’t swoon just a little, you weren’t, I would contend, paying proper attention. Not my favourite film of the festival, but well worth the applause.

So that’s it for the 31st Giornate del Cinema Muto – it’s been utterly intoxicating, a feast of cinema and cinema appreciation. Will I return next year? Just you try to stop me.

Unsolicited advice of the day: Would you take makeup tips from Emil Jannings? Both he and John Gilbert admonished their lady-friends (Anna Sten and Dorothy Sebastian) for daubing on too much “lip rouge”.  Hmmm…

Giornate stats

  • Eight days in Pordenone.
  • 47 hours, 37 minutes and 12 seconds of silent cinema watched.
  • 18 cups of caffé espresso.
  • Eight blog posts.
  • Four Aperol spritzes.
  • One frico.
  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 7

Anna Sten in Provokator (1927)
Anna Sten in Provokator (1927)

The choices we make in life define us, and this morning I got up bright and early for Viktor Turin’s Provokator (1927), but gave early Selig feature The Ne’er-do-Well (1916) a miss. Did I do right to choose Anna Sten’s anguished student and her revolutionary chums over Kathlyn Williams and the adventures of the rich and beautiful? I don’t know. Provokator, which marks Sten’s cinema debut, was occasionally stirring, but mostly on the pedestrian side, though a raid on the revolutionaries’ den was rather fine, boosted by terrific accompaniment from Gabriel Thibaudeau and Frank Bockius.

Walter Summers
Walter Summers

Where I may have erred is in choosing such a downbeat opener on a day that was to close with GW Pabst’s heartbreaking social critique Die Freudlose Gasse (1925). However, I am getting ahead of myself. My afternoon was perked up considerably by the patriotic hubbub around Walter Summers’ lovely postwar tearjerker A Couple of Down-and-Outs (1923), introduced by the producer’s grandson Sidney Samuelson, who was seeing the film for the first time. What could be a very harrowing tale is handled with care, as Rex Davis’s Danny finds unlikely allies when he rescues his war horse from a foreign abattoir: manipulative, but charming with it.

The audience groaned in unison at the start of the next screening, as another tranche of German animated shorts kicked off with a toothpaste advert featuring the “tooth devil” cracking open a poor vulnerable gnasher with his drill. It was, as before, a diverting and diverse hour. In the name of commerce, all kinds of unlikely objects have been animated: detergent, rolling pins, matchboxes, kettles and even, in a sweet but fussy stop-motion ad for aspirin, a silent-film star and director (Im Filmatelier, 1927). Günter Buchwald at the piano followed with apparent ease the rapid changes of subject-matter, media and mood – as when a promo film for a department store dwelt proffered a new suit as a suicide-prevention measure (Der Hartnäckige Selbstmörder, 1925).

Asta Nielsen in Die Freudlose Gasse (1925)
Asta Nielsen in Die Freudlose Gasse (1925)

I have a date with Greta Garbo in A Woman of Affairs (1928) on Saturday, but I spent Friday night with both Garbo and Asta Nielsen in the elegant but emotionally gruelling Die Freudlose Gasse (1925), giving a beautiful face to the seedy economic exploitation of women in 1920s Vienna. Both the lead stars are fantastic, and supported by a cast of wonderful character actors including Valeska Gert as a pixie-faced madam. Pabst’s direction veers between sober restraint and wild bouts of inventive, unchained camera excitement. This new print is not quite complete, but mostly crisp, with deep tinting, most especially effective in a fire scene towards the end.

Accidentally profound statement of the day: “The joyless street is long,” exclaimed I, when I read in the catalogue that Die Freudlose Gasse clocks in at 151 minutes long in its present state. It ran for closer to three hours at the Berlin film festival, apparently, but that was based on a projection speed of 16fps, as opposed to the Giornate’s 19fps. Phew.

  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 6

Jenseits der Strasse (1929)
Jenseits der Strasse (1929)

An exceptionally strong and varied day at the Giornate: Soviet montage, German arthouse, a British drama, Dickens in Danish, early sound films and a big, fat two-strip Technicolor feature in the evening.

Anna Sten took centre-stage on Thursday morning in two very different films set in pre-revolutionary Russia. In The White Eagle (Yakov Protazanov, 1928) she plays a governess, working for a governor who orders soldiers to fire on a crowd of protesting workers. Sten is horrified, and while her boss has largely ineffectual pangs of remorse, she decides to take matters, and a pearl-handled revolver, into her own hands. Protazanov called the film a “low tide” but it’s actually very stirring and although it’s not Sten’s finest performance, by all accounts she had a strong working relationship with the director. It’s an engrossing film, which compares chains of command to chains of oppression and explores guilt and revenge in interesting ways. For example, the way the governor’s peers avoid him as soon as they learn he may be the target of a terrorist attack, while the Bolsheviks refuse to single out one victim for their vengeance.

The White Eagle is largely extant, but exists only in an incomplete print. We have even less of Merchants of Glory (Leonid Obolenskii, 1929), which is a shame, because it’s a strange, invigorating number, loosely based on a play by Marcel Pagnol and Pierre Nivoix. Henri Bachelet is a military hero, who died a noble death and is lionised by his family and community, so much so that his father is urged to transform his popular sympathy into political clout by running for office – and his wife marries a rich factory owner and sidesteps into a life of luxury. Only his quiet cousin (Sten) remains unchanged by Bachelet’s posthumous fame, and through her eyes we see injustices such as the way that wounded soldiers are treated by the regime they fought for. Wouldn’t the political bigwigs be surprised to learn that Bachelet was a communist sympathiser?

In the telling of this tale, Obolenskii gives us a sumptuous ball, battle scenes and even dance numbers. The finale, in which Bachelet, who has unexpectedly been found alive and well, defaces his own portrait and is attacked by his father’s friends, must have been magnificent, but is sadly almost all missing and relayed by still frames for the most part in this print.

The two Stens made for a strong morning, but my highlight was a lyrical German film that came between them, called Jenseits der Strasse or Harbor Drift (Leo Mittler, 1929). A beggar nabs a pearl necklace from a puddle, and promises to share the profits on its sale with a new-found drifter pal, all the while a prostitute plans to take it, and sell it herself … Impressionistic, oddly noirish, tragic and ultimately dark-hearted, this is a real find. The film has been championed for a few years now by Stephen Horne, who accompanied it beautifully on piano, flute, accordion and zither. The recent discovery of the film’s previously missing reel makes this gem ripe for restoration, and a wider audience.

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

After lunch there was a chance to see The Unwanted (1924), a new find from the hand of Walter Summers. I had seen it in London, so skipped it, but was pleased that the film’s strengths (the Venetian opening, mountain scenes and burst of battle towards the end), played well on the big screen at the Teatro Verdi.

Lille Dorrit (1924), was a sumptuous Danish adaption though necessarily a simplification of Dickens’ weighty classic. A winsome Amy Dorrit (Karina Bell), a sprightly Maggy (Karen Caspersen) and an eccentric, avuncular “father of Marshalsea” (Frederik Jensen) combined with gorgeous sets – and benefited here too from a crisp, bright print. Dickens fatigue has not yet set in here and with beauties such as this one, it will be kept at bay a fair while longer.

The Viking (1928)
The Viking (1928)

The evening’s fare was a story of the sublime and the ridiculous. The Phono-Cinéma–Théatre programme of aearly sound films from the 1900 Paris Exposition, recently discovered in a French archive and beautifully restored, was a hotly anticipated treat. Hand-coloured short films of famous performers from Cléo de Mérode to Little Tich to Sarah Bernhardt delighted the auditorium. In fact, Bernhardt performing the duel scene from Hamlet may well be the highlight of the festival for me – a film I have heard about for years, but never expected to see. You can read more about the night on the excellent Illuminations blog here. Special mention must go to John Sweeney for the accompaniment, taken from the original scores and working both in tandem with the wax cylinder soundtracks or instead of them. The dance shorts were a standout in this regard, including splendid Mérode’s Javanese and Slavic routines.

What to say about The Viking (1928)? Kitsch, unintentionally hilarious, and resplendent in the reds and greens of two-strip Technicolor, this was the very definition of a guilty pleasure. I’d like to say I was laughing with it, rather than at it, but it would be a fib.

  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are hereherehere and here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

The fairies that adorn the Giornate posters are not fairies, but vengeful butterflies. In La Peine duTalion (1906), which concluded this afternoon’s gorgeous programme of early cinema, the dazzlingly costumed scamps take rather lighthearted revenge on a butterfly collector for all the times he trapped their friends and pinned them to a cork. Mystery solved!

There were many more treats in that programme, including Méliès’ clown caper Automaboulisme et Autorité (1899), valiantly (I shall say no more) accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau and Frank Bockius, an extravagant serpentine dance (Danse de l’Eventail, 1897) and a loopily charming comedy about a girl so tall she can’t stand upright (Eugenie, Redresse-toi, 1911). The butterflies fluttered out of the Corrick Collection, along with the familiarly lurid delights of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), a vividly coloured but sadly damaged L’Enfant Prodigue (1909), and a real crowd-pleaser: the cunning canine stars of Les Chiens Contrebandiers (1906).

Automaboulisme et Autorité (1899) Photograph: Cinématheque Française
Automaboulisme et Autorité (1899) Photograph: Cinématheque Française

A rare pleasure, the discovery of a precious Yevgenii Cherviakov film starring the luminous Anna Sten (in Buenos Aires) is a moment to be treasured. And although we only have a few reels of Moi Syn (My Son, 1928), transferred rather basically to DVD, it was enough to show us that the only director Dovzhenko admitted as an influence was a prodigiously talented film-maker. This is a poetic piece, with a devastating opening, as after a series of close-ups (which characterise the film), Sten turns to her husband and says, indicating the newborn in her arms: “This is not your son.” There is a fire, a lecture on childcare, and an infant funeral to follow but not in that order. Impressionistic, but frank, and subtly accompanied today by Neil Brand, Moi Syn is unforgettable even in its present state. I dearly hope the rest will be restored to us soon.

The Spoilers (1914)
The Spoilers (1914)

Another landmark film, but of a very different kind, Selip Polyscope’s trailblazing feature The Spoilers (1914) was a diverting two hours. A gold mine, and a community, in peril; a maverick and his gal to the rescue; the Bronco Kid; corrupt politicians … there was perhaps an excess of plot, even for the running time, but who cares? Kathlyn Williams as Cherry Malotte, a good-time girl made good, stole the show, particularly in her outrageous costumes.

Less enjoyable was Familientag im Hause Prellstein (1927), an UFA Jewish comedy, directed by the notorious Hans Steinhoff. This convoluted tale of debt, divorce and double-dealing fizzled out after its opening 20 minutes or so.

Still, reports from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), screening in the cathedral with a new score by Touve Ratovondrahety, were excellent, and the day’s action in the Teatro Verdi concluded with Manning Haynes’ lovable coastal comedy The Head of the Family (1922).

What we didn’t learn today: Helen in The Spoilers was “wrapped in a woof of secrecy”. Whatever that is. Answers on a postcard or in the comments field below, please.

  • You can read Nathalie Morris’s excellent report from the festival for the BFI website here.
  • I have also written an article for the Guardian film website about Méliès’ Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé – it’s here.
  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are hereherehere and here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 4

Zvenyhora (1927)
Zvenyhora (1927)

If it’s Tuesday then it must be Dovzhenko. My fourth day at the Giorante began a little later than the others, with a screening of Zvenyhora (1927), a bewildering film of great splendour, which the Ukrainian director described as his “most interesting picture”. This symbolic hymn to national pride, myth and destiny gave him the chance, he believed: “to expand the screen’s frame, get away from clichéd narrativity, and speak in the language of vast generalisations”. That either sounds like heaven or hell to you I am sure, and while I find the film impossible to summarise, I thought it was magnificently photographed, never dull and mostly incomprehensible. Like the other Dovzhenkos I have seen, I am sure it will linger in the mind. Mention must also go to John Sweeney’s thunderous, passionate accompaniment on what the festival programme so enticingly calls the “pianoforte”.

Annie Bos
Annie Bos

“Nelly and Adolf hurry to tell all to the insurer” – does that intertitle give you a suggestion of the, erm, lack of similar grandeur and high drama in De Bertha (1913)? This was a half-hour caper about insurance fraud, shipping and the new-fangled telegraph starring sweet-faced Annie Bos, known as the “Dutch Anna Nielsen”. It was a happy recent discovery for the EYE Film Institute and while it is a smartly told tale, with pretty tinting and a likeable leading lady, it was far too soapy and unexciting for me after the previous film. Pity.

A longish lunch called, before returning to the Teatro Verdi for a trio of star voyages from 1906: the French original, Voyage Autour d’une Etoile, an abridged reshoot of the same with different actors and sets, and an Italian remake, Un Viaggio in una Stella, all by the same director, with subtle differences. There was great inventiveness on display, plus masses of good humour and dancing, and I could have happily watched variations on this theme for hours – before splicing together a supercut of the best moments from each.

Die Weber (1927)
Die Weber (1927)

We were back on the hard stuff with Friedrich Zelnik’s 1926 Die Weber, AKA “the German Potemkin” – though this magnificent story of textile workers kicking back against their brutish boss (Paul Wegener) was more like a German Strike, and my, was it soul-stirring. Dynamic hand-drawn intertitles, a vigorous ensemble, and wonderful direction (a poignant sequence with a hungry boy and a rocking horse, frenetic mob scenes), made this an exhilarating hour and a half. Spectacular accompaniment from Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius, including some rousing revolutionary singing, fair took our breath away.

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

Having calmed our radical fervour with a quick drink over the road, we took our places for a double-bill that promised pure joy – and delivered. First, a rerun of Saturday night’s world premiere of the restored Méliès film Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé (1902) with Paul McGann once again delivering the commentary (more on this anon). Then, a screening I was particularly looking forward to: Herbert Brenon’s 1923 romance The Spanish Dancer, starring Pola Negri, Adolphe Menjou, Wallace Beery, Kathlyn Williams and chums. What I didn’t know was that silent film musician Donald Sosin had spent many months planning an accompaniment for the movie, which would involve a group of musicians including Günter Buchwald on guitar. Sadly, Sosin is currently unwell and unable to attend the festival, so Buchwald, Stephen Horne and a few others, put together their own music, at late notice, but based on some of the plans that Sosin had made. It was fabulous. The film is classic Hollywood at its ludicrous best, with giant, gorgeous sets, sequined costumes and massive crowd scenes. Negri is wonderful, especially as this is a role that allows her to dance, and fall desperately in love – her two specialities – as a gypsy fortune teller whose beauty and kindness plunges the Spanish court into disarray. And the richness of the accompaniment, with gypsy guitar, percussion, and romantic strings, did it true justice – I hope Sosin would have been pleased. A memorable screening for sure, and do, “I beseech you”, catch The Spanish Dancer when it screens at the London film festival next weekend.

Favourite intertitles of the day: It’s a tie, between “I’ve accidentally killed myself” in Saved by the Pony Express (1911), starring Tom Mix, and “Damn that bunch of knitters” from Die Weber.

Best argument for vegetarianism of the day: Jäger in Die Weber opines something along the lines of: “What need have we to eat meat, when we could devour the manufacturers instead? They swim in grease up to their necks already.” Quite. And who could fail to agree when they had just seen Grandpa choking as he chewed on a stew made of the family dog?

For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.

My previous reports from the festival are herehere and here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 3

Monday at the Giornate closed with a brace of comic features featuring forgotten stars: Raymond Griffith’s civil war caper Hands Up! (1926) was preceded by Boris Barnet’s gentler Soviet comedy The Girl With The Hatbox (1927). Both were a pleasure, of course, but for me, the east was victorious in this particular battle.

Coming before both films was a modern silent, the slight but charming Le Petit Nuage (2012), a tale of impetuous romance in Paris made by Renée George, who was the lighting best boy on a little-seen confection of nostalgia called The Artist, released late last year. Anyone remember that one? Anyway, wonderful to see the ripple-effect work its magic, as the star of George’s film also has her own silent project in progress. Soon we’ll all be at it.

Affinities (1922)
Affinities (1922)

Working backwards through the schedule on a day when I will admit I was a little sidetracked, the programme of restored fragments produced by the Haghefilm/Selznick School fellowship 2012 won the hearts of the audience with its rare and strange beauty. The glimpses of Colleen Moore in 1922’s Affinities showed her at her winning best, although the film’s sexual politics seem terrifyingly retrogressive. There was two-strip Technicolor aplenty here: a documentary called Sports of Many Lands (1929) entranced with images of surfers on Waikiki’s deep blue ocean waves and race horses speeding down rich green furlongs. There were musical numbers, mysterious robots and dancing girls too. More, please.

There was a devil of a lot of Dickens on offer today, with the first session of the morning partnering a raucous but the most part feebly acted 1914 Martin Chuzzlewit, with the rare treat of our own Maurice Elvey’s slick, engaging modern dress Dombey and Son from 1917. Lucie Dutton says it best on Twitter (and there are more where these came from, Lucie is tweeting up a storm from the festival):

What to say of the diverse comedies collected in the Oh, Mother-in-Law! programme? Not nearly as offensive as it sounds, these shorts were often laugh-out-loud funny, with Louis Feuillade’s race film La Course des Belles-Mères (1907) and a wicked Italian number called Finalement Soli (1912) the standouts for me.

What we learned today: Defensive weapon, writing desk, modesty screen, rodent impersonator … the many and varied uses of a hatbox, as demonstrated by Anna Sten in The Girl With the … Hatbox.

Drink of the day: And every day if I get my wish: the feted Aperol Spritz.

For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.

My report from the first and second days of the festival are here and  here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 2

The Goose Woman (1925)
The Goose Woman (1925)

One would only expect to see the most ardent silent cinephiles here at the Giornate, but even within the geek elite assembled in Pordenone there are distinctions to be drawn. For instance, do you love silent cinema enough to be present and correct at a 9am screening of a rarely shown “experimental” Pudovkin film? On a Sunday?

Anna Sten in Earth in Chains (1927)
Anna Sten in Earth in Chains (1927)

Well I was there, though my fellow festival-goers may wish mention my hotel’s proximity to the Teatro Verdi as a mitigating factor. And for my euros, Prostoi Sluchai/A Simple Case (1932) was worth the early start. A moral parable, slightly more convoluted than the title suggests, it condemns disloyalty to the Socialist cause, here represented by a shell-shocked husband committing adultery. The lyrical opening, some extreme montage to represent machine-gun fire in the battle scenes and an abstract sequence of decay and regrowth all stood out. Not an easy film to take in, perhaps, but one that repays the effort.

Sunday’s second Soviet film came much later in the schedule and was one of my highlights of the day. To kick off the strand of the programme that celebrates Anna Sten, the Hollywood star who never quite was, we were treated to the emotionally gruelling Earth in Chains (Fyodor Otsep, 1927). Sten is beautiful, just radiant, in this exceptionally ugly tale of exploitation. The film’s epic themes of injustice and oppression make it seem much longer than its 80-minute running time, which was, for once, a good thing.  Some heavy metaphorical inserts and a mawkish ending aside, this film consistently impressed and I am keenly anticipating more from Sten this week.

It was a more obvious pleasure to take in some Italian scenery this morning, while watching Idillio Infranto (1933), a short, poetic-realist tale of doomed romance and corruption in the Puglian hills (and more of the same in the big, bad city). The folksiness of the film was echoed by the recorded score for instruments and voices that was always highly strung and mostly excellent.

Idillio Infranto (1933)
Idillio Infranto (1933)

On a high from the Italian film, I returned from lunch hugely excited to see The Goose Woman (1925), which I missed at the London film festival last year. Louise Dresser plays an alcoholic former opera star who pretends to have witnessed a crime in order to get some attention from the newspapers. It’s a terribly sad story, inspired by a real murder case, and the film often awkwardly mixes comedy in the drama when perhaps it could have been played straight. It’s beautifully shot, with delicate lighting, emphasised by tints on the film. Dresser is fantastic in the lead role, though, and though this film also has a rather sugary finale, this Hollywood gem directed by Clarence Brown is a very happy rediscovery.

The most bizarre segment of the day was undoubtedly the morning’s programme of German animation. Yes there was a Lotte Reiniger film in there (Die Barcarole, 1924), and some similar cutout work from contemporary Toni Raboldt, but this was a diverse batch indeed. Many of the shorts were in actuality adverts or propaganda films, promoting goods from sausages to perfume, life insurance to war bonds. One of the strangest was a mixed-media, hand-tinted work by Walter Ruttman that employed the story of Adam and Eve to sell fresh flowers. It’s a love story, I suppose. Many of the films were funny, most intentionally so, and a few of them were wildly politically incorrect or just plain odd. A brantub of surprise packages.

Jackie Coogan as Oliver Twist
Jackie Coogan as Oliver Twist

The evening entertainment was a double-shot of Oliver Twist: the pacey 1922 Hollywood version starring Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney was accompanied, though I didn’t see it, by a shorter Hungarian version titled Twist Oliver (1919). For the night owls there was another of Manning Haynes’ precious WW Jacobs adaptations: Sam’s Boy (1922), but so far, I think I’m more of a lark

Silent cinema in-joke of the day: Yesterday it was Marion Davies mimicking her Hollywood pals, today the intertitle in Frank Lloyd’s Oliver Twist introducing a “Mr Brownlow” drew a very rowdy chuckle on the top balcony.

For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.

My report from the first day of the festival is here.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 1

Image

Here in Pordenone the weather is warm and the days are long, which makes the Giornate del Cinema Muto, now in its 31st year, an Indian summer of film and music.

This is your correspondent’s first trip to the grand-daddy of international silent film festivals and although I have only been in town for a few hours, I am inclined to believe the hype. This town in northern Italy has definitely been bitten by the silent cinema bug. The billboards, shop windows and even pavements are adorned with hand-tinted fairies, in eye-popping shades of cerise, blue, orange and green. The customers sipping caffe espresso in the cafes bend their heads over the 190-odd page festival catalogue, revealing the loops of pastel ribbon around their necks that hold their precious pink passes.

With eight days of silent cinema programmed, taking in everything from Louis Feuillade to GW Pabst, Laurel and Hardy to Anna Sten, starting at nine in the morning and continuing late into the night, this is a film enthusiasts’ paradise. It’s a rich diet, too, and some of the sessions will test the spectators’ endurance as much as they dazzle the eyes, but therein lies the challenge: how to see everything that you want to see, discover some unexpected gems, sleep (but not in your seat at the Teatro Verdi) and eat three squarish meals a day? It’s tricky. And if one were fool enough to try to blog from the festival too, utterly impossible.

But God loves a trier, so here goes nothing.

This is the first in a selection of posts I hope to share from my trip to the Giornate. I want to give you a flavour of the festival, and keep you up to speed with the treasures on show here. Anything more comprehensive may just be a promise I can’t keep.

My first day here was mostly spent in queues, at airports and ticket offices in London and Venice. However, I did arrive in time for a programme of early Charles Dickens adaptations, most of which were familiar to me as they may be to you, but as in the case of The Death of Poor Joe (1900/1) discovered this year in the BFI archives, some are only recent acquaintances. Thanhouser’s The Old Curiosity Shop (1911) benefits from a particularly winsome, though terribly young, Little Nell in the form of “Thanhouser Kid” Marie Eline. The same company’s boisterous, and very funny, romp through Nicholas Nickleby, made in the following year, was another highlight of the afternoon. We were also treated to four episodes from The Pickwick Papers and Biograph’s The Cricket on the Hearth (1914). Rest assured, this won’t be the last we hear from Dickens.

ImageSaturday night’s opening gala was a double-bill of an old favourite and a lost-and-found treat. George Méliès is very much in vogue, and the full version of his The Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1902) has been discovered, in all its hand-tinted splendour and restored by the Cinematheque Française. Made just a few months after The Trip to the Moon, Crusoe is, as the director and star himself said, more of a “cinematographic play” than a series of “fantastic tableaux”. Colour is used here to tell the story, rather than to dazzle, but the sets, particularly the shipwreck scene and a thunderstorm, are fantastic. The effect of seeing living actors, with their clothes and skin painted on, interacting with Méliès’ theatrical studio sets is as exhilaratingly hyper-real as anything James Cameron has thrown at us. Paul McGann delivered the director’s own commentary, which combined narrative exposition with an advertisement of the film’s strengths and special effects. Maud Nelissen’s score for a quartet added panache, pace and a smattering of sound effects

The gala centrepiece was King Vidor’s delightful The Patsy (1929) starring Marion Davies and Marie Dressler, with an orchestral score from Nelissen. The house was in fits, particularly during the famous sequence in which Davies impersonates Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. An in-joke for this crowd perhaps, but it’s wonderful to see the silent stars still playing to the gallery in the 21st century.

Highlights from the 2011 Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2011
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2011

A postcard from this year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone – by guest blogger Ellie Groom.

Hello Silent London readers! I’m Ellie from the Kine Artefacts blog. Last week I travelled to Pordenone for the 30th Giornate del Cinema Muto, and have been asked to provide a few highlights. More than 150 silent films were screened across eight days, so picking favourites was no easy feat, but here goes …

2011 was a year full of significant rediscoveries and restorations of seemingly lost classics. Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films presented the digitally restored version of the hand-painted print of Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Famously, the restoration was over a decade in the making, and came complete with a controversial modern score by Air, which caused one disgruntled festivalgoer to exclaim, “It’s a disgrace!” Opinion is split on whether Lobster Films should have presented a more traditional soundtrack (and the film was screened again later in the week with Donald Sosin at the piano), but nothing could have detracted from the bold and beautiful colours of Méliès’s sci-fi wonderland.

The three surviving reels of Graham Cutts’s The White Shadow (1923) had film fans queuing all the way across the piazza, desperate to see the work of a young assistant director called Alfred Hitchcock. The shadow of Hitchcock loomed large over the screening, though the real star of the piece had to be American actress Betty Compson, who deftly hopped between the dual roles of twin sisters, one virtuous and the other flighty, in love with a man unaware that he has two paramours. Watching the film was a frustrating experience as it cut out at the most dramatic point. Someone, please, find those last three reels!

As is well known, next year silent film fans in the US will be able to see Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) in all its glory. However, Kevin Brownlow was on hand in Pordenone to give a stirring history of his plight to restore the epic biopic. Brownlow’s lecture was part of the Collegium: an education initiative whereby a dozen young film researchers are invited to Pordenone to partake in dialogues with eminent film historians and archivists. If, like me, you are interested in becoming a Pordenone Collegian then keep an eye on their website – applications will open in the new year. No formal experience is required, just enthusiasm for silent cinema.

While names such Hitchcock and Méliès will always draw a crowd, it should be noted that several other finds made their way to Italy, which may have been more obscure but were no less astonishing. RW Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship is a delightful and invaluable rediscovery from 1896 – arguably making it one of the earliest instances of fiction on film. It was thrilling to see so many festival goers enraptured by less than a minute and a half of film depicting a simple story of a couple’s attempt to grab some privacy.

There was a strong emphasis on restoring the colours of silent film. As most Silent London readers will be aware, while silent films were shot on black and white film stock, large amounts of them were tinted, toned, stencilled and hand-painted. The festival screened several examples of digital restoration and the Desmet process of turning hand-coloured films into colour prints, as well as rare examples of prints that have been tinted using dye, just as the original distributors would have done. One particularly fascinating example was a tinted fragment from Der Rätsel von Bangalor (1918), which although just five minutes long was screened seven times, each time from a print restored using a different method – including one that had been submerged in food dye!

Lastly, the festival drew to a close in style, with Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), accompanied by Carl Davis conducting his own score with the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra. This silent classic starring Lillian Gish was screened with Davis’s score in Pordenone in 1986, and so its triumphant return was a fitting finale for the festival’s 30th anniversary.

So, there you have it: a whistlestop tour of Pordenone 2011. I didn’t have time to highlight the other wonderful screenings such as New Babylon (1929) with Dmitri Shostakovich’s original score, the film of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, South (1919), accompanied by a commentary from the explorer’s diaries, read by Paul McGann, or Walt Disney’s Laugh-o-Grams (quick plug: I’ll be discussing those next week on my blog). Never mind … there’s always next year.

Thank you Ellie.