Charlie Chaplin, whose early masterpiece The Kid played this year’s Giornate opening-night gala, said some very wise things. Among which was the famous dictum that “a day without laughter is a day wasted”. It’s especially glorious to reflect on that idea after a day spent in fits of giggles in the Verdi. Today belonged to Chaplin, to Max Linder, to Suzanne Grandais and Léonce Perret. And more than that, to a rather more grand cosmic joke, played in Pordenone today, which thankfully had results rather more charming that catastrophic.
Yes, the slapstick gods truly smiled on us at the start of the 38th Giornate del Cinema Muto. How else to explain the fact that the industrious town of Pordenone had scheduled both a silent movie festival, and a marching band convention for the same day? Yes, a dozen or more brass bands were stepping around the piazza outside the Verdi reinterpreting pop and rock favourites, all while the afternoon films were playing. Fret not, the Verdi was entirely soundproofed, so there was no interruption to the excellent work of the day’s pianists. But just imagine what Messrs Chaplin and Linder might have made of such a circumstance?
Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..
Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.
Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.
Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934
Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)
A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.
This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.
Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.
The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama
Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)
You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.
This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.
Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown, but this book should encourage more screenings.
Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.
Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection
By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)
The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.
And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?
I wrote a little more on this book for the April 2019 issue of Sight & Sound, which is on sale next week.
What do you need to make a great movie? At the end of a week at Pordenone, is it the images that burn in your mind, or the stories that tug at your heart? Today we had more films that wooed us with visual than narrative pleasure, making for an exhilarating lineup that celebrated the artistry of silent cinema.
Let us begin at the end – with the gala performance of The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), restored by Photoplay in 1990 and playing here with a superb orchestral rendition of Henri Rabaud’s original score. This story of revolutions and robotics is a tremendous one, but it’s the images that scorch: The automaton army raising its sabers in unison; Edith Jehanne surveying the wreckage through a broken window; the pyrotechnic display of the firing squad in a snowy palace courtyard. A wonderful, rousing, and visually thrilled film that provided a suitably grand flourish to a week that has revelled in epic excitement.
A case in point: the tremendous The Last of the Mohicans (1920), one of those Canon Revisited films that is tucked away in an unassuming slot in the schedule and acts like a shot in the arm to the jaded festivalgoer. I had not seen it before and my expectations were somewhere around the middle, but this is wonderful stuff. Amid the action (which is wonderfully staged and always nailbiting) what emerges is an unexpectedly tragic and touching romance – one you wouldn’t go looking for in material like this, but there you go. I was moved. And of course that cliffhanger sequence is the best we have seen all week and we have seen some excellent ones.
I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl. Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.
The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.
Lyda Borelli, Lillian Gish, Florence Vidor, Stacia Napierkowska. Let’s hear it for the ladies after an exceptionally strong day at the Giornate. My favourite film of the day was a Stahl that surprised us all, so let’s start with the great master of melodrama himself. or do I mean, the master of comedy?
Husbands and Lovers (1924) was one of the few silent Stahls I had seen before, sort of. I had seen a cutdown version of this film, which stars Vidor and Lewis Stone as a married couple, and Lew Cody as their friend who makes up one of those triangles we have learned so much about this week. It’s dedicated to “the tired American wife who has a husband and craves a lover, or some such. The shortened version gave me a bum steer, turning it into a mini-melodrama. This is a sparkling, and very smart marital comedy, much in the same vein as Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle. In the opening sequence, Vidor does everything she can do for her helpless man to assist with his morning routine, dashing about in her dressing gown. And then the cad has the verve to say she looks frumpy and untidy. Does that mean there was not a hint of tragedy or an outlandish coincidence in sight? No, but it was played for laughs. And the joy of it is the slowly shifting relationship between the three characters, first one way, then another, until a joyous ending. Fantastic cinematography, sharp lead performances and a very adult understanding of what gets lost and goes unsaid in a long-term relationship. Do look out for this if you can. And it goes without saying, it gave us plenty more to talk about at today’s Stahl collegium presentation. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6→
It’s always a joy to travel the world in a day at the Giornate, but we tarried a little in Sweden this afternoon. A screening of Victor Sjostrom’s deathless The Phantom Carriage was preceded by two less well-known Swedish films, a recent rediscovery of an early work by Sjostrom and a reconstruction of one by his compatriot Mauritz Stiller that survives only in fragments.
Accompanied expertly and very melodically by John Sweeney (coping heroically with the amount of stills in the Stiller), this was an intriguing and very enjoyable double-bill. They were both three-act drama, which unfolded swiftly and with a rich emotional impact. Sjostrom’s recently discovered Judaspengar (1915), starring Egil Eide and John Ekman was a story of betrayal, naturally, as a hard-up worker resorts to increasingly desperate measures when his wife is sick. The attraction here is the aesthetic more than the drama – with interior shots framed prettily by windows on several occasions. The opening is very striking, when the camera glides through an open window to the sick room. Elsewhere, dramatically lit scenes in a gloomy attic contrasted well the open countryside, where our heroes came cropper out poaching.
As the great sage Rachel Bloom has pointed out, the mathematics of love triangles isn’t hard to learn. But what happens when one of the angles in the love triangle is so very much more acute than all the others? Which is to say, age ain’t nothing but a number, but some numbers are certainly far higher than others. And we learned a lot about May-December relationships at the Giornate this morning.
First, the sweetly pretty Swedish film Dunungen (1919), in which a young lady known as Downy (yes, I know, I tried to swap in Fluffkins to make sense of it as a nickname) gets engaged to a fancy dude who is actually the mayor’s son. And she is just the baker’s daughter so she should be grateful right? Well despite her disadvantages he takes her along to go butter up his uncle for an inheritance. Uncle has a big ironworks business and a country estate, and maybe, just maybe he likes Fluffkins more than her rubbish fiancé does. Perhaps they should be together and live happily in rural bliss. Well, it takes some elongated shenanigans and many beautifully hand-drawn folk art intertitles to get there, but yes, she swaps her immature snob for a classy chap who knows what he wants out of life eventually. This was a treat, a film from the Scandinavian Challenge strand that has had a little resto work to fill in the missing reels. It’s gorgeous and funny and spins out its domestic drama until the conclusion feels fully earned.
How long would you wait for a date with Lars Hanson? Maybe don’t answer that, but the past year we have spent yearning for Lars, after seeing his brooding visage on all those beautiful posters for the 2017 Giornate, has flown by. This year, the artwork celebrates the divine Pola Negri, but we’ll have plenty of time to get to her later in the week. Tonight, on the opening evening of the 2018 Giornate, we finally had our night with Lars, and Dr Philip Carli, thanks to a triumphant orchestral screening of Captain Salvation (1927). It was an invigorating start to proceedings, and just the kind of high-quality discovery that keeps us coming back (and back) to the festival.
Captain Salvation? No, I hadn’t come across it before, but it’s a wonder. Hanson plays Anson, a young vicar-in-training living in a coastal village near Boston. He loves the sea, his fiancé Mary (Marceline Day) and God. Quite possibly in that order. When a shipwreck washes up a sex worker named Bess (a wonderful Pauline Starke), Anson defies the locals to offer her charity, rather than the bum’s rush. Ostracised by the piety police, Anson and Bess take passage on a ship captained by a leering Ernest Torrence (excellent as always), which turns out not to be quite what it seemed.
Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.
It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.
I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.
My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.
I am very excited to share this screening with you – The Woman Under Oath (John M Stahl, 1919) is a really special film that I was lucky enough to research last year, and it is showing on 35mm with live music in NFT1.
Most of you will be familiar with the work of John M Stahl – even though he is best known for a few films that were remade by more famous directors. Douglas Sirk remade both his The Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, while Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is based on the novella by Stefan Zwieg that seems also to have inspired Stahl’s 1933 Only Yesterday. Perhaps Stahl’s most famous film is 1944’s Leave Her to Heaven. If you have seen any of those titles, it won’t surprise you to learn that Stahl is celebrated as master of melodrama who directed films with strong, passionate heroines. If you’ve seen the last one, you’ll be excited to learn that The Woman Under Oath pivots on a trial.
Until last year, I had never seen any of Stahl’s silent films, which is partly because so few of them have survived (just nine features and various fragments) and even more so because they are very rarely screened. Stahl was born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, but moved to New York as a youngster. Taking the name John Malcolm Stahl, he made a series of movies in the teens and early twenties in New York, before signing with Louis B Mayer Pictures (which later became MGM) in Hollywood in 1924. He was a founding member of the Academy and briefly an executive at the Tiffany studio. He went on to make 20 sound films, however (all of which survive), including the ones mentioned above. His final picture, made in 1949, was the musical Oh, You Beautiful Doll.