Here in Pordenone, life is an endless round of parties, each more glamorous than the last. Sorry, that’s not my lifestyle but that of Ellen Richter and co in Leben Um Leben (Richard Eichberg, 1916). This film is a sequel so abandon all hope of following the plot all ye who enter in. What I can tell you is that Weimar star Ellen Richter, subject of a retrospective here at the Giornate, plays a scheming Princess in this glitzy romp. There was a costume ball, a “jolly hunt”, some stolen pearls, a run on the “Volksbank” and non-stop shenanigans and all of it was entertaining but it didn’t quite add up to a whole film. Still there was a marvellous multi-tinted dance sequence, as if the star of the floor show was grooving under coloured electric lights, which was far more than set-dressing – it was an attraction all of its own, a very modern throwback.Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 2
This article was originally published on the Drugstore Culture site on 23 November 2018. As that site is currently shuttered, I am reposting it here.
The career of Mabel Normand represents one of the biggest gaps in popular film history. Why isn’t this uproariously funny comic, who starred in more than 167 shorts and 23 features, remembered as one of the greats of silent comedy? Instead, there is a long-established male hierarchy in slapstick: Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton at the top, vying for the number one slot, with Laurel & Hardy and Harold Lloyd snapping at their heels. Then there’s Roscoe Arbuckle, Charlie Chase, Raymond Griffith and many more, cramming in to the picture like a cohort of bungling Keystone Cops. For years the top ranks have been pictured this way, as a boys-only club, with room only for comedians, not comediennes. In his 1975 slapstick bible The Silent Clowns, Walter Kerr even declared: ‘No comedienne ever became a truly important silent ﬁlm clown.’ The reason being, he argued, the beauty standards required of women in the film industry. ‘Comediennes, from Mabel Normand all the way to Marion Davies, laboured under an instant handicap: they had to be pretty… The girl was expected to function as a girl, no matter what incidental nonsense she might be capable of; grotesques need not apply, except for supporting roles.’
It’s a misperception that is finally shifting. A hundred years after the fact, it seems we are finally appreciating the contribution of women to the art of silent comedy, including many more great comediennes besides Normand and Davies. Recent books such as Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas (2017) and Maggie Hennefeld’s Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes (2018) are changing our idea of the comedy canon, and in the UK, screenings as part of the nationwide BFI Comedy Genius season and at the annual Slapstick Festival in Bristol should help to get the word out further. For the record, Marion Davies was deathlessly hilarious, squeezing acclaimed comic set pieces into the action of hit comedies including Show People (1928) and The Patsy (1964), and I would add to that list Marie Dressler, Beatrice Lillie, Colleen Moore, Alice Howell, Laura La Plante, Zasu Pitts and Mary Pickford, just for starters. If we go back further in time, a phalanx of rambunctious women were making boisterous comedies in the pre-Hollywood years: Cunégonde and Rosalie in France, Florence Turner, Laura Bayley and the ‘Tilly Girls’ in Britain. If you’ve been led to believe that women took only dramatic roles in silent cinema, take a second look at these comics, who were as comfortable falling, fighting and making a mess as any of their male counterparts.
The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.
The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.
The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.
The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’
The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’
Hold up. Yes, I know.
In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:
Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’
It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.
But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:
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 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.