“It is vital to be photogenic from head to foot. After that you are allowed to display some measure of talent.” Musidora, who wrote those words, is remembered as one of the true icons of silent cinema in her incarnation as Irma Vep in Louis Feuillade’s 1915 serial Les Vampires. However, there was more to her talent than her photogenic features, her white face and kohl-rimmed eyes and that famous slinky figure in a black body-stocking.
As revealed in a retrospective strand at the recent Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, the full range of Musidora’s career was fascinatingly diverse, feminist, ambitious and wittily self-reflexive. She was born Jeanne Roques in Paris on 23 February, 1899, and by the time of her death, aged 68, on 11 December, 1957, she had worked as a stage actor, singer, film star, novelist, journalist, producer, director and archivist, among other jobs. It’s doubtful that many of the cinephiles purchasing tickets at the Cinématheque Française in the 1950s would have recognised the woman who occasionally worked in the ticket booth as Musidora, the original screen vamp, muse to the surrealists and catnip to the moviegoing public in the 1910s.
The Bologna suntans are fading but the Il Cinema Ritrovato memories are still vivid. So Peter Baran and I were delighted to be joined on our latest podcast by academic and film programmer Eloise Ross, as well as filmmaker Ian Mantgani and writer Philip Concannon from the Badlands Collective. We’re chatting about our highlights, discoveries and duds from the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – a feast of archive, vintage and restored cinema, spanning silent and sound films.
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First: a disclaimer. I approach Ritrovato like an omnivore, tasting a little of everything, talkies and all, so this is not an exhaustive report of the silent offering, just the ones that I especially enjoyed.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Tim Major, a writer of speculative and weird fiction. His short stories have been selected for Best of British Science Fiction and The Best Horror of the Year. His next novel, Snakeskins, will be published by Titan Books in spring 2019. Find out more at www.cosycatastrophes.com
There are moments when I experience a twinge of surprise that I’ve written a long-form non-fiction book about Louis Feuillade’s 1915–16 crime serial, Les Vampires. I’m a novelist and short-story writer rather than a film writer. While I love silent film, it’s far from my specialism. Even so, when I was invited to write a book for the Midnight Movie Monographs series from Electric Dreamhouse Press, Les Vampires was my first choice.
Les Vampires exists in a strange hinterland between the ‘cinema of spectacle’ and the narrative and montage techniques being developed concurrently by filmmakers such as DW Griffith. Nowadays Les Vampires is accepted as highly important in the canon – it laid the groundwork for many staples of crime films as well as the conventions of episodic drama now more likely to be experienced on TV – but it’s equally likely to be mentioned as an example of one of the world’s longest films, at seven hours. Frankly, I’m appalled that the serial gets referenced so much, but seems to be watched relatively little. Continue reading Les Vampires: a dream of silent cinema→
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.
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 ~
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