Pordenone diary 2008 – day four

For those who may not know, the recumbent figure who supplies the Pordenone silent film festival logo is Donald O’Connor. That’s Donald O’Connor playing Buster Keaton in The Buster Keaton Story (1957). A curious choice, all things considered, but, hey, it works.

Were I a writer of any skill, I would look upon the films that we saw on Tuesday 7 October, and I would draw out unexpected themes and make thoughtful overviews. But diversity was the only theme on offer. For anyone with only general ideas of what silent films comprise, this was the day to have your eyes opened.

Ironically, if there’s one thing that the average person is able to associate with silent film, it’s slapstick, and that’s what we started with (or rather, what I started with, as I missed the Austrian film Kleider Machen Leute that began the day). Under the ‘Rediscoveries’ strand we were offered a barrage of Keystone Film Company comedies, most of them recent discoveries or restorations. For the festival, this marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Keystone-themed festival it ran in 1983.

Mack Sennett, Keystone’s presiding genius, ran his studio as an assembly line, pumping out comedies by the yard, with an accomplished, hard-wearing troupe of performers able to fit themselves perfectly into the rigours of whatever routine Sennett had dreamt up for them this week. Three things were particularly noticeable about the films: the unquenchable vitality of the performers, the opportunistic taste for sketches to be devised out of some local event or eye-catching piece of scenery, and the phenomenal speed. One knows all about the knockabout thrills of American slapstick, but looking at a film like Love, Speed and Thrills (1915), the sheer number of shots, angles and different set-ups was prodigious, and seemed to run counter to the demand for getting out the films cheaply and quickly. They made such work for themselves, simply by the pursuit of comic excellence. Not that one could call all of the films strictly funny as such – not funny now, that is – and that the grotesquely gesticulating Ford Sterling (left) was ever revered as a comedian has left posterity baffled. Sterling pulled every face known to man (and a few that man has now happily forgotten) in his efforts to draw laughter out of the curious Stolen Glory (1912), where he and Fred Mace play warring Civil War veterans, filmed interrupting a genuine war veterans’ parade, apparently without any protest from the participants.

Other Keystones that caughter the eye included A Deaf Burglar (1913), which drew some easy laughs from a situation readily inferred from the title, and A Little Hero (1913), which starred a cat (named Pepper), a dog and Mabel Normand, the dog saving a caged bird from the cat’s predations in a scenario that looked for all the world as though it were borrowed from that deathless British classic, Rescued by Rover. Love, Speed and Thrills more than lived up to its title. One could only look on with astonishment at the violent indignities to which Minta Durfee was put in this frenetic chase comedy. These comedies were the inheritors of the comedy series made by European companies, but in their difference to the works of Max Linder, Cretinetti et al one sees how it was that American cinema, and the idea of America, conquered the world. Their new world dynamism is overpowering. Love, speed and thrills sold America.

And then for something completely different. There is growing interest in European women filmmakers in the silent era, and among their select number is the intriguing figure of Elvira Giallanella, director of Umanità (1919). Not much is known about Giallanella, except that she established a film company, Vera, in 1913, which made a Futurist-inspired production, Mondo baldoria (1913), then formed Liana Film, with great ambitions for extensive production, but with just the one title seeing the light of day – Umanità. This thirty-five minute work is unique. It is an anti-war allegory based on a children’s poem by Vittorio Bravetta. The child protagonists are named Tranquillino and Serenetta, which gives you a fair idea of the filmmaker’s intentions. The children wake up in the night – Tranquillino smokes a cigarette (eye-popping stuff) and has a nightmare, in which the world has been destroyed by war and he and his sister are given the task of rebuilding it. Given the nil budget, we have to rely on our imaginations quite a bit. The futility of war is revealed, for instance, by a neat line of empty boots. Peculiarly, the children are guided by a gnome (the embodiment of one of their toys), across deserted, rocky landscapes. The action wasn’t all that easy to follow, chiefly because the Italian intertitles had been bravely translated by the festival into English verse, at the expense of some logic. Intriguingly, Tranquillino, discovers the seeds of violence in him as he wishes to throw bombs, but the two children resort to prayer and are comforted by a bearded God and Jesus (one of a number of appearances during the Giornate). A film of muddled meaning and technique – who saw it at the time, and what on earth did they make of it? – but out on its own among silent film. The film it reminded me of was Richard Lester’s post-apocalyptic comedy The Bed Sitting Room, the survivors wandering about a shattered, empty world, trying to recover meaning.

Shown in the ‘Film and History’ strand, Umanità was paired with the surviving reel of the five-reeler American film If My Country Should Call (1916). This was not anti-war as such, as its avowed theme was ‘preparedness’ for an America which would shortly join the conflict, but its central, sympathetic character was a mother (played by Dorothy Phillips) whose sentiments were anti-war. It was something of a shock to read a closing intertitle which denounced her attitude as selfish. Otherwise it was a tale of enfeebled manhood (and by extension the nation), redeemed by the promise of fighting. Lon Chaney appeared as a doctor, and scenarist was Ida May Park.

Right up my street was Paul Spehr’s special presentation on the films of William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson. As Spehr’s new book says it, Dickson was The Man Who Made Movies. The Edison employee who was assigned in the early 1890s to solving the problem of creating a photographic motion picture device, Dickson not only – more than anyone else – created motion pictures (the system he devised, with 35mm perforated film, is with us still) but he was a maker of movies in the artistic sense. His films, from the earliest experiments with Edison through to his bold adventures with the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company in the late 1890s, are hauntingly beautiful. I won’t got into every film here, but just to say that Spehr presented them as part of a combined film and computer slide show, and did so with wise aplomb. It is quite something for someone who has just written a 706-page book on his subject to express its essence so simply and clearly. Of the many films he showed, I’ll note just one – Dickson’s very first, Monkeyshines no. 1, miniscule images photographed and laid around a cylinder, before they realised that copying Edison’s earlier invention, the Phonograph, wasn’t quite the way to go. From a microphoto on a cylinder to the big screen of the Verdi – and it’s on YouTube too, the human figure in motion evolving out of incoherence, the ghost in the machine:

Monkeyshines no. 1 (1889), the first American movie

My prize for the most disappointing film of the week went to A Modern Musketeer (1917). This really ought to have been a gem. A complete copy was only recently discovered, and it represents a key point in the development of Douglas Fairbanks’ persona, from his young-man-about-town persona to the swaggering figures of his 1920s historical romps. It seemed to have a cast-iron premise. Fairbanks plays a young man whose mother was addicted to the works of Alexandre Dumas just before he was born, and he is imbued with the spirit of The Three Musketeers, which he then tries to take into modern American life as a twentieth-century D’Artagnan. Fabulous concept – what could possibly go wrong? Well, after overplaying the idea wildly in an energetic opening five minutes, the film then abandons it almost entirely for a muddled, uncertainly-paced comedy-thriller set in the Grand Canyon, with an unpleasantly racist undertone in its depicition of the native American villain. Pianist Ian Mistrorigo (a Pordenone masterclass alumnus) tore along at a terrific pace, trying to make the film what it ought to have been, but the film stubbornly refused to live up to his expectations. It’s great that the film has been found and restored, but it’s unfunny, unthrilling, and frankly clueless. Oh dear.

Ed’s Co-ed, from University of Oregon

At this point I was planning to see two Sessue Hayakawa films, His Birthright (1918) and The Courageous Coward (1919), but the word had got round that Ed’s Co-ed (1929), which had been shown the day before to a minimal audience in the Ridotto, was getting a second screening because people really had to see it. Dutifully I went, and I’m very glad I did. There was a fascinating story behind it. In 1928 a University of Oregon student, Carvel Nelson, got to work on the set of F.W. Murnau’s The City Girl. Bitten with the film bug, he decided to make his own film, working with fellow students and an English professor, and raising finance locally. The Nelson and his eventual co-director James Raley made so bold as to approach Cecil B. DeMille for advice. DeMille put them in touch with his cinematographer, James McBride, who amazingly joined the production as technical director and got paid for it as well. With a 35mm Bell & Howell camera rented from Hollywood, and a cast recruited from across the university, Ed’s Co-ed went into production in February 1929 and had its premiere locally in November of that year.

Ed’s Co-ed is a strikingly accomplished film. McBride’s presence clearly aided the fluid, expressive cinematography, including a number of vivid sequences (a punt drifting on the waters through trees, a close shot of women students looking through a window enraptured by some violin playing), but he could not have claimed responsibility for the immaculately engineered script with central and sub-plots artfully interwoven, nor the highly capable performances from the entire cast. There is not a trace of amateurism about Ed’s Co-ed. The story is that of every college movie you ever saw – country boy Ed comes to college, is picked on by other students, he falls for the girl but is rejected by all after he admits to a crime to cover up for someone else who actually committed it, his talents are recognised (he plays the violin, he’s top in all his grades), he wins through at last. It’s so like ever college film made that you could be fooled by its ordinariness, but this is a college film that actually came from a college, and it is a treasure trove of period attitudes, codes, fashions and language.

The 35mm original of Ed’s Co-ed was destroyed in the 1960s when a 16mm dupe was made. We were told that the university hadn’t shown sufficient interest in the film to want to fund a restoration, which is a shame if true because though it might be a hard sell, a DVD edition could reach both silent film fans and those with an interest in American social history. However, there must be some interest from the university, because you can find the whole of Ed’s Co-ed online (87mins). It’s available in streamed and downloadable forms from the University of Oregon’s Scholar’s Bank website – no music track, but otherwise it’s a good quality encoding, and I warmly recommend it. Praise, by the way, for the accompaniment at Pordenone from Neil Brand (piano) and Günter Buchwald (violin, to match Ed’s playing), overlapping beautifully.

Helen Jerome Eddy and Sessue Hayakawa in The Man Beneath, from http://www.filmmuseum.nl

I missed most of the evening screenings, owing to a genial supper with a gaggle of pianists, but I returned for the last film of the day, The Man Beneath (1919). This is one of the films recently discovered and restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum of Sessue Hayakawa, the Japanese-American star who has attracted such critical and archival interest of late. Hayakawa is fascinating not just for his star presence and position as an Asian performer in the heart of Hollywood, but for his thinking about his role and the degree to which he tried to combine positive images of himself as a representative Japanese figure with the demands of the box office, through his position as an independent producer.

The Man Beneath was made by Hayakawa’s own Haworth Pictures Corporation, and it came at a time when he felt it was right to expand his range somewhat. Hence the peculiar set-up, where we get a Japanese actor, playing a Hindu doctor, in an American film, set in Scotland. Hayakawa plays Dr Chindi Ashuter, who is in love with the Scottish Kate Erskine, and she in love with him, though she is held back by the fear of the social consequences of a mixed marriage. Her sister is married to an associate (white) of Ashuter’s, whose entrapment by a secret society and rescue by Ashuter forms the main action of the film. But it is Ashuter and Kate’s thwarted love that is the real theme. He returns to Scotland, but she sorrowfully rejects him, and he leaves sadder and wiser. Of course, a mixed marriage was never going to be shown upon the screen in 1919, so the plot had nowhere else to go, but what lingers in the mind is the intensity of the feelings, particularly as expressed in a luminous performance by Helen Jerome Eddy as Kate. Hayakawa is less of a presence, curiously enough, but one shot where he stares in anguish at his reflection in the mirror and tears at his face, drawing blood, says everything.

And so we saw farewell to Day Four, and look forward to the morrow, bringing us smouldering South American passions, Austrian troops scaling mountains, a near-lynching presented as comedy, a Mozart-free Figaro, a gold digger triumphant, and bare knuckle boxing accompanied by the harp.

Pordenone diary 2008 – day one
Pordenone diary 2008 – day two
Pordenone diary 2008 – day three
Pordenone diary 2008 – day five
Pordenone diary 2008 – day six
Pordenone diary 2008 – day seven