Pordenone diary 2008 – day five

Day five, and we’re going strong. After a couple of days at Pordenone, the sheer stamina required to take in films from 9.00am to midnight starts to tell, and you wonder if you are going to make it. Then you pass a threshold of some kind, and you suddenly feel like you could do this silent film watching lark forever.

Of course, not all stay for all eight days, and this was the first time in several years (I’ve been going since 1995, with one year missed) where I’d been there for more than five days. So it was with a sense almost of wandering into unknown territory that I settled down at 9.00 for the first film of the day, The Drums of Love (1928).

Is there a worse-named film? At any rate, is there a worse-named film in works of D.W. Griffith? The drums in this tale set in nineteenth-century South America were noticeable by their absence. As far as film history goes, this was the first of four features made by Griffith for Joseph Schenck, whose collective failure spelled the end of his filmmaking career. Its reputation has always been low, and it has remained one of the least-seen of Griffith’s feature films, not helped by the fact that all that apparently survives is the 16mm copy held by the Library of Congress [correction – 35mm material exists – see comments]. I missed it on the Tuesday, but for some reason the festival gave it a second screening, and I’m glad that they did.

The Drums of Love is based on the story of Paolo and Francesca, as told by Dante. This much-told tale, often under the title ‘Francesca di Rimini’, was a popular subject in the early cinema period, and though Griffith did not film it in his Biograph period, it is just the sort of subject that he might have chosen. Transferring this tale of doomed lovers in Renaissance Italy to the South America of the early 1800s was a bold choice, but for me the setting seemed well realised. The lovers were played by Don Alvardo and Mary Philbin, and their relative weakness as performers, their lack of star quality, hampered a film which depended a lot on chemistry and much lingering looks between the two. What did not help their cause, however, was having to act opposite Lionel Barrymore, in what must be his finest screen performance. Barrymore plays Alvardo’s dictator brother, a hunchbacked, powerful presence (the titles called him a ‘super-dwarf’, which didn’t make much sense), alert to everything, deeply aware of his own ugliness, yet determined to get whatever he wants by whatever means necessary. He was vulnerable and ruthless at the same time.

Essentially, Barrymore seeks to marry Philbin for reasons of expediency, but send his brother to fetch her. They fall in love, it ends tragically. Exactly how it was to end was evidently unclear to Griffith, as he shot two endings, one where the two lovers die – the original ending – the other where Barrymore is killed, apparently introduced after the film was not a success on opening, which is far less satisfactory. At any rate, I rather liked The Drums of Love. The murky 16mm copy did not help matters, and were a sharp 35mm print ever to emerge, I suspect the film would look terrific. As it was, it was an artfully composed work, filled with rich, incidental details (I noted in particular a procession of slaves in one countryside scene, passing by in the foreground, a passing visual reference to cruelties that supported the lifestyles of the chief protagonists). Also impressive was the intensity of the drama, without that much plot to go on, and the sheer darkness of the theme. Above all it is Barrymore’s towering performance as a South American Richard III, though pitiable in a way that Shakespeare’s villain never is, that makes this an interesting film that, in other circumstances, might have been a great one.

With the wisdom of years spent watching some terrible British silent films that will never see the light of day again, I chose to avoid The Last King of Wales (1922), a short directed by the talent-free George Ridgwell which only survives on 9.5mm. Those unwitting souls who ventured in mostly voted it the worst film of the festival. Instead I crossed over to the Riddoto to be much impressed with an Austrian First World War actuality, Ein Heldenkampf in Schnee und Eis (1917). This depicted the Alpine war between Austrian and Italian troops, seen from the viewpoint of the former as they attacked a mountain-top emplacement. Given the German titles, and my lack of German, I missed the finer points, but the film was clearly well-staged – with an emphasis on staged, since there was a strong element of dramatic construction about the whole work, though I could not really tell which to accept as reality, which as not. The surrender of a clutch of Italian troops was presumably reality.

Back then to the Verdi for a selection of films related to the D.W. Griffith classic, The Lonely Villa (1909). Now some care deeply for the cross-cutting innovations of this pioneering suspense film, and relish finding stylistic antecedents in earlier films. We saw first the Griffith film, then a renowned Pathé film, Le Médecin du Château (1908), which anticipates much of the later film’s formal novelties, including the use of a telephone to bring together characters separated by distance; plus the still earlier Pathé film Terrible Angoise (2906), which worked along similar lines with an unexpected tragic ending. But then they showed us Edison’s The Watermelon Patch (1905).

This was a truly appalling film, made all the more appalling by the means in which it was presented. A group of black farmworkers raid a watermelon patch, but are chased away by scarecrow figures dressed as skeletons. The workers retire to a farmhouse, where we see them enjoying the watemelons and breaking into a joyous series of dances. At this point, stereotyped images aside (what was it about watermelons that they became so associated with black people and ‘comedy’?), this was a celebratory, almost transgressive film, as they had got away with their ‘crime’ and the dancing had been such fun. But then retribution came. The white farmers who had been giving chase found the farmhouse, blocked up the windows and chimney, then fill the building with smoke. It’s a comedy, so they get out of the building having merely been choked, but it felt that close to having all of the people in the house being burned alive for their sins.

What was particularly shocking was that this film was included in the programme purely for its formal qualities, as an interesting example of cross-cutting. As the catalogue put it:

Alternate cutting is a discursive configuration whose minimal form is the recurrence of each term in two series. In other words, it is impossible to speak of alternate editing when only one of the terms recurs (A-B-A). At a minimum, it requires that each series recur (A-B-A-B). Cross-cutting, for its part, is only one of the forms of alternate editing within which series of events supposedly unfold simultaneously in the narrative universe suggested by the film. Thus, in our view, The Watemelon Patch is a true example of cross-cutting.

So bloody what. Nothing could provide greater evidence of the sheer fatuousness of some aspects of film studies, where form is totally divorced from content. A film like The Watermelon Patch ought to be screened, but with care, and in appropriate circumstances. These were not those circumstances, and all of those I spoke to afterwards were shocked and really quite disturbed that this film was shown.

First film in the afternoon was Figaro (1929), A French version of the Beaumarchais novels. Neil Brand told me beforehand that – man of musical principle that he is – he would not being throwing in themes from Mozart or Rossini, however strong the temptation. So we saw the film for itelf, not as an echo of something else, and very handsome it was, with a spirited title performance from Ernest van Duren. But it struggled a little to combine all three plots, and I did doze off somewhat. It was followed by the second progamme of Alexander Shiryaev films, a consideration of which will come in the report on Day Seven.

Don Alvardo and Phyllis Haver in The Battle of the Sexes

For many, our second Griffith of the day was the best of his late films shown in the festival – The Battle of the Sexes (1928). This was like a statement of intent, the director seemingly saying just look how well I can fit in with the filmmaking of today. He did so by the bold choice of taking one of his Biograph films of old, made in 1914, and producing a remake suitable for the late 1920s in style and theme. Jean Hersholt played a prosperous man of impeccable middle class values who is lured away from his loving wife and family by ruthless gold digger Phyllis Haver. What starts as bright social comedy takes on a darker tone as the wife (Belle Bennett) becomes almost suicidal, their daughter (Sally O’Neill) threatens Haver with a gun, and Hersholt becomes nasty in his refusal to return to hearth and home. Only when an exchange between Haver and her lover Don Alvardo (on better form than in The Drums of Love) reveals her contempt of Hersholt do the scales from his eyes and a happy family reunion ensues. One senses Griffith was not so much not in control of the material as not quite sure where it might take him.

The film is distinguished by a bright, modernistic style, laced with a number of bravura sequences. A scene where Bennett is filmed from above wandering dangerously close to the edge of a roof of a block of flats, followed by the camera being dropped over the edge is the most eye-catching. But what most impressed me was an argument between Hersholt and Haver where each is filmed one either sides of a room, cutting from one to the other, while each paces forwards and backwards with the camera tracking back and forth with them. It made for a particularly vividly animated scene, a look-what-I-can-do gesture certainly, but one that deserved to catch the eye. Finally, Phyllis Haver is excellent as the bracing amoral other woman, who shows not the slightest trace of remorse, nor is she in any way punishd for her view of the world. It would make quite a companion piece with Chicago.

How much was it the work of Griffith reinventing himself for the new age, and how much the product of a whole studio behind him, with talents such as cinematographer Karl Struss, fresh from working on Sunrise? One senses that it was a bit of both, but in its moral sense, and in the clear intention to update the 1914 film (where Donald Crisp had played the father, Fay Tincher the temptress and Lillian Gish the daughter) technically and socially, Griffith was undoubtedly seeking to prove himself at home in the modern film world. Viewed from this point in time he succeeded, even if the film was greeted with disappointment at the time, and led to the further disintegration of his reputation.

The evening was rounded off for me by When Flowers Bloom (1929), an elaborately stencil-coloured short about flowers, intermingled with a light love story, before we had Little Old New York (1923). Directed by Sidney Olcott, this was a tale of early ninetenth-cenury New York, in which Marion Davies comes from Ireland to claim an inheritance, to achieve which she needs to disguise herself as a boy. Never in the history of dramatic entertainment was there a more unconvincing portrayal of a man by a woman, but we went along with it, and the film, though leisurely in pace, included some fine, nostalgic sequences, including a well-staged bare-knuckle boxing content. All in all, it was preferable to – and probably no less accurate than – The Gangs of New York. What distinguished the screening was the musical accompaniment – Elizabeth-Jane Baldry playing the harp for two hours. Marion Davies’ character plays the harp, hence the choice, but it was a herculean and mostly successful effort, with such surprises as her knocking on the side of the harp for the boxing sequences. We did not see her, however – she was down in the pit below the stage, same as the pianists were all week, something of an unfortunate situation. If a musician wanted to acknowledge the applause, they had practically to jump up and down and wave if we were to see them. Not an ideal situation, all in all.

I did not attend the late evening concert of songs about silent films from the silent era, at which one time child star Jean Darling took to the stage alongside Donald Sosin and Joanna Seaton. So on to the next day, the penultimate one for me, where we were to encounter John Gilbert in his pomp, the last silent film made by D.W. Griffith, a sea-going electric car, a magical cave journey, and heartache amid the Norwegian snows.

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