It’s time once more to leaf backwards through the calendar to Tuesday 6 October and day four of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, best known as the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. And once again we are in the hands of our tantalisingly anonymous guest reporter, who does at least let slip his or her national identity in this latest report. Read on…
Five hours of sleep later, and back into the fray again; firstly a couple of Rediscoveries and Restorations; an abbreviated print, but a rare sighting of silent Japanese popular cinema, Kurotegumi Sukeroku (Japan 1929) recovered from a 16mm ‘Digest’ print by the Tokyo Film Preservation Society, a small group of enthusiasts gleaning films from private collections in Japan and rescuing them from total oblivion. At roughly one third its original length, plot and characterisation has rather gone by the board, but you do get the feel of more authentic, yet still idealised, Samurai behaviour than we generally see, before the suberbly choreographed sword battle at the climax. As someone who grew up with pre-wire-work Samurai-based TV shows like The Water Margin, this was a real pleasure.
The other film was Eine Versunkene Welt (Austria 1922), a very early film from future saviour of the British film industry, Alexander Korda, starring the actress who would become Maria Corda, from an adaptation from Lajos Biro, another refugee-to-be from their native Hungary. Another tale of an aristocrat marrying a dancer and being disinherited, although apparently based on a factual cause celebre, it was a bit staid and dull, although Maria did show flashes of why she would get a Hollywood career, however brief. In its favour, it did have some wit, and some good use of the shipboard location. Not the greatest work these names would be linked to, but it’s instructive to see the apprentice pieces by such important figures.
Pola Negri in Wenn Das Herz in Hass Ergluht, from the Pordenone catalogue
More Divas; Wenn Das Herz in Hass Ergluht (Denmark 1918) was a welcome and rare chance to see a Pola Negri film; we see the iconic stills, Marion Davies or others impersonating her, but not often do we see the original in action. And she is impressive. Wenn Das Herz is a Pola Negri vehicle, designed to show off her dancing talent in her role as a circus snake dancer destined for the big time, despite the efforts of the circus owner, and her ex-boyfriend, a villainous turn from Hans Schlettow, that nice Devonian farmer from A Cottage on Dartmoor. The former needs her act to prop up his failing business, the decond wants her back from the aristocrat backing her ascent in the showbiz ranks. This film had the lot; lust, deception, gambling, framed aristocrats, matters of honour and interspecies wrestling. I won’t disclose the ending as it should remain as big a surprise as it was to us … the sound of jaws hitting the Verdi floor was quite audible.
Amore Senza Stima (Italy 1912) is a tale of marital deception starring the fetching Francesca Bertini; she seemed a bit underutilised as ‘The Betrayed Woman’ and I’ve seen the theme handled better; however the camerawork and the use of light and shade were outstanding for the year.
After a lunchbreak catching up on notes, one from the Rediscoveries / Restorations strand; a spanking print of an Ossi Oswalda comedy, Die Kleine Vom Variete (Denmark 1926) another variation of the ‘marry that actress and I’ll disown you’ theme so popular this week; Ossi obviously has great fun as a cross-dressing (as a cowboy) cabaret knife thrower secretly married to the heir of an uncle’s fortune; Uncle has other ideas … like the ward of an extremely respectable business acquaintance. There is a superb sequence introducing said ward; remember the group exercise sequence in Diary of a Lost Girl?? Louise Brooks and the others to the rhythm of a gong??? Well, here the ward is at some kind of progressive finishing school; we have a group full of Louise Brooks’ exercising to a sax-heavy jazz band … you would swear someone was satirizing Pabst, but this was three years earlier … Ossi is a lively, sparky charismatic presence on screen, known as ‘Germany’s Mary Pickford’ but actually more like Betty Balfour in appearance and verve; the film is a farce comedy with good supporting players, and a real delight in a festival a bit lightweight in comedy thus far.
The one annoyance was emerging from it to find that it had clashed with the one show I had wanted to see in the Ridotto, and which I had overlooked in my rush for a seat in the Verdi; Jean Darling in conversation with a rejuvenated David Wyatt; with clips and so forth. I had seen them do similar shows before, but they are always a delight, and every time some new angle, some new information, comes from the mind of one of the very last people bearing witness to the business end of silent Hollywood; and such, apparently, was the case here. Aaargh.
More Sherlock and co.’s … a perennial favourite in Britain is The Peril Of The Fleet (UK 1909), a precursor of nearly every other spy thriller ever made; the plot, the hunt, the tracking, the ‘saved in the nick of time’, the world safe for the time being (or the fleet at anchor, in this case, gorgeously depicted in a sea-borne tracking shot past the sterns of Agammemnon, and her sister ships). That all said, it does creak a tad, and there were one or two giggles at some points; we’re so much more educated in the genre, I suppose. But this is its beginning, and the actuality-style footage is superb … followed by the Maurice Elvey/Eille Norwood The Sign Of Four (UK 1923), with its wonderful climactic chase by road and river from Twickenham to Barking via every landmark a capital tourist guide could think of … it’s a decent thriller, well handled as usual by the prolific Elvey, and I actually prefer this version to the more-familiar-to-most Jeremy Brett take from the eighties; much of the detection is explained in a lengthy flashback, but then that is the structure many of Conan Doyle’s tales take – and which make them apparently so difficult to successfully adapt, despite their fame.
Rediscoveries; Monkeys’ Moon (1929), a pleasant, well-executed but slight film about two Capuchins enjoying an evening in their owner’s moonlit garden, from the avant garde crowd (Kenneth Macpherson et al) who gave us journal Close Up. Nice enough, and with technically very good close-up photography, but not about to bring Hollywood down around its ears … this was followed by another personal revelation. I confess to having blindspots in certain areas, and one such is Soviet cinema. The Russian avant garde I can admire to a point, but … it leaves me cold. This, though, was a very different Soviet film.
Dom Na Trubnoi (USSR 1928) (The House on Trubnaya Square) is a quite wonderful film; starting as if it was going to be a straight city symphony film: nice photography, dawn sun glinting off the tram tracks in freshly-washed cobbles, and so on; but it gradually fragments into a visual anarchy until the film is paused; and the narrating intertitle remembers he’s forgotten to tell us why the peasant girl who has rescued the goose and is apparently at the mercy of the speeding tram is there in the first place … so we go back to her beginning out in the sticks, until her story can catch up to the point where we last saw her … by the time of the film’s end, we have had a mild dig at the workers (social co-operation not apparently extending to cleaning arrangements in the tenement), their living conditions, the petit-bourgeouis, agitprop theatre – before delivering a message that union membership may be quite desirable and delivering the happy ending Russian cinema is not known for. In amongst all that, it delivered real laughter and huge applause in the Verdi. Lovely print too … film of the festival at this point, and it has overtaken Chess Fever as my favourite Soviet comedy of all time. But then I have only seen the two; I hope you don’t mind me displaying my ignorance here. Rumour has it that it may be available on DVD in France?? I must check when I get home … (It’s available from Bach Films. Ed.)
After dinner, a compilation show of gems from the Yugoslavian archive, celebrating their sixty years. Many of local origin, as you would expect; but including their imports from over the decades. Some early travelogues of Serbia were followed by a 1909 short L’Ostaggio, an Italian film of loyalty and bravery rewarded, in a classical setting but adapted from a Schiller poem; a 1903 art-nude film from Germany, featuring statuesque nudes posing on a giant turntable, rotating as we view … a 1909 Edison Hansel and Gretel starring Mary Fuller; but the most effective, and most affecting was a late silent, Sa Verom U Boga (Serbia 1932) (In God We Trust), a rural Serbian take on The Big Parade … low key, acted seemingly authentically acted (you suspect a large percentage of the cast are cleverly-cast amateurs) and very moving. The programme finished with two as-yet unidentified animations featuring Chaplin’s Tramp as the main character. Obviously both from the same hand, seemingly from the late 10’s early 20’s, nothing is apparently known of their provenance, and feature no identification apart from locally produced (and crude) title cards, and a flourishing hand signing ‘ZIP’ at the end of one. Very nicely animated, with Chaplin captured brilliantly, using the cut-out animation technique against chalk-board style background art. The consensus, in our little group at least, was that they could well be British; the English-language shopfronts don’t prove much, but twice Charlie is confronted by a very well detailed British police sergeant – unlike his films, then all US-set, – the technique is right for Britain, as we seemed to favour cut-out over Winsor McCay style drawn animation; and it did seem in places vaguely reminiscent of Dudley Buxton … so who is/was Zip ??? The Yugoslavian Film Archive would like to know …
Last up, a couple more films featuring Francesca Bertini, from the Divas thread … but I was fading fast, so forewent the pleasure … and talked animation and Chaplin around the bar instead.
Quite a day, and there’s more to follow in day five, when we shall sing with Hepworth, shiver to the Golem, thrill to Fu Manchu, and cheer the heroics of perhaps the finest name an animal star could ever boast – Spot the Urbanora Dog. Don’t miss it.