We’re on the day six of the 2009 Pordenone silent film festival, with our intrepid reporter The Mysterious X once again turning his feverishly scribbled notes into a finely-honed account for our delight and posterity’s great benefit. So here goes with Thursday 8 October’s offerings:
Thursday already … and Pordenone regulars know what to expect – a gloomy feeling, as the end of the Giornate is in sight, and the nagging idea that we all have to return to the real world soon … and for those who could only make it for half a week, and opted for the first half, those goodbyes, perhaps for another year, have started. But put those thoughts to the back of the mind, and plough on …
And the potentially long day starts with Justice d’Abord (France 1921) from the Ermolieff Studio, before it became Albatros; and at last a chance to see the great Ivan Mozhukhin, their greatest star; he plays an implacable State Prosecutor tackling an espionage ring, only to find that his artists model girlfriend may be involved – and has to prosecute her. Can a Russian ending be far away? The print seems slightly abridged, or missing some footage, but it is still a very watchable film, if not up to the later great Mozhukhin-starring classics. Immediately we see why Mozhukhin was so successful … he elevates another melodramatic plot into something greater; you cannot take your eyes off him on the screen. I do feel the Albatros thread has been weakened by the lack of the great Mozhukhin vehicles; not programmed because his films were shown a few years back, in a Mozhukhin tribute at Sacile (where the Pordenone festival was located for a number of years. Ed.). Understandable, but even one would have been nice; I would travel a long way to see Kean again.
This was followed by Nocturne (France 1927) , another Albatros, a short film made at the same time and with the same leads as Carmen, apparently at the crew’s hotel. Beautifully shot, and beautifully acted one-act tragedy, but even so a bit langourous after the previous film; it did also feature some very subtle piano work from Touve Ratovondrahety.
More Sherlocks; starting with The Sleuth (USA 1925) , a solo outing for Stan Laurel, one of his film spoofs made for Joe Rock. Here, as a detective who struggles with those interlinked nails puzzles, he infiltrates a household to solve a crime; as the maid. I think you can see where that is heading …
A Scandal in Bohemia (GB 1921), I think is the best Elvey/Norwood episode I’ve yet seen, helped by the tale, of a less-than-great success, with Holmes revealed as being less than perfect; and here, he is beaten for once, by the beautiful and engaging Irene Adair, renamed from the stories where she was Irene Adler. Too Germanic for 1921 Britain? Told very wittily, and with a lightness of touch Elvey is not always credited with.
Der Gestreifte Domino (Germany 1915) was well plotted, with a mix-up at a post office resulting in detective Stuart Webb stumbling on a conspiracy … but once more, the film moves at a very leisurely pace compared to the British series.
‘Chief’ Kentani in The Rose of Rhodesia
After lunch, the much-anticipated The Rose of Rhodesia (South Africa 1918) the recently restored Harold Shaw feature set in Rhodesia but filmed on location in South Africa. I’m delighted to say it stands up to all the hopes; the attitudes of the characters are notably liberal for the day, the characterisation of the native roles and their relationships with the white settlers is shown to be that of mutual respect, by and large; the intertitles don’t always reflect this, but as the print was for a German-language release they don’t necessarily entirely match the originals. The photography is superb – astonishing considering what must have been trying conditions; the acting, particularly that of Edna Flugrath, Mrs Shaw, subtle, and, as we have come to expect from Shaw’s films, the use of locations is spectacular. One flaw is the plot, pretty throwaway, and come the climax it is pretty much thrown away; again the caveat is that the existing print is the equivalent of two reels shorter than the version seen at its premiere, so some exposition may well be lost, if not an entire subplot. (See the Bioscope’s review of the film here, with link to a streamed copy of the film).
On Strike (USA 1920) is a delightful Mutt and Jeff cartoon, wherein our heroes see producer Budd Fisher’s regal lifestyle in a (live action) newsreel; they threaten to strike for better terms, their bluff is called, and they’re sacked. But Hey, how hard can this animation lark be? Mutt and Jeff set up their own animation studio – the basics of the process shown – and the end result of their efforts is another Mutt and Jeff….but drawn and plotted as if by a ten year old … very neatly done, the cartoon within the cartoon. The end product goes down badly with the preview audience, so they creep back to Fisher and the status quo restored.
L’Heureuse Mort (France 1924); a French farce on the subject of celebrity death; a once-respected but now-struggling playwright is swept overboard from a friend’s yacht; by the time he makes it back to land and civilisation he finds himself being mourned; the newspaper obituaries falling over each other in their race to elevate him to the pantheon of French literature; he arrives home to see his own memorial service, and to reveal his survival to his mourning wife. Not keen on seeing himself relegated to hack playwright again, he hatches a plot with his ‘widow’, to arrive and live as his own Senegal-based brother, while producing fresh works to be ‘discovered posthumously’ in the home. Until his real brother arrives … Nicolas Rimsky, as the author and his brother puts in a top performance delineating both men with subtle differences … very neat, and very funny, and still topical on the celebrity front.
After the special Harold Shaw Collegium, which discussed both his work and career, and the case of Rose of Rhodesia in particular, but which annoyingly clashed with a Holmes programme including a 1912 French version of The Musgrave Ritual, I fell into a particularly good dinner and conversation; so skipped Der Furst von Pappenheim (Germany 1927), a gender-based comedy, and subsequently didn’t feel up to Gunnar Hedes Saga (Sweden 1923), a Mauritz Stiller-directed adaptation of the novel by Nobel laureate Selma Lagerlof. By all accounts, by those who made it, one of the highlights of the week, but given a start time of approaching 11.00 pm. Hopefully I’ll get a second chance one day … Pordenone can have its frustrations.
Now I can remember A Scandal in Bohemia from a long time back, when I noted it as being something rather exceptional. It’s good to have that memory confirmed as a sound one. Next up, day seven where we will visit the Tower Circus in Blackpool, Maxim’s in Paris, the hills of Corsica, and the Home Counties of England – by bicycle.