Pordenone diary 2009 – day seven

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We’re back at Pordenone for the report on day six of the Giornate del Cinema Muto, as recounted by our eagle-eyed correspondent, the Mysterious X (known as X to his friends, Mysterious to his mum). It’s Friday 9 October, and it’s another early morning start.


9.00am and the latest from a multi-year project to restore and re-evaluate the silent work of director Hans Steinhof; at Pordenone and other festivals I have all of these, and I have to say, with the possible exception of Alleycat, this newly (and not quite completely) restored film, The Three Kings/Ein Madel und Drei Clowns (GB/Germany 1928) is the most successful and satisfying work. This was one of Steinhof’s Anglo-German co-productions, and was released in three distinct versions, British, German and French; this restoration, as each surviving element was missing footage, is a compilation of all three most resembling the German edition, although each version is being restored. This is a tale of three brothers, whose clown act is a star attraction in The Tower Circus in Blackpool. The film (this German version at least, apparently not the British cut) starts with a stunning aerial shot of Blackpool and never lets up; slickly paced, well cast, with Henry Edwards, Warren William, John Hamilton as the three very different brothers and Clifford MacLaglen and Evelyn Holt as the lion-tamer and his ex, who will impact on the brothers; and with wonderful location footage of Blackpool at play – though the studio work was filmed in Germany. The climax of the film is a circus fire – in a sequence as yet incompletely tinted – and possibly incorrectly in places – in which the film’s writer, Henry Edwards, is visibly doing his own stunts; his sleeved arm heavily ablaze at one point. Altogether an engaging film, and very entertaining; hopefully this long-forgotten ensemble-cast film will become better known through repeated screenings. A double-bill with the 1990’s Blackpool-set Funny Bones would be very interesting …

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Le Chasseur de Chez Maxim’s, from the Pordenone catalogue

Next, another comedy from Albatros starring Nicolas Rimsky; Le Chasseur de Chez Maxim’s (France 1927), a story filmed many times over the years, is a true French farce; the owner of a French stately pile works nights as the doorman-cum-fixer at Maxim’s, a gambling and dancing club for the Parisian elite – until the inevitable happens and his two worlds collide. In many ways this could have been a classic; many fine situations worked to great effect, in particular a hunt sequence worthy of Jacques Tati; but too many, too much, making the film way too long at 2h 10m. Had the makers removed a couple of extraneous sequences we would have finished with a greater film. But Rimsky was superb … we just needed a smaller dose.

After lunch, more from the Sherlock strand, starting with one of the Bonzo cartoon series, Detective Bonzo and The Black Hand Gang (GB 1925) in which Our Hero foils an anarchist gang plotting to kidnap a top jockey before Derby Day. One of the best of the 26 Bonzos, it perhaps needed a bit more than the 20fps for full impact … but always nice to see a Bonzo on the big screen. Next was an episode of a series new to me, Inscrutable Drew, Investigator; The Moon Diamond (GB 1926) from Fu Manchu director A.E. Coleby. A fairly standard plot regarding the seemingly impossible theft of a jewel, it was not one of the action-packed items we had been treated to here … it was somewhat stodgily paced, and the direction wasn’t sparkling either. There followed one of his Fu Manchu episodes, The Knocking on the Door (GB 1923) which did indeed rattle with pace and thrills, if you overlook the casual racism that inhabits all of the Fu Manchu tales. The catalogue notes, by the thread’s curator Jay Weissberg, put forward the idea that Coleby was at his best when free to indulge in the sensational elements of serial film-making; on the evidence of these two episodes, I wouldn’t disagree. There followed La Mano Accusatrice (Italy 1913) a thriller that wasn’t doing it for me; but you have to bear in mind that at the tail-end of the week the cumulative effect of lack of sleep is increasing – it might be great with a fresh pair of eyes.

Either way, out I went for 30 minutes of caffeine and sun to clear my head for the second Shaw film of the week, a newly-struck print of the previously (until the British Silent Film Festival in June) neglected adaptation of an equally neglected H.G. Wells novel, The Wheels of Chance (GB 1922). Filmed, as is seemingly usual with Shaw, largely on location with strong emphasis on pictorialism. Wheels of Chance is a comedy with a plot borrowed from a melodrama, with George K. Arthur, back from Shaw’s Kipps, as a draper’s assistant on a cycling tour foiling the machinations of a foreign-named cad – Bechamel – trying to elope, also by bicycle, with a naive suburban girl thereby trapping her into compromising situations in Home Counties pub/hotels, while her mother and her entourage set off in pursuit. Charming but never cloying, the happy ending here is not the unlikely riding off into the sunset – socially impossible in those times – but a recognition by all parties of the lessons learned; she is less naive, and she and her elders have learned respect for their ‘social inferior’; he gains self-respect, and has had his horizons broadened just a little bit. The print seemed just a bit on the dark side, but not so dark as to spoil the effect of the photography; it’s a well-made film, with its heart in the right place, and those evocative shots of 1920s Surrey and Hampshire, with the perfect soundtrack provided by Shaw enthusiast and expert Phil Carli. I feel the need for a location tour … a day by car, perhaps a long weekend by bicycle …

Final film of the day for me was L’Ile Enchantée (France 1926), a somewhat strange film combining two seemingly unrelated film cliches; a Corsican bandit engaged in a family vendetta, while defending his family castle from destruction for a hydro-electric project for the local steelworks. The image of the Valentinoesquely-garbed bandit – educated and with full medical training, incidentally – waving his ancient percussion-cap shotgun around 1920s Bessemer ovens was distinctly odd – if beautifully lit and shot. Just to complicate matters, our bandit hero falls for the (female) steelworks manager, around the time he saves the life of the pursuing local police chief’s daughter, through a medical intervention. All heightened stuff, then, stunningly shot in the Corsican hills and the aforementioned steelworks – in Normandy. Tosh, but quality tosh, and helped immensely by the feature film debut of Pordenone masterclass aspirant pianist Cyrus Gabrysch. The word, from them that know these things, is that he could be a bit special. He certainly impressed at this film.

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J’Accuse

Then came the anti-war leviathan that is Abel Gance’s J’Accuse (France 1919) freshly restored to approaching its full original length – 3 1/4 hours at the 16fps requested by the festival. I made my excuses, as I will be seeing Stephen Horne, who performed here, playing to it at one of the UK outings in November – The Watershed, Bristol, or The Barbican or BFI Southbank in London, when I will hopefully be in a better state to fully appreciate it – though it will be screened at 18fps there. The speed as ever the source of great debate here; at the J’Accuse Collegium session it was revealed that the Nederlands Filmmuseum recommended 18fps to all the venues, but Pordenone felt differently; the consensus of those who saw it this night was that the speed looked about right, and that it was felt that the projection speed may have been increased towards the end – an overall speed of 17fps, some felt; I’ll reserve my own judgement until I’ve seen it in the UK at 18fps.


Ah, run ’em all at 24fps and you’ll be able to pack in another house. Anyway, our next diary post will be our last report from this year’s Pordenone silent film festival, with early films, Sherlockiana, Dreyer, ukeleles and some final thoughts.

Report on day one
Report on day two
Report on day three
Report on day four
Report on day five
Report on day six
Report on day eight

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