This Festival of silent film took place this year from October 1st to October 8th in the new Verdi Cinema in Pordenone. About a thousand people, plus townspeople for the popular title, viewed a varied and at times very high quality programme from early cinema. I intend to write in detail about the most interesting screenings but this is a general overview of the week. It was a week in which it rained a couple of times and later days were a little chillier than usual. But, of course, we spent most time in the cinema and otherwise in restaurants and bars catching up with friends and colleagues.
The major events were star vehicles with famous names. The opening night presented Greta Garbo and Conrad Nagel in The Mysterious Lady (M-G-M 1928). This was one of the fine Photoplay Productions’ prints accompanied with music by their long-time collaborator Carl Davis. The film was the first feature of Garbo filmed with panchromatic film stock. This stock had a more varied colour palette than the standard of that time, orthochromatic, which had been cheaper before this. This was especially responsive to facial features and Garbo’s use of lips and eyes. Nagel played a young, not too bright Austrian officer, but he was attractive and romantic. Garbo’s expression of passion was luminous. The plot was rather ordinary; spies, deceits, revelations and a final resolution at the border.
Mid-week we had a European star, Ivan Mosjoukine. He was one of the ‘white’ Russian émigrés who ended up in Paris, missing the opportunities opened up by the great Bolshevik-led Revolution. Kean ou Désordre et Génie (Films Albatros 1924) was an adaptation of a play by Alexandre Dumas [père] about the great C19th English actor Edmund Kean. The play and film concentrated on Kean’s later career and a relationship with a married and aristocratic lady, Countess Elena de Koefeld (Nathalie Lissenko). Mosjoukine’s representation of Kean was impressive and the film was well staged and had some fine stylistic sequences. The film was long and clearly constructed around the star who also contributed to the screenplay. Likely he was responsible for the long death scene, a tour de force in acting and filming. The film has been restored by the Cinémathèque française on a 35mm print. This was one of the finest visual treats of the week.
The final night presented the iconic star Douglas Fairbanks in The Thief of Bagdad (United Artists 1924). The film had been transferred to DCP, though this was well done. The accompaniment was a reconstruction of the original score commissioned by Fairbanks from Mortimer Wilson and arranged and synchronised for the present version by Mark Fitz-Gerald. This was typical and splendid Fairbanks. He was as graceful as ever though the plot was at time silly and did little justice to the original source. The film had stunning settings and designs, the work of William Cameron Menzies, who went on to many other fine productions and was the first recipient of the first Academy Award for Art Direction in 1928. There were a number of silent features during the week featuring his work in the 1920s.
One of these was Tempest (United Artists 1928). This featured a relationship between John Barrymore (Sergeant Ivan Markov) and Camilla Horn (Princess Tamara). This was set against the background of World War I and the eruption of the great revolution in 1917. Not surprisingly the characterisations bore little relationship to the historical reality. The leading Bolshevik agitator (Boris de Fast) was suitably wild-eyed and malevolent. However the film fitted into what seemed an unofficial programme of pre-revolutionary stories, possibly a prequel to revolutionary films in 1917. They mainly offered a fairly reactionary stance on the Revolution but, fortunately, we also had a bona fide Soviet history: Esfir Shub’s seminal compilation documentary, The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty / Padenie Dinastii Romanovykh (Sovkino 1927).
One of the films set in pre-revolutionary Russia was The Cossack Whip (Edison 1916). The film was directed by John Collins, a little known filmmaker who was the subject of a mini-retrospective. Collins died during the world-wide influenza pandemic, aged only 29. His surviving films show a real cinematic talent. The Cossack Whip had fine mise en scène and exceptional editing for the period. The film also painted a picture of the brutality of the Tsarist regime with relatively sympathetic revolutionaries, though the conventional ending had the heroine arriving in the USA. The films tended to have Viola Dana, to whom Collins was married, in the lead role. There were two fine drams set in the rural world, The Girl Without a Soul (Metro Picture Corp. 1917) and Blue Jeans (Metro Picture Corp. 1917), with excellent use of country settings.
We also had a teen serial from Pathé Exchange (USA). This was Who’s Guilty?, produced and released in 1916 in 14 episodes. The basic premise was a melodrama developed around an issue of crime and morality. The films opened with a shot of a lake and a title,
“Throw a stone ….”
In every film this metaphor of spreading ripples explored responsibility. The cast consisted of the same regulars, with Tom Moore and Anna Q. Nillson in the main parts. The endings tended to be downbeat and appropriately the surviving reels were discovered in the Gosfilmofond archives. Pre-war Russian audiences were keen on ‘doom and gloom’. Overall the serial was well done and the moral questions intriguing: there was one fine episode which dramatised the violent industrial relations of the period. A recurring sequence was a scene where the male protagonist was involved in a fight with the nominal villain. These were convincing and violent fights, and in fact, such physical conflicts seemed to be another unofficial theme of the week.
The most gripping fight was in Behind the Door (Famous Players Lasky 1919). Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth) seemed to be the only German-American in a small town when the USA declared war on Germany. He proved he was ‘American’ by fighting Jim MacTavish (Jim Gordon) when the townspeople grow riotous in front of his taxidermy store. He then enrolled in the navy. If the fight offered fairly brutal fisticuffs the latter parts of the film were even more brutal: and Krug’s taxidermy skills were put to unusual use. This was an anti-German melodrama personified by Wallace Beery’s submarine commander. The film retains a degree of shock 97 years on.
Fortunately there were also features where Europeans were not the main villains. The Guns of Loos (Stoll Picture Productions 1928) pictured the British front in World War I. The film drama was built round a shell shortage that occurred in 1915. The drama moved from a munitions factory in England to the Western Front. There was a partly sympathetic contrast between ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’ in the English mansion and in the British trenches. What stood out was the élan of the front line conflict. The film ably inter-cut models and recreated settings with dynamic camerawork. It was less sure when dealing with the politics of wartime Britain.
After the fine Les Misérables last year we had the same director, Henri Fescourt, adapting Alexandre Dumas [père] classic novel [The Count of] Monte-Christo (Louis Malpas 1929). This novel lacks the substance of Victor Hugo’s classic but it is full of splendid action sequences. The film version enjoyed fine production values and there were many memorable sequences, especially in Marseilles harbour and with the escape by Edmond Dantès from the Chateau d’If. Part 2 of this 218 minute epic also had a splendid and dramatic court room sequence. The film tried to soften the character of the Count/Dantès at the film’s end. It also suffered from what Edward Said defined as orientalism in the eastern sequences. The film was screened from a DCP, but enjoyed a good transfer.
The Canon Revisited included Maurice Stiller’s fine Erotikon (AB Svensk Filmindustri 1920). This early romantic comedy was beautifully filmed and had a really engaging performance by Tora Teje as Irene, married to Professor Charpentier (Anders de Wahl) and ably supported by Lars Hansen as Preben Wells and Karin Molander as Marthe. The film was a risqué comedy for the period. It included some happily satirical sequence in the Professor’s laboratory and a meaningful sequence with a ballet performance at the Royal Opera House. And we enjoyed the familiar but very fine Yasujiro Ozu film I was born, but … / Otona no miru ehon (Shochiku 1932).
‘Rediscoveries and Restorations’ included Algol. Tragödie der Macht (Deutsche Lichtbild-Gesellschaft 1920). The film, screened at an earlier Giornate, had been restored and was presented on a DCP. This was a combination of drama, science fiction and fantasy. Emil Jannings played Robert Heron, who thanks to a mysterious visitor acquired control of an endless power supply and went on to dominate the industrial world. The plot appeared to reflect contemporary concerns about energy and power politics: it actually seemed fairly appropriate to the present. The film had early use of what became the expressionist style on film.
A substantial and fresh programme was ‘Polish Silents: National Identity meets International Inspiration’. Poland became an independent state after the Versailles Conference in 1919. The programme was mainly of films produced in the newly developing industry in the 1920s. There were newsreels, documentaries including a ‘City Symphony’, animation and feature dramas. Pan Tadeusz (Star-Film 1928) was a film version of an epic poem central to Polish identity. The existing film [screened from a DCP] is incomplete, so it was tricky to follow. But one sensed the cultural factors that made it a national epic. The film that struck me most in this programmer was Mocny Człowiek (A Strong Man, Gloria 1929). In the film an ill-fated writer stole the manuscript of a friend and colleague. The style of the film embraced fast and at points discontinuous editing and a powerful expressionist feel. We studied the film closely as, because the film cans were mislabelled, we saw the fourth reel twice. But the film stood up to this mishap.
The programme also included a substantial number of short films. I particularly enjoyed three early Shakespearean adaptations from Film d’Arte Italiana and featuring the diva Francesca Bertini. There were the one-reel Re Lear (1910) and Il Mercante di Venezia (1910). These used open-air locations, in the case of the latter Venice itself. The third film was a two-reel versions Romeo e Giulietta (1912). In a separate programme we had very early films shot in Venice by a Lumière cameraman.
There was early British film with a programme of ‘The Magic Films of Robert W. Paul’. Some of these. like The Cheese Mites; or, Lilliputians in a London restaurant (190211) are well known. But there were also some new discoveries. The Fatal Hand (1907) was an early serial killer drama. And A Collier’s Life (1904) was an example of what became in the 1920s known as ‘documentary’. What stood out about Paul was his technical inventiveness at a very early stage in the development of cinema. Another programme of early short films was ‘U.S. Presidential Election Films 1896 – 1924’. These included William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt [several times], an unsuccessful Democrat Alton B. Parker, Warren Gamaliel Harding, Calvin Coolidge plus film of a Democratic Party Convention and The Old Way and the New (Film Classic Exchange 1912) a ‘paid-for’ film on behalf of Woodrow Wilson.
There were three programmes of ‘Beginnings of the Westerns’ continuing a presentation started in 2015. We had ‘Cowboy Films’ from 1912 and 1913, including a really oddball two-reeler, The Rattlesnake – A Psychical Species (Lubin Film Co, 1913) with a bizarre human/animal relationship. The second programme ‘Cowgirl Films’ was from the same years and included the one-reel Sallie’s Sure Shot (Selig 1913) where the climatic shot produced audience applause. The third programme was ‘Indian Pictures’. I felt that Native-Americans were not so well served in this selection. Two films had ‘self-sacrificing Indians’. Is there a word of Native-Americans equivalent to ‘Uncle Tom’ for Afro-Caribbean? But The Flaming Arrow (Bison Films 1913) had the protagonist White Eagle apparently winning the Colonel’s daughter: and there was a the one-reel The Arrow of Defiance (Pathé 1912), directed by James Young Deerlove, whose work I admire.
We also had some animation. There was Africa Before Dark (Universal Pictures 1928), an early Disney cartoon with only animals, so minus any out-of-date stereotypes. There were several examples of ‘Early Japanese Animation’ featuring Momotaro, an early and popular super-hero accompanied by three faithful assistants, a monkey, a dog and a pheasant. I should note here that it was a not a great week for canine characters. We had a fluffy one perched on a piano singing: a benighted German Shepherd forced to climb ladder on a high construction site: a Springer killed by some sort of Staffs: and a poor mutt blackened by its over eager owner.
As ever at the Giornate much of the pleasure was due to the excellent musical accompaniment. There were some stand-out performances both by visiting orchestras and by the team of regular pianists. These mainly added to the pleasure and to what the film suggested regarding character and narrative. But Pordenone is not immune to the recent over-emphasis on musical accompaniments: there were a couple of titles where I thought the music tended to over-power rather than support the film.
We had a high number of films on 35mm, and the print quality was generally good. The DCPs were somewhat variable. Not all the archives have the resources to transfer film to digital at the highest quality. I hope that film will continue to provide the main source for screenings at the Festivals.
The organisation, as in previous years, was very good: both in the Verdi Theatre and in the Festival provision. David Robinson, who retired last year, received a presentation for his contribution to so many Giornate. The new Director Jay Weissberg made a positive start. The programming was good and there only a few hiccups. He did, though, have to apologise for the brevity of some of the meal breaks. Another good year and a special pleasure as it becomes more difficult to see early film on film.