Early & Silent Film

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The Treasures of Pordenone

Posted by keith1942 on August 26, 2011

Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 1995.

Lillian Gish and Ronald Coleman in The White Sister (US 1923)

Silent cinema conjures up images of an absorbed audience, fixed on an illuminated rectangle, in a dark and hushed auditorium. In fact, what we call silent cinema was a rather noisy affair, with the whirr of the projector, the strident voice of the barker or benshi (the narrator for Japanese films) and most typically the rhythms of either piano or orchestra. The patterns of light and dark that made up the dramas of early cinema were interwoven with music, which both heightened emotions and expanded on the characterisations of the filmmakers. Even so, it was the visual aspect that predominated and the great masterpieces of silent cinema tend to be more memorable for what is seen on screen – the towering expressionist sets of Metropolis, the inter-cutting of Soviet montage, the wide spaces of the western.

In the modern era it has been difficult, until quite recently, to see these images in a way that could be enjoyed. When it was seen, silent cinema was represented most typically by a comedy (e.g. Max Sennett or Hal Roach), shown at a sound speed of 24 frames per second instead of the original slower speeds of 18 to 20 frames per second.

This resulted in staccato movements for screen characters. Sound accompaniment was often a dreadful organ and a jolly commentary, which pre-empted the visual antics of the comedians. Prints were frequently scratched, poorly focused and unevenly printed.

Silent Cinema as it was meant to be seen 

It was only in the 1980s that this slap-dash presentation was challenged by new opportunities to see silent films as they might first have appeared, in decent prints, at the right speed and with appropriate music. The best example of this is Napoleon, the French epic painstakingly reconstructed in all its six-hour glory by Kevin Brownlow. When seen live with an orchestra this was indeed one of the great experiences of cinema.

Brownlow with his colleague, David Gill, is probably the most well known of a band of dedicated archivists and restorers. Spending hours poring over different prints and fragments; researching unlabelled film and stills; printing from old and fragile stock with great care – the archivists are constantly adding to the ‘recovered’ stock of silent films though only about a third of silent film is known to survive.

In 1996 – .The state of silent cinema appreciation has improved immeasurably. Thames Silents have been followed by Channel 4 Silents and even the BBC has screened the odd archive restoration: if you have TNT there are whole evenings devoted to silent films. Regional film theatres and festivals regularly screen the recovered masterpieces. An increasing number of films can be bought or rented on video, and a growing stack of books produces both praise for and analysis of the achievements of early cinema.’ By 2011 the situation has declined on in the Exhibition sector and on Television:  DVDs and Blu ray offer more.


One of the key events of this restoration is the annual Festival of Silent Cinema in Pordenone (II Giornate de Cinema Muto), Northern Italy. Since 1981 archivists, collectors, academics and film lovers have gathered for a week of serious film viewing – daily from 9.00 am to 1.00 am the following morning, all silent, though always accompanied by a pianist, or sometimes a full orchestra. It is the showcase for all the treasures newly restored by archives around the world. In 1995 the Festival opened with Man With A Movie Camera, accompanied by a musical interpretation of Vertov’s own original arrangements: it closed with a restoration of Chaplin’s The Gold Rush, accompanied by an orchestra conducted by Carl Davis.

The themes of any given festival reflect the achievements of the archives and collectors over the previous year. Appropriately, the 1995 Giornate featured pre-cinema, including an evening with the Magic Lantern, one of the most popular moving image entertainments before cinema. Films by both Edison and the Lumières were also screened and the actuality style of the latter was amplified through a series of screenings of early documentary and newsreel.

The centrepiece of these actualities was a block of films from the early Zionist movement, ‘Israel before Israel’. The Israeli archivists were enthusiastic and dedicated but given the current political contradictions in the Middle East, some Arabic counter-point would have been welcome. Egypt for instance had both pre-cinematic shadow plays and very early cinema (detailed in The Cinema in the Arab Countries, edited by George Sadoul, UNESCO). Actuality on display also included the 1896 English Derby, which has since been supplanted as the earliest such coverage by discovery of the 1895 Derby on film. Silent cinema is constantly on the move.

Hollywood, as the most successful purveyor of film entertainment, is always a key component, usually through the study of a particular filmmaker. Henry King was

featured in 1995. He began as an actor in 1913, directed his first film in 1916 and was still around in 1961 for Tender is the Night in CinemaScope and Technicolor. In between he directed a host of classic Hollywood movies. Pordenone screened all the surviving silents, the most memorable being Tol’able David (1921), a drama typifying King’s love of rural themes and his use of the classic Hollywood opposition, town (bad) and country (good).

We also saw one of the rare George Eliot adaptations, Romula (1925), and The White Sister (1923). Both were filmed in Italy with the great silent star Lillian Gish. The White Sister also had Ronald Coleman, an eruption of Vesuvius, and the classic dilemma of profane or divine love. Needles to say, divine love won – Hollywood moral codes were fairly conventional, even in the 1920s. 

Early Chinese Cinema

The other major strand in the festival was early Chinese Cinema. Like other cinema industries outside Western Europe and North America, that in China was denied the technology and opulent production resources of Hollywood features. As late as 1935 Chinese films were still made without optical sound at a time when Hollywood and Europe had completely changed over. However, the Chinese filmmakers compensated by their enthusiasm for drama and ingenuity in the use of the resources they actually had.

We saw an example of the traditional opera film, replete with Confucian values. However, most of these archive treasures were made at the left-wing studios in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, when the great clash between the Kuomintang and the Communists was in full swing, complicated by the Japanese invasion in 1931. The Chinese melodramas were structured so that the film could constantly remind the audience of the national struggle. My favourite was Little Toys (1933). A group of rural toymakers are displaced to Shanghai and a mother loses her son. The mother perseveres against all obstacles and at the climax of the narrative she is approached by her son in the street but she does not know him. With proper nationalist, commitment he asks “Are these toys foreign?” The moment brings together the ‘personal’ emotional drama and the ‘political’ struggle and the film ends with a call to passers-by (i.e. the audience) to support China’s struggle – terrific stuff. Almost all these left-wing melodramas centred on contradictions around gender and women, a continuing theme in Chinese Cinema which can be related to more recent film dramas such as Two Stage Sisters and Raise the Red Lantern.

Little Toys (China 1933, Xiao wanyi)

There were lots of other treats including cinema advertisements, early sound and colour, an early porno film (‘poor production values’ is a consistent quality in thisgenre), the work of cartoonists Max and Dave Fleischer, and the newly discovered first film of Ernst Lubitsch – a rich if exhausting banquet. Hopefully many of these discoveries will percolate through to film audiences around the world. Some will feature in television programmes such as C4’s The Peacock Screen (showing Indian films screened at Pordenone in 1994), or more recently Cinema Europe, shown last winter on BBC2 and produced and directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill.  

Originally published in the picture, issue 28 Summer 1996.

Stills kindly provided by Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

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