Early & Silent Film

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Pordenone 2012

Posted by keith1942 on January 26, 2013


This was the 31st silent film festival and my 20th – lucky me. I thought this years programme was particularly strong and fortunately there were few parallel screenings so it was possible to see almost everything.

The centrepiece of the week was Charles Dickens: Father of the Screenplay, which offered a wide and varied range of films adapted from the works of one of England’s greatest novelist. Graham Petrie, in his article on Silent Dickens counted up 99 film versions. However, some of these are early translations and are extremely short. There was the Dotheboys Hall chapter from Nicholas Nickleby, filmed in 1903 and lasting 2 minutes. Thanhouser’s 1911 The Old Curiosity Shop lasted 12 minutes. One that especially impressed me was the Williamson Kinematograph Company The Boy and the Convict from 1909. This was an unaccredited version of Great Expectation running 12 minutes and with some very nice tinting in some scenes. As you might expect there were several Pickwick Papers, Christmas Carols and Oliver Twists.

The longer adaptations from the late teens and 1920s were the most impressive. One was Ideal’s Dombey and Son (1917), scripted by Eliot Stannard and directed by Maurice Elvey. Set as a contemporary rather than a period drama this had an excellent structure and presentation. The print was from the George Eastman House in the USA so the chances of seeing it in the UK seem slim. On its release it was strongly criticised by Dickens’ purists (e.g. The Dickensian) so when Elvey directed a version of Bleak House for Ideal in 1920 the film was presented as a period piece. The screenplay was probably not as assured as Stannard’s but the film gives a strong and well-filmed visualisation of the novel, though the plot and charaxcters are heavily slimmed down. The other really effective dramatisations were several films directed by A. W. Sandberg for Nordisk. These included Little Dorrit, Great Expectations, and an incomplete Our Mutual Friend. The most disappointing were, surprisingly, two version of A Tale of Two Cities, including one produced and directed by Herbert Wilcox under the title of The Only Way. This film, rather like D W Griffith’s superior Orphans of the Storm, was a fairly vicious character assassination of the Sans-Culottes and the Revolution.

The Only Way

The Only Way

We also had a programme of film starring Anna Sten from her time in the Soviet cinema. She followed this with film work in Germany and was then ‘discovered ‘ by Sam Goldwyn and taken to Hollywood. As with other fine imports she was wasted in the studio system and appeared in little of note. But her Soviet films reveal an actress of real dramatic power and with a nice touch in comic characterisations. The films included Boris Barnet’s very fine comedy Devushka s Korobkoi / When Moscow Laughs (1927), better known by it alternative tile of The Girl with the Hatbox. This is a delightful satire on some of the petit bourgeois practices not yet eradicated by Socialist construction. Sten is luminous and extremely witty, as indeed are the majority of the cast.

Joyless Street

Joyless Street

A real discovery was a series of 1920s films adapted from the writings of The Storyteller: W. W. Jacobs.  These were produced by Artistic Pictures. The films used predominantly real locations and presented idiosyncratic English characters in gentle comedies. They are mainly three or four reel films, the longest The Head of the Family (1922) runs for 73 minutes. All the prints, which were of good quality, come from the BFI National Archive, so here is an opportunity to offer British audiences something fresh and different.

This years Canon Revisited included Pabst’s major 1925 film Die Freudlose Gasse / Joyless Street. Amazingly we see Asta Nielsen, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich all in the same film. This silent classic has been enjoyed several restorations in recent years and this tinted version from the Filmmuseum Műnchen ran for 150 minutes. There was a screening of the 1927 German film Die Weber / The Weavers, which was also screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato this year. Being able to see this powerful drama twice was a treat: it is taken from a very class-conscious play which treats of the resistance of Silesian cotton weavers to the introduction of machines and their consequent impoverishment. Like the Soviet films, which clearly influenced it, the film makes few concessions to bourgeois values.

There were a number of Special Events which enjoyed distinctive musical support. The Garbo film A Woman of Affairs (19280 presenting an excellent Photoplay print with Carl Davis conducting an orchestra with his own score. Photo-Cinéma-Théâtre was a recreation of a programme presented at the Paris Exposition of 1900. John Sweeney researched and played an impressive accompaniment to this varied programme. The musical performances by both solo pianists and orchestral groups were highly praised this year. However, one friend did comment that she felt that some of the music tended to overpower the films they accompanied. I agreed with this about some performances, though I thought the majority excellent in terms of accompaniment. This does seem to reflect an increasing emphasis on the music in silent film presentations. There have been quite a few examples of celebrity musicians taking up accompaniments, often displaying little understanding of the film or how music should enhance it. And recently in the UK we have had examples of musicians accompanying sound films, turning off the soundtrack! I am not sure the last is even cinema?

This tendency is assisted by the advent of digital formats, including the use of digital video in cinematic settings. So I was very pleased to have the opportunity of attending a seminar by Torkell Sætervadet, the author of FIAF’s new Digital Projection for Archival Cinemas. My heart warmed to his opening remark, that digital projection should aim to create as closely as possible the original projection of a film. He then gave a very detailed and relatively accessible talk about the Digital Cinema Package Format, colour, contrast, frame rates and pixels. One piece of good news is that the FIAF publication contains specifications for frame rates below 24 fps for digital cinema. We will now have to wait to see how long it takes to come in to actual usage.

However, there was a strong irony in all this as this year’s Giornate included increased use of digital formats, including DVD! Die Weber was projected from a DCP, presumably 2K. It looked pretty good, but the tone and contrast did not seem to be up the quality of a 35mm print. Of more concern was the screening of Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne D’Arc from a digi-beta copy. This was presumably because the screening took place in the local cathedral with an orchestral accompaniment. However, it seems that this involved step printing in the transfer twice: the second time because the orchestra had rehearsed a projection at 25 fps! It seems to me that Dreyer’s masterwork is one of the films where adding extra frames will have an especially marked impact. However, my real ire was occasioned by the use of DVD in the programme. One of these was presented in the Anna Sten programme: a ‘lost film’, Moi Syn / My Son (USSR 1928). I only saw the first few frames which were clearly stretched from their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. I heard various explanations about this, some blaming the DVD, some the projection. Whatever, I think seeing a film distorted in this way does not really count as ‘having seen it.’ One hopes that FIAF’s new guide may provide a counter-tendency to these problems.

Overall thought it was an excellent programme and a rewarding week. Other treats included a rediscovered Melies Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé (1902): a number of very early features from the Selig Polyscope Company: and restorations including Clarence Brown’s fine 1925 melodrama The Goose Woman and the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation’s The Viking (1928) which used the relatively new dye-transfer process – it looked great but was extremely hammy.

As usual there was praise for the programming and organising abilities of the Giornate staff. But also one sad note, the early death of a one of the Festival staff, Sara Moranduzzo (1964 – 1912).


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