Early & Silent Film

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014.

Posted by keith1942 on November 16, 2014


This was the 33rd Festival of silent film held in Pordenone [or for a few years Sacile]. It was a fairly full week full of classic early films, some familiar titles and some new and engaging surprises. The weather that accompanied the week was mixed some; sunshine some rain, but warm compared with ‘blighty’. It was a fairly full programme, we started at 8.45 a.m. one day. However, there were not any really late nights, I was usually in bed before midnight.

One major strand was a tribute to the Barrymores, Ethel, John and Lionel. They were part of what one could call Hollywood royalty in the 1920s. In fact, in retrospect it is surprising that it is only now that they have enjoyed a major retrospective. All three were established stars of theatre, and one sensed that this remained their main focus. A theatrical flourish tended to over emphasise their performances, more notably in the two male stars. One really interesting film has Lionel Barrymore as The Copperhead (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920), a supposed supporter of the Confederacy but living in Union territory. It threw a distinctive angle on the US civil war, though it became almost masochistic as the hero suffered for the cause. We had only one complete film starring Ethel Barrymore, but she seemed in some ways the best adapted of the clan to film. The White Raven (Rolfe Photoplays, 1917) was a melodrama with a somewhat implausible plot but with a strong and determined female lead. The most famous title featuring John Barrymore was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Famous Players-Lasky, 1920). The film is not as good as that directed by Robert Mamoulian a decade later, but Barrymore brings an intensity to the scenes of transformation that seem almost vampirist.

For me the star programme of the week was Russian Laughter: The Silent Comedies of Yakov Protazanov, [despite the misspelling of Soviet!]. We enjoyed six silent films and one silent which had been re-processed as a sound film in 1935. We had two actual Russian silent films, from 1913, a farce with a triangular relationship: and from 1918 a countess having to work as a chambermaid. In the Soviet features we had a tailor threatened by his marriage hungry woman employer: an overtly political comedy about the different types of theft, criminal and capitalist: a critique of bureaucracy in the shape of a railway station manger; and three Chekhov stories adapted on film. Protazanov and his writers created well-structured plots and witty characterisations. The production teams achieved a sense of realism that grounded the films in recognisable world. I felt that this was lost in the final sound version, a satire on religion – but some friends at the Festival rated it highly.

There were a number of special events. The epic screening was Die Nibelungen Siegfried and Kriemhild’s Rache (Kriemhild’s Revenge, both Decla-Biscop 1924). This complete epic now runs for 175 minutes. It is certainly impressive, especially in the geometric designs created for Lang by his production team. And there are also impressive effects like the fire-breathing dragon, an example of German expertise in this decade. However, it is also rather ponderous in a way associated with certain Germanic art. The second part has more action and violence but it also has an idea of German invincibility as onerous as that found in many Hollywood war movies. I was rooting for the Huns very soon into the film. I was taken with Kriemhild though – the most implacably determined heroine I have seen in years. And the restoration by Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau Stiftung was impressive. The Catalogue suggests that Part 1 would run at 20 fps and Part 2 at 22 fps – in fact, it felt like both parts were running at 20 fps. Sacrilegiously I did think about whether they could up this by a frame or two a second.

Ben Hur

Ben Hur

Another programme was The Dawn of Technicolor. This included formats like early hand-colouring, formats that came and went like Kelley Color and the early forms of the major colour film format, Technicolor. In the 1920s the Technicolor Corporation developed two-strip or two-tone Technicolor. It use varied but in a spectacular like M-G-M’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925) some sequences had a magical appearance. A really beautiful shorter film [two reels running 18 minutes] was Manchu Love (1929) from the Technicolor Corporation itself. This used a dye-transfer system and also included in the production two stalwarts of the Technicolor output: Natalie Kalmus, who for years laid down rigorous standards in its use and Ray Rennahan, possibly the Hollywood expert in colour cinematography. The plot owed much to the opera ‘Madame Butterfly’, though it as even more melodramatic. We also had a good print of The Black Pirate (The Elton Corporation, 1926) starring Douglas Fairbanks. Like other prints I have seen it suffered from desaturation, but it did not suffer the pinkish hue found on a version copied on to Eastmancolor stock.

There was more Early Japanese Cinema. And as in the previous year there were screenings employing a Japanese Benshi. The main one featured Chaplin shorts, presumably marking the centenary year of his on-screen debut. I do think the Benshi works better with Japanese films than imports. However, Ichiro Katanka, one of Japan’s ten or so working Benshi, also presented the Jonathan Denis Memorial Lecture for 2014 – The Art of the Benshi. This was a really interesting lecture on the roots and characteristics of this narrative form: enlivened by a series of recordings of Benshi from the late 1920s and early 1930s. Johan, a Festival regular, worked hard at providing a translation into English. My only reservation was that whilst Ichiro worked from a laptop this was not projected for the audience. It would have helped to have Japanese names, titles and dates displayed as he talked.

Charlie Chaplin was with us again on the closing night for a screening with orchestral accompaniment of City Lights (1931). This is one of the outstanding features by Chaplin: it is rather long on sentiment, but Chaplin mainly undercuts this with sly humour. And the comedy sequences, including the famous opening, show him on top form.

There were many other splendid programmes. These included films produced in the year 1914, Ukrainian animation, Rediscoveries and Restorations and the welcome The Canon Revisited. A rediscovery was an early sound version of Battleship Potemkin Panswerkreuzer Potemkin (Prometheus – Film 1930). Given the impact of Eisenstein’s masterpiece one can understand the desire to marry it with the new technology. However, it was not a successful marriage. Important title cards, like the quote by Trotsky on 1905, were missing: bizarrely, the divisions of parts had changed: and the music score was a combination of Edward Meisel with other music interpolated. I haven’t found a comment on this version by Eisenstein, but he famously ticked off Meisel at the London Film Society screening for tinkering with the projection speed.

Much more welcome in the ‘Canon’ was Raul Walsh’s slum film Regeneration (Fox Film Corp., 1915); though surprisingly no-one has got round to a full restoration. And there was Sir Arne’s Treasure (Herr Arnes Pengar, Svensk Filminustri, 1919); Mauritz Stiller’s magnificent but chilling drama of violence and contrition.

As always at Le Giornate the films were ennobled by the accompanying music. Most of the regulars were there, and most of the music illuminated and dramatised the films. We had a couple of performances that were too strong for the respective films, but overall this was fine music with a strong sense of empathy for the films.

The other fine strand across the week was the performance by a number of canine actors. The prize must go to a collie in The Incorrigible Dukane (Famous Players Film Co., 1915). Excuse the plot spoiler, but Dukane Jr. (John Barrymore) and his team are under siege in a cabin. The villains throw in a stick of dynamite. The brave and intelligent collie picks up the explosive, runs to the villain’s hideout and jumps through a window, returning the stick to the astonished gang. And he escapes to return to the men he has saved.

One bonus seemed to be a reduction in distraction in the auditorium: there were only a few mobile phones going off – still too many. And only the occasional laptop or tablet visible: unfortunately a new bad habit is checking the time on the latter, though I am sure this could be done without lighting up the whole screen. As in the past we also had a couple of people taking photos on these devices! However, a friend told me that there were quite a number of electronic gadgets illuminated in the balconies, perhaps the users have just moved.

A final tribute, to Dave Howell from West Yorkshire. He attended every film screening and never [he assures me] fell asleep. I am uncertain what to admire more, his stamina or his dedication.


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