Early & Silent Film

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A virtual Giornate

Posted by keith1942 on December 6, 2020

As with a number of other film festivals Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2020 could not meet in the new Verdi theatre in Pordenone and relied on streaming a series of programmes.

The week opened with ‘The Urge to Travel’ / ‘Voglia di Viaggiare’’ this was a programme of nine short films made between 1911 and 1939.

They were all interesting but I most enjoyed Over Bessegen på Motorcykkel, Norway 1932; here two unskilled cyclist created chaos for a series of road users, pedestrians and workmen. The music was by José María Serralde Ruiz.

The opening feature was Penrod and Sam, directed by William Beaudine, USA 1923, This was adapted from a novel by Booth Tarkington; the second in a series of three chronicling a young middle class boy and his friends. Tarkington was known as a ‘midwest regionalist’ so this is set in what is called ‘small town USA’. Apart from Sam, Penrod’s closest companion is Duke, a white Staffordshire or Staff cross. I should warn those of a sensitive soul that Duke comes a cropper in the film. I do not know about the books but the film has pretty sympathetic portraits of black member of Penrod’s gang for the period. The accompaniment was by Stephen Horne.

‘The Brilliant Biograph: earliest Moving Images of Europe (1897 – 1902’) was a compilation by Frank Roumen, Netherlands 2020

“Amid the welter of projectors with extravagant names that competed for the public’s attention in the very first years of cinema, the Biograph had established itself as a product above the others, with a sharper, steadier, and far larger screen image than any of its competitors, a true source of wonder in all who saw it. The key to this success was the unperforated film of approximately 70mm width that the Biograph projector used, coupled with its choice of international subjects, and a policy of select and classy presentation, with the company controlling all exhibitions that used this unique system.” Luke McKernan in the Giornate 2000 Catalogue.

Now fifty titles from the collections of the Eye Museum and the National Film Archive have been digitised. The accompaniment was by Daan van den Hurk.

The second feature was Guofeng / National Customs; China 1935. This title was made at a studio under the dominance of the Kuomintang. The ‘National Customs’ was a campaign against foreign cultural influences and here it is structured into a romantic melodrama. In a rural town two sisters both love the same man. The working out of this conflict lead to personal tragedy but also to disruption in the school in which the sisters and their mother work. This provides the setting and situation for the values embodied in the Kuomintang campaign. The film was screened at an earlier Giornate in 1997 from a 35mm print. This was a digitised version recently completed by the Chinese Archive and then offered to this year’s Giornate. The film presents the problem of foreign influences as a cultural epidemic. This makes one wonder if the title was chosen as a riposte to the USA/Donald Trump’s constant accusations against China over the current epidemic.

The next programme opened with the Thanhouser one-reeler Toodles, Tom and Trouble, (US 1915). Despite that titular names the real star was a border collie, Lady. I have to complain about Jay’s introduction where he assured us that Lady remained OK. He apparently meant after the production whereas it seemed that he was talking about the plot. So the climax was a shock! Hopefully we will get a chance to see this skilled performer in another of her films.

The feature Where Lights are Low directed by Colin Campbell, US 1921, was a vehicle for the star Sessue Hayakawa. It was made by his own production company. The Haworth Pictures Corporation, established in 1918, which changed its name to the Hayakawa Feature Play Company at the beginning of 1921. A Chinese prince is sent to the USA to study. But his lowly love at home is sold into bondage and he has to struggle for money to save her from prostitution. Then, at the climax, he has to battle a San Francisco’s Chinatown criminal to save her. The final battle is long and visceral whilst the forces of law and order seem to take an eternity to come to the rescue. The film felt that there were missing sequences though the narrative still made sense. The accompaniment was by Philip Carli, who in the ‘chat’ also thought there were sequences missing.

The fourth feature was preceded by the Czech short film Ceské Hrady a Zámsky (1916). This opened in a ancient castle but the setting was merely the motivation for a mad dash from here to the capital Prague. The protagonist predictably encountered obstacle after obstacle as well as being assisted by a number of cinematographic tricks.

The feature was an Italian ‘anarchic comedy from 1921, La Tempesta in un Cranio, which translates as ‘the tempest in the cranium’ but which in Britain was titled ‘Kill or Cure’. I never really engaged with the premise of the title directed by Carlo Campogalliani who also played the lead characters. A rich and young man of a wealthy family fears that the hereditary madness will sooner or later afflict him. His friends set up a bizarre situation where he starts to think he is mad; revealed reality cures his fears. This approach to madness seemed to me only slightly preferable to that proposed by Freud. The music was provided by Günter A. Buchwald, Frank Bockius

Oi Apachides ton Athinon / The Apaches of Athens was a late silent produced in Greece in 1930. I thought the title was a little misleading. Coined in France the European term, ‘Les Apache’ referred to a violent criminal world culture and had a similar meaning when copied in other countries. However, in this title, the lead male trio:

“the charming but penniless Pierre Lambeth, known as “The Prince,” beloved by the flower-seller Titika, and his two chums, the comic duo Karoumbas (played by librettist Prineas) and Karkaletsos.”

are law abiding itinerant labourers. In the main climax of the story Pierre is even more moral that the guests at a bourgeois party. The film was adapted from an operetta

“celebrated for its revolutionary populist treatment of working-class characters,”

What stood out for me was the location filming in Athens and its celebration of working class life and experience. Directed by Dimitrios Gaziades and with a recorded orchestral accompaniment: Greek Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Abwege (Germany 1928) ([The] Crisis) Directed by G. W. [Georg Wilhelm] Pabst,

This film had been screened at an earlier Giornate, also 1997. But the title was the digital version seen at the 2018 Berlinale. The music was by Mauro Colombis.

A Romance of the Redwoods (US 1917) Directed by Cecil B. DeMille. This was a delightful Mary Pickford vehicle. She plays Jenny who travels from the East to the West of the USA. She is faced by all sorts of obstacles and dangers but she is a strong willed young woman who finally achieves a romance and a place in this new territory. The production was extremely well done, as you would expect from the people involved, including Alvin Wyckoff’s fine cinematography and it was a pleasure to watch. The music by Donald Sosin with Joanna Seaton

Ballettens Datter (Denmark 1913) (GB: Unjustly Accused) [Daughter of the Ballet]

Directed by Holger-Madsen

This film drama was described as a ‘modern comedy’, in the sense that it was a tale of irony rather than outright humour. The ballet dancer of the title marries a wealthy admirer with his condition that she leave the stage, When, frustrated in marriage and domesticity, she returns secretly to the stage this action sparks a familiar melodramatic conflation; but one that is resolve in a slightly fantastic fashion.

The music was by John Sweeney.

The final programme was a number of one and two reel comedies featuring Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, but before they formed the famous duo. There were moments of fun and humour but overall I thought these were minor examples of silent comedy. They demonstrated how, when they formed a double act, the combination of their individual talents created a whole more substantial than the parts.

Neil Brand accompanied the titles at the piano.

All the features were introduced by Jay who was seen in a variety of places in Pordenone familiar to regular Giornate guests. Streamings were followed by ‘chats’ hosted by Jay and usually including the musician who accompanied the title and one or even two people who were know legible on the film, the film-makers and the national cinema which they represented. These are available on You Tube.

There were also a series of ‘master classes’. The master classes at the regular Festival providing a learning opportunity for musician who want to develop their skills in accompanying silent titles. These virtual versions featured the musicians who accompanied this year’s title discussing their approach to providing such music from a range of viewpoints. These varied in the way they treated the issue; they were interesting but I sensed that the festival had not given them a specific brief. Such a brief would have providing for the different presentations to build into a coherent commentary on music and silent film.

And there were also daily review programmes, recommending new books on silent film and in one case a new box set of DVDs, [The Thanhouser Studio]. There are also available in You Tube.

The festival programme was streamed on MyMovie, which is the same platform as used by Il Cinema Ritrovato earlier in the year. The platforms runs up to 1080 but most of the features that I viewed were at 720. The supporting programmes were streamed at a lower rate and some that I viewed were several rates lower. I gave up one masterclass because the extracts used were so poor; though that may be partly due to the source. Overall the Festival programme was well organised and well presented. There were background notes for each programme on the Web Site. These offered basic production details and comments. I would have liked more information on the source material and the digitisation process. However, Le Giornate are preparing a printed catalogue which should be available in December and I hope will have more information.

The Festival was worth following but it did not increase my liking for streaming. Hopefully 2021 will see us back at Pordenone and in the new Verdi. I do worry that the increase of digital versions over this year both in festival and other screening facilities may lessen the amount of 35mm prints that we enjoy in Le Giornate; last year it was about fifty-fifty. My friend Peter, who checks these matters, says that the proportion of 35mm has gone down year-by-year recently.

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