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Girls Just Want To Have Fun
The 21st Annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival

 
Article Copyright © 2003 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
 

It was ladies first this week at the 21st annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival. By featuring comedies in which women played lead roles, the festival’s purpose was to showcase and highlight the crucial and often neglected role that women played in the history of silent film comedy.

Other themes for this year’s festival included: Swiss cinema — a sampling of silent films made in Switzerland; the Italian avant-garde — unusual or experimental films made in Italy in the silent era; newly restored films ranging from a Carl Theodor Dreyer epic to a delightful romp by Douglas Fairbanks; and the continuation of the Griffith project, an effort to sequentially show all of D.W. Griffith’s existing films.

After years of indecision, the Verdi theater, long home to this festival, was leveled. The city of Pordenone plans to build a new theater in the same location. For now the festival continues to be hosted by the nearby town of Sacile. Perched over a series of rivers running off the nearby Dolomite mountains, Sacile exudes simple elegance, and the locals once again welcomed us to another festival.

The following are reviews for some of the films screened this year, with the usual hope that my comments will invite challenge and disagreement.

Ladies’ Week at Sacile

The central theme for this year’s festival was ‘Funny Ladies,’ a celebration of silent film comediennes. When discussing silent film comedy, several names come quickly to mind: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. Like heads on some silent film Mount Rushmore, these men are venerated as being at the top of their art. The theme of this year’s festival provokes a simple question: why isn’t a woman on this list? In the description of films screened, the festival program went to some trouble not to raise this question, making the point that women in the silent era usually pursued comedy in character roles rather than presenting themselves simply as clowns or comediennes. In the pre-war films, the funny lady was often a servant girl, someone from the working class. WWI brought new ideas and a sense of independence, and the 1920’s consolidated these changes to give us the New Woman ready for a Brave New world — exciting, uninhibited, and full of possibilities. While this observation is true, it still begs the question: what reasons kept women from being canonized to the same comic heights as these men? The films in this festival may start to give us some answers.

Struck by Stage Struck

Stage Struck (1925)
Gloria Swanson in Stage Struck (1925).
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
Each year the festival brings out ‘discoveries,’ great films that for various reasons are little known. This year, the ‘discovery’ and one of the highlights of the festival, was Gloria Swanson’s Stage Struck (1925). Swanson plays Jennie, a waitress in a West Virginia river town. By day, Jennie slings hash in a small greasy diner, but in her dreams Jennie is an actress diva, irresistible to all men.

The problem for Jennie is that her guy, a short-order cook named Olme, doesn’t even know she’s alive. He’s infatuated with actresses, in particular Lillian, a performer playing on a paddlewheel showboat in town for the season. In desperation, Jennie takes a job on the boat, hoping to get Olme’s attention by showing her thespian talents in front of a packed audience. Unfortunately for Jennie, rather than being cast as a seductive temptress, she is instead the show’s clown. Humiliated, Jennie tries to end it all by jumping into the river, and only at this crisis does she realize the danger of confusing art with reality. Her illusions of acting shattered, Jennie at last says what she’s really thinking; ironically it’s this confession that provokes Olme into finally declaring his love for her.

A little old to play an ingénue role at 26, Swanson throws herself into the part with complete abandon. Allan Dwan directs the story briskly, with the added bonus of shooting on location in West Virginia. Still, the best part of this film is the script, brimming with ideas about acting and the cult of personality.

Stage Struck makes a very sophisticated exploration of the use and misuse of make-believe in our world. In a spectacular opening color-sequence, Jennie is irresistible as Salome, delivering to us the head of John the Baptist on a platter. But wait! Jarred out of her daydream, Salome is only Jennie the waitress, carrying a plate of food for hungry impatient customers.

Stage Struck (1925)
Gloria Swanson in Stage Struck (1925).
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
Taking a correspondence course in acting, Jennie runs her lines by her stuffed toy dog. Meanwhile, a real dog lingers unattended outside her door. Olme has cut out photos of actresses lining his bedroom walls, but can’t see beautiful Jennie who pines for him nearby. Jennie tries to be an actress to win Olme’s love, yet only when she finally throws away her comic mask and all of her pretensions does she find her way into his heart. It takes a crisis to point out the difference between make-believe and reality. Yet, what is this ‘reality’ but Gloria Swanson playing a waitress? By believing in even the characters of Jennie and Olme, are we not just as guilty as they are? Aren’t we all, in the end, stage struck?

As the story progressed, I thought Swanson’s Jenny began to look more and more like characters played by Giulietta Masina in the films of Federico Fellini. Especially intriguing was the film’s end — when Swanson jumps over the side of the boat, the scene provokes an uncanny visual prefiguration of the climax of Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. One wonders if a young Fellini saw the film in Italy and used this memory years later to create his Oscar-winning classic. Stage Struck was my favorite film at the festival, I hope it gets more exposure so that more people can discover a delightful film and appreciate Gloria Swanson’s comic talents.

Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath

Not far behind Stage Struck in my estimation was Ladies’ Night in a Turkish Bath (1928). James Finlayson plays Pa Slocum, a restaurant owner who, goaded by his wife, Ma Slocum (Sylvia Ashton) sells his business and moves uptown with their daughter Helen (Dorothy Mackaill). This move doesn’t suit Dorothy’s boyfriend Speed (Jack Mulhall) who sees the possibility of losing his girl to young men with three-piece suits and independent incomes. Speed and Pa commiserate about their misfortune in a speak-easy, and in escaping a police raid find themselves in a Turkish bath, just in time to find Dorothy and Ma taking advantage of a ‘ladies only’ bath night.

Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath, directed with great pace by Edward Cline, reminded me of the henpecked husbands and neglected wives story that Laurel and Hardy specialized in over the years. After exploring the humor of class consciousness, Ladies Night in a Turkish Bath then charges full speed into a ‘running-in-and-out-of-rooms’ burlesque ballet. What makes this film so special is the exquisite timing of the gags, all of them perfectly set up and paid off, culminating in a hilarious finale. This film is another real ‘discovery’ and would be a great addition to any silent film program.

It and The Patsy

The Patsy (1928)
Poster: Silent Era image collection.
 
It (1927), starring Clara Bow, was featured as the opening night film. Hardly a ‘discovery,’ the charms of It have been long been known to American silent film enthusiasts; even so, a large number of the audience had never seen the film. In It, Clara Bow plays a shop girl who falls in love with the millionaire son of the store owner. Bow, with a winsome combination of guile, sex appeal, wit, guts, and devotion to friends (in other words, lots of ‘it’) wins the heart of the millionaire store owner, and the audience. It is a wonderful showcase for Clara Bow’s talents, and was a pleasant surprise for many of the non-Americans at the festival who knew the film only by reputation.

Another pleasant surprise this week was The Patsy (1928) starring Marion Davies and Marie Dressler. This romantic comedy tells the story of the Harringtons, a family with two young and very eligible daughters, Grace (Jane Winston) and Patricia (Marion Davies). The problem is that younger sister Patricia has a mad crush on her older sister’s boyfriend, Tony (Orville Caldwell). Grace is beautiful but flighty and Tony seems blind to the obvious fact that Pat is the far better bargain of the two sisters. Social climber Ma Harrington (Marie Dressler) does everything she can to match her older daughter with Tony, Pat decides she must take extraordinary steps to make Tony notice her, even if it means making a rendezvous with the notorious town playboy.

Davies’ fans have known for years that Marion was a terrific comedian, unfortunately saddled with the pressure from boyfriend William Randolph Hearst to be a ‘serious’ actress. In The Patsy, Davies gets to show off her gift for comedy, especially in a scene where she does impersonations of Mae Murray, Lillian Gish and Pola Negri. The Patsy is a delight and I recommend it highly.

Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley

Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918)
Mary Pickford and Norman Kerry in
Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918).
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
Another wonderful film screened this week of all-star funny ladies was Mary Pickford’s Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918). Many of Pickford’s ‘Little Mary’ roles were inherently more sentimental than humorous, but Pickford had great comedy ‘chops’ and could be as funny as anyone when she wanted. Pickford has some nice comic business in several scenes such as when she tries to save a theater from going up in flames. After some slapstick sequences of Mary escaping from a dressing room, she’s shocked to find that instead of praise, she’s fired from her job! Dejected, she trails out of the exit door of the theater. Then, in an extraordinary silhouette (one could say almost a career signature silhouette) we see the character of Amarilly that is, ‘Little Mary’ pause, take stock, and kick up her heels to move on to a new day.

Things do pick up for Amarilly and she finds herself in a romantic triangle including a rich young sculptor Gordon (Norman Kerry) and bartender Terry (William Scott). In a George Eliot working-class ending, Amarilly chooses loyal bartender Terry over wealthy Gordon, but not before the film is able to stick many pins into the world of both upstairs and down. Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley is one of Pickford’s best films and deserves wider attention from the silent film community.

Orchids and Ermine

Marry-the-millionaire fantasies were popular in the ‘can-do’ roaring 20’s. An excellent example of this type of film is Orchids and Ermine (1927) starring Colleen Moore and Gwen Lee. ‘Pink’ (Moore) is a telephone receptionist in a large swank New York hotel. Pink and her friend, florist Ermitrude (Lee) are working at the hotel with one thought in mind — to find a rich husband. This effort to gold-dig their way into comfort runs into a snag when Pink falls for the valet (Jack Mulhall) of a rich soft drink magnate. What Pink doesn’t know is that to avoid attention, the millionaire has switched roles with his valet. So as Ermitrude goes after the man she thinks is a cola king but is really just a valet, Pink must ponder the question of love with a man she thinks is a servant. Orchids and Ermine is sparked by witty intertitles by Ralph Spence, and has an interesting scene when the millionaire Mulhall pursues Moore by hiring a double-decker bus to catch up to the one Moore is riding. As one bus pulls up to the other, Mulhall achieves a bus transfer that could only happen in the movies by deftly hopping over the railing from one double-decker to the other as the two buses are next to each other. The romance continues on top of the bus and we get a great panoramic tour of 1927 New York city streets.

Helen’s Babies

Clara Bow.
Frame enlargement: Silent Era
image collection.
 
Another charming film is Helen’s Babies (1924) starring Baby Peggy, Clara Bow and Edward Everett Horton. Helen’s Babies shows off the talents of ‘funny girl’ Baby Peggy (Diana Serra Cary) one Hollywood’s most popular child stars in the twenties. Baby Peggy, only six when this film was made, exhibits an all-important natural ability for gentle mischief that is endearing rather than annoying. In Helen’s Babies, Horton plays an author of a book on raising children (but with complete ignorance on the subject), who is left in charge of two precocious five-year olds for a weekend. Horton is quickly up to his ears in trouble from the good-natured but uninhibited children. Still, with the help of neighbor Clara Bow, he perseveres, and even learns a little about himself. Helen’s Babies is a great kid’s film for all ages, and how can you not like a film where Edward Everett Horton is the hero and gets Clara Bow at the end?

Cinderella Cinders

An interesting short film is Cinderella Cinders (1920) starring Alice Howell. Howell plays a cook in a diner who after being fired from her job finds herself as a maid for a wealthy family, where she uncovers a pair of crooks hiding in the house. Born in New York, Alice Howell (1888-1961) worked in vaudeville with her husband, then moved out to California, eventually working in some of Chaplin’s comedies such as Caught in a Cabaret (1914). Later she was the star of a series called ‘Howl Comedies’ where she developed a character with frizzy hair and a distinctive waddle walk. Howell shows off her comedy skills at the beginning of Cinderella Cinders, where she leads her diner patrons in a musical soup slurping ensemble.

Alice Howell shows excellent pantomime skills in this film. Of all the women on profile this week I thought Howell came the closest to the effortless ballet of silent film clown at work. Here was a woman trained in theater, adept in comedy pantomime, with apparently no reservations about being a clown. Why is her name obscure? Perhaps her skills needed to be better combined or worked into the story itself. Cinderella Cinders is amusing only because of Alice Howell’s great comic timing of gags in the diner, the rest of the film is completely forgettable. Perhaps the Howells, either by themselves or with their company were not able to create enough funny memorable stories to break through the threshold that separates talent from fame.

Blood and Bosh

Watching Blood and Bosh (1913), one sees the film roots of British absurdist parody forming before your eyes. Blood and Bosh is a whacked-out comedy that involves the kidnapping of a baby who is the beneficiary of will. After being rescued, thrown through a window, and stomped on, it’s clear the baby was in better hands when with the villains. The infant is rushed to a doctor, who solemnly explains, “If the child does not explode in thirty seconds, he will survive.” In a satire of the just-new feature film, one intertitle tells us that after Part 1 there will be a thirty minute interval to change reels! Blood and Bosh is nasty and hilarious, and is like watching an early rehearsal for a Monty Python episode. Indeed, I was half expecting to have John Cleese pop up somewhere in the film to explain to us that we were looking at dead parrot. The film features Chrissie White, in the early teens the most popular actress in Britain. In Blood and Bosh, Chrissie White plays the humor with a stiff upper lip, exactly what is needed to make the silly action funny. Still, this is an ensemble production, and not a vehicle that would have furthered her career. White married director Henry Edwards and was more or less retired from the screen by 1924.

I Do Not Want to Be a Man

Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein [I Do Not Want to Be a Man] (1919) is a cross-dressing fairy tale directed by Ernst Lubitsch. A pampered tom boy (Ossi Oswalda) tires of the limited possibilities of life as a woman. Dismissing her male tutor, she goes to a tailor to be fitted for a tuxedo. With white-tie dress and hair cut short (and with apparently a city full of near-sighted men who don’t recognize her as a woman) she enters a nightclub. Oswalda’s character quickly gets into trouble as she encounters male-bonding rituals of drinking and smoking cigars. Sick to her stomach, she flees to the bathroom, but dressed as a man she can’t go to the ladies, and lacks the nerve to enter the men’s. Cross-dressing has its practical problems. Eventually her tutor spies her in the nightclub, but not recognizing his pupil, befriends her in brotherly fashion. Together, they get roaring drunk and wind up in the morning in strange beds. Oswalda, finding herself attracted to her instructor, is in a very awkward position. “I do not want to be a man,” she decides with practical finality, putting on skirts and petticoats to her tutor’s relieved surprise. Ich Möchte Kein Mann Sein is a sharp and fun film, although in 1919, still fresh from his stage burlesque roots, Lubitsch often chooses to hammer his points home at the cost of subtlety. In other words, at this point of his career, the ‘Lubitsch touch’ is more like the ‘Lubitsch wallop.’ Still, this movie is required viewing for all Lubitsch fans, and let’s hope that means everybody.

Hold Your Breath

Then there is the intriguing Hold Your Breath (1924) starring Dorothy Devore. Losing her job in a beauty salon, Devore takes a job as a reporter trying to get an interview with a millionaire recluse. This assignment takes a very wrong turn upward when a monkey steals a valuable bracelet and scales a skyscraper. Dorothy follows the monkey up the building and with a hair-raising climb is able to capture and return the necklace.

Hold Your Breath is intriguing because of all the films screened this week at the festival, it comes closest in projecting a woman into the feature film slapstick world of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. The last third of the film closely copies Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), but this is not necessarily a criticism, since Hold Your Breath is funny in its own right. So why is this movie so obscure?

First, the film itself is oddly structured and has the feel of three short films that were tied together to make a feature. The first part of the film takes place in a beauty parlor and is more like a female ‘buddy-buddy’ story, interesting, but feeling like a separate film. Then the second part of Hold Your Breath goes fishing into social issues, with a patriotic plea to hire veterans. Finally Devore gets to play King Kong on the side of a building, but this extreme behavior is a change of tone from the rest of the picture.

Despite its episodic nature Hold Your Breath is still enjoyable, and one wonders why it isn’t better known. Perhaps part of the answer lies with the issue of how much of Hold Your Breath is a ‘Dorothy Devore film.’ One of the biggest advantages of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd was their long personal experience and understanding of slapstick and gags — all took enormous creative control over their films. When we watch a Chaplin or Keaton working comic business, we have a sense of authorship and expectation that adds to the pleasure of the story.

In Hold Your Breath, Dorothy Devore more than holds her own, and shows good comic timing, but I never have the sense the jokes are her jokes, the scenes created by her design. Without this talent for personalizing her gags and scenes, Devore was beholden to the talents of the people around her. Hold Your Breath remains a definite attempt to put Devore into the center ring of slapstick comedians. Perhaps the real issue for Devore and her team was the problem of making enough profitable vehicles to establish a name. Dorothy probably needed about three more films as good or better than this film, and for a variety of reasons this never happened.

The Vagabond Queen

Ruritanian romances are one of film’s strangest sub-genres. Ruritania is the name of a country in southeastern Europe originally the creation of novelist (Prisoner of Zenda) Anthony Hope. The idea of a struggling small country somewhere in the Balkans of Eastern or Central Europe was a fertile one, enough even to generate a series of ‘Ruritanian romance’ movies in the 1920s and 1930s, reaching its zenith with the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup (1933). This week the festival showed a little-known film of this type, The Vagabond Queen (1929).

Betty Balfour plays a London boarding-room maid who turns out to be a dead ringer for the princess Xonia of Bolonia. With more than a nod to Prisoner of Zenda, Bolonian diplomats pay Sally to travel to their country and masquerade as Xonia to draw attention away from the real princess about to be crowned queen. Arriving in Bolonia, Sally soon finds she has been hired to be a moving target, with at least three assassination plots underway to prevent the real princess from taking over rule of the country. The Vagabond Queen had the bad luck to be made in 1929, the crossroads year between sound and silent film. A creaky sound version of The Vagabond Queen was released, pushing the (probably better) silent version into oblivion. This anarchic exercise in humor deserves more exposure, especially as a vehicle for the talents of Betty Balfour.

The Grand Duchess and the Waiter

The Grand Duchess and the Waiter (1926) directed by Malcolm St. Clair and starring Florence Vidor, and Adolphe Menjou, concerns the plight of a Duchess Zenia, stranded in France after the Russian revolution. Haughty, proud, and cash-poor Zenia finds she must sell off her jewels to pay the bills of her entourage, increasingly strapped for money. Zenia resists the romantic interests of a wealthy millionaire playboy (Menjou), smitten by her beauty but forced by circumstance to play the role of her hotel butler. After the reversals of fortunes are complete Zenia, now completely broke, must run a country hotel. When playboy Menjou is still interested, Zenia finally realizes that her suitor is sincere, and the couple are reconciled.

The Grand Duchess and the Waiter has more than a passing resemblance to Ninotchka (1939) in elements of its plot, and in the star power of Menjou and Vidor both at the top of their game. If you want to see a ‘Lubitsch touch’ film made while the real Lubitsch was still refining his talents, this is the film for you.

The ABC’s of Love

Not all the films this week were unreserved successes. Asta Nielsen is arguably film’s first superstar, hugely popular in early Danish and German cinema. It’s hard to appreciate Nielsen’s work today. Many of her early films are gone, and films that do exist are not always complete. In Das Liebes-A.B.C. [The ABC’s of Love] (1916), Asta plays Lis, the daughter of parents who have long planned to marry her off to a friend of the family named Phillip. The problem is that Phillip, raised by two old aunts, is a prissy wimp. Lis concludes that Phillip needs some male education in a hurry so she kidnaps him, taking him to Paris for a crash-course in maleness, even if she has to dress like a man for him to learn. The ABC’s of Love is missing so many scenes and title cards in its first section that it becomes hard to follow, more odd than funny. In a way this film is typical of many of Nielsen’s surviving films, offering at best an incomplete look of this important actress.

Impersonation of Charlie Chaplin

Charlie Chaplin’s films were so popular they spawned a whole industry of Chaplin imitators. The festival screened one of these films, titled Miss Minerva Courtney in Her Impersonation of Charlie Chaplin (1915). This short starts with Courtney, playing herself, coming to the ‘May Be’ studio looking for work, and finding herself cast as a Chaplin impersonator. Courtney then goes through a scene-for-scene reenactment of the opening of Chaplin’s The Champion (1915), filmed four months earlier.

The Impersonation of Charlie Chaplin is more a curio than a good film. Courtney does better playing herself than Chaplin and worse, doesn’t show enough pantomime skills to justify the pastiche. What’s even more peculiar about this film is that nothing is known about the actress. Courtney made three films in 1915 and disappeared, leaving this only surviving footage, making Minerva Courtney a mystery player in the world of funny ladies.

Oh, Mabel Behave

Oh, Mabel Behave (released 1922, but shot around 1917) was one of the big disappointments of the festival. Recently restored by the Cinématèque Française, the film is not only unfunny but almost painful to watch. Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett and Ford Sterling wander around in a garden in a plot that somehow involves a squire trying to marry Mabel off to one man when she loves another. The film looks as if it was shot in a day, a very uninspired day at that, and the actors appear either tired, hung over, or both. Many of Mabel Normand’s films are lost and incomplete, so every Mabel film found is an event, but sadly this desperate effort will do nothing for Mabel’s reputation as the First Lady of silent comedy.

Exit Smiling

Beatrice Lillie was a major theatrical star in her day, called by one critic “the funniest woman in the world.” In Exit Smiling (1926) directed by Sam Taylor, Lillie is Violet, a maid to a traveling acting troupe. Violet wants to be an actress — she knows that she could be the next Sarah Bernhardt. She just needs one break, one chance to show her mettle by playing the vamp in the troupe’s production of its touring melodrama Flaming Women. Violet finally gets her chance for the acting gig of a lifetime, but in a way she never could have guessed.

I liked Exit Smiling, but thought Beatrice Lillie’s self-assured Violet was a stage interpretation that might have worked better in a theater than the more intimate setting of film where often less is more. From watching this film, I think Lillie’s talents for playing larger than life and projecting to the audience were probably better suited to the theater, even though the storyline for Exit Smiling was tailor-made just for this possible problem. Perhaps if she had continued her film career, Lillie would have adapted her style. Lillie made only few scattered film roles after Exit Smiling, staying with her bread-and-butter stage career.

Happiness

Happiness (1924) directed by King Vidor, was one of the strangest films screened this week. Laurette Taylor plays Jenny, a poor shop girl working at a clothing salon. Jenny may be untutored but she ‘knows where she’s going’ — someday she’ll be running her own dress shop. Jenny makes friends and enriches the lives of a rich but lonely couple. Later she falls in love with an electrical engineer, marries, and sets up her shop.

Taking her newly met boyfriend home to mother, Jenny explains to him that her father is missing. Her mother’s explanation for his absence is that her father has amnesia from a head injury, and doesn’t remember how to get back to them. To fill their time, Jenny takes her mother on buses and subways to search for the father, lost somewhere in New York. The reality is that the husband has run away to start a new life, but since this reality is too powerful for the wife to accept, she has invented a fantasy explanation.

The idea of a flying Dutchman of husbands, forever circling the streets of New York trying to get home, is a dark and spooky image that is strikingly original. Unfortunately, the darkness of the image is quickly dispelled by the agenda of this movie, an extended allegory exalting the power of positive thinking. Happiness develops into almost a religious allegory, where ‘right-thinking’ almost preordains the rest of the story.

There is no traditional conflict in Happiness; as this would interfere with the film’s social tract. The conflict instead is represented by the ‘old thinking’ of Jenny’s parents. The unseen father in the story is like a dead anchor, holding back the mother and subsequently Jennie. One has the feeling that for a large portion of the film, the characters are just waiting around for something to happen. Eventually the mother shrugs her shoulders, accepts her husband’s absence and almost dies on the spot. Everyone seems to take a big breath, and the movie ends!

Happiness was placed under the comedy label, but really belongs in the philosophical populist genre and underscores Vidor’s interest in social message films. Vidor would revisit some of these ideas in his version of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead.

“Gold and Glitter” Griffith 1912

In a continuing project, the festival continues to show sequentially all surviving D.W. Griffith films, this year showing the films made in 1912. For Griffith, the central genius behind early cinema, women were not always a laughing matter. The beginning of 1912 saw the growing separation of Griffith and his wife Linda Arvidson. Griffith the moralist was hard pressed to rationalize the reality of now being a ladies man and having multiple affairs. It’s hard to watch these films and not come away with the feeling that you are watching an animated Rorschach test, giant moving inkblots suggesting or commenting on Griffith’s own moral struggles.

In five years with Biograph Studio, D.W. Griffith had gone from bit actor to its flagship director. By 1912, Griffith was largely responsible for Biograph Studios’ success as the premiere American film studio. We see in Griffith’s films of this year less experimenting and more consolidation and refinement of the techniques he had been developing over the five previous years. Part of this change was a maturity and acceptance of who he was as a person. Griffith was throwing off some Victorian sensibilities, now that his long desire for fame had become a reality. Also Biograph was grudgingly giving Griffith the opportunity of making longer films. After years of phenomenal production (sometimes averaging more than two films a week) Griffith was spending more time and making fewer pictures. Production values also continued to improve, with increased money spent on sets, costumes, and locations. What is more important, Griffith had pulled together an impressive acting ensemble, including Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Mae Murray and Blanche Sweet. For all these reasons, 1912 was a turning point; in this year Griffith would make some of the best films of his career.

The Female of the Species

Griffith’s moral conflicts about women are displayed vividly in one of his early films of 1912, The Female of the Species. In this story, three women and a sick man find themselves at a remote Western outpost; they must trek across the desert with almost no water if they are to survive. Of the three women, two are sisters (one married to the man who is sick), the other woman is a stranger. As they start their trek, the ill man, with almost his last breath, makes a pass at the woman who is a stranger. The sisters see and misinterpret the act, thinking the woman is at fault. Meanwhile, unseen but a only a few yards away, an Indian mother with a newborn baby collapses and dies from thirst.

The wife’s sick husband now also dies, and the wife, in grief and anger, raises a rifle to kill the woman she thinks is a temptress. At the last moment the dead Indian woman’s baby starts crying. At the sound of a baby in distress the wife puts down her gun and the three women find the crying baby and take care of it, creating a new bond among them.

This female reversal of the familiar Three Godfathers story hardly makes sense as a straight narrative, yet its visual images are so strong the film works instead as a hormonally super-charged dreamscape. I think Female of the Species comes closest to giving us Griffith’s view of women: irresistible, deadly, and essential.

The Massacre

One of Griffith’s masterpieces of 1912 was The Massacre, a film so important that all of John Ford’s westerns seem to be descendants of this film. The Massacre tells the story of a man who first loses his sweetheart to another man, then years later gives his life to protect his sweetheart’s daughter. The story involves two massacres, one by Army troops to an Indian village, the other by the Indians to the cavalry in retaliation. In its two-reeler time frame, the movie manages to tell a complicated story with enormous economy, so much economy that Griffith allows himself time to dwell on particular images with striking results. Most striking is the image of an Indian woman and her small child lying dead on the ground. This painful and personalized image of brutal murder suggests at least in this situation he is on the side of the Native Americans. D.W. Griffith may have been a racist, but at times this flawed genius was able to raise himself above his culture and time in ways that defy easy explanation.

The Painted Lady

In another exceptional film, The Painted Lady (1912), the prudish daughter (Blanche Sweet) of a strict father is flattered by a man who turns out to be interested in her only to find out details about her father’s fortune. With a mask concealing his face, the suitor breaks into the house. The daughter, hearing noise of a burglary, comes into her father’s office with a gun and in the confusion she shoots and kills the robber. When the daughter learns that the robber and her boyfriend were the same man, her mind snaps — and she tries to rejoin her now-imaginary lover. Griffith uses a shawl in this story to dazzling effect. At first the prim daughter wears the shawl as a substitute for makeup. Then when her suitor compliments the shawl, the shawl becomes invested as a symbol of her passion for the young man. Later, the father comforts his daughter by placing the shawl around her neck, unwittingly putting the essence of her dead lover around her shoulders in a ghostly embrace. This final action pushes her into insanity, and provides a brilliant example of a prop used to externalize emotional conflict.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912).
Frame enlargement: Silent Era image collection.
 
In 1912, Griffith seems to be either inventing or consolidating entire film genres. After leaving his mark on the western and the ‘descent-into madness story’ Griffith moves on to the gangster film with The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912). In this film, set in New York’s Lower East Side, the Snapper Kid (Elmer Rice) robs the fiancé of the Little Lady (Lillian Gish), a girl the Kid likes. Later, when he catches a rival gang member trying to dope the Little Lady’s drink, the confrontation leads to a gang war. After the Little Lady realizes the Kid has done her a favor, she repays him by not handing him over to the police.

While the conventions of the gangster film are not completely in place in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, the role of the Snapper Kid looms as a model for this genre. The Kid is not good, but then again he’s not exactly evil. He’s someone you couldn’t trust, yet someone you want on your side. In other words, Griffith has created a gangster version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous anti-hero, Long John Silver, all the more striking since he does it in only twenty minutes. The Snapper Kid is complex enough to be a charismatic ‘anti-hero,’ a vital component in a gangster film’s world of moral ambiguities. For Griffith, who often approached his stories with a Manichaean passion for pushing and cramming his characters into well-defined boxes, the Snapper Kid remains a singularly successful invention.

Other excellent Griffith 1912 films at the festival included: The Girl and Her Trust (a high action remake of The Lonedale Operator (1911), with a glorious last shot of the heroes eating their lunch on a train cow-catcher), The Sands of Dee (a poetic ghost story), A Pueblo Legend, Man’s Genesis (Griffith’s version of the opening of 2001: A Space Odyssey), The Informer, Oil and Water (in which Griffith firmly comes down in favor of divorce) and The New York Hat, written by a teenager named Anita Loos, later to be famous for many screenplays including Some Like it Hot, and Gold and Glitter (a roving husband joins a lumber camp and falls in love with a simple country girl). For Griffith, 1912 really was a year of gold and glitter.

Restorations: Fairy-tales and Mollycoddles

Each year the festival shows films that have been restored by archives around the world. Here are reviews for some of the films screened:

Once Upon a Time

Der var engang [Once Upon a Time] (1922) directed by Carl Theodor Dreyer, is taken from a Danish play popular in the 1880’s that combined Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew with Hans Christian Anderson’s The Swineherd. A Danish prince falls in love with the haughty princess of Illyria, who rejects him. The prince disguises himself as a poor peasant, and through a series of maneuvers forces the princess to live in a small hut in the forest. Living in poverty, the princess learns humility and grows to love the prince.

The film is incomplete, missing most of its last third. Bridging intertitles help to fill the gaps, and the missing footage is hardly noticed until the very last moment, when the lover’s embrace must be more imagined than seen. I was entranced by Once Upon a Time, a beautifully told fairy-tale with striking images of Danish forests. Dreyer was a director who worked slowly and deliberately, requiring a patience not shared by some modern audiences. Still, if you are able to approach Once Upon a Time with its own sense of pace and rhythm, I think you will be rewarded by seeing a wonderful film from one of Europe’s greatest directors.

The Mollycoddle

Another pleasure of this week’s festival was the showing of a pristine print of Douglas Fairbanks’ The Mollycoddle (1920). Fairbanks plays Richard Marshall V, who raised abroad, has lost touch with his rough-and-tough American heritage. Marshall falls in love with Virginia Hale (Ruth Renick) and follows her back to the States on a boat owned by diamond smuggler Henry Van Holker (Wallace Beery). Before you can say ‘swashbuckler,’ Fairbanks is busting broncos, rescuing damsels, and generally saving the day. The Mollycoddle is a fresh, ironic movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Thirty minutes into the film, the film abruptly breaks off for an animated cartoon that cleverly reviews all the plot points that we need to understand the rest of the movie. The Mollycoddle is a crowd-pleaser that deserves equal billing with the rest of Douglas Fairbanks’ great films.

Kindred of the Dust

Kindred of the Dust (1922) involves a romance between Donald, the son of a wealthy lumber tycoon, and Nan, granddaughter of a sailor who settles as a squatter on Puget Sound. Since Nan comes from the wrong side of the tracks, or in this case the wrong side of the bay, Donald’s father goes through monumental efforts to keep the two apart.

Directed by Raoul Walsh, this film is fun until it strains even the very generous credulity of melodrama. Donald lies in a hospital bed, dying essentially of unrequited love, and Nan is called to come cross-country to save his life. She does, and sings to Donald, her song giving him new life. Donald is saved, and Nan is ushered out, thanked, and given a ticket back to New York! Now that’s a tough family to please. Donald finally must rescue his father from a sunken boat before he relents to the marriage, and even then it takes the birth of another child before his heart finally melts. Clearly some tightening of this story would have produced a better film.

The Hazards of Helen

The Hazards of Helen (1915) is a serial that started a few months before the more famous The Perils of Pauline (1914). The Hazards of Helen stars Helen Gibson as a plucky railroad employee who continued to get her friends out of trouble and keep the trains running on time. The episode we saw had excellent action and had the advantage of having a self-contained story in its 15 minutes, bucking the trend of many serials that had cliff-hangers at the end of each episode. This episode would make a great short at the start of an evening program.

Spectre of the World

The festival this year showed newly discovered and restored films from Transylvanian director Jenö Janovics. For many generations Transylvania has maintained a shaky balance among diverse ethnic groups, including Romanians, Hungarians, Saxons (German descent) and Romani (gypsies). After WWI, Romania was again in control of the land and eager to reestablish Romanian language and culture as preeminent. The spin of the cultural compass back to Romania produced a massive questioning of personal and national identity, especially from the ethnic Hungarian population. Janovic’s work exhibits these often complex and contradictory tensions, his films blending genres to such an extent that they are difficult to label or even describe.

Din Grozaviile lumii (1920)
Din Grozaviile lumii (1920).
Photograph: courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
 
For example, one of Janovics’ films, Din Grozaviile lumii [Spectre of the World] (1920), is ostensibly a social hygiene film. Social hygiene films have their peculiar history as a genre, the breakthrough success being the German film Let There Be Light, a tale about the dangers of syphilis. Social hygiene films often carry a sincere message, but are mostly watched for their titillating subject matter. For Americans, this genre was to develop and to expand into a variety of moral cautionary tales such as teenage drunk-driving death films or films made to illustrate the dangers of marijuana use, such as Reefer Madness.

In Spectre of the World, a husband contracts syphilis, then gives it to his innocent wife, a famous opera star who goes blind as the disease progresses. What makes this film so unusual is that there appear to be three films on the screen: a medical documentary showing clinical signs of symptoms of the disease, a romantic triangle involving the married couple and the mistress, and a third story concerning the life of the opera star. Janovics cuts between these three stories with complete abandon; the husband goes to a doctor’s office, and as the husband gets the unhappy diagnosis, the doctor points off camera, and we see a series of patients with end-stage syphilis, as if these sick people were actually at the office waiting for their chance to scare new patients into medical compliance. This ‘goulash’ of narratives gives the film an eerie quality that perhaps gives a slight taste of what profound ‘slippage’ (in terms of cultural dislocation) was going on for the Transylvanian of 1920.

Italian avant-garde and the films of Lucio D’Ambra

Since the vast majority of Italian silent films made for artistic rather than commercial intent are lost, it’s either dangerous or simply impossible to draw any conclusions about Italy’s avant-garde from the scraps that are left. Still, some of these remaining films were screened, such as The Story of Lulu (1909), a life of a woman told by watching her feet, or Marriage in the Moon (1910), a science fiction romance between a Martian and an astronomer. These films, unusual but still commercial, call to question if even the description avant-garde is appropriate for any film made early in the twentieth century. Indeed, since filmmaking itself was only a few years old, one could argue that any film, regardless of commercial intent, was by definition on the front lines of artistic impulse, even if not part of the historical avant-garde.

Another way to approach the issue of avant-garde filmmaking in Italy is to consider how much of early Italian cinema intersected with art movements that were already flourishing in other media. As part of the resurgence of artists as prophets of change and progress, movements such as Surrealism and Futurism (which began in Italy) swept through European countries in the same years that cinema was beginning to develop a sense of artistic autonomy. In 1916, at the height of WWI, the Italian Futurists, who were active in filmmaking and in other arts (including cooking!), wrote a collective manifesto on cinema, claiming the ascendancy of the new medium over other art forms, and calling for a Futurist cinema that would reflect a “revolutionary and bellicose dynamism.” The manifesto describes the Futurist project as “a joyful deformation of the universe, a . . . fleeting synthesis of life in the world . . . the best school for boys: a school of joy, of speed, of force, of courage, and heroism.”

Thais (1916)
Thaïs (1916).
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
Unfortunately, only one feature-length film from Futurist cinema has survived — Anton Bragaglia’s Thaïs (1916) — although in mutilated form, since about half the original footage is missing. Inspired by a medieval legend, Thaïs is likely to disappoint viewers already aware of the Futurist agenda and familiar with their achievements in painting and sculpture. What clearly aligns the film with Futurism, however, is the extreme care lavished on sets and art direction, and the dynamic use of geometric forms, especially in the final scene where what appears to be a two-dimensional background takes on a murderous life of its own.

At the center of the story is the very conventional figure of a beautiful femme fatale, bored, and glamorous, whose main activity is adopting languid, seductive poses for the benefit of the audience, but who has the good grace to commit suicide in a wildly histrionic manner in the film’s concluding minutes. This over-the-top use of the tragic femme fatale is much more reminiscent of Decadent aesthetics than of the progressive ‘hygienic’ projects announced by the Futurists. In fact, the lingering influence of the Decadent movement is evident in almost all the Italian films of this period with any artistic pretensions.

The Decadent movement emerged in France and England at the end of the nineteenth century, and was embraced in Italy relatively late. The best-known of the Decadents in the English-speaking world is Oscar Wilde, who professed the creed “art for art’s sake.” Decadent art gave prominence to aesthetic values to the exclusion of all others (it is no accident that its emergence is coupled with the birth of the dandy), ultimately fostering a taste for the sensual, the exotic, and even the monstrous. Decadence found favor in Italy thanks for the most part to the charisma of its most prominent champion, Gabriele D’Annunzio. Elsewhere in Europe the movement largely collapsed after World War I, for the simple reason that the horrors of the war rendered obsolete the hermetic self-absorption and detachment from the real world promoted by the Decadents. D’Annunzio however, incorporated into his Decadent novels, plays and poetry a virile heroism that validated battle and combat. In other words, D’Annunzio turned the concept of the effete dandy on its head by also making the dandy a hypermasculine physical ideal, a combination of General George Patton and Oscar Wilde. Imagine this idealized man’s speech to a crowd: “No artist ever won a war by dying for his art. He won the war by making the other poor artist die for his art.”

D’Annunzio also incorporated naturalism, symbolism and eroticism into his work — in other words, D’Annunzio was a populist, being selective about elements of movements that interested him. No wonder this writer was so appealing to his Italian contemporaries. And not only Italians were captivated. James Joyce himself was quoted as saying that the three great talents of the nineteenth century were Tolstoy, Kipling and — D’Annunzio!

One of the many followers of D’Annunzio was Lucio D’Ambra (1879-1939). D’Ambra was an artist of protean talents: novelist, essayist, dramatist and filmmaker. D’Ambra’s films bridge a gap between Italian commercial work and the mostly lost avant-garde movement of the day. Three of D’Ambra’s films were screened, the translated titles being Wives and Oranges (1917), Two Dreams with Open Eyes (1920) and Princess Bebè (1921).

D’Ambra was also a fan of the French writer Proust. As a journalist and critic, he was largely responsible for introducing the French writer to an Italian public. Proust’s gift for the introspective observation of form, movement, and sensation appealed to the Decadent sensibility. Two of the D’Ambra films, Wives and Oranges and Two Dreams with Open Eyes, seem to aspire to Proust’s nuanced ability to render the sensibility of a specific time and place. I’d like to state that these films offer a compelling ‘search for time lost,’ but unfortunately, D’Ambra captures only the superficial world of external detail, constantly missing opportunities to question the realities than lie beneath the surface. Wives and Oranges, in particular, becomes an unintended parody of Proustian reverie.

One saving grace common to the two films is a teasing playfulness in the plot structure, where D’Ambra shifts between dream and ‘reality.’ Unfortunately this playfulness is generally countered by the soporific effect of slow moving scenes dominated by elegant gentlemen as they sit in smoke-filled salons, consumed by world-weary ennui.

The best film of the three I think is La Principessa Bebè [Princess Bebè]. In the kingdom of Culrandia (a country that must border Ruritania) King Ottocar must give his daughter’s hand in marriage to the prince of another country. Bebè, tired of waiting for her fiancé, tracks him down in Paris and brings him back to Culrandia where they are eventually married. The above story serves as nothing more than an excuse for the real interest in the film, the production design. Everything in Princess Bebè, even down to men’s beards, is colored in black and white stripes or squares, pushing Princess Bebè into an imaginary world hovering between Art Deco and experimentalism.

The striking look of this Princess Bebè moves it firmly into a category of films that foreground the use of pictorial elements in sets and costumes. Princess Bebè finds itself in such distinguished company as the Germany’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) and Japan’s Kurutta ippeji [A Page of Madness] (1926). What a shame the plot of Princess Bebè, or any of D’Ambria’s films for that matter, could never show the wit and irony that lie beneath Proust’s use of surface detail.

Swiss Cinema

In the last ten years the Swiss have realized that silent films are a vital part of their heritage. The Swiss archives presented to us a survey of films made from 1896 to 1931 in and around Switzerland. As one might expect, many short films exist that show off the beautiful mountains, lakes and farms of this largely rural country. The feature films also tend to reflect this focus and feature the rugged outdoors.

The Calling of André Carel

La vocation d'André Carel (1925)
La vocation d’André Carel (1925).
Photograph: courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
 
Directed by Jean Choux, La vocation d’André Carel [The Calling of André Carel] (1925) tells the story about a son of a wealthy family who abandons his decadent friends and begins a new life as a common laborer (perhaps he’d seen too many D’Ambra films). André carries rocks from a quarry down to Lake Geneva and transports the stone by ship to the other side of the lake. In taking up this work Carel finds new meaning for life and falls in love with the daughter of the boat’s owner. This film succeeds as a lyrical piece describing the beauty of simple day-to-day tasks, and has breathtaking views of Lake Geneva. Unfortunately it suffers from what I call ‘multiple-archive’ syndrome. When prints from numerous archives are collected for restoration, the natural result of these efforts is to come up with a product that may have been longer than any actual release version.

Essentially an archive’s job is to assemble all available material, no matter how much there is of it, for preservation. But then when an archive changes hats and also becomes a distributor, this produces an inherent conflict of interest. The most complete version of a film is not always the best version. These films need sponsors for more general distribution, but an archive is rarely in a position to ‘improve’ a film by judicious cutting. A boring film means less interest in sponsorship. This conflict of interest of collection vs. distribution becomes a ‘chicken-or-egg’ argument about getting potentially interesting films out to the public. In this case, a French version of the Calling of André Carel is available, shorter, and I would guess a better film for a general audience.

Mountain films were a genre wildly popular in their day and they still maintain a large group of loyal followers. The conventions for these films are amazingly specific: the story takes place on or near a mountain, a romantic conflict is formed between two men and a woman, there is a decision to climb the mountain (often against a guide’s warnings about bad weather), the trek meets with some form of natural disaster (storms, avalanches, usually both), and the struggle to survive the disaster becomes a clarifying transcendent experience for the climbers, leading to the resolution of the romantic triangle and often the death of the one of the suitors. The interest then is not usually in the plot but in the mountain itself — often a more interesting character than any of the people in the story.

The dramatic visual images these films give us (such as blizzards raging over mountains), connect us with some basic and ancient beliefs — in particular, animism. This belief conceives that the world around us is inhabited by spirits, spirits that manifest themselves by movement. Much of the world still practices animism in some form, but the Western world often reduces this tradition to giving names to hurricanes. In mountain films, the landscape and weather form a mystic presence that can give an audience a sense that they are getting in touch with an old and forgotten part of themselves.

The Call of the Mountain

The Swiss archives presented two mountain films, providing an intriguing comparison and addition to the more generally known German mountain films. In The Call of the Mountain [L’appel de la montagne] (1923) a couple are childhood sweethearts who are separated, she marries a rich man and he becomes an alpine guide. The woman’s husband dies, and she returns home to Switzerland, her wealth and beauty drawing interest from a foreign rake, rogue, and roué named Billinsky.

Billinsky talks her into a mountain ascension that meets with disaster when some of the climbers fall to their deaths. Her loyal friend the alpine guide rescues his sweetheart, and saves her again when Billinsky attacks the woman in a cabin. The alpine guide is outside the cabin and hears her cries for help. If this had been an American film, the guide would have bashed in the front door and confronted the villain, but this Swiss hero has a different approach. In the manner of evaluating the best route up a cliff, the guide studies the cabin carefully. After a moment, he clambers up on to the roof, takes off a few shingles, and drops inside, all the time nonchalantly puffing on his pipe. The cool dude, Swiss style.

Petronella

A variation of the mountain film, Petronella (1927) is the story of a small alpine village in the time of the Napoleonic Wars. Petronella is the name of the cherished local church bell; for generations it has been the town’s pulse, chiming to comfort or warn villagers about events around them. As Napoleon’s army approaches, the villagers take down the bell and carry it into the mountains to keep it from being captured. Unfortunately the men carrying the bell fall down a crevice, and the bell is lost to the village.

One of the strangest parts of Petronella was the ‘cow-fight’ scene. A local custom for these alpine villagers is to stage a ‘cow-fight’ in which two cows are placed in a small pasture, with men huddled around the fences, urging on their favorites. Like a cock-fight, only with horns and udders, these huge bovines come at each other until one cow backs away. The winning cow and happy farmer are crowned king of the barn. In Petronella, two men, both wooing an attractive widow, decide that the owner of the winning cow also gets the girl! Of course, when the widow finds that she has been the prize of a bet over a cow, she is not pleased. Only a culture intimately tied to the land could come up with a story idea like this.

Petronella is also interesting as a mountain film because it ties the Christian symbolism of the church together with the animism and older religions that still form part of Swiss culture. The bell represents a spiritual bond the villagers have with each other. With the bell missing, a spiritual darkness descends over the community and people start going back to their pagan past. The villagers must regain their faith before the bell, a symbol of their unity, can be recovered.

The Rin-Tin-Tin Award for 2002

This award is given to the festival’s best canine performer for duties far and above the call of mere mortal mutts. Runner up this year goes to the dog in Alley Cat (Nachgestalten). This unusual German-English coproduction, set in 1925 London, tells the story of a composer who goes to a West End house to meet with a business partner. After they get into a fight, the businessman is hit on the head; leaving him for dead the songwriter runs out of the house into the street.

The composer hasn’t reckoned on the businessman’s dog, who launching after his master’s assailant, fastens his teeth in the man’s arm. In the next shot we are at a London East Side pub, the dog still gnawing at the composer. We are left to marvel at the fortitude and persistence of this dog, attached for an entire walk from West to East London.

But the winner of the Rin-Tin-Tin award goes to the dog featured in White Water (1924), one of a series of ‘Little Dramas of the Big Places,’ a series of short films produced at Lionhead lodge in Idaho. Nell Shipman plays Dreena, a writer who comes to a logging camp and becomes friends with two orphans at the camp. One of the boys finds himself stranded on a log in the river. Dreena’s dog spots the boy floating down the rapids. Chained to a dog house, in proper heroic fashion the dog pulls the large dog house over to Dreena’s cabin, alerting her to the boy’s danger. Released from his chain, the dog follows his mistress to the water. When he sees Dreena in danger, the dog jumps in, and braving the deadly rapids, rescues her. I bet if he had to, he could have even done snout-to-mouth resuscitation — what a dog!

In the division of noncanine animal awards the runner-up award goes to the goose in Griffith’s Lena and the Geese (1912), a reworking of The Prince and the Pauper. A peasant woman Gretchen is raising a daughter, Lena, when she is asked to secretly adopt the daughter of the queen. Later, when the queen is dying the royal court comes to the farm house to retrieve the princess, and Gretchen gives them Lena instead of the princess in the wish that her daughter will be crowned queen. The plan backfires, and Lena, homesick, returns to the farm. This charming little story was written by none other than Mary Pickford, who played Lena. But for one of the few times in her career, Pickford is upstaged by a fellow actor, a goose with charm and charisma to burn, who longingly waits for her ‘little Lena’ to come back.

And winner of this category is — another goose, this time a stunt-double in an erotic French film called Le canard (The Duck — apparently they couldn’t find a duck that would take the part). I won’t say anything more about this film, except whatever this goose got in combat pay for this film, it wasn’t enough.

Conclusions

Charley Chase’s The Sting of Stings [A Treat for the Boys] (1927) was included to show Edna Marion, but as the program itself admits, the effort was really to show a very funny Chase short. In The Sting of Stings, Charlie and Edna find themselves taking a group of boys from a reform school to a carnival. Matters escalate as only they can for Chase until he finds his new car somehow stranded on top of a Ferris wheel.

Besides being brilliantly funny, perhaps this short film also points to reasons why no funny lady is mentioned in the same breath as Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd. If anyone is mentioned in the same breath, that someone is Harry Langdon, often considered the minor major of silent film comedians. Why Langdon and not the far more deserving Chase? Harry Langdon had a short run of funny memorable feature films. In contrast, after many great comedy shorts, Chase made a only a few tentative attempts at features, then settled back into his comfortable two-reel comedies, a career path that took him through the 1930s until he drank himself to death.

Feature films were king then and they are today, with short films a minor role of supporting player. Who remembers last year’s Oscar for best short film? No feature films, no critical acclaim, no film retrospectives, no coverage — all these combine to mean: no exposure. And with no exposure one’s name falls further and further from the public eye. In a world where exposure is more important than talent, Langdon is put up as the fourth genius, while Chase’s efforts are often ignored.

So feature films were the key to validation, at least by long-term standards, and most women starring in silent feature films preferred not to limit themselves to comedy. Actresses such as Gloria Swanson and Mary Pickford probably correctly assessed that a range of roles would lead to the greatest chance of a long career. Most funny ladies seen this week used character and plot to create humor, instead of employing the physical comedian’s devices of pratfalls and slapstick.

Yet these film make obvious that there was a place for women clowns. What would a woman have needed, in her ‘comic genius’ tool kit to have made a lasting name for herself in the same mold as Chaplin or Keaton? Here are some possible items: 1) talent for physical comedy including slapstick; 2) a wellspring of inventive comic business, and a way to personalize comic situations; 3) luck and timing; 4) supportive cast and crews; 5) a mental attitude that could deal with adversity, then perhaps a greater challenge, success; 6) studios, friends and family interested in promoting her after her retirement.

For various reasons, the funny ladies seen this week at the festival never had all these qualities at the same time and place. The closest we come is Mabel Normand, a woman who had the vaudeville training, the interest and talent, a supportive cast of friends, and no disdain for being typecast as a funny lady. Mabel Normand made hundreds of popular shorts and then successfully transitioned into features. By all standards, Mabel Normand was the ‘First Lady’ in silent film comedy.

Mabel may have had most of the above listed items in her ‘personal inventory’ except perhaps the one that was most important: the ability to cope with fame and fortune. Normand’s career was swallowed up by personal problems, scandal, alcohol and drugs. Her career over by 1927, Mabel Normand died of tuberculosis in 1930 at the age of 35. With no one with a financial interest to promote her work, except for silent film aficionados Mabel Normand has been largely forgotten.

We would have to wait two generations and another medium before a funny lady became so famous that her celebrity has arguably eclipsed even Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd. This woman would specialize in domestic situation comedy, but she was also completely at home with pratfalls and pies-in-the-eye. This actress would become so successful that half a century after her television program ended it is still airing daily, her face one of the most recognized on Earth. The funny lady, is of course, Lucille Ball.

 

The festival took place on 12-19 October 2002.

 
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