An archive of articles on the silent era of world cinema.
Copyright © 1999-2014 by Carl Bennett and the Silent Era Company.
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Far Away, So Close
The 22nd Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film
|Article Copyright © 2004 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
The danger of far away places, hidden perils that lurk at your doorstep. Tigers snapping at your heels, ‘home fires’ burning out of control. This year the 22nd annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival celebrated film pioneers who pushed past all geographic boundaries to explore the edge of the world and beyond. Then trailblazing filmmakers of a different kind took us to even scarier ground with domestic dramas that forced us to look deep inside ourselves. The most dangerous trip of all can be to the heart of darkness inside each of us.
| Poster: courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Again, the Pordenone festival was held in Sacile, a lovely town built over rivers converging from the nearby picturesque Dolomite Mountains. Sacile has been the home of the festival since 1999, when the city of Pordenone decided to tear down the Verdi Theatre, the original home of the festival. Current plans are for a new theater in Pordenone to be ready in 2005, so it appears Sacile will continue to ‘pinch-hit’ as the festival city for at least the next two years.
Distant, Difficult, and Dangerous:
The films of Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack
Travel films maintain a unique position in the world of films, combining an old tradition of ‘travel lectures’ with the modern technologies of movie making. ‘Travel lectures’ are one of the oldest art forms on the planet, as old as speech itself, having been created the first time someone left home, came back alive, and came up with a good story of how he did it. One can imagine a Far Side-like cartoon of an early travel lecture, with caveman “Ogg” explaining to a mesmerized crowd how he killed a saber-tooth tiger with just a single spear. The ability of film to record the real world has a firmer historical past, starting with the
Lumière Brothers and blossoming with the work of Robert Flaherty. These men understood the potential of film to capture the energy and spontaneity of real events as they happen. Flaherty, who had traveled and seen some of the world, realized that one could make dramatic films with documentary components that could give the film an exceptional sense of ‘reality.’
In a sense, the Lumières and Flaherty were foot soldiers in a clash over how to use the marvelous new invention of moving pictures. The debate centered on what was more interesting to an audience: stories played by actors and written by authors, or stories taken from real life. In the early 1900s the question split artists into two groups. Flaherty and his followers favored telling stories using a documentary approach of recording events as they happened. Filmmakers on the other side of the debate, like Méliès, preferred to use this medium for telling fictional stories. These artists realized that one could expand techniques originating in the theater and produce stories impossible to tell on a stage.
| Merian C. Cooper.
Photograph: courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema
The truth is that these two styles of filmmaking are closer to each other than they are different. Narrative films can use the documentary approaches such as ‘ad lib’ dialogue and location shooting to achieve a sense of reality to the story. Documentaries usually have an artfully concealed construction that makes a ‘story’ out of what might otherwise be a series of random events. Nanook of the North is often remembered as the film that gave the ‘documentary’ its name, but one should remember that it was a really a fictional drama using a cast of unrelated individuals posing as a family.
In the 1920s there were filmmakers who refused to be pigeonholed as supporters of either fictional narratives or documentaries; these artists realized the two approaches had the potential of cross-fertilizing each other. Also, technology had changed the culture of travel drastically. Vast sections of the globe were finally becoming accessible, exotic lands with new stories to tell, waiting for an adventurer to tell them.
If one were judging potential candidates for this new breed of filmmaker, Merian Cooper’s credentials were impeccable. Born in Florida in 1893, Cooper’s early interest in the world led him to try a variety of jobs including merchant marine, newspaper reporter, and aviator. In World War I, his plane was shot down and Cooper became a German prisoner of war. At the end of the war Cooper was released and he traveled to Poland to join the Polish Air Force in their war against Bolshevik Russia. He was shot down a second time, this time by the Russians. Sentenced to death by the Red Army, Cooper escaped from the camp and made his way back to the West.
As a résumé for adventure and excitement, Ernst Schoedsack’s life was almost as impressive. Born in Iowa in 1893, Schoedsack ran away from home at the age of 12 and became a cameraman for the Mack Sennett company. In World War I, he became a cameraman for the signal corps in France. After the end of the war, Schoedsack met Cooper in a Vienna railway station and they traveled to Warsaw together. Schoedsack went on to film Poland’s war against the Russians then went to the Near East to film the Greco-Turkish war of 1921.
| Ernst B. Schoedsack.
Photograph: courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Back in the United States, Cooper signed onto an around-the-world expedition by explorer Edward Salisbury. After the cameraman assigned to the expedition quit, Cooper wired Schoedsack to join the team, and a partnership was created that would make them both famous.
The festival screened a portion of the film made from this voyage, Ra-Mu (1924). Cooper and Schoedsack’s names do not appear on any titles. Instead, the credit for the film goes to Captain Salisbury, who had sponsored the film as publicity for his sailing trips around the world. Ra-Mu is more important for creating the circumstances of Cooper teaming with Schoedsack than for any intrinsic value of the film itself. Of more interest is this team’s next project, Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925). Cooper, Schoedsack, and their friend Marguerite Harrison traveled to Turkey and Iran to film the mass migration of the Bakhtiari, a tribe that takes half a million animals on an annual trek though rivers and over mountains. The Bakhtiari, who at times made trails through deep snow in their bare feet, overcame these enormous obstacles by knowledge, experience and sheer guts.
Reporter and explorer Marguerite Harrison was part of the expedition and had credentials every bit as impressive as Cooper and Schoedsack. After the premature death of her husband, Harrison began working as a writer and journalist. Sent to Russia, Harrison was jailed for espionage, and after she was released, traveled widely, eventually founding the Ladies’ Geographical Society. Harrison’s inclusion in the documentary was designed for the lecture circuit, where she or Cooper could talk to the audience and show the film. Grass toured the lecture circuit for a year before being edited into a present state as a freestanding feature. In its effort to combine elements of travel lecture and documentary, Grass is a unique film, a masterpiece of its kind. The scenes of the Bakhtiari getting past the immense Karun River, then climbing past the summit of the Zardeh Kuh mountain have a raw visceral power still inspiring today.
Instead of being happy with Grass, Schoedsack and Cooper saw its flaws: an incomplete ending and the lack of central characters. In their next effort, Chang (1927), the two filmmakers made every effort to address these problems. Traveling to Thailand (then called Siam) the two men filmed what they called a ‘natural drama.’ Chang tells the story of a Thai family that lives on the outskirts of a village next to the jungle. When a tiger starts to kill the family’s livestock, they must call together the village to save their animals. In the climactic battle between man and the animals of the jungle, a native village is devastated by a massive elephant stampede.
| Italian poster for Chang (1927).
Poster: Harold B. Lee Library, Brigham Young
University; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Chang is a hybrid film that illustrates the issues that divide the documentarian from the narrative filmmaker. Cooper and Schoedsack came to Thailand with no set script, but did finally fashion a story by recreating events and by designing shots to obtain deliberate results. By using this method, the two men deliberately ignored a ‘documentary’ approach that attempts to create a story from what happens as events unfold. On the other hand, Cooper and Schoedsack used nonactors for the roles and shot completely on location, giving an ‘authenticity’ to the film that would have been impossible with a studio. To my eyes, Chang is more of an interesting experiment than a great film, a strange and uneasy combination of genres that veers between explosive action and patronizing sentimentality.
Cooper and Schoedsack next made The Four Feathers (1929). From the often-filmed novel by A.E.W. Mason, the story concerns a close-knit group of childhood friends who make a pact they will stay together through good times and bad. After the children grow up, a misunderstanding causes a rift among these friends, and one of the young men must go to Africa on a rescue mission to prove he is not a coward.
The Four Feathers shows the direction of Cooper and Schoedsack away from documentaries and toward fictional narrative. Most of the film was shot in Hollywood studios. These studio scenes were spiced up with live action sequences shot on the Rovuma River and the Sudan. In this way, The Four Feathers helps establish a pattern that Hollywood film would make much of in later years: principal photography at the studio with the lead actors, cut together with second unit photography shot on location. How successful this strategy is depends on how well the filmmakers can wed these two very different sets of images. In The Four Feathers, the location shots of hippos and natives work well, but the scenes shot in studio seem stiff and uninteresting. Cooper and Schoedsack later explained that they were caught in a power play between production executives. For whatever reason, the hippos in The Four Feathers seem a lot more compelling than the human characters worrying about cowardice and bravery.
Cooper and Schoedsack’s films bridge the gap between documentary and fictional narrative, and they also bridge the silent and sound era. The transition to sound brought many changes to the industry. Cooper temporarily left the film business so that he could take part in the organization of aviation companies. Schoedsack, now on his own, made Rango. This film, released in 1931, but essentially a silent film, describes the adventures of an orangutan living in the high jungle mountains of Sumatra. Rango points out the strengths and weaknesses of Schoedsack working by himself an interest in visual images and action instead of plot and character. When Cooper returned to the movie industry, he and Schoedsack would collaborate on one of the most famous movies ever made, King Kong.
King Kong is a horror movie, but it is also a wonderful parody of a travel film, a detail more clearly seen by viewing these men’s silent films. Watching Cooper and Schoedsack’s previous collaborations, one realizes King Kong is that rare achievement: a perfect summation of years of previous effort. King Kong was originally going to be shot on location, but after seeing the stop-action animation of Willis O’Brian, Cooper and Schoedsack realized that after all their world adventures, the best way to make King Kong would be to stay home. This time their trip was going to be a voyage of the imagination.
Since King Kong is a sound film, it was beyond the scope of the festival for a major screening. Instead it was shown on a TV monitor in an exhibit honoring Merian Cooper that ran concurrently with the festival. Taking in the exhibit, I stopped to watch the end of King Kong, where Kong climbs the Empire State building and is shot down by planes. Two middle-aged Italian women were sitting with me. Not part of the festival, they had simply wandered into the exhibit out of curiosity, and become transfixed by the movie. On the television we watched Kong, mortally wounded fall to his death. The two women started to cry. Of all the mementos and awards on display in this exhibit, I’m sure Cooper and Schoedsack would have been most touched by the idea that seventy years later, King Kong could still bring people to tears.
In one of Hollywood’s greatest stunt castings, the two men in the plane that shoot down Kong are none other than directors Cooper and Schoedsack themselves. The best part of the story is that this wasn’t really stunt casting. If there was really had been a giant ape terrorizing the city, explorers and adventurers Cooper and Schoedsack would have been the best men for the job.
In the spirit of Cooper and Schoedsack, the festival screened other films that bridged (with various degrees of success) the gap between narrative and documentary. One of the best of these films is The Silent Enemy (1930). Directed by H.P. Carver and produced by Douglas Burden, the story follows a tribe of American Indians as they try to survive a harsh winter (the silent enemy of the title is hunger). To make this film, Burden assembled 150 Native Americans taken from tribes across the U.S. Even though the events in the film are staged, they have a persistent ring of truth and seem quite believable. Ironically, later historians would find that the lead in the film, Buffalo Child Long Lance, was a fraud. He was not a chief of the Blackfoot Indian tribe as he claimed, but was an African-American originally from South Carolina with some Cherokee blood. Long Lance would serve as a spokesman for the Indian cause in the 1920s and his deception would not become public knowledge until many years later. Whatever his ethnic heritage or background, as an actor in The Silent Enemy, Long Lance is completely convincing.
Another documentary-narrative hybrid film that dealt with Native Americans was Redskin (1929). A Navaho chief’s son, Wing Foot (Richard Dix) is forced to go to a U.S. Government School. While at the school he falls in love with a Pueblo girl, Cornblossom (Gladys Belmont). Cornblossom and Wing Foot return to their reservations, where Wing Foot becomes friends with a white woman, Judy (June Novak), who is sympathetic to the Navaho cause. Judy develops a romance with John Walker, an officer working with the Indian agents, but when he apparently betrays the Navaho, Judy ends their friendship. Years later, Judy and John reconcile, and when Wing Foot becomes a fugitive from the law, Judy and John help him in his efforts to prevent losing reservation land to oil prospectors. Wing Foot and Cornblossom are reunited, as the Navaho and Pueblo tribes end an old feud and find themselves allies.
Redskin does a good job detailing the many obstacles facing Indian tribes in the U.S. The problem is in the mix between documentary and the overheated narrative. Melodramas ask us to suspend disbelief about implausible plot twists. Documentary films usually show us how the world really works. In Redskin, melodrama conventions constrain us to end the story with multiple marriages: Wing Foot with Cornblossom, Judy with John, and the Navaho with the Pueblo. But what we see in the documentary sections of the film suggests the real ending of the film would be anything but happy. The result is a odd mix of two films, the documentary scenes maintaining their freshness in contrast to the actions of the characters that often seem forced.
| Bernard Siegel and Richard Dix in Redskin (1929).
Photograph: Kevin Brownlow collection; courtesy Le Giornate del
One of the strangest films of the festival was Stark Love (1927). Directed and produced by Karl Brown, this film takes us to the mountains of North Carolina, where poverty and isolation have degraded men into brutes and women into slaves. To the amusement of the locals, a young man, Rob Warwick (played by Forrest James) teaches himself to read. Realizing the importance of an education, he decides to leave home and go to school in the city far away. Rob has a girlfriend, Barbara (Helen Mundy) with plans of her own, but the couple’s intentions are upended when Rob’s widowed father steps in, announcing his intention to marry Barbara. Rob, unhappy with the prospect of having to call his girlfriend ‘mom,’ has an angry confrontation with his father. The two men fight, and Rob and Barbara escape down the river to a new life away from the Carolina hills.
Those of us who watch a lot of silent films see innumerable stories promoting the clean living and health of the countryside over the sinful city life, so it’s refreshing to see a movie so thoroughly pro-city and anti-country. I’m sure the filmmakers would point out it is not the rural life that has debased these people, but rather their extreme isolation. Still, this movie is no ad for Country Living Magazine and if you ever wanted to see Deliverance done as a silent film, Stark Love is the film for you.
Another film that attempted to blend narrative with documentary is White Shadows in the South Seas (1928). MGM developed White Shadows as a way to exploit the talents of Robert J. Flaherty, then famous for Nanook of the North (1922). The idea was to film a story of South Sea islanders who become corrupted when white men come to the island. Flaherty would work on the documentary portions of the story while MGM hired W.S. Van Dyke to be in charge of the narrative.
This all must have looked so good on paper. But when the production started shooting in Tahiti, Flaherty was not able to deliver his portion of the film. Denied, as Kevin Brownlow describes in the festival program, “his customary period of discovery” Flaherty left the project, and Van Dyke was put in sole charge of a production he never liked from the beginning.
Even with all these strikes against it, White Shadows is not a bad film. The story starts in Tahiti, where a washed up alcoholic doctor, Matthew Lloyd (Monte Blue) gets into an argument with a local crime boss over how the natives are being treated. Lloyd is kidnapped and taken aboard a ship, but escapes to find himself on the beach of a desert island, a tropical paradise inhabited by islanders who have never seen a white man. Lloyd ‘goes native’ and finds the peace he has been missing all his life, until one day a ship is spotted in the harbor. Lloyd realizes exposure to these Westerners will be the beginning of the end for these islanders, but there is little he can do about it.
White Shadows of the South Seas struggles in its effort to combine documentary footage of the South Sea islanders with the fictional story of a man trying to find himself. The film as a whole feels more like a jumble of good intentions than realized goals. Flaherty was perhaps wise to leave the production when he did. He probably realized that his dream of producing stories that grew naturally out of time and place would never be reconciled with Hollywood’s demand for a preconceived definite structure. Maybe Flaherty realized that his inevitable fate in White Shadows would be that of being reduced to a second-unit location director.
The last of these documentary/narrative hybrid films screened was Varick Frissell’s The Viking (1931). Frissell was a fan of both Flaherty and Cooper and sought to emulate their ideas in his film about Newfoundland seal hunters. Frissell’s original film, White Thunder, was greeted with interest by Paramount, but they insisted that parts of the film be reshot. Frissell grudgingly chartered a ship, the Viking, to take a crew back for more footage. Tragically, while Viking was heading back to the seal grounds, explosives (used for breaking up ice flows) accidentally went off, sinking the ship and killing Frissell. His movie White Thunder was renamed The Viking to capitalize on the publicity caused by the sinking of the ship. Released in 1931, the film was quickly forgotten until a print was found in a Newfoundland fish storehouse in 1966.
The Viking is a very spotty film. Ostensibly a talkie, much of the The Viking is shot silent. Its talking segments are so stiff and amateurish they almost look camp, a ‘preview’ for a future Ed Wood film. Yet once the ship arrives at the ice flow we see what attracted Frissell to this project. The men, with the barest of equipment, step out onto small chunks of ice in what looks like obvious suicide. Yet they jump to another chunk of ice, and another, and we begin to see that they are moving in relative safety. As we follow the men leaping from one small block to the next, the background soundtrack gives us the unearthly growling noise of large chunks of ice grinding against each other. In the dark night, on top of a wild winter ocean, men are not only surviving but also working.
Frissell’s death before the release of The Viking makes it impossible to pass final judgment on the film. Who knows what The Viking would have looked like if it had been released properly as White Thunder? Would Varick Frissell have been swallowed up by history, or would he have been one of our great documentary filmmakers? Cooper and Schoedsack’s dictum was distant, difficult and dangerous, but one of the problems of following this command is that you may not come back. The Viking is a reminder that more than a few promising careers were cut short by the desire to get that risky and wondrous shot in that far-away land.
The festival also screened several ‘expedition films,’ a version of the travel film with close ties to the travel lecture circuit. There were numerous expedition films made in the 1920’s, often set in Africa and focusing on the hunting of wild game. One such film was Durch Afrika im Automobil [Through Africa by Car] (1929) where an Austrian Count and his entourage drive two cars from Mombasa to Cairo. The idea of driving through this part of Africa was a bold idea, with roads barely more than oxcart paths, and there was little service available if things went wrong. Still, with some ingenuity and hard work, the cars arrived in Egypt.
The problem with Durch Afrika im Automobil is that this car trip seems largely a stunt and an excuse to shoot big game. The hunters start with antelopes and move to tigers and elephants, knocking off enough birds and beasts to populate a good-sized zoo. As the carnage continues, you forget the other parts of the trip and just wait for the next large animal to drop. At one point the hunters shoot a hyena that was caught in a trap and gnawing off its leg to get away. You know when hyenas begin to look sympathetic there’s been a lot of killing. Of course back in 1929, views of hunting were very different from what they are now. At first, Durch Afrika im Automobil appears to be a time capsule to a different era with contrasting conceptions of our responsibilities for wilderness preservation. But have things changed that much?
Expedition films about animals have been an incredibly durable type of story telling, making painless transitions into the sound era and then to television. Today the genre is more popular than ever, with the Discovery Channel devoting massive amounts of programming to nature shows. We don’t shoot antelope anymore; we just film lions hunting them down so we can enjoy the kill by proxy. And we know much more about tigers and lions than we do about the people living in these areas of Africa. On further thought, perhaps we’re not much different from the original film expeditions of the 1920’s. Today’s crews have sound, color, faster film and better lenses. Let’s hope there will be enough animals left to give them something to film.
The Mystery of Mosjoukine
“Why do I like Mosjoukine? Oooohh . . .” (A long, wistful sigh.)
“Mosjoukine is Europe’s Valentino, only Valentino has one face and Mosjoukine has a thousand.”
“It’s his eyes even in black and white photography, they’re blue somehow. They go right through you.”
“It’s his dashing virility physically virile, like Buster Keaton,
despite the homoerotic touches of many of his films and despite his
Comments from the audience after watching Mosjoukine on the screen
Ivan Mosjoukine (also spelled Mozhukhin, Mozzhukhin, or even Moskine) was one of the greatest film actors of the silent era. Blessed with a charisma that threatened to burn a hole through the screen, Mosjoukine became one of cinema’s biggest stars. Today, Mosjoukine, if not forgotten, is largely ignored. Festivals rarely screen his films, and books filled with endless minutia regarding silent film stars mention Mosjoukine only in passing. Why is such a respected film actor so little known? In an attempt to understand the phenomenon of Mosjoukine, the festival presented for the first time a large-scale retrospective of his work a survey of films starting from his years in Russia to his immigration to France. Perhaps by watching these films, we can get an idea of how Mosjoukine rose to become one of the premier film actors of his generation, and why today he is overlooked to the point of obscurity.
Ivan Mosjoukine was born in central Russia in 1889. After studying law for two years, Ivan fell in love with the theater, quitting school and joining a traveling acting troupe. Finding himself in Moscow, Mosjoukine started his film career in the strangest of ways. Russian audiences in 1910 expected films to end with tears or bloodshed. Foreign films imported for viewing usually had endings too happy for Russian audiences. To satisfy this Russian taste for tragedy, ‘sad endings’ were filmed with local actors and these scenes were tacked on to the existing film. So Mosjoukine’s first roles were playing the ‘doubles’ of foreign actors. In 1911, he began work at Khanzhonkov Studio where he soon gained attention and received increasingly important roles.
Brat’Ya-Razboiniki [The Brigand Brothers] (1912) is one of Mosjoukine’s best early roles. He plays one of two brothers who out of poverty and hunger become bandits. The Brigand Brothers is a good example of a style that requires some explanation for modern viewers unaccustomed to watching films from this era. In perhaps a holdover from the stage, in European pre-World-War-I filmmaking there is an attention to character and detail that gives a ‘theatrical integrity’ to each shot, with minimal recourse in editing. For those of us accustomed to modern editing styles that emphasize quick cutting these films can seem slow. It’s important to remember that these films are not necessarily better or worse with this ‘minimal-editing style,’ but they do require you to train your eyes to work with a different set of expectations.
Domiky v kolomne [The Little House at Kolomna] (1913) is a domestic farce about a romantic tryst that goes awry when Mosjoukine romances a rich man’s daughter. Little House at Kolomna gives Mosjoukine one of his first chances at playing multiple comedy parts, including a role in drag. The liveliest part of the film involves Mosjoukine, dressed as a servant girl, putting his master’s daughter to bed. This involves some cute comic business, as Mosjoukine must figure out how to take off his mistress’s stockings in a decent way without blowing his cover that he is really a man. It also points to a future direction in Mosjoukine’s career, that of a multiple-role part where he can show off his ability to go in any direction with his acting.
Pikovaya Dama [The Queen of Spades] (1916) is adapted from a famous short story by Pushkin. Mosjoukine plays a Russian officer, Hermann, who learns of a lady at court with a secret trick to win at cards. Hermann confronts the old woman, demanding she tell him her secret, but she dies of fright. Later, her ghost appears before Hermann, telling him the order of cards that will make his fortune, explaining that the last card he will turn up is an ace. Hermann obeys this ghostly vision, but when he bets all his money, instead of an ace the last card is the queen of spades. In shock, Hermann goes insane. Mosjoukine’s intense, flamboyant performance in The Queen of Spades established his reputation as one of the world’s premier romantic actors.
Zhenshchina Zavtrashnego Dnya [A Woman of Tomorrow] (1914) is one of Mosjoukine’s few films where he is upstaged by another actor. The film is about a woman medical doctor (Vera Yureneva) who finds out that her husband (Mosjoukine) is cheating on her. Faced with this domestic crisis, the character played by Vera must decide what is more important, her home life or her career. In this proto-feminist story, (with more than a nod to Ibsen’s The Doll House) the doctor ditches her husband and strikes out on her own.
Kulissi ekrana [Behind the Screen] (1917) was one of Mosjoukine’s most unusual Russian films. Blending reality and fiction in a way Cooper and Schoedsack would never have dreamed up, Mosjoukine, plays a fictionalized version of himself. The real Mosjoukine was never in WWI but this fictionalized Mosjoukine is sent to the front and loses an arm. Now playing himself missing an arm, Mosjoukine goes back to the world of theater and must face the prospect of giving up his acting career. The audience wildly objects, convincing Mosjoukine he can still play an active role in the theater even without an arm. The interplay between fact and fiction in this story is striking even by today’s standards. Sadly, only a fragment of the film survives.
In Satana Likuyushchii [Satan Triumphant] (1917) Mosjoukine plays a priest who is tempted by Satan. Eventually the priest succumbs to the devil’s temptations and seduces his late wife’s sister. On one hand, the story provides a tour-de-force vehicle for Mosjoukine who gets to play both the priest and the priest’s son. Yet for me, Satan Triumphant tips its hat too soon. The moment the devil arrives at the priest’s home, his downfall is obvious, yet the story drags on, then repeats itself in the story of the son’s fall.
For me, a better version of the ‘holy man tempted’ story is Otets Sergii [Father Sergius] (1918). Mosjoukine plays Prince Kasatski, a man who becomes a priest after he becomes disenchanted with court life under the Tsar’s rule. Now named Father Sergius, he takes on the life of an ascetic, yet the temptation of the women around him persists. Finally when one woman tries to seduce him, Sergius says “no” by using an ax in a way that is absolutely convincing. Playing a character that ages from 18 to 80, Father Sergius is one of Mosjoukine’s best dramatic roles.
| Otets Sergii (1918).
Photograph: David Robinson
collection; courtesy Le Giornate
del Cinema Muto.
In 1917, the Russian revolution and the subsequent civil war provoked a series of dislocations for large sections of the Russian community. Mosjoukine immigrated to France where he joined a large Russian émigré community. In 1921, Mosjoukine directed his first film, L’enfant du carnaval [Child of the Carnival]. In a Three Men and a Baby scenario, a financially ruined husband deserts his wife and child and leaves France. Unable to care for the child, his wife leaves the baby at the doorstep of a house in a wealthy neighborhood. The house belongs to an aimless young playboy (Mosjoukine), who with the help of his butler takes on the challenge. Eventually concluding they need help, they put out an ad for a nanny and the child’s mother answers the ad. Working as a nanny, the mother falls in love with the playboy, now turned responsible father. The chances of a happy ending are dashed when the original father comes back to claim his wife and child. She and Mosjoukine must part as she resumes her role of wife and mother.
A special relationship began between the Russian expatriate filmmaking community and Albatros, a company specializing in historical reproductions and expensive, high-quality productions. Mosjoukine was to have a fruitful collaboration with Albatros; together they would make a number of memorable films. The most famous of these may be La maison du mystère [The House of Mystery]. The festival screened a feature version of the film cut down from the hugely successful original serial that ran in theaters in France from 1921 to 1923. The House of Mystery concerns itself with a young man, Julien Villandrit (Mosjoukine), owner of a textile factory and in love with Régine de Bettigny (Hélène Darly). The factory’s manager, Henri Corradin (Charles Vanel) is also in love with Régine and goes through great lengths to separate the lovers. In a vastly complicated series of adventures that includes a murder mystery, Julien is finally reunited with Régine.
The House of Mystery is an absolute star vehicle for Mosjoukine, who plays a pure and noble character that all other characters either admire or fear. The House of Mystery also plays up an androgynous quality of Mosjoukine that one sees with many of his French films, a feature that only must have added to his allure and appeal. Made with lavish care and attention by the Albatros company, The House of Mystery was a huge hit in France and was one of the greatest successes in Mosjoukine’s career.
Mosjoukine directed his next film, Le brasier ardent [The Burning Crucible] (1923), a surreal fantasy about a couple with marital problems. After a fight the wife, Elle, leaves the house. The husband, a wealthy industrialist, follows his wife to a private club, which turns out to be an Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole adventure full of hidden doors and secret passageways. Eventually the husband hires “Detective Z” (Mosjoukine, who also plays at least four other roles) as a ‘love consultant’ in an attempt to win back his wife. Detective Z responds to this challenge by first flirting with Elle, and then abandoning the effort to go home with a toothache. Somehow this intervention returns Elle to her husband and we have a happy ending. Le brasier ardent is full of crazy kinetic energy, but there is also a brittle coldness to the film since there is little time invested to give any empathy to the characters.
Mosjoukine would never again be in the position of creating such a plum part for himself where he could play so many multiple characters, but in 1924 he did the next best thing by starring in a movie about a famous stage actor, Kean. Edmund Kean was famous for being one of the first English actors to have such broad popularity that his fame crossed both class and geographic boundaries. One must remember that in Europe, the acting profession was once regarded with suspicion and distaste. In Shakespeare’s day, actors were considered only slightly better than the bear baiters competing for crowds outside the Globe. Kean helped elevate the profession into what would be celebrity status for later performers such as Henry Irving. Mosjoukine plays the actor as a tortured romantic genius, denied his one true love by a jealous husband. This lets Mosjoukine have some delicious business such as when Kean is stopped in his efforts to see his love and then must go out and play Hamlet. Mosjoukine plays the scene on at least two levels a spurned actor almost mad with rage playing a Danish prince also raging against the world.
Feu Mathias Pascal [The Late Mathias Pascal] (1926) is taken from a Pirandello novel about a man who allows his family to think he is dead so that he can start a new life. This film has a very similar feel to The House of Mystery, concerning itself with the bonds of family and the responsibility that comes from living your life.
In 1926, Mosjoukine made a decision to move into projects with more international potential. Declining to play the lead in Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), Mosjoukine instead starred in Michel Strogoff (1926), from the Jules Verne novel about the Imperial Russia of Tsar Alexander II. Mosjoukine plays Strogoff, an exceptionally talented officer assigned to travel over enemy lines. Strogoff is captured by the enemy, who blind him as punishment. Sightless, Strogoff pushes on, determined to save king and country. Michel Strogoff is a pure adventure film, similar to a Douglas Fairbanks movie. Epic in nature, Michel Strogoff was made with care and attention by expatriate Russians as a bouquet to their former home. If they couldn’t be in Russia, at least they could make films about Russia. After watching Mosjoukine playing so many parts with multiple levels, I thought it was refreshing to see him in a straight action role, simpler and more convincing because of its simplicity.
In 1927, the Russian émigré community next made Casanova (1927), a fantasy retelling of the famous real-life seducer. The story starts in Venice and with its gondolas and romantic dark canals, the great lover is in his natural element, romancing every woman in town. Eventually Casanova is forced to flee, escaping to Russia. The intrigues continue until Casanova returns to Italy, ready for his next conquest. This is a great comedy role for Mosjoukine, who gets to play Casanova with a wink, spoofing the formalities of the very role he is playing. One wonders if these Russian expatriates knew this movie-land Russia, where the Tsar still ruled, was going to be as close to the Russia of their dreams and memories as they were ever going to get.
| Casanova (1927).
Photograph: Lenny Borger collection; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema
Signing a five-year contract with Universal, Mosjoukine moved to Hollywood, where his one film, Surrender (1927), was met with scathing reviews. Stung, Mosjoukine moved back to Europe where he had some success in Germany with late silent films such as Der Weiße Teufel [The White Devil] (1930). By 1931 Mosjoukine had to face the reality that the silent film era was over, with his thick Russian accent a huge liability. Mosjoukine managed some success with his first talking picture, Sergeant X, but with the failure of his next three films, Mosjoukine’s career and his personal life rapidly declined. After a few shiftless years in Paris, drinking heavily and supported by his brother, Mosjoukine died of tuberculosis at the age of 49.
What made Mosjoukine such a special actor? Part of the answer was his great range. With his protean ability to come at a character from any direction, Mosjoukine could play almost any part asked of him. Originally cast (almost by chance) in serious roles, Mosjoukine found himself starring in film dramas. Many actors who start in comedy eventually want to do drama, arguably the ‘more important’ kind of theater. As the saying goes, “they all want to do Hamlet.” Becoming famous for serious roles, Mosjoukine’s interest was comedy. If most actors wanted to do Hamlet, Mosjoukine wanted to do Chaplin. With his talent this inclination made sense. His mercurial ability for changing personas and characters was more suited to comedy rather than the more serious and realistic approach in drama.
Another reason for Mosjoukine’s unique place in silent film acting is the brash, almost reckless way he plays his characters. All actors make choices about how to play a part. Some choices are dictated by the role, but sometimes an actor can make unpredictable choices that make the difference between a good and a great performance.
A striking choice Mosjoukine often made was in his romance scenes. In a flirtation, a person chooses ‘what age’ to present to the other person. This strategy would have less to do with the actor’s real age than with their personality or the tone of the story. For example, Cary Grant usually played his flirtations as an adult, but Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart played their love scenes as ‘aw, shucks’ older teenagers and Chaplin played his love scenes hovering somewhere just past puberty. Mosjoukine often played his love scenes as a child of about five, young enough to make even Pee Wee Herman gulp. Apparently it worked in my survey of the female audience, Mosjoukine was a runaway favorite as an actor, sex symbol as everything. Whatever my question about Mosjoukine the answer was always a guilty smile and a “yes.”
Perhaps Mosjoukine was so successful because he was a male version of Clara Bow, who played her love scenes on two levels, one level as a child, the other as a charming young woman, so that men could both feel protective and at the same time sexually attracted to her.
I think Mosjoukine’s talents were in the comedy tradition (going backwards in time) of Jim Carrey, Robin Williams, Peter Sellers and Danny Kaye. These actors were all gifted in being able to transform themselves into an almost endless variety of characters, but they also all had challenges finding suitable roles. I think Mosjoukine was lucky to work with people who understood his versatility and talents, first in Russia, then in France. It might have been possible for him to find a place in Hollywood, but it would have taken good will, patience, and time. Coming to Los Angeles in 1927, the same moment when talking pictures were arriving to radically change filmmaking forever, time was the one thing Mosjoukine did not have.
Why is Mosjoukine so ignored today? There are two simple answers. The first is that with only one Hollywood film to his credit, Mosjoukine had no American film career to speak of, and thus no studio publicity in the States. Without the help of these enormous marketing organizations, Mosjoukine’s fame eventually faded away. The second answer to why Mosjoukine is so obscure is that he is so hard to see. Available prints of these movies are squirreled away in various archives, which regard their films often with proprietary interest. Other than rare screenings at festivals such as Pordenone, these films are only available by special arrangements, involving time and money. Without seeing the films, one can’t build world of mouth, and without word of mouth one can’t generate support for a general release of the films. Perhaps this retrospective can create interest for more screenings, so that more of us can discover the mystery of Mosjoukine.
| The House of Darkness (1913).
Frame enlargement: Russell Merritt collection;
courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
In his groundbreaking year of 1912, D.W. Griffith directed a series of brilliant films that shaped the future direction of movies. Incredibly diverse in their scope, these films advanced expectations for entire genres, such as the Western, the crime story, and the psychological suspense film. After such a prolific burst of genius, one would expect some period of rest and retrenchment. Griffith’s films in 1913 may not be as good as those of the previous year, but not from any need to catch his breath. Rather, I think Griffith was trying to deal with the fact that 1913 was the pivotal year in the development of the feature film. Before this year, many people considered the maximum length of films to be around thirty minutes. This was partly due to the vaudeville traditions of having a multiple evening program, and also related to the practical issues of running reels on a projector. As the two-projector movie house became reality, and as film wrenched itself from its vaudeville conceptions of a short program, people began to understand that one story could be maintained over an entire evening.
Griffith realized the days of the one or two reel story would soon be over. With persistent resistance from Biograph over making longer films, Griffith began to take matters into his own hands. He continued a normal production schedule for the first part of the year, and then filmed his first feature, Judith of Bethulia. By October, he would break with the company, and would soon enter another phase of his career. With these company politics playing in the background, I thought many of Griffith’s films from 1913 were shot with less attention and care than earlier efforts. Others seem to be rehearsals or sketches for longer films that he really wanted to make. Still, like many directors, some of Griffith’s best work came when he wasn’t trying too hard. In 1913, Griffith’s more successful films were often not his ‘epics’ but were instead his more modest films, where simple themes could be more fully explored.
One notable film is Broken Ways (1913), a story about a woman who marries a man who turns out to be a robber. She leaves him to go work as a telegraph operator. To her horror, after a theft her husband shows up and desperately asks for her help. His wife becomes a reluctant accomplice and hides him from the law. In Broken Ways, Griffith plays with the subjects of sin and guilt, topics that Hitchcock would later spend his entire career exploring.
A fairy tale in modern dress, The Lady and The Mouse (1913) tells about a grocery-store worker who helps a sick tramp. The grocer (Lillian Gish) starts to drown a mouse she has caught, but can’t bring herself to do it. The tramp is really a disguised millionaire, who is won over by her innate goodness. He returns out of his disguise to pay off debts, help heal a sick sister, and propose marriage. The moral of A Lady and the Mouse can be summed up in a quotation from Hebrews, “Be kind to all strangers, as they may be angels in disguise.”
| The Lady and the Mouse (1913).
Frame enlargement: Russell Merritt collection;
courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
The House of Darkness (1913) is Griffith’s crack at Cabinet of Dr. Caligari territory. Workers at an insane asylum find that one of the inmates is soothed by hearing music. The man later escapes and finds himself in the home of a nurse who used to work at the asylum. When he threatens her, she begins to play her piano and the music brings him back to his senses. Later, he is cured of his madness and released. Strangely, The House of Darkness describes a real form of medical care that gets little attention in today’s press. The treatment is called ‘music therapy’ and is used in situations as diverse as prisons and child care centers, and is especially useful when patients lack the verbal skills necessary for the usual kinds of therapy.
Just Gold (1913) is one of Griffith’s darkest films. Three brothers strike out for the California to prospect for gold. The fourth brother, apparently the coward, stays behind to take care of his parents. The stay-at-home son first appears lazy, but later when he is taking care of a mule, the smile leaves his face and we see that his decision to stay home has been difficult and painful. The three brothers find gold but in a series of misadventures end up killing each other. The fourth son makes peace with his decision to stay home; he marries and has a happy life. Meanwhile the skeletons of his brothers lie on top of each other in the blowing desert sand. Just Gold sketches out themes further explored in two classic films, Greed (1924), and It’s a Wonderful Life.
Griffith has been criticized for his moralizing plots in which good and evil are clearly represented, but he was not always inclined to work in this style. Some of his best films show complicated ambiguous characters in stories that defy any quick conclusion. One of Griffith’s best films of 1913 was The Yaqui Cur, about a young Yaqui Indian curious to learn more about white culture. He greets a group of prospectors who show him how to smoke cigarettes. They also tell him stories from the Bible, in particular the story of how Jesus preached nonviolence and sacrificed himself for the good of others. The Yaqui’s interest in ‘white man’s ways’ quickly alienates him from his friends, and a young woman who was going to marry him instead marries his best friend Ocalla. Later Ocalla kills a white man in defense of his wife. Other white men arrive at the scene and are about to kill Ocalla when the Yaqui Youth steps forward. The Youth falsely admits to the killing of the white man, and the men let Ocalla go. Ocalla escapes with his wife and the white men prepare to kill the Yaqui ‘cur.’ As the young Indian faces his death, he asks to smoke a final cigarette.
This Native American version of A Tale of Two Cities is Griffith at his best. The Yaqui Youth is a wandering innocent trying to understand the rules of how we live. What he finds is hypocrisy and inconsistency. His tribe rejects the violence of the white man, yet the Indian tribes are at war with each other. The white men preach peace and forgiveness, but they kill first, and ask questions later. The moral issues in The Yaqui Cur are deliciously murky. Was Griffith raising the issue of the dangers of cultural contamination? If so, then the Yaqui Youth’s decision to martyr himself transcends this criticism. Do Native Americans have an opportunity to learn and grow from an exposure to Western ideas? The moral lesson given the young man from the Bible, “Greater love hath no man than this, to lay down his life for his friends,” is undermined by the patronizing attitude of the white men, and the Youth’s decision not to fight the neighboring tribe is met by derision from everyone. Clearly the white men who gave him this message of peace would be the first to start shooting if in the same situation. The Yaqui Cur is a fascinating film, and deserves more exposure.
Griffith was feeling increasingly strait-jacketed by Biograph’s refusal to move into the brand new feature film market. The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914) is a deliberate attempt by Griffith to showcase the scope and range of a longer film with larger production values. The film details a live-and-death battle between settlers and Indians after a chief’s son is killed. One marvels at the technical virtuosity of the film. Griffith shows complete command of a wide variety of shots and moves the story briskly. Unfortunately, his portrayal of Native Americans throws them back into the role of stereotype savages. True, he gives them motivation for their attack on the village (an Indian is shot when he inadvertently tries to kill a pet dog), but generally the Indians are merely enemies existing to provide an obvious conflict for the settlers. Sequences of this film would repeat themselves in The Birth of a Nation (1915), and overall this film feels like a blueprint for the decades of cowboy-and-Indian-shoot-’em-up films to come.
| The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1914).
Frame enlargement: Silent Era image collection.
Judith of Bethulia (1914) is Griffith’s first feature film at four reels and marks the end of an amazingly productive period where he directed hundreds of short films. An adaptation of a famous play by Thomas Bailey Aldrich, Judith of Bethulia is a Biblical story about a Jewish city laid siege by an Assyrian ruler named Holofernes. Things look hopeless for the city, when Judith (Blanche Sweet), a widow, offers to help. Going to Holofernes, she entices him, and he lets her enter his tent. Getting him drunk, Judith beheads him with his sword and the city is saved.
Today, Judith of Bethulia is more interesting as Griffith’s first feature than it is for the quality of the film itself. Because of its length and his uncertainty of its critical reception, Griffith approached the project from a conservative position, including a decision to use a Biblical story line. The film has a reputation of being slow and stodgy some of this criticism is unfair, since after Griffith left Biograph, the film was reissued after being padded with outtakes, and this is the version generally available today. The festival screened both versions, making clear the damage done by outside hands. Hopefully, a future restoration can give us a version of Judith of Bethulia closer to Griffith’s original intent.
The autumn of 1913 was a crucial period for both Griffith and Biograph. Griffith’s squabbles over the length of his films came to a head when Griffith resigned from the company. Biograph plunged ahead (with what was in retrospect, a hopelessly rear-guard action) by agreeing with a theater firm, Klaw & Erlanger, to the rights of a large number of theatrical plays. The decision makes clear Biograph’s complete lack of insight that this was the very moment that film was abandoning its theatrical roots and striking out for new directions. The studio started releasing these play-adaptations, and their stage-bound origins produced stiff and boring films. Audiences dwindled and it was the beginning of the end for Biograph. Meanwhile, for D.W. Griffith other features, such as The Avenging Conscience (1914) would be preparing him for The Birth of a Nation.
The Rin-Tin-Tin Awards
Each festival I give an award to an animal that shows talents and skills far beyond mere mortal beasts. Normally this award is only open to animal actors familiar with the rigors of thespian life, but in consideration of this year’s theme of the ‘travel film,’ a Lifetime Achievement Award is hereby awarded to all wild animals who have ever been poked, prodded, pulled, pushed, shoved, pricked, jabbed, tugged, hooked, yanked, nudged, or in any way coerced to get that perfect ‘natural’ shot.
Also, after a week of watching scores of wild animals (mostly lions and tigers) killed and their lifeless dull-eyed bodies propped up for eager display, this reviewer does hereby establish the Memorial to the Unknown Cat and other Great Beasts, honoring all the thousands of wild animals who in this era of travel and hunting films gave us their “last full measure.” These animals had the ignominy of being shot twice first by 35mm film cameras, and then knocked to oblivion by high-powered rifles.
So much for the preliminaries. The winner of the Rin-Tin-Tin award for 2003 is . . . (do I smell a ringer?) . . . Rin-Tin-Tin, in The Clash of the Wolves (1925). Rinty plays Lobo, a half-wolf, half-dog who leads a pack of wolves in the wilderness. Fearing for their cattle, local ranchers lead a hunt for the wolves. Lobo makes a mighty leap to evade capture, but lands on a cactus, injuring his foot. A friendly prospector Dave Wheaton (Charles Farrell) and his fiancee May Barstowe (June Marlowe) treat Lobo, and win his trust. Later, Dave is hurt and Lobo must run to town to fetch help, at the same time safeguarding May from desperate outlaws.
Photograph: courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
In one of the many strange components of this story, Rin-Tin-Tin is supposed to be a half-wolf, half-dog mix. Now Rin-Tin-Tin was a great animal actor, but to paraphrase James Thurber, Rin-Tin-Tin looks no more like a wolf than Calvin Coolidge looks like the MGM lion. Even so, friendly prospectors feel impelled to disguise him so his ‘wolfness’ won’t bother the other animals. With a logic that only exists in the canine movie world, where dogs have IQs one hundred points higher than any of the humans, they glue a false beard to his muzzle and put gloves on his feet, so that no one will recognize him.
Despite suffering through these indignities, in Clash of the Wolves, Rin-Tin-Tin constantly shows why he deserves the award for the most amazing animal performance of the festival. For example, in one scene Rinty finds Dave after he has been shot and left to die. Dave writes a message on a canteen asking for help, and puts it around Rinty’s neck. The dog obligingly runs to the nearby town, but when he can’t rouse any interest for a rescue mission, he begins to look for a full canteen to take back to his injured buddy!
But even the greatest can make mistakes. That’s what I thought at first watching the scene when Rin-Tin-Tin jumps and lands on the cactus. At first Rinty is favoring his left foot, but in the next scene he is favoring his right. Which foot was injured? Could Rinty be guilty of a major continuity error? Then I realized that this “faux paw” was done intentionally to see if the audience was paying attention. As usual, Rin-Tin-Tin is way ahead of all of us.
Frankenstein and Beyond
| Frankenstein (1910).
Frame enlargement: Silent Era image collection.
The festival screened three films this year of interest to science fiction and horror fans. The oldest, Frankenstein (1910) is one of the most sought after and discussed of all early films. Thought lost, the film was recovered by collector Alois Dettlaff. After years of negotiations with different archives, in 2002 Dettlaff agreed to release Frankenstein in a DVD format. Traveling to Sacile to premiere Frankenstein for the festival, Dettlaff dressed as Father Time, complete with beard and long white coat. Relishing his moment of glory, Dettlaff described to the audience how he found and preserved Frankenstein.
After these preliminaries, we finally got to see the film itself, and most of us were happily surprised. Frankenstein was clearly made with more attention and care than many other Edison films from that era. Although the story is by necessity severely compressed (the film is only fourteen minutes long) the filmmakers were clearly trying to keep to the doppelgänger theme of the original novel. After the monster is created, the mirror reflections are repeated and emphasized. In the most interesting shot in the film, the reflection of the monster lingers in the mirror after the monster is vanquished, making its connection to Victor Frankenstein even clearer. Frankenstein can stand on its own as one of Edison’s best efforts to adapt a classic story for the screen.
Another ‘lost film’ that has been at least partly restored is the German film Homunculus (1916). The film is about the life of a being (Homunculus) created by scientists in the laboratory. An important difference from the Frankenstein story is that Homunculus does not come from dead tissue, rather he is created from the raw chemicals of life itself. While Homunculus is still a baby, one of the scientist’s children dies in a crib death. Overcome with grief, the scientist places his dead baby in the incubator and takes Homunculus for his son. Homunculus grows up as a normal child, yet feels somehow different from everyone else. He overhears a scientist explaining about the Homunculus project, concluding, “It’s perhaps better that the child died. We did not give him emotions.” Realizing he is the result of their experiment, Homunculus runs away, starting a series of adventures that take him through Europe. Burdened with the knowledge that he’s not human, but with powers of intellect that exceed normal man, Homunculus must come to terms with his place in the world.
Exceptionally intelligent and strong, Homunculus shares many aspects with Frankenstein’s monster as originally conceived in Mary Shelley’s novel but with one important difference Homunculus is dashingly handsome. Homunculus travels from town to town, finding himself a man without emotions lost in an uncaring world. Of course, by what he says and does we see that he clearly has more emotions and feelings than everyone he meets, so that as the film progresses, the Homunculus character begins to look like Lord Byron playing the Tin Man in a German version of The Wizard of Oz. Homunculus was originally a six-episode serial and this film is a cut-down feature, making the story choppy and hard to follow. Still, Homunculus is an important film and one of the first to explore the ethics of creating life in the laboratory.
Another film restored is Wunder der Schöpfung [Wonders of Creation] (1925). Wonders of Creation takes this year’s theme of travel to new heights, that is, outer space. More than two years to make, this Kulturfilm is the German studio UFA’s attempt to educate the general public in astronomy and physical science. Sit down, shut up and pay attention, because Wonders of Creation is going to give you a semester of information in ninety minutes. For the most part, this film succeeds in its task, although it makes some guesses about the future that look quaint and funny today. The most interesting part of the documentary is when we take a ride in an imaginary space ship and travel away from the Earth with increasing speed. As the planets and sun fly away from us, we begin to get a real perspective of our very tiny place in the cosmos. This hugely useful thought-experiment/space-ship ride would be repeated in Powers of Ten (1968), an award winning film by Charles and Ray Eames. Taking advantages of the advances of special effects, a whiz-bang version of this trip can be found Robert Zemeckis’ Contact (1997) starring Jodie Foster, from the novel by Carl Sagan.
Watching Wonders of Creation, one can better understand the expansive mindset of UFA studio as it prepared for its upcoming wondrously ambitious (and financially disastrous) production of Metropolis (1927).
East to West, Restorations From Around the World
Pordenone has a tradition of examining films from countries around the world. This year the festival focused on films from Thailand. The loss of silent films is a problem common to countries around the world, but for Thailand the loss was almost complete. The remaining footage is mostly filmed records of important events, such as the coronation of King Prajadhipok (Rama VII). Ironically, one Thai filmmaker’s work that does survive is that of King Rama VII himself, who was an enthusiastic amateur photographer. He shot over 500 reels of film, one of which was The Magic Ring (1929) an improvised story about children who use a magic ring to fight an evil stepfather.
Royalty of a completely different sort was seen in American Aristocracy (1916) a film that teamed Douglas Fairbanks with writer Anita Loos. This ‘comedy of manners’ story takes place in blue-blood Rhode Island where a romance begins between well bred but cash poor Cassius Lee (Fairbanks) and nouveau riche Geraldine Hicks (Jewel Carmen). American Aristocracy starts off well, with Loos gibing at ever aspect of American high society from the New England’s social registry, to its underlying crass commercialism. Loos produces a terrific gag by naming a local sailing ship the Filibuster. The word filibuster, from Dutch, means freebooter, or pirate. (Mercenaries from the States who traveled to Latin American countries looking for booty were called filibusters, and Congress debated so long what to do about these men that the term came to mean the use of discussion itself as a delaying tactic.) The joke pays off later when we see a newspaper headline proclaiming “Filibuster Sails,” an amazing triple-entendre naming a ship, but also poking fun at the pirate nature of how these aristocrats originally got their money, and finally making a jest of the modern usage of the word, since a filibuster by definition can’t move anywhere. Despite this dynamite combination of the athletic acting of Fairbanks and the sophisticated writing of Loos, something happens halfway through the film, and just when it should be picking up steam, it becomes increasingly disjointed. American Aristocracy is worth seeing, but is definitely not one of Fairbanks and Loos’ best efforts.
The festival screened a fascinating Balkan film Gresnica Bez Greha [Sinner Without Sin] (1927) a story about a young girl who leaves her small village and fiancé to travel to Belgrade. While in the city she falls for a man she thinks is a wealthy aristocrat, not knowing he is really a bank robber. He attacks her and she barely escapes. Depressed, she tries to commit suicide, but is saved and returns to her fiancé. In a happy ending, they leave the city and return to the country. More interesting than the simple plot is the way the movie blends at least four genres into the story. Sinner Without Sin starts as a love story, and then evolves into a ‘sexploitation’ film (with a very risqué shot of the robber attacking the girl). For the last few reels we end up with a detective story that somehow coexists with a comedy routine by two men doing deliberate imitations of Laurel and Hardy.
| Gresnica Bez Greha (1927).
Photograph: Jugoslovenska Kinoteka; courtesy Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Films from eastern European countries previously screened at Pordenone also show this hybrid-genre, leading one to think this was a common approach in this part of the world. With fewer films being made and limited resources available, perhaps the filmmakers were satisfying a whim to squeeze in every possible story-line with what little footage there was available to shoot. Since these films were not created in a rigid studio system, there was probably no special pressure for these films to conform. Sinner Without Sin must have been shot on a very tight budget. An intimate scene is ruined when a stranger walks in front of the camera, yet the actors keep going and this obviously spoiled ‘outtake’ is kept in the film. Sinner Without Sin doesn’t have high production values, but instead has a spunkiness to make up the rules as it goes along.
The Face of a Masterpiece
| Visages d’enfants (1925).
Photograph: Kevin Brownlow collection; courtesy Le Giornate
del Cinema Muto.
The Pordenone festival has a tradition of uncovering great films that for various reasons have been forgotten or passed aside. This year the ‘discovered masterpiece’ is a Jacques Feyder film, Visages d’enfants [Faces of Children]. Opening in 1925, Faces of Children received good reviews, but the film did poorly at the box office. After the negative of the film disappeared, Faces of Children quickly dropped from the public eye. In the 1990s, several archives were able to piece together partial prints of the film, finally compiling the restored version screened this week.
The film tells the story of Jean Amster (Jean Forest) a delicate boy who loses his mother due to illness. Still mourning her loss, the boy is sent across the Swiss mountains to visit relatives. On his return, Jean is shocked to find that his father has married a widow, Jeanne Dubois (Rachel Devirys). The new wife has brought her daughter into the house, and moved the boy’s belongings into a spare room. Refusing to accept his stepmother and angry with his stepsister, Jean starts a campaign against these outsiders. On a cold winter night, Jean drops his stepsister’s doll outside in the snow. When the girl leaves the house to look for her doll, she loses her way and almost freezes to death. Wracked with grief for his mother and guilt over almost killing his stepsister, Jean steps into the icy waters of a nearby river. The stepmother sees Jean being carried down the rapids, and must agonizingly decide if she will risk her life to save a boy who has almost killed her daughter.
Faces of Children is a stunning film, uniquely capturing the point of view of how children cope with tragedy and its aftermath. Particularly impressive is Jean Forest as a boy trying to come to terms with his mother’s death. His sensitive portrayal ranks with Jean-Pierre Léaud (Four-Hundred Blows) as one of film’s greatest child acting performances. This story of a household in a time of crisis shows us how hate and guilt can tear a family apart. Then Faces of Children takes the next step and shows how we can find a capacity for courage and forgiveness when we think there is nothing left to give. This year’s theme of travel film took us from Africa to the Arctic and even into space, with filmmakers mapping out all the compass points of the world and even the universe itself. But the real terra incognita, the great unknown, continues to be the human heart.
The festival took place on 11-18 October 2003 in Sacile, Italy.