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The Suffering Earth and a Light from the East
The 24nd Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film
|Article Copyright © 2006 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
For many of us, silent films conjure up images of another world, a world steeped in extravagance and luxury, a world of butlers and maids, tuxedoes and ermine . . . a world of smoky nightclubs, where the money flows as easily as the champagne in everyone’s glass. Who wouldn’t want to escape to this endless party, this ‘lost generation,’ living in a lost age?
But, the reality is that in the era of silent film precious few people had an opportunity to live this life of flash and glitter. Most of the world plodded along as best they could. Farmers ploughed the fields, miners worked long hours in darkness, and housewives put aside their own wishes, so that their families could eat.
Swashbuckling fantasies or millionaire romances were not the main themes in this week’s program — instead, the 2005 Pordenone Silent Film Festival turned its eyes from ‘castles in the air,’ and looked downward to the real world. This year the festival was looking out for the ‘little guy’ — the worker, farmer, laborer — the people who get things done, usually without praise, thanks or glory. This year the festival showcased directors whose films examined the lives of the poor, the ignored, and the downtrodden. So, put down your top hat, roll up your sleeves, and let’s get to work!
But, before we could punch in our time clock, we had to know where to show up. The festival has been patiently waiting the demolition and rebuilding of the Verdi, the main theater in Pordenone. After five years of staging the festival in nearby Sacile, this fall we were going back home. Finally, the Moderne-style Verdi theater, had been demolished, and replaced by a curved glass-and-metal Frank Gehry-like structure — jarringly out of place, since the design is more than one hundred years distant in style from its neighboring buildings. My original impression was that the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles had been picked up by a giant, carried across the Atlantic, and plunked down in Pordenone’s central piazza.
Worse is that the seating inside the building is configured for live performances, not for films. The number of seats where one could comfortably watch a movie is so small that the building in its present form cannot be used for a film festival. Once again, friendly Sacile was asked to be our home for a week, leaving unresolved questions about whether the festival can return in any permanent way to its natal town of Pordenone.
André Antoine and the Realist Tradition
After its humiliating defeat in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, France went through a social revolution. Over the next twenty years, many of its long-standing artistic traditions, such as the classical style of Academy painting, would be cast off in favor of new approaches, such as Impressionism. Live theater was one of the few holdovers from the pre-war era — formulaic pieces spoken by actors in dull declamatory style. But change was coming, voiced by the prophet of naturalism, novelist Émile Zola. “A work must be based in the real . . . on nature,” Zola wrote in Naturalism in the Theater. Zola explained that a playwright must observe facts, with no abstract characters or invented fantasies. Rising to meet this challenge, actor, and theater director André Antoine (1858-1943) founded the Theatre Libre, essentially a community theater, dedicated to showing new work by innovative writers. Antoine also staged works by controversial playwrights from outside of France, such as Ibsen and Chekhov. Under Antoine’s guidance, French theater became serious and legitimate. What is less known about Antoine is that he was also a film director, and a vital link in the development of the ‘realist tradition’ that has so enriched world cinema.
One could argue that realism has been with film since its birth. The Lumière brothers’ scenes of ‘actualities’ (workers leaving the factories, trains arriving at a station) are some of the very first images ever recorded on film. At first people didn’t associate these live events with stories. Photographing real images was a separate tradition from story telling, and when popular stage dramas began to take over the public interest, this form of ‘reality’ was abandoned for the theatrical traditions of painted sets, and other indoor conventions of the stage.
But as soon as filmmakers went on location to shoot outdoor scenes, they noticed how different their films looked. A scene shot on location has a snap, an energy, which an indoor studio set can never quite match. The extra dimension that location shooting can bring has been called the ‘reality effect.’ Film critic Jean-Pierre Jeancolas described this effect after watching Feuillade’s serial, Judex (1916): “He aimed his camera, mounted on top of a car, hurtling along at top speed . . . he filmed two cars, but also caught the street, the pavements, the Paris facades racing past, the carriages, and the occasional horse droppings.” Or, as film critic Pauline Kael put it many years later, films made in this style could show “human experience without smoothing away the raw edges, or losing what most movies lose . . . the sense of confusion and accident in human affairs.” Antoine and others of his time realized that film’s ability to record unplanned spontaneity could add an entirely new dimension to storytelling, greatly increasing the sense that what you were seeing was really happening. Film shot on location could do this in ways that stage and theater productions could never approach. Eager to harness this ‘reality effect,’ and confident with their ideas on how films should be made, Antoine and his followers set out to make their mark in film history.
The first film screened as part of this program was Germinal (1913), directed by a student of Antoine, Albert Capellani. An adaptation of the Émile Zola novel, the film describes the struggles of miners rebelling against the harsh working conditions in Montsou, a coal-mining town in the north of France. Étienne, a migrant worker, is slowly pulled into intrigues among the owners, the workers, and a Russian anarchist. The battle for control of the town leads to riots, and general chaos. As the workers try to put their lives back together, a mine explosion traps Étienne and his friends, forcing a desperate attempt to rescue the victims before their air runs out.
It’s hard for modern eyes to grasp how radical a film Germinal was when it was released in 1913, film’s annus mirabilis, the year when successful ‘feature length’ films forever changed people’s opinions about how long films could be. Over two hours, Germinal is drastically longer than the twenty-minute films audiences were used to seeing. Even more of a shock for audiences in 1913 was the film’s content, a frank examination of a working class struggles against often-brutal working conditions. Amid vivid landscapes in exterior shots, the film sometimes falls back to theatrical roots, with interiors that are obvious painted sets. Allowing for these occasional lapses, Germinal can still be enjoyed as a prototype for the realist tradition that would flourish and mature over the next twenty years.
While his student Capellini was directing Germinal, André Antoine was producing plays in Paris as manager of the Theatre de l’Odean. With his attention to quality rather than profitability, Antoine’s theatrical companies were always one step away from bankruptcy, and by 1915, with his company deep in debt, he resigned. Freed from his obligations as manager, Antoine accepted an offer to direct an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ Les Frères Corses (The Corsican Brothers). Dumas’ novel of revenge and vengeance is a complicated series of flashbacks set inside a framing device where Dumas becomes a character in his own story, traveling to Corsica and interacting with the characters. Filming this plot would be a challenge for anyone, but with characteristic self-assurance, Antoine plunged right ahead and filmed the story essentially as the novel is written. While I admired individual scenes, and the unusual framework of the story, I found Les frères Corses (1917) very hard to follow and easier to admire for its ambitious technique than for a gripping story.
Antoine’s next film was Le coupable [The Guilty] (1917), a story about a magistrate who finds himself in the position of judging a young man whom he realizes is his son, a product from an illicit affair. Finding himself more the guilty party than the young man on trial, the judge begins a long confession to the court. By using the gritty, unsentimental shooting locations on the Seine and the streets of Paris, Le Coupable often captures the energy and look of a documentary. Also of interest are the scenes of the boys in the reformatory. When a boy tries to smoke a cigarette, the ‘realness’ of scene is striking. By their very nature, children have ingenuity about their acting that makes them perfect for the realist film. Antoine was one of the first directors to understand this, and his films begin a long realist tradition of using children in stories that demonstrate society’s corruption of the innocent. With Le Coupable, Antoine sets the stage for future films like De Sica’s Shoeshine and Truffaut’s The 400 Blows (1959).
In 1917, Antoine filmed Les travailleurs de la mer [Toilers of the Sea] (1918) from the Victor Hugo novel. The least well known of Hugo’s major novels, Les Travailleurs is a character study about a sailor who takes it upon himself to salvage a wrecked ship out on a desolate reef. The dramatic highlight of the film is a battle to the death between the sailor and an octopus guarding a section of the reef. The best parts of this film are the segments detailing seaside life, and the interactions between the sailors and the villagers. Antoine plays down the melodrama inherent in the story, but even he can’t figure out a way to realistically show the unconvincing octopus battle. The octopus, shown in brief cutaways shots, looks far more interested in escape than in a fight to the death. Antoine may have been a great theater director, but getting an octopus to ‘hit the mark’ was beyond even his abilities.
In 1921, Antoine filmed an adaptation of Émile Zola’s La Terre [The Earth] (1921). The novel is one of Zola’s most famous and successful efforts in describing the physical and emotional poverty of the French farmers who scratch out a living from the soil. La Terre recounts the ordeal of Old Fouan, who in King Lear fashion, divides his farmland among his children, only to watch them fight each other for its ownership. The only sympathetic character in the struggle is an outsider, Jean. Originally from another part of France, he is looking for a new life as a farmer and has married Fouan’s daughter, Françoise. Jean tries to be kind to Old Fouan, but his kindness is rewarded with disdain. Then, in a fight with her siblings, Françoise is fatally wounded. As she lies dying in the farmhouse, Françoise refuses to deed her portion of the farmland to her husband, even though her family has been responsible for her injury. Françoise dies, and Jean is kicked off the farm he worked so hard to maintain. The family feud for ownership of the land escalates, and eventually Old Fouan is reduced to rags. He dies homeless, while begging for food and shelter.
||La Terre (1921).
La Terre is one of Antoine’s best films, but it also illustrates his difficulty in separating his film from his source material. The crucial scene in the novel occurs when Francoise refuses to sign a paper deeding the farm to Jean, her husband. In the novel, Zola makes it clear why this happens. Francoise lets the farm go to her family, rather than give the land to Jean, who is her husband, but is still essentially a stranger. In other words, for Françoise, blood is thicker than water. In his filmed version of La Terre, Antoine glosses over Françoise’s hugely important decision with one intertitle. Anyone who had read La Terre would understand why she does this. But for an audience unfamiliar with the novel, Françoise’s behavior seems at worst, evil and at best, strange and unmotivated. I think La Terre often feels like a supplement to great classic rather than having an independent life as freestanding film.
In 1920, Antoine filmed L’hirondelle et la mésange (1920), a movie I will discuss at the end of this festival review. The producers shut down this production when the rushes of the film looked too much like a documentary, and Antoine was never able to complete the movie He moved on to direct L’Arlésienne [The Woman from Arles] (1922). Originally a play by Alphonse Daudet, with incidental music by Bizet, L’Arlésienne is the story of a woman so beautiful, so enticing, so seductive, that men kill themselves for her love. One might think this story is just Carmen with a different zip code, but what made the original theatrical production of L’Arlésienne so unusual, is that as much as you might cherchez la femme, the title character is never seen. She is like desire itself, everywhere, but nowhere.
Antoine, having no interest in making a film with an absent lead character, simply cast actress Marthe Fabris as “The Woman from Arles.” While the film works well enough as a story of desperate and romantic love, even contemporary viewers were quick to point out that this act destroyed much of the point of the theatrical L’Arlésienne. Like ghosts or other powerful forces, this woman’s presence is better felt than seen. Although the film enjoyed some financial success, Antoine would never make another film. He returned to the theater, eventually finishing his career as a drama and film critic. Antoine died in 1943.
So was Antoine as great a film director as he was a stage manager? Was he truly able to follow Emile Zola’s command that a work “must be based on reality . . . on nature”?
After watching this week’s program of his films, I think Antoine’s obedience to Zola’s command was as much a hindrance as it was help. While a stage manager, Antoine encouraged all kinds of theater, including Symbolists, Decadents, and Humorists. But for his filmmaking, Antoine concentrated on his ‘realist style.’ Perhaps Antoine thought that while all styles were possible, the truly important productions should be based in reality. But for film, as in plays, context is everything. While realism works wonderfully with stories like La Terre, why force a melodrama like Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea into a naturalistic straitjacket? Even more obvious is the film L’Arlésienne. The story was never meant to be, it never needed to be a realist drama. The search for the eternal feminine was not the job for a realist, but for a Surrealist. Pick the right tool for the right job. Trying to shoehorn every kind of story into only one style is like playing the piano with only the white keys. The Spanish director Luis Buñuel would come closer to capturing the essence of L’Arlésienne sixty years later when he made That Obscure Object of Desire (1977).
Having raised these criticisms, the influence of Antoine and his followers is hard to overstate. He was one of the first directors who consciously recognized that the use of locations could be a stylistic choice, giving the film an authenticity unmatched by any other approach. With the right subject matter, these films have a special power unmatched by any number of films that use tricks or special effects to achieve their end.
He also realized that these kind of films were ideal for raising public awareness or for promoting social agendas. The realist tradition, first fully developed by Antoine, can be seen in subsequent filmmakers such as Renoir, Visconti, Rossellini and De Sica. The tradition has found new life in the Iranian directors like Bahman Ghobadi (The Year of Drunken Horses), or Abbas Kiarostami (The Wind Will Carry Us) and Majid Majidi (The Children of Heaven). Antoine is there, almost at the start, pointing the way. As long as there are filmmakers who understand that the real world is often far more exciting than a pretend one, the realist tradition will thrive and endure.
“The World We Live in Betrays Us” — the Early Films of Mikio Naruse
Western knowledge of Japanese film directors often begins and ends with three names: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, and Kenji Mizoguchi. This cursory and simplistic approach overlooks the talents of great directors such as Mikio Naruse (1905-1969). In an effort to remedy this oversight, this year’s program of Japanese cinema highlighted the early films of Naruse, on the centennial year of his birth.
Naruse specialized in shomin-geki, contemporary dramas about the poor and lower-middle classes. Naruse was born into poverty, and when he was young, his parents died, leaving him an orphan. As a teenager, he became a props assistant for Shochiku studio, and after ten years of hard work, he became a director. Looking back on how his early, hand-to-mouth existence affected his view on life, Naruse reflected: "From the earliest age I have thought that the world we live in betrays us — this thought remains with me.”
Naruse’s films are subtle and slow moving. He shunned spectacle, choosing instead stories that focused on the psychological reasons behind people’s actions. Kurosawa, who came up through the ranks as one of Naruse’s assistants, described his style as "like a great river with a calm surface and a raging current in its depths.” In Naruse’s poor, working-class universe, being heroic sometimes meant just surviving for another day. When a character in his stories does try to show initiative or independence, they are almost always beaten down. Japanese film scholar Audie Bock has noted, “There are no happy endings for Naruse but there are incredibly enlightened defeats.”
I consider Mikio Naruse to be the Jane Austen of Japanese cinema — that is, if Jane Austen had produced stories with a dark, obsessive Kafkaesque fatalism. Okay, so maybe the two weren’t quiet so close in spirit, but as artists, they both obeyed one absolute rule: work with what you know about. For Naruse, what he knew about was the hard life of the working-class Japanese, a life that had no safety nets or second chances.
Many films in this program were released in the mid-thirties, posing an obvious question to the uninitiated: why at this late date was Japan still making silent films? One answer for this delay is that the country was slow to install sound projectors for theaters in smaller towns, and so a viable silent film market continued for many years. Also, Japanese films also used benshi (live narrators) in many theaters, and this tradition further complicated the transition from silents to talkies.
One of the main concerns of these shomin-geki films was the difficult position Japanese women found themselves in trying to support their family. This is evident in Kimi to wakarete [Farewell to You] (1933), the first film that Naruse had control over both script and direction. Kikue (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) works as a geisha to support her son, Yoshio, who despises her for working what he considers a demeaning job. A friend of Yoshio, Terugiku, who is an apprentice-geisha, tries to make Yoshio understand that his mother is making a sacrifice in his behalf. When Terugiku sees that her younger sister will also have to work as geisha, she realizes the only way she can avoid her sister following the same career path will be to have more money for the family. To achieve this end, she accepts a job with a different geisha house, with the understanding that she will now become a prostitute.
Yogoto no yume [Nightly Dreams] (1933) is one of Naruse’s bleakest and darkest silent films. Omitsu, a bar hostess (which in Japan means she is already essentially a prostitute) is trying to support her son, with little help from her ne’er-do-well husband, Mizuhara. One night her husband comes home disheveled and Omitsu explodes in anger, forcing Mizuhara to look for work. When their son is injured in a car accident, Mizuhara, desperate for money, robs a company safe. When Omitsu refuses the money from his robbery, he drowns himself in the harbor. The film ends with Omitsu trying to console her son after he learns of the death of his father.
In Kagirinaki hodo [Street Without End] (1934) Sugika, on her way to meet her boyfriend, Harada, is hit by a car. When she doesn’t show up for her date, Harada thinks she has jilted him, and leaves town. The driver of the car, Yamauchi, is first full of remorse, but then falls in love with Sugika, and persuades her to marry him. The marriage is not a happy one, as Sugika finds herself in a bourgeois world she is unfamiliar with. She leaves Yamauchi and goes back to her job as a waitress. Street Without End was Naruse’s last silent film and one of his most ‘modern,’ illustrating Naruse’s growing interest in stories that featured self-reliant women taking control of their lives.
The Japanese program showed other films beside those directed by Naruse. Asahi wa kagayaku [‘The Morning Sun’ Shines] (1929) is a film at least partly directed by Mizoguchi. Only twenty-five minutes is left of this promotional film, made to commemorate a newspaper publishing business. In a remarkable montage sequence, we see the beginning of a news event (a fire on board a ship) and how this leads to the reporting, the typesetting, the printing, and finally distribution of the newspaper.
Another film by Mizoguchi was Orizuru Osen [Osen of the Paper Cranes] (1935). Sokichi, a medical doctor, finds a mentally ill woman on a railway platform. He recognizes her to be his lover from his medical school days, a woman so devoted to Sokichi that she became a prostitute so that he could finish medical school. Sokichi realizes at last her sacrifice and tries to cure Osen of her mental illness. The exploration of a woman’s loyalty to her father, son, husband, or lover is a classic melodrama theme, and hugely popular in Japanese film. What makes Mizoguchi so unique is that in many of his films, he brilliantly (and incestuously) collapses these multiple and distinct male archetypes into one person. In this film, Sokichi’s role with Osen changes from friend to lover, to son, to father, and with each change in relationship, the complexities of the film both deepen and darken. While Osen of the Paper Crane’s is often considered one of Mizoguchi’s masterpieces, it’s not an easy film to follow, especially with this sound version, complete with a commentary track of a benshi commentator. The soundtrack may be interesting from a historical point of view, but I don’t think it helps the film.
Almost from the beginning, there has been a love affair between movies and trains. Filmmakers were quick to understand that trains are inherently interesting to watch. Steam trains, a distillation of power, movement, and rhythmic grace, are especially easy to appreciate in the stylized world of silent film, and the Japanese program included a ‘train melodrama,’ Tokkyu sanbyaku mairu [Special Express / 300 Miles] (1928). The film starts wonderfully, with dynamic opening shots of a crew operating a train. This aspect of the film is soon pushed aside by the melodrama part of the story, a romance between a girl and her boyfriend conductor, who feels like he has to keep working, even after he is injured. Unfortunately, this part of the film never equals the lyrical opening scenes of the trains in action. For this ‘train melodrama,’ I would have liked more train and less drama, which, in this film, is too florid to be believable.
Bakudan hanayome [Dynamite Bride] (1932) is a rare surviving short produced by Torajiro Saito, the Hal Roach of Japanese Comedy. The story concerns the school of the “vertical bamboo flute,” where the male students are trying to attract the attention of the attractive master’s daughter, Hanako. Unfortunately she is in love with Yasui, a poor student and the person most hated by her money-loving father. The rivalry among Yasui and the other suitors for Hanako soon escalates to explosive, hilarious proportions. I found Dynamite Bride to be one of the most enjoyable films of the festival, and it illustrates the universal nature of slapstick comedy. Kamata studios specialized in a genre that the Japanese call ero guro nansensu. This can be translated to “erotic, grotesque, nonsense,” but a better translation might be: “the Lot of Fun,” the nickname for Hal Roach’s studio.
In summary, this year’s program illustrates the enormous problem of trying to assess the totality of silent Japanese film. Most of the early silent films, those made before 1930, are lost, leaving modern viewers with a preponderance of films from 1931 to 1935 from which to judge. But these films are what I call ‘contaminated’ silents. Most of these films were made by artists who had seen or were familiar with talking pictures, and with only a few exceptions (such as the slapstick films) the plots in these films were advanced by dialogue (represented by intertitles) rather than by visual language. Or perhaps we could call these films ‘grudgingly’ silent, since I think many of title-heavy post-1931 Japanese films would have been better as talkies. Even Naruse was not immune from the inherent aesthetic conflict between the silent and sound film. As much as I admire Naruse’s early films, there is very little silent about them, and I think his best films were still ahead. He would spend the rest of his career exploring the problems of the poor working class of Japan, producing two undisputed masterpieces, Floating Clouds and When a Woman Ascends the Stairs. Naruse deserves to be mentioned as one of the great Japanese filmmakers, but one whose major contributions came after the close of the silent film era.
Griffith 1916 to 1918
The festival continued in its ambitious effort to show, chronologically, all of the existing films by D.W. Griffith. This year’s program covered the years immediately after The Birth of a Nation (1915), including the films: Intolerance (1916), Hearts of the World (1918), A Romance of Happy Valley (1919) and Broken Blossoms (1919).
How many of us get a chance to do exactly what we want — no questions asked? In the summer of 1915, Griffith found himself in that rare and dangerous position. With The Birth of a Nation breaking box office records across America, Griffith was the most famous and successful film director in the country, if not the world. He was free of any financial restraints, free from the meddling of milksop studio executives, free from any need to please anyone but himself.
In late 1914, Griffith was finishing a low budget three-reeler, titled, The Mother and the Law (1915), a story about prostitution and gangs in the big city. With the carte blanche given to him by The Birth of a Nation, he decided to expand this story to feature length. As his idea for the film continued to evolve, a second story about the persecution of French Huguenots was added as historical counterpoint. Griffith’s ideas for the film continued to grow, and by 1916 the film had expanded to include a pre-Christian Babylonian story, along with a Passion of Christ sequence. The stories were edited together by an accelerating crosscutting from story to story, producing what Griffith scholar Russell Merritt describes as “part morality play and part 3-ring circus . . . one of the period’s great hybrids.”
With Intolerance, Griffith established in Los Angeles an expectation and future direction for its fledging film industry. After creating a mythical Babylonian landscape, (setting a standard for an industry that would in the future create countless mythical landscapes), and with Griffith artistically and finanically at the top of his game, was there anywhere else for him to go but down? In only eight years, 1908 to 1916, Griffith had become the master of his art, but the rapid advancements in technology brought on by WWI, and more importantly, the changing of cultural values, meant that he was about to be overtaken by events. His next film, Hearts of the World is a WWI romance starring Robert Harron and Lillian Gish. The film is not without its charm, but it is disjointed and uneven. Griffith seems unwilling to come to terms with a harsh brutal war that swept away traditional values of honor and duty. Watching Intolerance and then Hearts of the World back-to-back is a jarring experience. Kristin Thompson, in her program notes, describes this change. “In 1915 and 1916, Griffith had been a pioneer of the cinema. By the spring of 1918, when Hearts of the World was released, it already looked old-fashioned. By almost any standard, it represents a move into a new phase of his career — one which would see a few great films and mostly great moments in lesser films. It was perhaps with Hearts of the World that he went from being the father of cinema to being its grandfather.”
||Howard Gaye in Intolerance (1916).
Frame enlargement: Silent Era image collection.
A Romance of Happy Valley, Griffith’s next surviving film, is the story of an inventor (Bobby Harron) who leaves his pastoral home of Happy Valley to make his fortune in the big city. While he is gone, those he has left behind become embittered in his absence. After years of hard work, he returns a wealthy man, but finds that his own father doesn’t recognize him, and plans to murder him for his money. A Romance of Happy Valley is a strange and uneven film, in which the plot point of a father not recognizing his son, strains even typically generous melodramatic conventions. It feels like a Biograph short, padded to feature length.
Griffith would next make one of his last great films, Broken Blossoms, the story of an impossible romance between Lucy Burrows (Lillian Gish) and Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmess). Huan, a Chinese shop merchant, befriends Lucy after she has been beaten and terrorized by her father, Battling Burrows (Donald Crisp). Lucy enjoys a few moments of kindness from Huan, but her father misinterprets events and becomes enraged, killing his daughter and causing Huan to then seek revenge. Griffith often did his best work with small, intimate stories, resisting his inclination toward epic and spectacle. In this almost chamber-play film, he displays a Dickens-like concern for social issues, in particular, child abuse.
Historian Marc Wanamaker has spent most of his career chronicling the rise of the American film industry and its impact on Southern California. In discussing his research, I asked Wannamaker a simple question: when did Hollywood become Hollywood?
Film studios were springing up all over Los Angeles — why was a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles anointed as the symbol for a style of filmmaking that would come to dominate the world? Wanamaker gave me a quick response: just read the postcards. Written spontaneously, they give you an immediate sense of what people are thinking at any time. And if you read the postcards mailed in 1915, something remarkable is happening. The cards start talking about the building of gigantic temples and statues, structures towering over the nearby buildings on Sunset Boulevard. Nobody had seen anything like this before. It was bold, audacious, extravagant . . . it was . . . Hollywood. For Wannamaker, Hollywood became Hollywood when Griffith built the Babylonian sets for Intolerance.
In 2001, a mall was built on the corner of Hollywood and Highland Avenue. The mall is populated with giant elephants and exotic statues. Tourists walk by these statues, as they did in the summer of 1915, replaying an event that over ninety years ago, helped shape the future of the neighborhood. Few will know they are, in a way, honoring the memory of D.W. Griffith, one of the original ‘architects’ of Hollywood.
The Orient Expressed
The festival was not completely without spectacle, showing several films that in some way involved the Orient. More a state of mind than a geographical location, in the silent film era the Orient was a place where one could explore dangerous thoughts, act out fantasies, and live fantastic adventures.
The first of these films was the premier of a restoration of an Ernst Lubitsch film, Das Weib des Pharao [Loves of a Pharaoh] (1922). The film existed in battered, incomplete versions held by various archives across Europe, but with the improvement of digital restoration techniques, in a major cooperative effort, the existing elements were brought together to form an almost complete film. The story takes place in the time of the Ancient Egypt. King Amenes (Emil Jennings) is negotiating a peace with the king of Ethiopia (Paul Wegener). While traveling on the river, Amenes sees a Greek slave, the beautiful Theonis (Dagny Servaes), and falls instantly in love. Unfortunately, Theonis is already the girlfriend of the king’s advisor Ramphis (Harry Liedtke). Amenes catches the lovers together and sentences them to die. He later commutes the sentence if Theonis agrees to be his wife, and if Ramphis accepts permanent exile. Meanwhile the King of Ethopia has declared war on Egypt and a battle ensues. Ramphis returns, mounts a counterattack and the Ethopians are beaten.The Egyptians think Amenes is dead, and Ramphis is made king. Amenes though, is still alive, and returns, demanding back his throne. Ramphis agrees, but only if he takes Theonis with him. The crowd is so unhappy with Ramphis’ sudden abdication that they stone both Ramphis and Theonis. The two lovers die, together in death as they could never be in life.
Made after an influential trip to America, where he was exposed to new ideas, Loves of a Pharaoh is a transitional film for Lubitsch. His use of lighting and camera angles begins to show some refinement, such as the use of backlighting. There is nothing restrained about the acting in Loves of a Pharaoh. Broad, exaggerated gestures, still popular in German films of its day, are the norm. More of a problem for this film is that the entire story is dependent on the plausibility that King Amenes could instantly fall in love with the zoftig charms of Theonis. A woman able to bewitch the king of Egypt needs a Cleopatra-like build-up, instead Theonis seems like a nice girl who has the bad luck of holding the wrong jug of water at the wrong river. Whatever shortcomings of plot, Loves of a Pharaoh is a big budget spectacle, done on a scale that Lubitsch would never attempt again. He would turn his interest instead to story and character, an effort perfected only two years later (along with a permanent move to Hollywood) with The Marriage Circle (1924).
Elinor Glyn is little remembered today (except perhaps, for her endorsement of Clara Bow as the “It” Girl), but she was a pioneer in the genre of erotic woman’s fiction. Starting her writing career with light romances, she was greatly affected when Queen Draga of Serbia was assassinated in 1903, and she determined to write a book using historical events to frame a larger-than-life tale of erotic passion. Three Weeks, her fictionalized account of the events taking place in Serbia, was published in 1907. The book was condemned as unseemly and improper, which of course meant it was hugely popular. Three Weeks tells the story of a Paul, a young Englishman who is sent to Switzerland to avoid an unsuitable marriage to a parson’s daughter. While in Lucerne, he falls under the spell of ‘the Lady,’ a mysterious woman dressed in black. She is the queen of nearby Slavic-speaking country, (later identified as Russia), unhappily married to a dissolute beast of a husband. The Lady and Paul begin an affair; and for three weeks they make love, amid tiger skins and exotic flowers. She leaves, and Paul becomes ill, returning to England. He later learns that she has had his son. Eventually the Lady is killed by her jealous husband, who is then in turn killed by a servant. The story concludes with Paul traveling to see his young son crowned king.
Filmed several times in the silent film era, the version of Three Weeks screened at this festival — Három hét (1917) — was especially unusual because it was filmed in Hungary. Directed in 1917 by Márton Garas, and starring Sári Fedák and Dezsö Kertész, the story follows the novel closely except for moving the queen’s kingdom back to Serbia, or a country very much like Serbia. The other change from the novel is an overly long (and completely needless) segment that accounts for the queen before she leaves for Switzerland. Three Weeks is an out-and-out essay in Orientalism, which is to say the film describes erotic passion, placed in a distant setting, making it somehow less threatening to censorious minds. It is interesting to get a Hungarian ‘take’ on exactly where the Orient starts. (Apparently, to a Hungarian, the Orient begins somewhere around the Balkans.) To the rest of us, who consider the Orient as starting somewhere between Vienna and Budapest, this film is a rare instance of the Orient trying to film ‘the Orient.’ This version of Three Weeks is a curious, mostly successful hybrid between the Orient of the Western imagination and the real Orient of authentic landscapes and locals.
The concept of Orientalism isn’t really a component of the stories involving the Trojan War, but the epic does involve romance and a war between the West (Greece) and Asia Minor. A love affair between Paris and Helen may have started all the fuss, but La Caduta di Troia [The Fall of Troy] (1910) focuses on the famous Trojan horse episode that ended the ten-year war between the Greeks and Trojans. This 33-minute film (an epic length for its day) was one of my favorite films at this year’s festival, an artistic triumph in all regards: atmosphere, staging, dramatic lighting, and the beautiful tinting of the scenes. The Fall of Troy is in many ways superior to the more widely known, and much longer Cabiria (1914), made four years later.
A Rocky Premiere
||Gloria Swanson and Rudolph Valentino in
Beyond the Rocks (1922).
Photograph: courtesy Milestone Film and Video.
Finding a lost silent movie is always a newsworthy event, but when a movie stars silent film icons Rudolph Valentino and Gloria Swanson, this is headline material. Adapted from another (guess who?) novel by Elinor Glyn, Beyond the Rocks (1922), long thought lost, was found in the collections of a recently deceased Dutch film collector. After three years of restoration efforts by the Netherlands Filmmuseum, and with an original musical score and soundtrack by composer Henny Vrienten, the film is at last ready to be seen. The story concerns poor but beautiful Theodara (Swanson); she is forced to marry wealthy Josiah Brown (Robert Bolder) to help her impoverished family, but really loves Lord Bracondale (Valentino). When her husband, realizes his wife loves another, he departs on a dangerous trip to North Africa where he is quickly killed by bandits. With his death, Theodara and Bracondale can be united.
Beyond the Rocks veers rapidly in tone from comedy to drama. I think it’s clear this film was an attempt by the filmmakers at a burlesque of a romance melodrama — when Valentino must rescue Swanson a second time while we’re only in the first reel, it’s done mostly for laughs. Even more over-the-top is the death of her husband, who races out of his tent at the first sign of battle and is dispatched with the speed of a slapstick farce. But elsewhere in the film, we sense a real attempt to display a romance between the characters played by Swanson and Valentino (very good in a ‘straight’ role). This kind of switch of tone requires expert handling by the accompanist. Unfortunately, Vrienten, who wrote the score for this film currently available on DVD, seems to have a deaf ear for these subtleties. Worse, he feels impelled to throw in incidental sound effects: doors closing, newspapers rattling, dogs barking. A word to future silent film composers — if you feel the need to put dog barks in your silent film soundtrack, find the right bark for the right dog. Don’t make a Great Dane bark like a Chihuahua. Better still; don’t try to upstage the film. What’s on the screen is the main event, not you. The soundtrack on the current release version of Beyond the Rocks is a definite problem, but with the right accompaniment, this movie will be a welcome addition to the small list of surviving films of Valentino and Swanson.
Special Shows and Restorations
This year the festival paid a unique tribute to a silent film star of the ’20s. The reason the tribute will be unique is because the silent film star Baby Peggy (the adult Diana Serra Cary) was not only able to attend but also contributed notes for each film! The Baby Peggy comedies were produced by Century Film Corporation. This studio specialized in ‘animal act’ comedies, but when Baby Peggy became popular, a unit was created just to make movies with her as the star. The festival screened a number of shorts that have been restored over the years, including Third Class Male (1921), The Clean Up (1921) and Baby’s Dream (1922). As a child actor, Baby Peggy’s talents were better displayed in her later feature films, but it was fun to see how she got her start with these comedy shorts. Baby Peggy was often teamed with a dog star named Brownie, who performed admirably as a straight man (straight dog?) with Baby Peggy. Brownie maintains a calm, canine unflappability no matter what indignities he suffers. Each year I give out my ‘Rin Tin Tin Award’ to the animal actor with the most notable performance, and this year’s award goes to Brownie, an unheralded and largely forgotten dog star of the ‘20s. In watching this dog-and-child comedy duo, one has the feeling of watching a kid’s version of the future team (six years later) of Laurel and Hardy.
Manhattan Madness (1916) is a reversal of the city-slicker-out-West story, Douglas Fairbanks plays a cowboy who travels to New York to visit old friends. Faster than you can say, “Coogan’s Bluff,” Fairbanks must use his cowboy skills to get out of trouble. Although I’m a big fan of Douglas Fairbanks’ ‘coat-and-tie comedies’ (films made before his swashbuckling phase), this film seems uncertain in its direction, switching from action to mystery and back to action. The last half of the film, mostly taking place in a creepy house with hidden passageways and locked doors, is fun enough in itself, but it doesn’t allow Fairbanks room to play with the film’s ‘fish out of water’ central idea of putting a Western man in a city setting.
One of the strangest but most compelling films at this year’s festival was Au bonheur des dames (1930) Denise (Dita Parlo), an orphaned girl, moves to Paris with the hope she can work for her uncle, who runs a small drapery shop. But her uncle’s shop is dominated by the glamorous department store across the street named “Au Bonheur des dames” (which translates to “Ladies’ Happiness” or “Ladies’ Paradise”). Risking her uncle’s anger, she takes a job in this ‘Ladies Paradise,’ where she meets the owner Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand). Octave is on the make, but quickly realizes Denise is sincere, and not to be trifled with. A You’ve Got Mail romance ensues, with the two lovers negotiating the complicated path between their interest in each other and their personal values of tradition vs. modernity. But if you this is going to be a David and Goliath story where good guys and the bad guys are easy to spot, think again. Denise is captivated, (as we are), by the sheer beauty of the Bonheur des Dames. This Goliath is not an ugly, dehumanizing Z-Mart, rather it is an irresistible, ultrafashionable, consumer’s delight. It’s not too long before we too are seduced by Bonheur des dames, and start to hope for the small fabric shop to be quickly put out of its misery and torn down. The ambivalence of who to root for is part of the charm of the movie, but also confusing, a confusion that worsens as the film struggles at the end to make some kind of conclusion.
Although the film is anything but a naturalist interpretation, it has a distinguished pedigree, especially for this festival. The story is taken from an Emile Zola novel, and directed by Julien Duvivier, an early disciple of Antoine. Duvivier would go on to have a brilliant career in the ‘30s and ‘40s making such classics as Pépé Le Moko. For all of its supreme gloss, Au Bonheur des dames is basically a French version of the ‘marry the store owner’s son’ fantasies popular in the ‘20s, such as My Best Girl (1927) and It (1927). Yet it wasn’t all fantasy; Zola’s novel was based on the life of Aristide Boucicaut, who founded the department store Le Bon Marché, which remains today a focal point of Parisian culture. The film that feels most like a fairy tale in this year’s program is the one actually based on true events.
||Dita Parlo in Au bonheur des dames (1930).
Sixty Years in the Making —
the Longest Film Production Ever
In the summer of 1920, André Antoine had an inspiration; instead of making a movie from a literary source, why not film a story organically, almost as it happened? He later explained: “I had the idea of making a film on the life of the canal boatmen of Flanders . . . We left Antwerp with a barge and reached L’Escaut . . . Since we filmed everything in movement, the photography had a splendid relief. The story was rough, a very simple drama; just man who, one night, sinks into the mud, and the next day the barge continues on its way, peacefully, in the light and the silence. It was very beautiful.”
For this ‘barge-life’ movie (a European subgenre of realist melodramas, set in rivers or canals), Antoine mixed professionals with actors taken from real life. Much of the footage is the simple recording of the day-to-day activities of life on a river. The shooting was stopped near the end of production by horrified producers, who were unhappy with the documentary-like footage. There was some kind of rough-cut screening of the material for a Paris cinema club in 1924, then the film disappeared. In 1982, six hours of film was brought to the attention of the Cinématèque Française. Realizing its value, the archive entrusted the material to editor Henri Colpi, who (using all notes and information available as a reference), cut the finished film down to 78 minutes.
The story follows a family living on two barges, the Hirondelle and Mésange, (translated, the names mean “the Swallow and Titmouse” — joined together they function as one large boat). The captain and husband, Van Groot (Louis Ravet) takes on a new pilot Michel (Pierre Alcover). At first the new man seems to be getting along well, perhaps good husband material for the wife’s sister Marthe (Maguey Delyac), but later Van Groot sees Michel make sexual advances to his wife Griet (Maylianes). The animosity deepens when Michel sees that Van Groot is a smuggler, and tries to get a piece of the action. Van Groot catches Michel trying to steal from him, and his punishment is along the lines of the ‘code of the river.’ Simple. Absolute. Almost mundane. The river keeps flowing, life moves on.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Antoine would have done if he’d had the chance to edit the same material, but in any case the results are dazzling. A blend of documentary and story, L’hirondelle et la mésange (1920), is by far Antoine’s best film, a pleasure to watch from start to finish. Ironically, since it was never released until the 1980s, its influence in film history will always be in the vein of ‘what could have been.’ If the film had been a success, perhaps Antoine would have been encouraged to make more films in this style. But the reality is that Antoine was trying something too radical for its time.
However unseen, L’hirondelle et la mésange anticipates a film made fourteen years later by a someone who had absorbed all the lessons silent film could teach him. Pouring all his emotion, energy, and conviction into his last project; this filmmaker would die of tuberculosis at the tragic young age of 29. The result of his efforts was a film that effortlessly combined and transcended all styles. Realism, Surrealism, Impressionism — all were seamlessly used to fit his artistic vision. The result would be one of the great films of all time: a story told with wisdom and love about a newlywed couple, living on the river, trying to make sense of their new life. The name of the film would also be the name of the barge the couple were living in as they traveled down the river. The film is Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante.
The festival took place in October 2005 in Sacile, Italy.