An archive of articles on the silent era of world cinema.
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Merry Widows and Silent Sleuths
The 28th Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film
|Article Copyright © 2010 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
It was hot blood followed by cool resolve, as emotions ran high, low and all points in-between in this year’s silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy. Tragic romances filled with lovers in the throes of their passion were followed by stories in which laconic detectives carefully and cautiously followed a trail of clues. The difference of tone from one film to the next was sometimes so extreme as to cause a little psychic whiplash, but no matter . . . a few minutes of sitting outside enjoying a gelato under an Italian sun and blue Pordenone skies, would restore even the most fragile member of the audience and allow them to plunge back into the theater for the next round of films.
This year’s festival included a salute to Albatros, a French production company that employed and featured many Russian expatriates, who had left their country after the Russian revolution and subsequent civil war. Another program for this year was titled: “Sherlock and Beyond,” a series of films that displayed the wide range of silent film detectives. Then there were the special productions, such as a full-orchestra mounting of Erich von Stroheim’s The Merry Widow. And new to this year’s festival was a feature called “The Canon Revisited.” Its purpose was to showcase films that because of their familiarity would not normally be screened at Pordenone, a festival that prides itself on the unusual and the obscure.
Photograph: Lokke Heiss.
Before I talk about the films — first, an update on the new Verdi Theater — after its bumpy festival inauguration two years ago, adjustments have been made. The screen has been brought closer to the audience, which is a huge improvement in the viewing experience. To compensate for the projector portal designed so low as to project the beam onto the back of the heads of the audience, canvas covers now block these seats from use, so only a few times did an audience member find themselves generating an unwelcome shadow puppet on the screen. The most serious design flaw of the theater — the placement of uneven, sometimes unlighted steps in aisles — was more of a challenge. The festival met this problem by posting a beehive of ushers — armed with small flashlights — to guide patrons to a safe haven. The week seemed to pass without major mishap, and there were no trips to the hospital by fallen comrades who missed a step.
Is this new theater going to replace our memories of the cavernous and comfortable, wooden-seated-but-great-sight-lines original Verdi? It’s hard to believe, but it’s already been more than five years ago since the old Verdi was torn down, and memories of this venerable building are already fading, even for us festival old-timers. Is the new theater the best possible place to watch a film? Maybe not — but the organizers have done a heroic job trying to maximize its potential. As the new Verdi looks to be the long-term home for the festival, as the saying goes, it’s time to get used to it. Nothing stays the same, even festivals dedicated to preserving the heritage of silent films.
Von Stroheim in Furs
One of the negative consequences of Erich von Stroheim’s tempestuous Hollywood career — in particular, his feud with Irving Thalberg over the length of Greed, is that attention is drawn away from his other important, groundbreaking films. One of these ‘forgotten’ films is The Merry Widow. Made in 1925, the film is a loose adaptation of the perennially popular Franz Lehár operetta. In von Stroheim’s version, the story takes place in a mythical Balkan state of Monteblanco, where an American actress Sally O’Hara (Mae Murray) encounters Crown prince Mirko (Roy D’Arcy), and his cousin, prince Danilo (John Gilbert). Attracted by her beauty, Danilo at first regards Sally as just another potential conquest, but on discovering that her affection for him is real, soon falls in love with her. The couple plan a quick wedding, but the king forbids the marriage. Danilo is forced to comply, and when he doesn’t show up at the wedding, he leaves Sally to contemplate a bride’s worst nightmare — being jilted at the altar.
Angry and humiliated at what she concludes to be Danilo’s betrayal, Sally vows to get even, and she impulsively marries the elderly Baron Sadoja, a crippled, but rich man who controls the country’s finances. Sadoja, overwhelmed by his good luck, dies on his wedding night, leaving his vast fortune to Sally. Although she and Danilo are still in love with each other, fate and misunderstandings keep them apart, and after she accepts an offer of marriage from Mirko (who is interested in her dowry), Danilo challenges his cousin to a duel. It takes a few more plot twists, including an assassin’s bullet, before the merry widow finds herself back in the arms of her true love.
Fans of the Franz Lehár operetta could be excused for being confused with the storyline of this film, which functions more like a prologue to the famous story, rather than an attempt to adapt the popular operetta to film. But worrying about the storyline in The Merry Widow is missing the point. For von Stroheim, a plot was merely a platform on which one could explore the inner life of the characters — in particular, he was fascinated by the idea that couples often formed a dominant/submissive pair in which one partner used their dominant position to inflict pain and suffering on the other. Even more interesting to von Stroheim was how fate could bring a reversal of fortune in which the submissive partners could find themselves suddenly in the position of power, and therefore dominance. Von Stroheim’s compulsion to put his characters (and often in a more direct way, his actors) through torment and distress was noted by knowledgeable contemporaries. An insightful comment was made by Don Ryan, an actor who played Mirko’s adjuvant: “Stroheim’s penchant is Freud, with trimmings by Havelock Ellis and sauce by Krafft-Ebing.” Proceeding Freud, and arguably the first popularizer of psychiatric conditions, Krafft-Ebing coined the expression ‘masochism’ from the writings of Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, whose most famous book, Venus in Furs, detailed the affairs of a man who alternately dominates and is submissive to his mistress, insisting at times that she wear furs and nothing else. There’s no record of von Stroheim ever trying to bring this particular story to the screen, but in 1935, he wrote a short story, “The Alienist,” about a Viennese psychoanalyst Dr. Volk, famous for his work in sadomasochism. In the story, both Freud and Krafft-Ebing are mentioned as colleagues of Volk, so von Stroheim’s knowledge and interest of these areas of study is clear.
It’s impossible to know how deliberate was his intent, but all of his surviving films have Sacher-Masoch’s sensibility, a dark and often fatalistic view that relationships can become a struggle for power and dominance. A key point in Masoch’s writing was to suggest that by ‘play-acting’ these roles, one could obtain a sense of control of the intense emotions generated by these struggles. As von Stroheim was quick to understand, extending this logic to movie-making has an irresistible appeal — we as an audience can enjoy the thrill of watching the pain and suffering of ‘play acting’ of characters at a safe distance, knowing no one was really hurt. The problem for von Stroheim was his inability to leave these struggles to his fictional characters. His fights with studio personnel became legendary, and would eventually escalate to where he became unemployable as a director. The Merry Widow was von Stroheim’s most financially successful film, and plays well to modern audiences. In fact I’d argue that while it’s one of his more obscure productions, The Merry Widow is also one of his most successful films.
The World of Silent Sleuths
The world loves detective stories. Short stories, novels, films, television — in all media, these stories are favorites for fans of all ages and backgrounds. John Truby, screenwriting teacher, and a Hollywood script consultant for more than three decades, considers the detective story to be one of the most dominant genres of the last hundred years. Truby believes the genre is so popular because the detective is our contemporary society’s version of a knight in a quest for truth. This detective — professional or amateur — often has special gifts that allow him to operate in two worlds, the surface world, and the underworld, where dark secrets are kept. As the story progresses, the detective will move between one world and the other, in a process of discovery, until at the end, the two worlds are brought together — secrets are revealed, the truth is told.
While stories with mysteries and puzzles are as old as the Arabian Night tales of the Scheherazade, the idea of a professional sleuth — a consulting detective — began to take form in the writings of Edgar Allan Poe and Wilkie Collins. But it was Arthur Conan Doyle who put the definitive stamp on the detective story. With Sherlock Holmes’ first appearance in A Study in Scarlet, in 1887, and then with the huge success of his short stories featuring Holmes, starting with The Strand Magazine’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” in 1891, Doyle was on his way to creating possibly the world’s most popular fictional character. Before long, hundreds of imitators would follow Holmes’ footsteps.
In the very earliest days of films, detective stories were often avoided. Perhaps filmmakers were afraid that these sensationalist, unsavory stories would not help the already shaky status of this new art form as family entertainment. But by 1907 these taboos had largely been forgotten, and movie houses began to be filled with stories related to crime and detection. This year’s festival attempted to give us a sample of the enormous range of one of the most popular genres of the silent era.
The festival program started with the 1909 comedy Bobby the Boy Scout; or, The Boy Detective. When a Boy Scout discovers a robbery in progress, he trails the gang of jewel thieves to their lair. He’s caught, but ingeniously escapes, and leads a bumbling patrol of police to the robbers’ lair. Well made, and packing in a lot of action for its eight-minute length, the film shows how by 1908, many of the conventions of the genre (such as the resourcefulness of the sleuth, and the general incompetence of the police) were already in place.
Germany was one of the countries most affected by the Sherlock Holmes craze of the early twentieth century. Even in the middle of World War I, the public was still eager to watch stories about their favorite British hero. So it was no surprise that the first adaptation of one of Doyle’s most popular stories, The Hound of the Baskervilles was filmed there. Recently restored by the Filmmuseum in Munich, Der Hund Von Baskerville (1914) was directed by Rudolf Meinert, with a screenplay by Richard Oswald, adapted from a play by Richard Oswald and Julius Philipp. Almost from the first, this film starts off with differences from Doyle’s novel. For example, the story is set in Scotland, not southwestern England. These differences are minor, but when the plot introduces secret pipelines, hidden communication devices, and then there is an attempt to blow up the manor with a bomb, one realizes there is very little of the original book left in the film. The eponymous Hound of the Baskervilles does finally make an appearance, played by a tail-wagging Great Dane who considers every person he meets to be his new best friend. The only way this dog would hurt you is if he knocked you down in his effort to lick your face. While this film has an historical interest, and a plot that borrows more from French serials than anything Doyle ever wrote, the total effect is more irritating than pleasurable.
Movie serials — episodic films shown in theaters often as short subjects before the feature film — are an important part of movie history, but are especially challenging to program for festivals. Even trying to show a relatively short 15-part serial would block out a large part of the festival, and these films were not designed to be watched back-to-back, but rather singly, over a period of weeks. The usual response to this problem is to show representative episodes, and this week the festival screened episodes from several serials, including The Mystery of Dr. Fu-Manchu and The Old Man in the Corner.
Capitalizing on the Western world’s growing awareness and concern over China after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, Sax Rohmer wrote a series of sensationalist stories featuring the master villain Fu Manchu, “invested in all the cruel cunning of an entire Eastern race.” Fighting against this villain were Holmes and Watson look-alikes, explorer Nayland Smith, and Dr. Petrie. In Episode 10, “The Fiery Hand” (1923), Smith and Petrie are called to investigate a haunted house, where ghosts and strange tinkling noises have been reported from locations in the house were no human could be present. Smith determines that the noises are caused by someone tying bells to the tails of mice, and that there has been a deliberate attempt to keep people from the house. While learning that the house is being used for a smuggling operation, Smith is captured and put into a trap where he is about to be eaten by ravenous rats. After a narrow escape, Smith and Petrie are on to their next adventure.
To really enjoy a serial like this, one must try to think like a ten-year old, and not question why “the greatest evil genius in centuries” would bother with tying bells to the tails of mice. Children and teenagers were the target audience for these films and for this age group, haunted houses and hungry rats are scarier than more abstract fears of world domination. To this end, The Mystery of Fu Manchu must have been a world of delight for young people in 1923, the year of this serial.
As the mystery and detective genre evolved, one of the more successful approaches came to be called the ‘armchair detective,’ a detective so smart he can solve a mystery without leaving his chair (Conan Doyle’s example of this kind of sleuth was Mycroft, Sherlock’s brother). A good example of this type of story can be found in The Old Man in the Corner serials. Taken from the stories by Baroness Emmuska Orczy (who would later achieve fame for her Scarlet Pimpernel stories), the stories featured a cantankerous old man who had such a fine analytical mind he could solve the mystery often by just listening to the facts of the case. A representative sample from this series was Episode 1, “The Kensington Mystery” (1924), directed by Hugh Croise. In this episode, newspaperwoman Miss Hatley comes to the old man for advice about a murder case, and the mystery is presented in flashback. The short format is ideal for this kind of simple story, and I found the episode charming — the concept felt like an early, silent version of a Murder She Wrote episode.
While female sleuths have been popular in fiction from the 1870s onward, the majority of them have been of the amateur variety, such as Miss Marple and Nancy Drew. Until the 1970s, professional women detectives were uncommon, and while there were notable exceptions, such as Catherine Louisa Pirkis' Loveday Brooke, or Nero Wolfe’s Dol Bonner, featured in the novel Hand in the Glove (1937), only a few of these women detectives found their way to the screen, and often those that did, such as The Detectress (1919), were comedies. One exception to this trend is a film more interesting for its premise than its execution, The Amazing Partnership (directed by George Ridgwell, Great Britain, 1921). Taken from an E. Phillips Oppenheim story, Grace Burton (Gladys Mason), is by day is a typist for hire. But when not posing as a typist, she is a ‘private enquiry agent,’ helping such agencies such as Scotland Yard. Employed to recover precious jewels, she enlists the aide of a playboy-turned-journalist Stephen Pryde (Milton Rosmer), and together they are able to recover stolen jewels, hidden in a Chinese idol. While many films from the ’20s reflect a progressive attitude that women can achieve success in jobs that were traditionally the domain of men, this film feels almost reactionary. Instead of busying herself with efforts to solve the crime, Grace spends much of the film worrying about not being able to do her job because of her inability to control her emotions — a concern hard for the audience to appreciate since the impassive Gladys Mason plays the detective with about the same emotional register as the ceramic Chinese idol holding the jewels. We’d like to tell Agent Grace not to worry about her excessive emotionality, and to either solve the crime, or find a better actress to play her character.
Maurice Elvey is the most prolific British director in history, responsible for almost 200 films — more than 150 of them in the silent era. I am not an Elvey fan, finding many of his films to be slow moving and unfocused. But to be fair, Elvey was responsible for some excellent films, such as his Hindle Wakes (1927). I think he was a director who tended to be as good or as bad as the material he worked with, but also it was important for him to have an interest and feel for the story. Telling a Sherlock Holmes story on the screen is a careful balancing act. For example, you must have a Watson who is a foil to Holmes but not a buffoon. You must capture the tone of the story — usually serious, but also lighthearted and witty when appropriate. And you must have a charismatic actor to play the lead role. Elvey directed a series of successful short films, most of them starring Eille Norwood as Holmes and Hubert Willis as Dr. Watson. These films were made by Stoll Picture Productions, which released a series of 15 short films a year for three years (1921-1923). For example, Elvey’s A Scandal in Bohemia (1921), features a ‘spot-on’ mix of wit, mystery and humor. Eille Norwood was one of the most popular Sherlock Holmes ever, even winning approval from Conan Doyle himself: “His impersonation of Holmes amazes me.” Stoll Pictures followed these total of 45 shorts with The Sign of Four (1923). Directed by Elvey, The Sign of the Four is a well-mounted feature film, with an exciting chase scene involving London’s bridges on the Thames. I am glad to find that when the right material came along, Maurice Elvey could respond to the challenge.
On the last day of the program, the festival screened a short ‘talkie,’ Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1929), an interview with author Conan Doyle. Filmed shortly before his death, Doyle, clipping along with his Scottish bur of an accent, talks briefly about his famous detective, then goes on to what he thinks is a much more important topic, what happens after we die. Conan Doyle was often criticized for his support of psychics and paranormal research — an interest that seems contradictory to the tenets of objectivity held by his famous fictional creation. But it’s important to remember Doyle was a man of his time, and the carnage and devastation of WWI provoked a world-wide interest in psychic phenomenon as grieving families struggled in their effort to say goodbye to their loved ones. With this in mind, his interest in paranormal research was completely understandable.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of a program featuring film sleuths. These stories can have complex, confusing plots, and I’ve always thought that this genre could be better serviced by synchronized sound films, in which exposition and clues can be mixed into the dialogue. Could silent films hold up as well with this particular kind of story? What I found was that if silent films didn’t have the advantage of being able to sneak exposition into the dialogue, the filmmakers found visual ways to make their plot points clear. The mood and character elements of the story often more than made up for any difficulty in delivering necessary information. What was more of the problem of these films is not the talking/silent issue, but rather their length. Overall, I found these films far more successful when they were shorter. There seems to be a limited time span for many people on how long they can stay involved in a mystery story — most of us (like me) can hang in there for somewhere around an hour. This point has not been lost to the last few generations of filmmakers. Hitchcock would famously start a film as a mystery, and then convert it into suspense after the first act. The feature film that is a pure detective story is almost a dead art; most contemporary filmmakers follow Hitchcock’s lead and combine mystery with action or suspense. The genre has not lost interest with the public, it’s just migrated from the theater to television. There, the mystery, in its current CSI-type format, reigns supreme as episodic television, clocking in at a just-right sixty minutes.
‘The Canon’ Revisited
For 28 years, the Pordenone Silent Film festival has had two basic guidelines: 1) Except for special events (such as honoring a guest, or a musical event) the festival has made a point never to repeat a film. 2) And again with the exception of special events, there have been no screenings of silent films that were easily seen or available. Instead, the festival has been used as an opportunity to show films that were largely unknown or unseen. In this effort the festival has screened more than 6000 films over its illustrious history. For many years, these guidelines made great sense. This festival has always been about rediscovery of films neglected by oversight or chance, and in 1982, this meant almost every silent film ever made. Why use valuable screen time to show a film that most of the audience had seen?
But we live in a different world than 1982, the first year of the festival. For example, in the early ’80s, the ability to watch a movie on a VHS (or Betamax) tape was just starting to become an option for the public. Kevin Brownlow had just helped restore Abel Gance’s Napoleon — with the primary intent to show it in movie theaters, not the home market. And unless you made a pilgrimage to an archive, the number of silent films available for viewing was vanishingly small. Eighty or so films — the ‘canon’ — were trotted out by museums or institutions like zoo specimens for show-and-tell — all the rest were left in the vaults, available only to academics and enthusiasts.
But that was a generation ago, and with the Internet and DVDs, the distribution and availability of silent films has changed so drastically that these original festival guidelines, useful in their time, have become outdated. Even the notion that most of the attendees are familiar with the films in the ‘canon’ just can’t be supported. I remember taking a straw poll when the festival screened a special musical event of It, starring Clara Bow — most of the audience I was sitting with had never seen the film. And the rule not to repeat a film has also seen its day. As Paolo Cherchi Usai points out in the program notes, when The Wind was screened in 1986, as part of a Scandinavian program, many present day attendees hadn’t even been born.
So the festival has decided — as part of a continuing series — to show films not considered lost or ignored. I for one am thrilled at this decision, and have been campaigning for years to change this policy — although in many ways the title of this series: ‘The Canon Revisited’ brings up a new problem. Because silent films are so dependent on the presentation of music and setting, they in many ways are closer to the art forms of opera or theater than films with synchronized sound. Yes, films like Lawrence of Arabia are affected by conditions such as screen size and projector brightness, but that difference is minimal compared to watching a silent film accompanied by an experimental jazz band vs. a full orchestra playing a traditional score — the change of music will completely alter the experience. The variety of ways the film can be musically accompanied will always make the experience new and different. So, can the ‘canon’ ever really be revisited?
One of the first films to be screened under the aegis of this program was a Boris Barnet-directed Russian film, Dom na Trubnoi [The House on Trubnaya Square] (1928), a film that tells the story about a young peasant woman coming to the city with only a duck in her arms. In the many variations of this common Russian folk tale, the woman is usually taken advantage of, and must in the end return to the village, begging to be taken back. But this version is a comedy — a Soviet comedy at that, and the young woman, Parasha (Vera Maretskaia) is instructed that she can be anything she wants to be, even elected to the Moscow Soviet. If you think of Russian films from this period as being pounding, relentless exercises in montage theory, this film is a revelation — the characters are people rather than types, and what’s more interesting, House on Trubnaya Square uses with great success an alternate style of editing rarely seen in Western cinema — in a Tristram Shandy fashion, Barnet stops the action at key points, so that he can digress to other parts of the story. So, my confusion is not about the film — it’s great — but why is this film in the program of The Canon Revisited? If one needs an excuse to show a great film, then I’m happy to think of this as a ‘should be canon film.’ For many of the audience, this performance was not a revisitation, but a completely new discovery.
The program headed for more familiar ground with Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Master of the House (1925). In some ways this film addresses familiar themes for Dreyer — the misuse of power, bigotry, and status and roles of women in society, but while his other films work with a larger canvas, Master of the House is a domestic comedy about a husband who must be kicked out of his home before he realizes the value of his wife. It’s an important film for an overall understanding of Dreyer’s work, especially when you consider the many serious films he made — it’s clear that Dreyer could approach a topic with a lighter hand if needed.
Next, the festival screened a film that was unarguably in the ‘canon,’ Paul Wegener’s The Golem (1920). A personal favorite of mine since being mesmerized by the eerie photographs of Paul Wegener in Forrest J. Ackerman’s magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland, I welcomed the chance to watch the film under ideal conditions. But as if to prove my point about the difficulty of revisiting a silent film, the score to this production attempted a modern, dissonant approach to much of the music. Composers often see horror films as a chance to flex their creative muscles, but I would argue for the opposite — that with films of this type, a traditional score is even more important. Modern, atonal music can only distance an audience. That idea might be great for a Brechtian drama, but not for a horror film, which is most effective when the viewer is ‘sutured’ into what happens on the screen. Betty Olivero composed an original score for this special presentation of The Golem, and there were moments in the film where the musicians used authentic Yiddish folk music, and in those moments, one began to have an emotional connection to the images on the screen. But for the rest of the film, the music called attention to itself, and gave no help in smoothing over this film’s rough edges, such as its episodic, sometimes meandering plot.
More successful was the screening of Mauritz Stiller’s Gunnar Hede’s Saga [The Blizzard/The Judgment] (1923). Adapted from a Selma Lagerlöf novella, the film recounts the trials of Gunnar (Einar Hanson) who is forced to renounce a career in music, so that he can take over the family business after the premature death of his father. With his artistic and delicate sensibility, Gunnar is not well suited for this task, but he bows to family pressure and in trying to save his family fortune, he leads a vast herd of reindeer over the frozen tundra. But when his men are trying to bring the reindeer over a frozen lake, the deer start to run, and Gunnar’s hand is caught in the rope around the neck of a reindeer, which then bolts from the rest of the herd. Like a human sled, he is pulled ice, rocks, and snow. The rope finally breaks, but not before Gunner is left with numerous injuries, including head wounds, and is traumatized to the point of being mentally imbalanced. The family is about to give up hope until music provides a means for him to regain his sanity.
There is no perfect film (okay, Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise is pretty close), and the problem with Gunnar Hede’s Saga is that the reindeer stampede is so spectacular that this sequence tends to overshadow the rest of the more routine melodramatic plot. But in contrast to the screening of The Golem, this film was given a sympathetic accompaniment by pianist John Sweeney and violinist Günther Buchwald. Instead of intruding on the story, the music helps with the tempo of slower-paced scenes earlier in the film, and then provides a thematic continuity after Gunnar’s injury, when he is trying to find his way back to sanity. This is a great film made even better by musicians who helped the film rather than fought against it.
However one defines the ‘canon,’ the next film on the program, Abel Gance’s J’accuse (1919) is squarely in it, one of the most important silent films ever made in France. The romantic triangle of the story is simple: two men, brutish François and gentle Jean, are both in love with the same woman, Edith, and all three of their lives change forever in the chaos of WWI. But with Abel Gance as the director, this description is like saying Moby Dick is a story about a guy after a whale.
The real themes beyond this romance include: 1) How ordinary men and women cope in the extraordinary circumstances of war; 2) A examination of the wide range of emotions — from exhilaration to horror — felt as the war progresses; 3) An account of the deep friendships forged among these ‘band of brothers,’ as they try to survive; and 4) An attempt to give the viewer a sense of the betrayal felt by these soldiers on their return to their villagers, only to find profiteers who have made fortunes at no risk to themselves. The words, “J’accuse,” originally used famously by Zola in the Dreyfus affair, are the words spoken in this story by the ghosts of dead soldiers, who rise from their graves. Their purpose is to chide the townspeople about the uselessness of their deaths, and to plead for the fate of all soldiers — they are willing to die for their country, but only if there is a purpose — a clear reason. Gance uses the famous words, “I accuse,” as both a local, and a global statement — about WWI and about every war ever fought.
The festival screened a newly restored version of J’accuse that ran 192 minutes (three hours and change), and while the epic nature of the story expands to fill most of this time, its extreme length doesn’t necessarily make it a better film. J’accuse would play a half an hour shorter with a faster projector speed. Does this quicker version short-change the emotional payoff in scenes between the main characters? The question was debated after the evening performance, and after many beers and much bouncing between the ‘16 frames-per-second crowd’ and the ‘18 frames-per-second crowd,’ I was more confused than ever. I have never been interested in the argument over proper film speed for silent films — my take is that the argument is so fierce because the stakes are so small. But when we are talking about long films like J’accuse, I have to admit the ‘frames-per-second’ debaters have a real point. My conclusion is that there are definitely situations where the speed can make a real difference in how a film is perceived by an audience. The size of the venue, the size and sophistication of the audience, the quality of musical accompaniment, and yes, one more, the wide range of possible projector speeds for the same film. One more reason you can never really revisit the ‘canon.’
Mario Camerini’s Rotaie [The Tracks, Rails] (1929) is a film in the program that I can only throw up my hands and say: Listed as canon? Really? Since this late-silent film has been much discussed, and almost never seen (a synchronized soundtrack version was released in 1930, but no records exist of its release as a complete silent), perhaps this film has been given ‘honorary’ canon status. In any case, director Mario Camerini’s long career started with the transition between silent and sound films, and for the next five decades his films would reflect the progression of artistic styles and politics in his country. In particular, in the late ’30s, Camerini would direct a series of ‘white telephone’ movies (escapist films featuring a world where Italians were wealthy enough to own white telephones). This era of Italian filmmaking has seen much rethinking in the last decade, and the idea that the directors in this era were making ‘boiler-plate’ fascist films is coming under fire. In particular, Camerini, though one of the most successful directors of the time, was hardly mainstream in relation to approved fascist aesthetics. Notably, his films often focused on working-class characters and their sense of alienation from the urban modernization projects of the regime. Filmmaker, director, and critic Carlo Lizzani has described Camerini as “the great confessor of the Italian lower middle classes,” and some critics see in this aspect of his work an antecedent to neorealism. With this historical background, Rotaie has long been regarded as the ultimate ‘bridge film,’ a film made just when film studios were converting to sound, and made by a director whose artistic interests combined European avant-garde and realism. In addition, Rotaie is also a political ‘bridge film,’ since it was made in a time where Italian films were beginning their slide into a profascist political stance.
That’s a lot of baggage for a film to carry into a screening, and for the first ten minutes, Rotaie delivers. In fact in terms of pulling the audience into the story, the first ten minutes of this film are as good as any film I’ve seen (as good as Billy Wilder’s opening scene in Five Graves to Cairo). The action starts in medias res, with a man and woman checking into a hotel. Our first thoughts that we are observing an illicit romance darken to something more mysterious as the troubled couple, named as ‘The Boy’ (Maurizio D’Ancora) and ‘The Girl’ (Käthe von Nagy) linger by the window in the seedy hotel room. Soon it becomes clear the couple has come to complete a suicide pact. Why? What has led them to this? Will they carry it out?
It would be asking a lot for a film to stay with this high level of drama, and in fact, the story doesn’t even try — abandoning the double-suicide idea, the couple flee to Monte Carlo, where ‘The Boy’ becomes caught up trying to win money in the casino. The last half of the film becomes more of a traditional romance in which the young man has to decide between a life of gambling and dissolution, or the more traditional (if mundane) pleasures of marriage and a job. While this part of the film was competent enough, my enjoyment of Rotaie was in appreciating its visual style. By the late ’20s, silent film had reached an apogee in terms of its sophistication of the understanding and use of visual images to tell a story. Camerini was clearly aware of both classical Hollywood editing, and also the more avant-garde European styles, and this film is a seamless combination of these approaches. Camerini would go on to great success with talkies, and one of his lead actors, Vittorio De Sica, who would go on himself to direct films such as Bicycle Thieves and help create the neorealist movement.
Rediscoveries and Restorations
One of the most pleasant surprises of the festival was a joint German-British production, Der Fürst von Pappenheim [The Masked Mannequin (in American English, The Masked Model] (1927). This film is an example of a Konfektionskomödie (fashion comedy), a popular film genre in Germany in the Weimar era. As the story begins, Egon Duke (Curt Bois) finds himself in a dream job managing ten beautiful models in a swanky Berlin fashion house. His cozy arrangement starts to get a little more complicated when a runaway princess, hiding from a jealous suitor, puts on a mask and becomes part of the retinue. As in any good farce, Egon finds that trying to solve one problem creates ten more, until finally at the end of the largest fashion show of all, he must cross dress, and present himself as the ‘masked model’ to the admiring eyes of the crowd.
Fashion farces were popular in Weimar Germany, but never really caught on in the United States. (One odd, almost experimental effort was Fashions of 1934, starring William Powell, and of all people, Bette Davis). Instead, many of the ideas behind the fashion comedies — such as extravagant set design, and somewhere in the production a parade of stylish clothes — were absorbed into the musical genre tradition. Over the years, efforts to push the musical toward the fashion comedy direction have been made, with such notable successes as Stanley Donen’s Funny Face (1957) starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. The popularity of these fashion comedies in Germany was not to last. Since many of the clothing companies and outlet stores were owned by Jewish families, the industry was Aryanized when the Nazis came to power. For the next decade, the fashion industry was no longer a laughing matter, and this peculiar kind of film would disappear from German screens.
Another wonderful rediscovery is an animated cartoon, On Strike (Bud Fisher Films Corporation, 1920). Bud Fisher was the creator Mutt and Jeff, which enjoyed enormous popularity as a comic strip. These characters soon found their way to film, and the animation studio of Raoul Barré and Charles Bowers produced hundreds of animated half-reelers. On Strike is a wonderfully imaginative short, where Mutt and Jeff see how they are making their creator, Bud Fisher rich, and in protest, go on strike — then decide to make their own cartoon. Producing animated cartoons isn’t as easy it first looks, and “3000 cells later” their own film bombs, forcing them to go back and plead for their old jobs as grateful employees. A cartoon about animated characters deciding to make their own cartoons has a whip-smart, daffy charm that could only have come from one man: Charley Bowers. Artist, animator, comedian, a man of many talents, but without a breakthrough film to his name, Bowers spent his entire career lingering on the edges of the industry, and died in complete obscurity. Thank goodness a few of his films survived because they are as fresh and funny as the day they were made.
Another special event of the week was the screening of Jacques Feyder’s Carmen (1926). The perennially popular story has generated more than one hundred films — a truly obsessive theater programmer could stage a ‘Carmen-fest’ featuring only movies that are based on Carmen, and still take weeks to run through all the versions. But Feyder’s Carmen is different from these others, because his Carmen is not from Bizet’s opera, but from the original novella by Prosper Mérimée. His film picks up the story with a schoolboy age Don José (Louis Lerch), hanging out with his buddies. An argument leads José to kill one of his friends, and he runs away, his life forever changed because of one impulsive moment. He becomes a sergeant in the army, and fatefully crosses paths with the gypsy Carmen (Raquel Meller). When he allows her to escape after a fight in a cigar factory, events escalate until Don José must flee with Carmen and take up life as a smuggler. José meets Carmen’s bandit husband, Le Borgne (Gaston Modot) — eventually they fight, with José killing Le Borgne. Carmen tries to free herself from José’s obsessive love by becoming friends with Lucas, the picador (Guerrero de Xandoval), but that relationship also ends in disaster. In the end, they are left with only their intense love and hate for each other, which leads to the inevitable conclusion.
Bizet’s representation of Carmen is often played as the ultimate femme fatale — a woman so alluring that men are impelled, despite their better judgment, to risk everything to be with her. But Feyder has a different take on this famous couple — his premise is: “Don’t put the blame on Mame.” Instead, in Feyder’s version, much of what goes wrong is the fault of Don José, his impulsiveness a problem long before he meets her. With his temper and strength, he’s a bomb ready to explode — Carmen is just the match that sets him off.
The acting of all the principal parts, especially Meller and Lerch, is superb, and a high point for silent cinema. As David Robinson comments in the program notes, “Their scenes together provide models of silent screen acting. They converse, totally comprehensible to the viewer, with practically no need for intertitles: in fact Carmen has astonishingly few intertitles for a film of its length and narrative complexity.” The production design for this film is as spectacular as the acting. Feyder used real locations in Spain for much of the shooting — it gives the film a feeling of authenticity that adds greatly to its power. Bizet’s opera was a controversial attempt to pull opera away from ‘far-away’ settings featuring kings and queens, and deliver to the public a more contemporary story — this style would eventually be called ‘Verismo.’ Feyder extends this intent even further, to where he delivers a film that could have been adapted from an Emile Zola novel.
I have mixed feelings about the length of Carmen, almost three hours long. On one hand, it allows the story to unfold in almost a Russian novel fashion — one can enjoy Feyder’s masterly attention to details. On the other hand, some tightening — trimming and elimination of a few scenes — would greatly pick up the pace. In a perfect world there would be two Feyder Carmens — the short version to introduce an audience to one of our greatest silent film directors, and then the long version for those of us who want to enjoy every existing moment of Feyder’s unique vision.
The surprise hit of the festival for me was Serge Nadejdine’s L’heureuse mort [The Happy Death (but a better translation would be Dead and Happy)] (1924). Born in Moscow in 1880, Nadejdine was part of a large Russian immigration to France after the 1917 revolution and subsequent Russian civil war. Although his background was in classical ballet, Nadejdine found himself making movies at the Albatros Studio, working alongside his many Russian contemporaries. L’heurese mort tells the story of unsuccessful dramatist, Théodore Larue (Nicolas Rimsky), who decides to take a sea voyage and leave the country after attending a disastrous opening of his latest play. Seasick, leaning over the guardrail, he is swept overboard, and presumed to be lost at sea.
Thinking he has died, the reporters run with the story, proclaiming him to have been France’s greatest playwright. Interest in his work skyrockets, and coming ashore near a small seaside village, Théodore finds newspapers mourning his loss. Realizing he could be far more successful as a dead legend than as a living, struggling, writer, Larue tries to return home before anyone recognizes him. Walking into his house just as his wife Lucie (Suzanne Bianchetti) is giving a press conference about her late spouse, Théodore must think quickly, and comes up with the story that he is his long-absent brother Anselme, who has just returned from a missionary trip to Senegal. For a while, things go well, Lucie finding ‘posthumous texts’ of her husband waiting to be published (Théodore is upstairs in his house, furiously writing new works). But just as it looks like the couple’s attempt at fraud and deception will succeed, brother Anselme shows up, with a Senegalese wife in tow.
This is a well-constructed farce — we get to enjoy watching Théodore and Lucie struggle as they try to keep his survival a secret, and just when victory is almost achieved there comes the final, complete disaster. L’heurese mort has terrific comedic performance from all the leads, especially Nicolas Rimsky, brisk direction and pace, a storyline that is both funny and a biting critique of our inclination to judge the value of a work by its celebrity context, rather than its real inherent value. Everything about the movie is perfect . . . until almost the final shot of the film, where a racial slur is used in the intertitles to make a joke at the expense of Anselme’s Senegalese wife. These intertitles, along with the scene in which they are found, may surprise and dismay viewers, especially those not exposed to the blatant prejudices from this era. My first thought was that if those titles were somehow lost in the transfer of the film to a release print, I would not be heartbroken. A more ‘curator-friendly’ solution would be to bring up these issues before screening the film, so that the audience could be alerted. Despite these unfortunate titles, L’heurese mort is a smart and hilarious silent film farce, and demands greater recognition.
The Rin-Tin-Tin Awards
Every year I attend this festival, I give an award to the best animal actor in a film screened at the festival. This award goes to an animal whose abilities rise to a performance level, making a significant difference in the story. This year’s nominations include the loyal dog found in Henry Roussell’s L’île enchantée [Coriscan Love] (1926). In this unusual romance, a Corsican outlaw Francesco (Rolla Norman) falls in love with Gisèle (Jacqueline Forzane), the daughter of a local industrialist who wants to destroy the outlaw’s family castle so that he can put up a new power plant. Romances are often placed into the context of a larger story, and in L’île enchantée the couple must decide which is more important, love or familial loyalty, or in broader terms, progress vs. tradition. Men from the industrialist’s camp have loaded the castle with dynamite, and Francesco races against time to prevent them from setting off an explosion that would raze the castle. Seemingly aware of the importance of the moment, the family dog plants himself at the door of the castle, and turning around, starts to bark. What a smart dog, I thought. This clever canine will give the bandit and his family a few extra moments to save the castle, and then in some clever twist, the power plant will be built elsewhere. Then the lovers can marry, and Corsican children would be produced mindful of both tradition and progress.
Instead, the switch is pressed, and the castle blows up. We see the dog (clearly at this point not a real dog) being blown high into the sky. What a shock — this movie is not going to have a happy ending, and how refreshing to watch a movie that doesn’t insist it has all the answers. Sometimes politics does trump romance.
Another strong contender was Spot, the Urbanora dog featured in A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912). The faithful companion of ‘gentleman detective’ Hawkshaw, Spot follows a band of criminals to their house, and then feigns injury in order to be taken inside by one of the robbers (who certainly likes dogs more than people). Through various clever maneuvers, Spot is able to alert Hawkshaw and the police so that they can nab the villains. A Canine Sherlock Holmes is part of a long film tradition that pairs a detective or amateur sleuth with a dog.
But in a surprise finish, the award goes to cinema’s first dog star — the alpha dog of them all — Blair — in Cecil Hepworth’s Rescued by Rover (1905). Blair was the Hepworth family dog, and was recruited (like the rest of his family) for various parts of the story. Two members of the cast were paid professional actors, apparently the first time this was done. The film was enormously successful — so many prints were made that the film negative wore out twice, forcing the director the make two new versions. Rescued by Rover was part of a documentary produced by Tony Fletcher, Heppy’s Daughter (2009), which premiered this week at the festival. This documentary follows the career of Cecil Hepworth as seen through the eyes of his youngest daughter, Val Williamson. Cecil Hepworth’s career covers all aspects of British cinema. Having an interest in movies from their very beginning, he was author of the first British book on cinema, Animated Photography, The ABC of the Cinematograph (published in 1897). His many jobs included those of actor, director, distributor, and even head of a studio. When his company went bankrupt in 1924, Hepworth continued to make short films, eventually becoming an historian for the British Film Institute.
As the festival nears its 30th birthday, it is clear to me that changes are afoot. Festivals that show only new films can be forever young, because there will always be a new generation of filmmakers wanting to make their mark. Repertory festivals like Pordenone don’t have that luxury. The festival’s initial goal was to rediscover great films that had been neglected, and to that purpose, the festival has been wildly successful. But it’s naïve to think that we have another generation of great films squirreled away in attics and closets, ready to be discovered and restored. The reality is that we already have thousands of silent films already existing in archives, films that have been rarely seen, and by strict definition, material available to be screened at Pordenone.
But let’s face it — just because a film is silent doesn’t mean it’s good. Like contemporary films, like television series, like all art, there’s a wide range of quality. Some silent films are great, some are bad, and a lot of them are somewhere in the middle. Do we want to harness the festival’s time and energy to screen a lot of mediocre films? For example, the festival could spend years showing hour after hour of serials. Do we want a future festival featuring the entire series of Fu Manchu films? How completist do we need to be?
|Photograph: Lokke Heiss.
A more sensible approach is change course — slightly, but significantly. To continue to show restorations and discoveries, but start mixing these newly-screened films with films that are already known, or films previously seen at Pordenone. I’m only half-joking to suggest that one way festival director David Robinson could program next year’s festival is to simply pick up the program guide from 1982, and just start over. Year One: The first year featured Max Linder, and the cover of the program proclaims him to be ‘King of the Laugh.’ Think how much has been learned about Linder in the 28 years since the first festival. It would be the same program, and it would also be completely different.
In the silent film world, you can’t go home again, and that’s a good thing, because these films, as part of a ‘never-the-same-show-twice,’ ‘live cinema’ tradition, will always find new ways to speak to us, and new ways to give us pleasure.
The festival took place on 3-10 October 2009 in Pordenone, Italy.