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An archive of articles on the silent era of world cinema.
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Glorious Heights and Wounded Hearts
The 35th Pordenone Silent Film Festival

 
Article Copyright © 2017 by Lokke Heiss. All Rights Reserved.
 

     Before these events, the day was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing. A negro drayman, famous for his quick eye and prodigious voice, lifts up the cry, ‘S-t-e-a-m-boat a-comin’!’ and the scene changes! All in a twinkling the dead town is alive and moving . . . the captain stands by the big bell, calm, imposing, the envy of all; great volumes of the blackest smoke are rolling and tumbling out of the chimneys — a husbanded grandeur created with a bit of pitch pine just before arriving at a town . . . the captain lifts his hand, a bell rings, the wheels stop; then they turn back, churning the water to foam, and the steamer is at rest.
     Then such a scramble to get aboard . . .
     — Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

 
  Verdi Theater, Pordenone: photograph by Lokke Heiss.
 

I grew up in a small town only an hour away from Mark Twain’s birthplace, Hannibal, Missouri and, as I left the train station at the outskirts of Pordenone and walked its quiet, sleepy streets toward the city center, the scenery reminded me of his bucolic home town. The sidewalks, the shops, the buildings — it all had the feeling of easy familiarity. After many trips to Pordenone, I know this town well — it felt like a homecoming — but, underneath this ease of familiarity, I knew that big changes were underfoot.

With last year’s retirement of David Robinson, the festival has a new director, Jay Weissberg, an American who currently lives in Rome and is a critic for Variety. With the job comes the challenge of guiding the festival through the Scylla and Charybdis of opposing interests: How do you keep its reassuring features, yet also offer daring new ideas? How can you continue to offer special productions featuring full orchestras, when at every turn there is the need to control the budget? How can you handle all the politics while keeping the artistic integrity of the program intact?

Musing on these thoughts, I turned a street corner and the Verdi was there before me. The theater has been spruced up since my last visit and, with a slight squint in the afternoon sun, its silvery-white silhouette had a steamboat-like appearance. Perched on a corner of the city center, the Verdi looked like a docked vessel, impatiently waiting for its passengers to board so the captain could set its wheels churning and cast off.

My pulse quickened, and I felt like a character in a Mark Twain book, because in a moment I was going to be part of a great adventure. With a new captain at the helm, I was about to embark on an eight-day trip of wonders and excitement, courtesy of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Fourteen Hundred and Ninety Days:
The Amazing and Forgotten Career of John H. Collins

 
  John H. Collins.
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 

Each festival one arrives with the hope of discovering an important director whose films have — for whatever reason — been unfairly passed over by history and languish in obscurity. That promise was gloriously fulfilled this year, but I would have never guessed that this director would be an American and that he would have started his career with Edison, one of the most visible studios of its day.

John Collins, born in 1889, started doing odd jobs for Edison in 1910 at the young age of 21. Learning on the fly, his responsibilities expanded into other jobs, such as set design, casting director and stage manager, and by 1914 he was directing his own films.

The first Collins film screened at the festival was The Man in the Dark (1914). The story starts with an old, destitute man Joe Raymond (Frank McGlynn), who sorting through his papers, finds a dusty, unopened letter. Reading it, he relives a fateful day in his youth — in a flashback, we see him young and carefree, and in love with Mabel (Flora Van Dyke), a beautiful woman he is about to marry — but then he sees his fiancée huddled and talking secretively with another man. Overtaken by jealousy and thinking his sweetheart has a lover, he breaks his engagement, refusing all efforts with reconciliation. Bitter at her betrayal, he severs all relations with her family and lives the life of a recluse.

The story now returns to the present, and the letter, which he is just reading for the first time, explains the man he saw was not her lover, but her destitute and hapless brother, who she was merely trying to help. Finishing the letter, Joe realizes he has traded in a lifetime of happiness to nurse a petty and unfounded jealousy. And now, with this news, the old man is truly broken – spiritually as well as physically, and the final scene fades out with us watching his anguished remorse.

After this film ended, the lights went on in the theater, and those of us lucky to be in the audience looked at each other in awe. We had just been on a journey of one man’s self-discovery, with a conclusion so raw and powerful it felt a Greek tragedy. And all of this was done in 18 minutes and directed by somebody named John H. Collins – who WAS this guy? After a moment of appreciation for what we had just seen, there was a collective scrambling for the daily schedules so as not to miss another film by this director.

 
  Frank McGlynn (left), Mabel Trunnelle and Robert Kegerrels
in The Everlasting Triangle (1914).
Photograph: Museum of Modern Art; courtesy Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
 
The next Collins film was The Everlasting Triangle (1914). This film starts off as a Western romance, but soon takes a left turn and travels down a path so dark that I have no hesitation in calling this a ‘proto-noir’ film, one of the earliest examples I know in American cinema.

The story starts off routinely enough, as Kate (Mabel Trunnelle) is courted by Santley, the taciturn but stern rancher (Frank McGlynn) and Philbin, the cheating Easterner (Robert Kegerreis). Kate makes the predictable choice, marrying Santley, but just when you think Philbin is going to exit stage right, and redeem himself by allowing the couple to be happy, this standard ‘two-suitor romance’ instead turns into a story of lust and vengeance. Kate, lonely and angry that her husband has left her alone while he rides the range, meets with Philbin, and he talks her into running off together. Santley comes home to find his wife missing, and in a jealous rage, sets off to hunt them down.

Tracking the fleeing couple, Santley finds them in the desert, and kills their horses. With only water left for one person to make it back to safety, he then lets Kate ride off with the remaining horse, and then shoots Philbin. Alone in the desert, with only the body of his wife’s lover near him, he commits suicide.

Eddie Mueller, a film preservationist and a film noir expert, explains that that true noir is about people who “know they are doing the wrong thing, but do it anyway.” Mueller’s explanation about the ‘essence’ of noir describes everything you need to know about what happens in The Ever-Lasting Triangle — all three characters know their actions are going to take them down an irrevocable path to hell . . . and yet they are unable to stop themselves.

The Everlasting Triangle also finds the time to include another important element of film noir, which is that it often functions as a critique or rebuttal of the American Dream. The phrase ‘American Dream’ was coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, but the idea was expressed earlier by President Hoover as: “a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage.”

The idea that America is a land of opportunity – that there is a place where one can settle and thrive – is central to its identity and history. The Western film developed this idea into a myth, specifically the myth that by heading west, somewhere in or near the vast country of the United States, you could find a ‘Great Good Place,’ where one could settle and raise a family. As Ringo Kid in John Ford’s film Stagecoach explains: “I still got a ranch across the border. There’s a nice place — a real nice place . . . trees . . . grass . . . water. There's a cabin half built. A man could live there . . . and a woman. Will you go?”

In The Everlasting Triangle, Kate finds herself married and living in a ranch, often thought of as a quintessential ‘great good place,’ but she finds that the reality does not always match up to the dream; instead of contentment, she finds boredom. For her the ‘Great Good Place’ is not so great, nor is it so good. In its rebuttal of the standard narrative that peace and contentment can be found by obeying the normal societal rules, this film is in many ways an ‘anti-Western,’ which also means it is laying down the groundwork for a genre what would later be called film noir. The brief running time of 17 minutes prevents any of these ideas from being fully articulated, but they are present, and one sees in The Everlasting Triangle the beginnings of a genre that would take root and blossom in the cynicism and self-doubt of a future age.

 
  John H. Collins and Viola Dana.
Photograph: Museum of Modern Art;
courtesy Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
 
The festival screened several films of Collins in which his wife Viola Dana (born Virginia Flugrath, 1897-1987) played the lead role. Dana is often described as Collins’ muse — I think this comparison is unfair to Viola Dana, since I could just as easily say that Collins was Dana’s muse. Whatever the case, the pair made great films together. Collins first worked with Dana in an Edison film The Stone Heart (1915), they married later that year and continued their collaboration on the screen. In 1916 Collins signed with another studio, Metro, and while they returned to Edison for one more film, The Cossack Whip, the rest of their work together was with Metro.

In The Cossack Whip (1916), a small Russian town is invaded by Cossacks looking for revolutionaries. Darya (Dana) and her family are tortured by the evil and sadistic Cossack Turov, who beats Darya’s sister to death with a heavy whip. With future revenge on her mind, Darya joins a ballet company, advancing in the ranks to become a famous ballerina. From there she goes to Paris, and her fame eventually brings her back to Russia. Not recognizing the now-famous ballerina as a woman he once brutalized, he invites her to his police headquarters, Darya uses the opportunity to place Turov’s hands in manacles, and now that he is locked and chained, she has the opportunity to let Turov feel the Cossack Whip that so terrorized her family and so many others.

The rapid cutting of the first half of this film made me check my program twice to see if it was really made in 1916. The editing for the opening scene involving the Cossack invasion of the town is particularly dazzling, and precedes the Soviet style of editing by years. And even if the second half of the film slows down to a more ordinary, contemporary pace, the film as a whole makes the case on how advanced Collins was compared to most of his directors of his day.

 
  Viola Dana (as the good sister) in The Girl Without a Soul (1917).
Frame enlargement: courtesy Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
 
Another film that paired Collins with Dana was The Girl Without a Soul (1918) a film with a premise that must be an ultimate ‘plum role’ for a leading actress: the chance to play twins with opposite personalities. In this rural romance, one of the twins, Priscilla, is a violinist and is considered the one with talent. The other girl, Unity, is considered a simpleton, a girl with no hope of refinement, a girl ‘without a soul.’ Ivor, a conniving and dishonest musician, is courting Priscilla while Unity is loved by honest, but uneducated village blacksmith Hiram, in charge of a village strongbox that holds the funds to buy a church organ.

Needing money because of Ivor’s scheming, Priscilla steals from Hiram’s strongbox, her theft is seen by Ivor. The village finds the strongbox is missing cash needed to pay for the organ and accuses Hiram and he is put on trial. But when Unity learns from Priscilla that she, not Hiram was responsible, she hits on a plan to expose what is going on – impersonating Priscilla, Unity finds out from Ivor that he was the cause of the robbery. Priscilla confesses to the village that she stole the money and justice is delivered to the villain Ivor.

Watching Dana’s standout performance, she made me think of two other actresses who played twins: Olivia de Havilland (in The Dark Mirror) and Bette Davis (she did it twice, (A Stolen Life and Dead Ringer). As much as I like the other two actresses, I think Dana’s performance in this film is better – she pulls off the challenge of playing twins beautifully, her acting completely natural and not just a stunt. The Girl Without a Soul is a fabulous melodrama that avoids all of the normal clichés about twins, and gives Danes a great opportunity to show at the young age of 22 she was already an accomplished actress.

 
  Viola Dana and Robert Walker in Blue Jeans (1917).
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts;
courtesy Pordenone Silent Film Festival.
 
Another Collins/Dana pairing in the program was Blue Jeans (1917). Adapted from a play popular in the 1890s, Collins gives Viola Dana the role of June, a girl who has left the poorhouse and finds herself in the small town of Rising Sun, Indiana, both hungry and homeless. She meets Perry Bascom, a man who has come to town to help manage the sawmills, and he protects June from the local tough guy, Ben Boone. June is adopted by an elderly couple and eventually she and Perry fall in love and marry. Their happy life is shattered when a woman comes to town claiming that Perry is already married to her, which means June and Perry’s marriage is not legal. The couple’s troubles multiply until a fight between Boone and Perry leaves her husband unconscious and on the bed of a sawmill, the blade coming ever closer. Can June get to him on time?

While one can get lost in the complicated plot of this film, the most striking thing about Blue Jeans is the character June. No helpless soul, June is strong-minded, independent – she has agency. She speaks her mind, takes action, and when she has to, even breaks down a door to save her husband. By being the ‘wronged woman’ who is also the ‘takes-charge hero’ and can save the day, John Collins allows the character Ruth to defy the conventional notions found in melodrama.

It would be tempting to say that by doing so he gives film a modern sensibility, but the idea that a woman could be in charge was already getting a lot of attention by 1917. Blue Jeans is similar in mood and attitude to the novels of Gene Stratton-Porter, one of the most important writers of the early twentieth century. To add to this Blue Jeans/Stratton-Porter connection, this film and many of Stratton-Porter’s stories take place in Indiana, such as Girl of the Limberlost published in 1909 Stratton-Porter sold millions of copies of books about young women, who by fortitude and believing in themselves, push through all obstacles to succeed, and Blue Jeans almost feels like a sequel to one of Stratton Porter’s novels about life in rural Indiana.

Amidst all this success and critical acclaim for Collins, came tragedy. In the fall of 1918, he was stricken with the Spanish flu, and one week later John Collins died, his wife Viola Dana at his bedside. Collins was only 28, and his wife a widow at 21. His work was quickly brushed aside by the onrush of films from other studios, and Collins’s brief, if notable, contributions became a footnote to film history, Dana continued her career as an actress but was never able to achieve the success she had with Collins. She died in 1987.

With a directorial career lasting only about fourteen hundred and ninety days, John Collins is a hard person to sum up, but my impression is that much of his talent was sui generis, especially his early understanding of the power achieved with quickened pace and editing. My conclusion comes with one huge exception: It’s my belief as a pupil to a master, he carefully studied each and every D.W. Griffith film as they were released. Griffith made tremendous advances in the language of film from 1908 to 1913, and Collins appears to have gobbled up all that Griffith had learned, so that he could hit the ground running with his first directorial efforts in 1914. And while Griffith had years of training of theater, which eventually impeded his understanding that cinema had a language of its own, Collins had the advantage of callow youth and no preconceptions. Griffith might labor through three or four films using trial-and-error to understand how a particular camera setup would work best, while John Collins, with no years of stagecraft to cloud his judgment in this new art, could see how Griffith solved a problem, and in a flash, move on to the next step.

Whatever influence Griffith had on him, one leaves a Collins film struck by a sense you are seeing a film no one else would make. He is, in the end, his own talent, and one can hope there are soon more of his films available to see. More Collins films survive, but need restoration before they can be shown. Dave Kehr, curator and programmer at MoMA, has announced that a series of restorations of his films is in the works. Collins is a unique director and sorely neglected in film history, let’s hope more of his many great films can be seen.

 
  Anna Nilsson in an ad for the Who’s Guilty? series.
Photograph: courtesy Media History Digital Library.
 
The ‘Who’s Guilty?’ Series —
Another Festival Surprise

Another discovery for the festival this year was the unearthing of a wonderful and essentially unknown series, titled Who’s Guilty? (1915-1916). In the silent film era, the mid-teens were a time where serials and series became a popular and profitable part of what the audience came to see. In 1915, Pathé Exchange (the American branch of Pathé studios) begin to produce a series of films with the titles of Who Pays? (1915) and The Grip of Evil (1916). These productions were not attempting to carry a single story from one film to the next, instead they took on a central theme and did stories related to that theme for the course of the series. Typically, they used the same actors from film to film, and that also produced a continuity for the audience who came to appreciate the series as a form of repertory theater, with one actor playing different types of roles as the series progressed.

The series screened this week, Who’s Guilty? was filmed in Yonkers, New York, between February and July 1916. The concept of this series was that each episode would explore some form of ethical dilemma or social injustice. The story would move quickly to set up the characters as ordinary people living their lives, then would put them in a situation that would tax them (and the audience vicariously) to their utmost resources. And instead of ‘fairy-tale happy endings,’ the stories usually give us gritty, unpleasant conclusions. To an audience of 1916 and even to an audience of today, these films are a bracer, a wake-up reminder of what can happen in the real world.

The social critiques in these films remind me of a Dickens novel, taking on such topical injustices such as how the different divorce laws from state to state can be cruelly used to destroy families. But the pace in these films is anything but Dickensian: characters age, marry, divorce, and die in stories so telescoped it feels like you have a whole HBO miniseries packed into one sitting. Doing this kind of story well is immensely difficult and the cast pulls it off wonderfully, the trick being that the episode allows intertitle cards to both move the story along and explain the dilemma, which frees up the screen time to focus on the genuine human anguish caused by the problem.

Titles of this series (all released in 1916) include: Puppets of Fate, The Tight Rein, The Silent Shame, Trial of Souls, and Weighed in the Balance. Puppets of Fate deserves special mention, and by describing this episode, one can get an idea of the gist of the series. Puppets of Fate describes the dilemma facing a doctor and his wife after she becomes ill, and it is determined she needs brain surgery. The wife demands that her neurosurgeon husband perform the complex and delicate procedure needed to save her life. Her husband knows that operating on a family member is against medical ethics because emotions can affect your performance…but what if you are the best person for the job?

Those of you familiar with ‘Hollywood brain surgery’ (no blood, no fuss, and you get to keep your hair) are in for a huge surprise when the film shifts to what is clearly a real operating room where surgery is being performed (this scene was shot in St. John’s Hospital in Yonkers). And if that’s not a reminder enough you are not watching an ordinary movie, wait until you see what happens next! Just remember, when the film is over, the last title card will flash on the screen and remind you it’s your duty to decide . . . Who’s Guilty?

Despite positive reviews by both critics and audiences, the Who’s Guilty? series faced enormous competition for both recognition and screen time. As the festival program describes: ‘In those same weeks, theatres were already flooded with other serials, by Universal, Kalem, Essanay, Mutual, Kleine, Vitagraph, and Pathé itself.’ With the volume of films being produced, Who’s Guilty? quickly disappeared from the public eye. Still, film distributors saw its worth, and the series was exported to other countries, where it survives in the collections of Gosfilmofond in Russia. That we are able to watch the series today is because of the tireless efforts of Italian film historian Federico Striuli, who understood the importance of these films and promoted the need for their reevaluation.

Things Are Looking Up – The Career of William Cameron Menzies

 
  William Cameron Menzies.
Photograph: Silent Era
image collection.
 
This year’s festival highlighted the work of William Cameron Menzies (1896-1957), a man who, by combining principles of composition and art design with all the other disciplines of filmmaking, synthesized them into an all-encompassing aesthetic blueprint for how a film should look – Menzies pioneered what is today, the concept of production design, a standard component of commercial feature films.

Menzies trained as an illustrator and his original contributions to movie sets were on a small scale, such as using shadows from palm fronds to give a scene the feel of a tropical setting. As he gained experience, Menzies began to understand that the aperture of a movie camera could be thought of as a frame, and the images captured within the frame could be manipulated by using compositional principles with the addition of camera movement. He then began experimenting with visual design in the form of models, forced perspective, first for sequences and then for the entire film. The complexity of this work forced him to create what he called ‘continuity boards’ (now called storyboards) so he could map out the film’s graphic elements involved in the scene. By stringing a series of these shots together, one could heighten the sense of drama of the scene, or by continuing this scheme for the entire film, give the film a cohesive unity.

James Curtis, author of William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come, discussed for the Pordenone audience the development of Menzies from an art illustrator to the production designer of Gone With the Wind. Curtis emphasized that one of Menzies’s major discoveries was that films of his era often used the traditional stage directions of stage left and right and depth, but often ignored cinema’s ability to use the vertical. Filmmakers could use low camera placement, and create backgrounds with strong vertical lines (either with lighting or with the set design) and by incorporating these strategies into the design of how the entire film was shot, the dynamic quality of using all direction of space could be added to the entire film.

 
  Production design for The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
by William Cameron Menzies.
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
Curtis’ explanation of one of Menzies’ favorite strategies gave me an insight as to why Westerns shot in the East Coast have such a different ‘feel’ compared to the ones shot in California. To put it simply, California has more hills – not in the far distance, but right next to you. Or to put it in more practical terms, it is much easier to add interest and texture to the composition of a shot by just finding a hill or mountain and shooting against it. Of course it is always possible to find interesting compositions on flat ground, but as an experiment, try comparing horizon lines in an Eastern Westerns to the ones shot in California. And how many times do you remember California Westerns where cowboys chasing each on horses change direction, so as to go up or down a mountain, instantly increasing the dynamic qualities of the shot? Filmmakers of these California Westerns are instinctively taking advantage of an option that Menzies purposefully exploited by design through his career.

Some of the films screened this week to honor Menzies were Kindred of the Dust (1922), Tempest (1928) and The Mysterious Lady (1928). As part of this program, the closing show for the festival was The Thief of Bagdad, one of the pinnacles of Menzies career and an absolute showpiece for the value of production design. The screening was made even more special because we were able to enjoy the original Mortimer Wilson score for the film reconstructed and conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald.

So while enjoying the original score of the film, and thinking about of what Curtis had said about the importance of the vertical, I decided to keep track of which scenes emphasized vertical components vs the ones horizontal. This turned out easier to do than I had guessed, because almost every single scene of this film is shot with vertical imagery. The exceptions are rare, and happen mostly during the Thief’s tasks outside of the city. There is one singular shot using strong horizontal lines (when the Thief runs up a long staircase), and the shot is so jarring it feels like a flashbulb going off in your eyes. But it’s important to emphasize that this set design is not just a trick, rather, it gives the film a sense of cohesive unity, and more importantly, delivers visually to us the very meaning of the word ‘epic.’

The Thief of Bagdad is one of the crowning achievements in the era of silent cinema, but Menzies added his artistic touches to many other films. Menzies can take credit for helping to create worlds that pushed the boundaries of the visual language of cinema.

City Symphonies - 2017 Edition

 
  La Zône (1928).
Frame enlargement: courtesy DVDToile.com.
 
City Symphony films – where the main focus of the story is not a particular person, but rather a location or place, have a long and rich cinema tradition. Paul Strand’s Manhatta (1921) is often given credit as the first symphony film, and the genre continues into the era of contemporary cinema with Clemens Klopfenstein’s wonderful Geschichte der Nacht [Story of Night] (1979). City films screened at this festival included San Paulo: Symphony of a Metropolis (1928), and Prater (1929) (a city film about the amusement park in Vienna).

I want to single out one film as especially noteworthy, La Zône: Au Pays des Chiffonniers [The Zone: The Country of the Ragpickers] (1928). The film was directed by Georges LaCombe, René Clair’s former assistant, and describes the perimeter forming the outermost boundary of the twenty Paris arrondissements. This thin strip of land (at least at the time this film was made) is a ‘no-man’s land,’ located not in Paris, but neither in the suburbs surrounding the city. Inhabitants of this interstitial territory live in shanty towns, and have to fend for themselves. Many of them work as ragpickers, picking up trash for what money they can obtain, and return to their shacks at night. La Zône is about a world and place where a displaced group of people struggle to survive, and it’s told in a very empathic, lyrical style, prefiguring Franju’s documentaries about the French working class. In watching La Zône, I am reminded of how Claire Clouzot described Franju’s film style as “a poignant fantastic realism inherited from surrealism.” That description could just as easily be made about La Zône. This is a fabulous short film and sadly perhaps more topical now than when it was made in 1929.

Restorations and Rediscoveries

 
  Jean Angelo in Monte-Cristo (1929).
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
When you think of the French tradition of sweeping adventure sagas, two immediately come to mind: Les Misérables and The Count of Monte Cristo. Festival attendees from 2015 who were still basking in memories from the screening of Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables (1925-1926), were treated with a second helping of Fescourt as the festival screened his version of Monte-Cristo (1929).

The Count of Monte Cristo is the one of the most adapted stories of all time, but everyone who tackles the job has to deal with the problem of compressing a story that is the very definition of sprawling – the novel is about 1300 pages, takes place over 30 years, and is so complex that many readers are forced to draw timelines and construct family trees to keep track of what is happening. Another problem is that the most memorable part of the story are the opening chapters of Dante’s unjust imprisonment and years of deprivation – it’s hard to make the rest of the story match the intensity of these first chapters. This awkward frontloading of the most exciting part of the story becomes a major problem for anyone trying to adapt the novel into a feature film.

Fescourt deals with problem by meeting it head-on and he faithfully follows the story with amazing on location shooting of a real prison on an island. The result a realistic version of prison life in the Napoleonic period, and his escape from prison is all the more spectacular because the location shooting gives us an authentic sense of the event that simply can’t be duplicated by a studio set.

The rest of the film – as good as it is — has a hard time matching the intensity of this prison sequence. A greater problem for Fescourt was this lavish, epic film was released at the dawn of talkies, where a lot of high quality silent films also felt the bite of appearing outdated. For whatever reason, even though this is a beautiful, high-quality rendition of the story, Monte-Cristo quickly faded from the theaters and became as obscure footnote of French Cinema until this restored Fescourt version is now available to see.

 
  Hobart Bosworth (right) in Behind the Door (1919).
Photograph: courtesy Flicker Alley.
 
Behind the Door (1919). It’s World War I, and America’s rising hostility toward Germany is causing problems for Oscar Krug (Hobart Bosworth), a career merchant mariner who has left the sea and settled in a small village. The townspeople jeer him because of his German name and ancestry, and the parents of his girlfriend Alice (Jane Novak), don’t like him either.

When war is declared, the town’s hostility toward Krug escalates into a street brawl and Krug and his main antagonist, Bill Tavis (James Gordon) have a major donnybrook. By the end of the fight, the only thing left standing are the two men themselves. Mutual respect having been made, the two men shake hands and are the best of friends.

Meanwhile, a war has started, and both men enlist. With Krug’s experience, he is made captain of a merchant ship and Tavis becomes his first mate. Against her parents’ wishes, Alice marries Krug, and she sneaks on board the ship as it leaves for a coastal run before going to the open ocean.

If we were watching a John Ford film, this ‘service bromance’ would soon test the friendship of the two men, while also teaching the young married couple about which is more important: love or duty? (as Richard Lovelace says: “I could not love thee, dear so much, Love I not honor more.”). Ford would also sneak in a patriotic theme that despite all of our diverse heritage, at heart we are all Americans.

But we are not watching a John Ford film. We are watching a ‘WWI revenge film,’ directed by Irvin Willat, and as the story progresses, the horror of war will not bring out the nobleness of spirit, but will instead expose the brutal savagery of humanity lurking under the thin veneer of civilization. Behind The Door is an exceptional film — just come expecting to be shocked and disturbed by what you see.

 
  Rin-Tin-Tin.
Photograph: courtesy Lokke Heiss.
 
The Rin-Tin-Tin Awards

Each year I give out an award for the best animal actor to appear in a film at the festival. The first animal actor under consideration appears in the comedy No Parking which was included a program curated by film historian Steve Massa that explored the comedy shorts of Al Christie.

Born in Canada in 1879, Al Christie began his career on the East Coast as a stage manager, and by 1910 was directing films for Nestor Films in their Bayonne, New Jersey studios. Relocating to California to avoid attention from the Motion Picture Patents Trust, Nestor became the first Hollywood studio to release a motion picture when The Best Man Wins hit the theaters in 1911. Maintaining a schedule of two shorts a week, Christie was responsible for the production of a large number of films, and when Nestor was absorbed by Universal in 1915, Christie was put in charge of their comedy division. Over the years, Christie either produced or directed more than 700 films.

No Parking (1921) is a Christie-directed comedy involving a married couple (Neal Burns and Helen Darling), who having just moved to a new town, are looking for an apartment that will accept their child and dog. But, to their dismay, all the apartments for rent have a rigid ‘no children’ policy. Frustrated, the couple decide to leave their child in their car (apparently the dog acting as babysitter) as they pretend to be childless, with the idea they will sneak up their baby up the fire escape when the nosy landlord leaves. That idea lasts only long enough to put the child in a dumbwaiter — soon both the dog and child are discovered, and once again homeless, the couple tries building a pre-fab house and tow it to a vacant lot. Just as it seems their troubles are solved, the house collapses like a house of cards. Finally, fate lends a hand when the swampland they now own turns out to be gushing oil, making them rich. Using this money, they build their own apartment building where children and dogs are welcome.

 
  Harry Ham and friend in His Friend, the Elephant (1916).
Frame enlargement: courtesy The New Zealand Film Archive.
 
Another film that featured an animal actor was also from the Christie program, His Friend, the Elephant (1916). In this comedy, Harry Ham plays a man who is down to his last dime when he receives a ‘gift’ of an elephant. Any thoughts of a quick riches disappear when he realizes the expense of owning such an animal, but by now it has become attached to him, and follows him obediently wherever he goes, including inside houses and around the neighborhood.

As much as Rin-Tin-Tin appreciated the animals in these two films, he pointed out there wasn’t much actual acting involved. The most complicated piece of business the dog performed was go up a fire escape, and besides, Rinty has a problem with people thinking collies are smarter than German Shepherds, (“It’s a Lassie thing,” he explained). The elephant also had little actual business to perform – other than having a few amusing situations looking out the window of a house, the thespian pachyderm spends most of his time following his off-camera trainer, walking either stage left or stage right. Elephants are smart animals, but not much was asked of this one.

 
  The Rattlesnake (1913).
Photograph: Silent Era image collection.
 
The surprise winner in this year’s Rin-Tin-Tin award is the snake starring in the film named for him, The Rattlesnake (1913). This was a film directed by yet another, almost completely unknown director, Romaine Fielding. Out of 100 films he directed or produced, only a few survive, and none are complete. Many of his movies were Westerns and were filmed in New Mexico for the Lubin studio, which probably added to the ‘authenticity’ of the production. Fielding often acted in the films he directed, and from watching this one film, he was quite good – the program notes state he often played “outcasts, crazed by the West’s expanses, or as Indians or Mexicans,” and remarkably, even though he is essentially forgotten today, he was the winner in Motion Picture Magazine’s popularity contest in 1913, a month before The Rattlesnake was released.

As good an actor as he was, Fielding may have been a better director. There have been strange romantic pairings in the history of movies, and the Western genre is famous for its half-joking romantic triangle formed by a man, a woman, and a horse. But with The Rattlesnake, Fielding ‘ups’ the interspecies pairings to a whole new level of intensity. It all starts when Tony (Fielding) says goodbye to his sweetheart, Inez (Mary Ryan), and while riding his horse through rugged canyon country, is ambushed by a rival. Helpless, Tony is about to be killed when he is ‘saved’ by a rattlesnake who bites the man who ambushed him.

Tony is so shaken and traumatized by his near-death experience that he adopts the rattlesnake and takes it home, living as a recluse with just his snake as a companion. A missing scene from the second reel moves the action ahead two years, where Inez, in a desperate attempt to free him from his fixation with the snake, says: “Tony, until the snake is dead I will never speak to you again.” Her plea having no affect, she at last gives up on Tony and marries an American surveyor, eventually having a child together. Years later Tony sees the America, and becoming insanely jealous, plots to kill the man who married his sweetheart. That night his snake wrapped around him, he breaks into their house with the plan of putting the rattlesnake into their bed. But when Tony pulls back the covers, the parents are absent, only their child of the girl he once loved. Seeing the girl, Tony realizes the horrible thing he is about to do, and finally at peace with himself, he leaves the room.

Rin-Tin-Tin tells me he is quite respectful of rattlesnakes and unlike many humans, they always let you when you’ve crossed them up. I have friends who have owned reptiles for many years, they tell me their snakes and iguanas show affection and make great pets. Fielding and the rattlesnake become quite friendly with each other, making me wonder if the story of how Fielding made The Rattlesnake might be even crazier than the film. We don’t have that story, but we do have the film itself. For his lively performance and dominant command of the screen, this rattlesnake wins the Rin-Tin-Tin Award for 2017.

Conclusions

 
  Photograph by Lokke Heiss.
 
In this year’s 35th Pordenone Silent Film festival, there were some huge discoveries, such as the John Collins films and the Who’s Guilty? series. One leaves this festival saying to people: “You have to see this, and this — and this film is even better!” But after the impulse to make a pitch for another film so great it should be included in the ‘silent film canon,’ comes the grudging awareness that there are many films already in the canon that get little attention. Another problem is that the medium for watching television and films keeps shrinking. Current devices such as tablets and cell phones may be a pleasant enough way to divert oneself on a journey, but it is a format that silent film is particularly unsuited for. For better or worse, we are guided by a celebrity-driven market whose purpose is to make money, not to educate the public.

One answer may be to just accept the fact that for now, we are niche audience, and rather than fight the reality, use it in a positive way, such as creating festivals around the country to make silent films, and even coming up with our own celebrities to promote these events.

And finally, congratulations to our new captain, Jay Weissberg who steered the good ship Verdi straight and true, with many scenic stops along the way. If watching movies 14 hours a day, eight days in a row, sounds like a job – like stepping on a steamboat and piloting it down the river — to paraphrase Mark Twain, “it was not work, it was play, vigorous play, adventurous play — and I loved it.”

     Ten minutes later the steamer is under way again, with no flag on the jack-staff and no black smoke issuing from the chimneys.
     After ten more minutes the town is dead again, and the town drunkard asleep by the skids once more . . .
     Before these events, the day was glorious with expectancy; after them, the day was a dead and empty thing.

 . . . until next year.

 

The festival took place on 1-8 October 2016 in Pordenone, Italy.

 
Silent Era Home Page  >  Articles  >  Lokke Heiss  >  The 35th Annual Pordenone Festival of Silent Film
 

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