“Now more than ever, welcome home!” If Jay Weissberg’s address to the Verdi at tonight’s opening gala didn’t lodge a lump in your throat, you may be an irredeemable cynic. Or perhaps you were just marvelling at the man’s mastery of the Lubitsch Touch – the exquisite pain of terribly mixed emotions. But more on the importance of being Ernst later. Let us begin at Act One, Scene One. Enter your humble scribe, stage left.
Nowadays the chances of meeting an old-fashioned boy are slim to none. And so it proved for me today, as I arrived in town just too late to make the 2:30pm screening, including An Old Fashioned Boy (1920), written by Agnes Christine Johnston and directed by Jerome Stern, from the screenwriters strand. The word on the street, or rather at the café tables upon the pavement, was that it was a farce, either played slightly too long, or just long enough. Comment below please, if you want to weigh in.
I was, however, in time (after two shots of Italian espresso and some “gossip-gossip–gossip!“) for the programme of travelogues titled Korea As Seen By Outsiders. I hadn’t had a chance to read the catalogue notes before I saw this package of five beautiful films, so I wasn’t concentrating on who made them and why, so much as who saw them. And that’s because I must have heard/repeated a thousand times the line about these early travelogues standing in for the holidays that cinema audiences of the time couldn’t experience for themselves, but this time, in 2021, well, this time I felt it. That misty-topped mountain, those lilypads and cherry blossom trees, street scenes in Busan, the splendour of spectating on a multistage, formally ritualistic wedding from a wholly foreign culture – my eyes have been craving new sights to see, and this programme delivered them. There’s mediation here for sure, two of the films were made by Christian missionaries with their own message, their own blindspots, but it is possible to see that and see through that at the same time.
The final film was the best I think. A promotional documentary from 1934 variously titled for us in English as either The Sheep of North Korea Speak or [Importing Sheep to North Korea]. This could have been a functional info-dump about how sheep farming was introduced to the country, but no, it wasn’t. Sunlit images of sheep and (fluffy, spindly-legged, wriggly, trumpet-eared) baby lambs were interrupted by intertitles written in the voice of the sheep describing their journey from Australia to the verdant “paradise” lands of North Korea. If you’re counting sheep tonight, I hope they leap with the sheer panache of these downy clouds. And as with the whole programme, Stephen Horne’s multi-instrumental improvisations drew the particular beauty out of the images – it was more than cute, and far from cutesy. This film too, had its “gasp!” moments. The image of a naked woman to usher in shearing footage was one. The graphic footage of a lamb’s tail being docked was another. You really don’t want any details.
A short balloon ride later, we were gathered for the final course of the day: a freshly restored classic of silent cinema, on our favourite big screen, and with the maestro Carl Davis conducting the Psappha Ensemble playing his own score. The dessert in question was Lady Windermere’s Fan (Ernst Lubitsch, 1925), restored by MOMA, and wow did those sneaky closeups (especially in the racetrack scene) drive us Wilde on the big screen.
You know the story right? Rich fools: in love, and marriage, or one or the other. It all plays like a more refined, poignant twist on 1924’s The Marriage Circle and it’s beautifully done. It’s a comedy, but a wry, almost tragic one, and the doors of misperception threaten to open on to a domestic disaster… Here, in a film where a cigar in an ashtray is never just a cigar in an ashtray but can mean at least two more things precisely besides that, the interpretations of one misplaced birthday gift and the potential outcomes of reading those clues, multiply perilously. Wilde and Lubitsch both are having their cake and eating it too.
And let it not be said that casting is irrelevant here: Ronald Colman’s damnably dashing Lord Darlington makes an entire plot strand instantly evident with one lopsided smile, and Irene Rich’s Mrs Erlynne is the most wistful of wastrels, a woman scandalously well-dressed, notoriously alluring and dangerously in debt.
Davis’s score in itself was another lesson in the Lubitsch touch. He played to the poignancy, mostly, not the playfulness, letting the comedy emerge from the drama, rather than the other way around. Just as Herr Director makes us read lips, body language, between the lines, Davis’s score credited us with a little intelligence, and the willingness to lean forward, look closer.
More tomorrow, but just to add on a serious note: I am overwhelmed to be here. Now, more than ever.
Intertitle of the Day
“Today we wrap the world in our fleece”. The softest, cuddliest way possible to say that there are a lot of sheep in Korea nowadays. From The Sheep of North Korea Speak (JP 1934), naturally.
- I met a lovely chap called Jake tonight who, by attending the gala, saw his very first silent film. What did he think? Big fan, apparently. Or in his words “super fan”.
- Just saying, an Irene Rich biopic would be a rollercoaster, all right.
- Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
- Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page