Welcome home, to your home away from home, Pordenauts. It’s the 41st Giornate del Cinema Muto and the assembled crowd in the Teatro Verdi is bursting with questions. Questions like: do we know what is unknown in The Unknown? Would you like to sin with Elinor Glyn? How much Norma is Talmadge? Does a Pathé-Baby sleep through the night? How many men could a Manxman mank if a Manxman could mank men? And (I may actually have been asked this one in all seriousness) can you point to Ruritania on a map?
Time will provide answers. Meanwhile, let us savour eight days in the make-believe land of silent cinema, once upon a time and far, far away from the troubles we left behind with our morning newspapers.
I love the screen at Teatro Verdi. It’s gigantic, which is tremendous for spectacle, but also gives so much space for detail that even the splashiest brush-stroke of Pathé-colour looks like as intentional as the shading on a Renaissance fresco. So I was delighted that the first film of the day, my first of this festival, was a delicately-tinted nature film from the Pathé-Baby centenary strand: Le Lis du Japon (1913/1923). A series of painted lilies burst into bloom via the magic of timelapse and ink. Simply breathtaking in both its beauty and simplicity.
The most exotic flower of the day, however, was surely the Hollywood star who has earned this year’s big retrospective: Norma Talmadge. I really feel I should know her work better, despite the fact that I have devoured Anita Loos’s delicious The Talmadge Girls. So thank you Giornate, for once again coming to the rescue of my blind spots. Today’s programme took her from her early days in small, but not insubstantial roles for Vitagraph, to the first flush of real stardom and a film she made with producer husband Joseph M. Schenk.
Of the early roles, a standout turn from Florence Turner as the sword-wielding heroine animated A Dixie Mother (1910) no end, but the best of the bunch was 1912’s Mrs ‘Enry ‘Awkins, directed by and starring Van Dyke Brooke. Talmadge plays Liza, daughter of an incorrigible old soak, doing her best to keep father from the bottle. With little success. But she impresses in this simple role, with a restrained performance that sidesteps the clunkier tendencies of this melodramatic scenario.
There are more of these two-reelers to come later in the week, but today’s feature was a society drama of terrible people treating each other dreadfully while treading the fine line between scandalous and merely “unconventional”. Talmadge’s role in The Moth (Edward José, 1917) was the most sympathetic, as the flapper who flaps so close to the flame (or the local fellas) only because of her loveless marriage to an awful man who is cheating on her with a showy piece and more or less gambling on the markets with her father’s money. All the men (who between them share a truly outstanding collection of moustaches) get up to shameless shenanigans, while Talmadge’s character goes on a slow-burn character-building journey – becoming closer to her children and generally more clear about what she wants from life. Good for her. Kudos to Philip Carli for stepping in at the 11th hours to play for this programme and bringing out the panache in the decor and costumes, while breezing past the bumps in the plot.
I have a spy in the Ruritanian court, who gave me advance notice that The Black Chancellor (August Blom, 1912) would be “dastardly” and romp along at the pace of a serial. This was not false intelligence. This film was the highlight of my afternoon – enjoyably unpredictable, witty and exploding with plot twists. Not to mention gunshots, trap doors, secret knocks, strange poisons… The titular antihero, dubbed the “world’s best diplomat” is required to arrange a marriage between a highly dubious young man and the lovely Princess Irene. But Irene is engaged to a man she really loves and endeavours to evade the chancellor’s fiendish plots.
Ruritania, as we all know, isn’t a place, just a state of mind. Wherever aristocratic titles, long surnames, dress uniforms and horse-drawn carriages with liveried footmen collide – that’s Ruritania. Often to be found in the pages of Hello! and various European editions of Vogue, this particular combination is often present on race day. So today provided a first for me – a Ruritanian actuality. Czech film Races at Banjica (1912) offered a Grand Day Out at the races, but the commoners stole the show, posing and rearranging themselves, and their hats, in front of the camera. The transition between the old world and the new, feudal monarchy and media-saturated modernism, caught on camera for posterity. Would they guess that 2022 combined both so seamlessly.
I guess Stefan and Franciszka Themerson would have something to say about that. Their 1931 anti-fascists cine-poem Europa hit the screen like a bolt of lightning tonight. The film contains such vivid imagery, taking a swipe at the dangers of complacent self-interest and incipient fascism, that it filled the hall with a whole new atmosphere. And thanks are due to the thunderous, sharp piano accompaniment from Maud Nelissen. I wrote about the strange and sad history of this film when this impressive restoration from Fixafilm in Warsaw played London last year.
There was no mistaking today’s main attraction though: the hot-blooded melodrama of Tod Browning’s The Unknown (1927). Lon Chaney stars as a man with two incredibly dexterous feet, three thumbs and a history of violence, masquerading as Alonzo, the Armless Wonder in a Madrid circus, chucking knives at a young Joan Crawford each night. If you think that’s weird, we haven’t even started in on this Freudian box of frights. Joan (Nanon) has developed a pathological fear of arms after encountering one handsy lech too many in her young life. And so, which suitor will she choose in the end: Norman Kerry’s hunky two-armed weightlifter, or sleazy Alonzo in his arm-denying corset? And which of them is prepared to lose a limb or two to win a woman?
It gets dark this one, and we have plenty of time to linger on the queasiness of it all, in this new restoration that reincorporates around a quarter of an hour of close-ups and reaction shots. It still nips along at a sprightly pace as one of silent Hollywood’s most effective and least categorisable chillers. It is still only 66 minutes long. And if you are pondering the appropriateness of the fact that until tonight so much of The Unknown was unknown, then Peter Bagrov had some apt words in his introduction. Quoting Alexander Horwath, he told us: “There are no archival discoveries. There is just bad cataloguing.” Just imagine how those cans were labelled.
This was a tremendous gala screening, not least because of the film’s fantastic new score, composed and conducted by José María Serralde Ruiz and played by the Orchestra San Marco. It had all the energy of contemporary Hollywood, with a suitably Spanish accent, and an emphasis on sympathy over shocks. Apparently the score was inspired by the past, but with a modern ear: “not just through various surviving cue sheets from feature films of the time, but by imagining a Spanish cultural lens with some de-colonial filters”. A thoroughly laudable, musically ambitious and very successful approach to scoring Hollywood’s cultural pastiche. I’d love to hear more.
Intertitle of the Day
“Recklessness, brewed on the fumes of wine.” That’s a line from The Moth, but it’s pretty much the story of this blog too.
- Botanical nomenclature of the day: Lilum Superbum is my new drag name – no contest.
- Heroine of the day: the lovely Italian lady who swapped seats with me for the gala. Grazie mille!
- Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
- You can read more about the festival, and all of the films, on the Giornate website.
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