Day Seven of the festival and the mood on campus is very much “Thank God it’s Friday”. Not because anyone is glad the Giornate is nearly over (perhaps apart from the festival team perhaps who have worked tirelessly to ensure everything has run beautifully, as usual), but because today’s lineup is especially toothsome. More Norma! A Frances Marion-directed feature! And Ivan Mosjoukine and Brigitte Helm smouldering opposite each other! That’s before we even get to tonight’s Ruritanian romp – the 1924 adaptation of the silent era touchstone that is Elinor Glyn’s Three Weeks. Hold on to your string of pearls, we are going all-in.
First, an especially timely effort from Team Talmadge. In Within the Law (Frank Lloyd, 1923), Norma plays a shop girl who fights back. Exploited under capitalism, and imprisoned for a crime she didn’t commit, young Mary finds “going straight is a tough proposition”. Instead she teams up with a pretty blonde cellmate to take revenge on the moneyed male establishment with a breach-of-promise scheme that exploits men, cashes the big and stays strictly “within the law”.
This “crook melodrama” has an intriguing setup and Norma keeps her cool throughout rather wonderfully. I did not expect to see her in a prison-yard catfight. It’s a little and long and slow-paced and left me slightly unsure as who the filmmakers really wanted me to support. But we were lucky to Neil Brand at the keys for this, to keep the plot bouncing along. And Mary’s sidekick Aggie (Eileen Percy) had a great little catchphrase: “Oh! I’m so fwightened.” Just to clarify, she was never frightened.
If only the social commentary here, that the law serves the rich rather than justice, and that retail work is terribly underpaid, had aged as badly as the sexual politics in The Sign on the Door. Such an interesting film, and a fabulous showcase for Talmadge in a more serene, scheming “characterization”. And of course, more stunning gowns.
Two more films this afternoon before the evening show and the awarding of the Jean Mitry prizes to Stella Dagna and Eva Orbanz. First, Frances Marion was writer AND director on Just Around the Corner (1921), newly restored by Eye and New York Women in Film and Television. Now, I quite like The Love Light but it is rather convoluted – which is not an accusation you can level at this film. This tenement melodrama has a simple scenario. Ma Birdsong (Margaret Seddon) is dying and she would really like to see her daughter Essie (Sigrid Holmquist) settled before she goes, so her heart’s desire is to meet her young beau. Problem is Essie’s Joe (Eddie Phillips) is a bit of a pig, stringing her along and with no intention to spending his evenings meeting anyone’s mother. Lots of local colour in the New York setting, including a rather harrowing trip to the sweatshop where Essie makes millinery flowers. There is seemingly not much to it, but the performances are strong and the story had me gripped, right up to the deathbed. Maud Nelissen was on hand to dampen any contrarily dry eyes.
Nothing so innocent about Manolescu (Victor Tourjansky, 1929), playing as part of the Canon Revisited. Ivan Mosjoukine is the titular thief, and Brigitte Helm a sexy young thing he falls into on the train down to Monte Carlo. The chemistry between them could light all the neon signs in Paris, and possibly does. Committed performances, decadent settings, hypermobile cameras and action editing made this the epitome of late silent greatness. The film just doesn’t let up for a second. All that and a third-act appearance by Dita Parlo, plus a dramatic snowy climax at NYE. Strange that both Parlo and Holmquist end up running into the snow – but both scenes very striking in their own way. And as if Manolescu itself wasn’t enough to wow us, John Sweeney earned yet another standing ovation with a triumphant, lush score. A real highlight of the festival. Talking of which…
Would you like to mingle,
With Aileen Pringle?
Or prefer to stay single?
And wait for Conrad?
To drive you mad,
While scantily clad?*
Three Weeks (Alan Crosland, 1924) has more or less been impossible to see for a long time. Jay Weissberg calls is the “most talked about and least seen film of 1920s Hollywood”. So I was really quite excited to watch it. If you get the chance to see this fantastic restoration/reconstruction, maybe cool those engines. Plenty to enjoy here, but it is not the red-hot romp of my imagination. How could it compete with the torrid tangles between Mosjoukine and Helm anyway? The tiger skin doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t get quite as rumpled as you might expect. I expected a little more than logs falling into the fire – but I have been spending a lot of time on Pre-codes recently. Aileen Pringle is the Queen of Sardalia and Conrad Nagel the English artistocrat, who meet at an empty hotel in the Alps and fall into a passionate, if rather complex affair. The romance is all rather stately, so thanks to Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius for covering all the angles tonight with a score that cavorted even when our lovers were content to smoulder.
Pringle is statuesque, intimidatingly so, and Nagel rather doe-eyed and little-boy-lost. It can’t end well, but we do take the scenic route to tragedy once again. I loved the decor, Pringle’s crease-free wardrobe, complete with epic trains that draped beautifully even in the heights of passion, Nagel’s boyish charm, the bed of roses, a largely comic orgy scene and especially perhaps Dale Fuller as Pringle’s Russian maid – pert and slightly manic. If you’re in London you can catch her stealing another show in Foolish Wives at LFF this weekend. It plays on Sunday. The intertitles were florid, and lengthy, but always grand. Drink every time the Queen mentions Paul’s name, and savour the line about catching the yacht and squaring everything with Mother later. Oops. I was a little too sleepy to memorise that one.
Intertitle of the Day
“I’m wearing a celluloid collar, hon. The fireside is no place for me. I might blow your ma to smithereens!” Not the kind of excuse you can get away with these days, from Just Around the Corner.