So the 41st Giornate del Cinema Muto, and my personal 11th, draws to a close with two British silent films. What is that they say about saving the best for last?
I was certainly in Italy this morning, with the Italian drama Profanazione (Eugenio Pergeo, 1924-6) – a tale of adultery, corruption, suspicious, lost pets and automobile accidents. This was spirited drama, if very heavy on the intertitles, with Leda Gys as a woman who strays and yet is more sinned against than sinning. That title translates into English as “defilement”, which gives you a sense of the subject matter, I think, and why censorship delayed the film’s release for so long. Gys is every inch the star, though notably more restrained than the diva mode, and she is the heart of this film that despite its twists and turns, is very much a serious film for grownups.
Which is not quite true of the film I saw next. Stanlio and Ollio in Ladroni (Night Owls, James Parrott, 1930). This is certainly a curio. A Spanish-language version of a Laurel and Hardy talkie, that was released in an Italian dub. Said Italian dub has not survived but the Spanish version has. So this is that Spanish-language film with the dialogue muted and Italian subtitles burned in. There are some good jokes here, but this is not a film for anyone susceptible to nightmares. Without dialogue, talkie slapstick is a symphony of violence. Stan and Ollie cannot communicate in words, but they can shush each other and miaow plaintively, in impersonation of cuts. In this world, the only real sounds are those that record pain and humiliation: broken glass and ripped trousers. And the occasional bellow of “Silenzio!/¡Silencio!” Truly surreal and utterly chilling – though I did enjoy the polar bear in he pianola.
A little lunch with friends, and a caffe lungo with my laptop later, and I was ready to return to the fray. Only to be welcomed by more (and more welcome) slapstick: Charley Chase in Ruritanian comedy caper Long Fliv the King (Leo McCarey, 1926). Such a joy this, with an especially funny swordfight scene – I enjoyed the footmen carrying a stretcher behind Charley, assuming that it was easier to catch him before he falls than scrape him up afterwards.
As such, it was the perfect amuse-bouche to Anthony Asquith’s The Runaway Princess (1929), a Ruritanian comedy of a lighter, more sophisticated style. This stars Austrian actress Mady Christians as the heir to the Grand Duchy of Lothen-Kunitz slumming it in London, after she takes fright at the idea of marriage. It also features Norah Baring as an elegant, malevolent “lady forger”. When that lady raises an eyebrow, you really know about it. Asquith-lite maybe, but this has real charm and style and I do enjoy the police station denouement. And the roller-skating fashion-parade foul-up.
Similarly to the previous programme, the closing gala offered us a Ruritanian slapstick spoof followed by a feature by a Great British Auteur (TM). So Stan Laurel demonstrated his gift for parody in the rib-tickling Rupert of Hee Haw (Percy Pembroke, 1924), which sent up every Ruritanian trope we have enjoyed this week, but somehow left me with even more affection for the genre.
I have been itching to see The Manxman (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929) with Stephen Horne’s score again, ever since seeing it in London a decade ago. Good things come to those who wait, and who attend Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. Horne’s score has now been expanded for a full orchestra. So Ben Palmer and the Orchestra San Marco returned to the Verdi, with soloists Louise Hyter on oboe and Jeff Moore on violin, to dress Hitchcock’s final “pure” silent in a shimmering cloak of folk magic and romantic tragedy.
It’s a beautiful film, one that I appreciate more on each viewing. Such a wonderful restoration from the BFI. There are numerous visual details and nuances that bring the story to life time and time again: touches of lighting, eye-contact and staging that create almost unbearable tension out of one terrible secret. And Horne’s music is as deft as Hitch’s camera: always gorgeous, but sometimes delicate and other times thick with portents of doom. For those who don’t know this one: in a small Manx fishing town, Anny Ondra plays Kate, an ambiguous Hitchcock blonde who pulls pints in the pub owned by her father (grizzled Randle Ayrton). Two of the locals are in love with Kate: fisherman Pete (Carl Brisson), all burly arms, curly hair and painful naivety, and legal eagle Phil (Malcolm Keen) a man with an impressive future ahead of him, and therefore so much to lose…
It’s a grim story in many ways, but I will forever love the way Hitchcock tells it – not least relying on our lipreading skills for a key revelation, and wringing every inch of drama out of the rugged landscape. Needless to say, Hitch and Horne brought the Verdi to its feet once more.
It has been an especially strong week – particularly with regard to the evening specials. This was always going to be a sweet one as we got back to more or less normal after everything, but we have been spoiled. To Jay Weissberg and his team I can only say this. Grazie mille! Arrivederci!
Intertitle of the Day
Brevity is the soul of… curiosity, in Profanazione.
Hands-down, no-contest, Intertitle of the Festival
“I WAS that waiter!”
If you know, you know. If you don’t, ask Norma.
- Iconic pratfall of the day: Stan Laurel skidded on a banana-skin in Rupert of Hee Haw – followed by most of the rest of the cast. Contrary to what some may think, we don’t see that too often around here.
- Timeless tale of the day: A newspaper-seller in The Runaway Princess was holding a giant bill that read “Big London Tube hold-up”. Plus ça change…
- Unofficial theme of the festival: the powerhouse that is Kate Saccone called this impressively early. Between Ruritania and the oeuvre of Ms Norma T, the running theme was clearly doppelgängers and and dual roles. I am convinced the Pathé Babies are all twins. Why else would they always appear in pairs?
- Read all my Pordenone posts in one place.
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