Pordenone eh? It’s like Christmas for silent film fans. Quite literally tonight at the breathtaking conclusion of tonight’s headline film. The title was Hell’s Heroes, and we were watching the silent version of William Wyler’s 1929 sound adaptation of the story better known as Three Godfathers.
Immaculate filmmaking here: the story is stark, and so the technique is economical, but these three desperados, their crime, and their redemption leapt from the screen. I’ll pause here to say that John Sweeney, and Frank Bockius on percussion, brought the beauty of this film to the fore, without sentiment: three bad men, trying to do one good thing, whatever the cost. Parched in the desert, soul-sick and increasingly remorseful, the bandits are tasked with saving an infant and bringing him back to the scene of their transgression, in New Jerusalem. And it’s Christmas Eve of course… which prompted tonight’s coup de grace. As Charles Bickford stumbled up the aisle of the New Jerusalem tabernacle, babe in arms, a dispersed choir stood up from their seat and harmonised Holy Night all around us in the auditorium. A wow moment to conclude a poignant screening of a powerful film.
But let’s step back a little. Yesterday, prior to take-off at Gatwick, the chief flight attendant promised that our journey would be “one hour and forty-five minutes of pure joy”. Well, it was a very pleasant flight, British Airways, but that may have oversold it a little. It wouldn’t be a bad tagline, mind, for the extended first episode of Le P’tit Perigot (René Le Somptier, 1926), this year’s morning serial, which delighted the Verdi this morning. Yes, the crowd were fully on board with this one I believe, and I can say that as I had the pleasure of sitting next to the film’s most hostile audience: a Welsh rugby fan.
Let me explain. Comic star Georges Biscot stars as the little Parisian of the title. He’s the captain of the French rugby team, much to his snobbish father’s chagrin. Biscot lives a good life, despite parental disapproval – he has converted the family home into a tricked out stealth gym, and he is invited to fabulous parties. However, when father insists that he accompanies the family to Cherbourg and then prevents him from catching the train back to Paris, Biscot must traverse the country at speed to make it to the big match against Wales… after the nixed train, a plane and some very memorable automobiles save the day. All this was very enjoyable, especially the extremely vintage motorcar.
But it was the night before that really turned our heads. Biscot attends a party (“an extremely Parisian evening”) in which hostess Gilberte d’Aragon (a slinky, haughty Violetta Napierska), the room itself and all her guests were decked out in Sonia Delaunay’s geometric gorgeousness. A modernist ballet turn and a splash of nudity completed the divinely decadent atmosphere. Utterly beautiful. And the camera lingers on the details, as the cast pose to display this artistry to perfection.
All this and Biscot is a fabulous comic, slightly ridiculous but very endearing, plus Suzanne Christy returns as his sister – she played the stout-hearted heroine of La Divine Croisière last night. I’ll be in the Verdi early each day to see more of this modernist mayhem.
I like Harry Carey. Much more the modern idea of a western star than some of his silent-era peers, with the grizzled style, distant gaze and moral ambiguity of a Duke or a Clint. Case in point, fast-moving western Blue Streak McCoy (B. Reeves Eason, 1920), in which he plays a drunk thrust harshly into the era of prohibition. His character has a propensity for violence and a naturally threatening aura that undermines his chivalrous instincts. He starts this adventure on the lookout for a hair of the dog, gets distracted by a pretty girl on a train and winds up saving a mine, and a marriage. Eventually his lust for alcohol proves more easily satisfied than his romantic yearnings. But ain’t that just the life of a cowboy? Cue a hundred or so country and western numbers.
Do I also like Harry Piel, early German auteur and star of the sensation-film? I can see the ap-piel, but I don’t quite feel it yet, after two chaotic earlyish films of his, in which he plays a journalist out of his depth on adventurous missions in a) the American wild west, b) in Germany battling a terrorist cell out to snaffle some cutting-edge bomb detonation technology. Although, oddly there seemed to be cowboys in the latter film too. We’ll return to Harry, when we have adjusted to his crazy world.
Slapstick is a simpler matter, or you;’d think so, and the Transatlantic Echoes strand (after swapping days to keep us on our toes) treated us to Syd Chaplin in Oh! What a Nurse (Charles Reisner, 1926). Now, I recognise a deathless comedy trope when I see one, but awkwardly I’m not the kind of person who doubles up the moment they see a bloke wearing stockings and a wig. There were plenty of that group in the Verdi this afternoon, mind, and even this stoneface cracked a giggle a few times. OK, more than a few. It cannot be denied that Syd’s drag game is always on point. There’s no other word but prance for that taut little wiggle, and his eyelashes flutter at 160bpm. Pasty Ruth Miller’s role here redefines the word thankless, but Syd is carrying the film backwards and in high heels.
Then again, if you think this sort of thing is subverting the gender binary, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Maggie Hennefeld and Enrique Moreno Ceballas programmed a punchy package of feminist archive fragments to close proceedings on Sunday night, and I doubt I will get a wink of sleep tonight. These precious moments, almost lost to time, featured scenes of physical revolt, supernatural vengeance and fantasies of an inverted gender dynamic. All in just an hour or so of film, accompanied with astonishing creativity and high energy by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
Here, in an opening volley we might subtitle The Dream of Weird Barbie, a doll mutilated by a schoolboy reassembles, animates, grows and multiplies before taking like-for-like revenge – with a cannibalist twist. And that’s just for starters. We learned why lionesses should not live in art studios, and how the shadows fight back against those who disrupt seances. We did not learn how to catch a runaway table, but we did see how one plucky gal could save a whole frontier town from bandits. There was starpower too: Sarah Duhamel battled a spider with substantive collateral damage, Flora Finch and John Bunny had a marital, Valeska Suratt waved her sweetheart off to parts unknown, and Pearl White flirted and fought with her roommate in a boarding-house comedy. The curation here is playful, speculative, allowing us all to make new connections between films, and fragments, far-removed from our time, from each other and from their own original context. Which is the most fun you can have at Pordenone. Except for Christmas.
Sex Intertitle of the Day
“You’re the kind of woman who’s bringing the shipping industry down!” It has to be Oh! What a Nurse.
Violence Intertitle of the Day
“Beat the crap out of him, Uncle Harry!” Combat wisdom, from the mouth of a babe, in Blue Streak McCoy.