As Erich Von Stroheim never ever once said: I’ll keep this fairly brief. That’s partly because I was a little distracted today by matters literary, only some of which is relevant to this dispatch.
The best of it was, though. Today, making a painful choice (sorry, Elinor Glyn!), I attended the book presentations by Tony Fletcher on his new work Before the Paris Fire. Projecting the Cinematograph in London from 1889 – 4th May 1897 (London: Local History Publications), and Bryony Dixon on her The Story of Victorian Film (Bloomsbury Publishing), which I have written about here, for one. I was very happy with my choice. Bryony’s book is a celebration of young cinema, which would convert any cinephile to a Victorianist. Chase it with Tony’s deep dive into the very earliest days of film projection in London, and you will begin to sense the scale of this fascinating field. In both books, the stories and characters of the era burst forth, and it was great to see these two together, sharing their research passion with international scholars at Pordenone.
Bryony spoke movingly about how the film pioneers and their eager audiences very quickly clocked that the new technology offered a way to capture time for posterity, whether views of a changing world in all its diversity or documents of epochal events. And so, a short coffee break later I took my seat in the Verdi for a programme of early to transitional, certainly not 19th-century, cinema that proved the truth of this. The programme was structured around the life and travels of author Pierre Loti (Pecheur d’Islande (Jacques de Baroncelli, 1924), an adaptation of one of his novels, plays here tomorrow). Loti was very well travelled, so we saw Japan, Turkey, Spain and more here. Beautifully tinted film of a gymnastic demonstration at his military school in Joinville opened the programme: a spectacle designed to be savoured in slow-motion. Further in, we witness an epochal moment indeed, the Paris funeral of Sarah Bernhardt – such a privilege to join those crowds. And then a glimpse of Loti’s own house in San Sebastian was almost as thrilling. As the camera, attached to the back of a tram traversing that city’s streets, revealed wider and wider vistas of 1913, I felt honoured to see such images, so lusciously accompanied by Daan van den Hurk, and very grateful for the technological advances of the late 19th century.
In these reports I like to focus on what I saw rather than what I missed, so I can tell you that I was very happy to catch a second instalment of Le P’tit Parigot this morning, although the Delaunay factor was AWOL in this episode. In pursuit of a beautiful stranger, Biscot was put through his paces doing manual labour in a garage and evading the lustful gaze of Gabrielle Rosny as a perfect Bécassine. Less action in this episode, but I am still hooked. See you bright and early tomorrow for more – and I think we can expect a little more Delaunay too.
When in Italy… I also saw Le Madre (Giuseppe Sterni, 1917), a maternal melodrama in the Rediscoveries section, gorgeously accompanied by Stephen Horne. If you’re looking for the frissons of living history preserved on film, Le Madre offered plenty, with the sight of Italian stage legend Italia Vitaliana playing the devoted mother of an avant-garde artist in search of a muse (as well the recognition of his peers and frankly, the rent). Could his inspiration be a pretty young girl whose mercenary momager withdraws her services on a whim? Or perhaps indeed his selfless mother, an enduring image of maternal sacrifice and faith? It all builds to a mournful conclusion as their fondest wishes are achieved at a bitter cost, which you may have suspected all along. Vitaliana is rather powerful on screen, so although this film contained few surprises, it has many other compensations.
See when I namedropped Stroheim earlier? That was foreshadowing. Nice. Tonight’s headline film, in the Canon Revisited strand, was a complex case of collaboration. Originally, Merry-Go-Round (1923) was begun by Stroheim, completed by Rupert Julian and watched over intently by Irving Thalberg. Now, it has been reconstructed by a team of experts with sources from several different archives. A lot of work, and well worth it in my humble opinion. You’ll not expect this to zip along, what with Stroheim’s tendencies, and it is a good two hours, but full of incident, and especially character. This is a Viennese whirl, and would slip uncontroversially into the Ruritania strand, and while this carousel is less racy than La Ronde, it’s not far off.
Mary Philbin is rather marvellous as Agnes, a poor organ-grinder in the Prater, with a sadistic, predatory boss, and no monkey to cheer her up. A passing count (Norman Kerry) falls for her winsome ways, but pretends to be a necktie salesman in order to collapse the class difference. A lot ensues (marriage, war, hominid homicide), but you can guess how it ends. Suffice to say the hero of the piece is, depending on your level of sentiment, either Agnes’s father, who also works for said brute and is variously a Punch and Judy puppeteer, a clown and a soldier, played by the great Italian actor Cesare Gravina, or Boniface the orang-utan, a gentle soul not often roused to murderous violence (but when he is…), best mates with the timid hunchback Bartholomew who also loves Agnes. I was delighted to see Stroheim favourite Dale Fuller as the bully’s wife, after missing her appearance earlier in the day.
Merry Go-Round will pluck your heartstrings as if you were an old viola, and what’s more you’ll thank it for the trouble. It’s pretty, romantic and slightly ridiculous as Hollywood so often is. I am thrilled it is back together in one glorious piece. The music was collaborative also: a truly lovely multi-instrumental performance from Mauro Colombis, Romano Todesco and Frank Bockius, and not a wind-up organ in sight.
Intertitle of the Day
“This farce has crossed the line.” Well, that’s your opinion, pops, but I very much enjoying Le P’tit Parigot.
- Euphemism of the day: “Agnes gave him her happiness for keeping.”
- Lots of people are blogging Pordenone. Here are two excellent bloggers, both called Paul. Mr Joyce is your man in Verdi, while Mr Cuff is covering the online edition.
- 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.