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Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Silents Please – Barrie Pattison reports on Pordenone 2015

David Robinson
Pordenone is a change of pace from Oz festivals. Where local events separate the viewers from the celebrities with red velvet ropes, retiring director David Robinson encouraged the audience to talk to the presenters and announced Lenny Borger's hotel. Borger reminding us of the assessment of Victor Hugo as France's greatest poet - "Alas!" was a good intro to the 1925 LES MISERABLES.

It’s not hard to see why I keep on wheeling back to Pordenone. The organizers’ range of enthusiasms is a remarkably good match with my own - Maurice Elvey, Michael Curtiz, Ivan Mozjoukine, the complete David Wark Griffith and silent films from Victor Fleming. They even came up with 1924’s Serdsya i dollarri/ Hearts and Dollars, the first known film where Anatol(i) Litvak gets a credit (for editing), with him clearly visible among the comic clerks. 

About three days into events at the Teatro Verdi, as the screen filled with another correct paced, tinted copy, forty foot across and backed by more of their exceptional live musicians, it hit me that there’s nowhere else in the world, certainly not in Australia, where I could be doing this and nowhere I could do it knowing whoever was in the seat next to me realized what a privilege it was, even if my chance of sharing my enthusiasm might be limited by them only speaking Bulgarian.

Best in show was Victor Fleming’s majestic To the Last Man. How unjust that a film
which should have established him as one of the world’s leading directors, has been lost for the better part of a hundred years. Unlike revered directors like John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock, the work on show suggested that Victor Fleming’s silent period output was as impressive as his sound (Gone with the Wind) films and as neglected.

In To the Last Man, Richard Dix is totally in his element as the Rough Rider come back to his home valley to find the a blood feud (derived from the Grahams and the Tewksburys, not the Hatfields and McCoys this time) which he is reluctantly drawn into. The notion that the confrontation will continue to the last man is a great, sober plot dynamic. The film continually out guesses us. Normally jolly Eugene Pallette is a nasty who’s mean to heroine Lois Wilson’s pet lamb. The “frightful” bad man is the prototype of Shane. The shoot-out gets interrupted by the widow with the shovel who won’t leave her man’s body to be picked over by the critters.

To the Last Man slots in between The Covered Wagon, again starring Lois Wilson, and the Gary Cooper The Virginian, directed by Fleming, making the Paramount westerns one of the movies’ great cycles. Think The Vanishing American with Dix, Union Pacific, California, the Alan Ladd Whispering Smith and Shane. I found a surprisingly large number of people who agreed it was the best film running at Pordenone.

Under the heading of hostile fate, note that, while To The Last Man was represented by a murky Russian copy with jumps, the other unfamiliar Fleming feature on show, the 1929 Wolf Song turned up in a sharp, full-range-of-tones print. Here Gary Cooper is one of those moving on heroes who eyes glamorous, mantilla wearing Lupe Velez. Her father, grandee Michael Vavich, takes a dim view of that, warning Coop “Speak to my daughter again and I will kill you. ” The titles by Julian Johnson (Wings, Docks of New York) are particularly adept. Lupe of course rides off double with Gary. The story is romance novel silly but you can see later Fleming lust-driven plots like Red Dust in it and there are a couple of brief, effective bursts of violence showing the director’s hand - Louis Wolheim taking advantage of the bottle on the bar in his fight scene and Cooper downing the two Indians. He also gets to do a bare assed scene, washing on the river bank.

The director’s Mantrap had been seen before. Presentable enough, its trashy presentation of the Clara Bow character makes an interesting contrast with Frank Lloyd’s later, remarkable, Hoopla.

Other program streams included the Russian Comedies, which Pordenone has been
investigating. Hearts & Dollars was a bit on the incoherent side as a couple of those
Americans lost in Russia (think Kulseshov‘s Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks) are shuffled between the wrong relatives before finding romance and opportunity. Alexei Popov’s Dva Druga, Model I Podruga/ Two Friends, A Model & a Girl Friend is more approachable and an agreeable enough first run through for Volga Volga, when the evil box factory capitalist attempts to try to sabotage the young inventor duo as they take their prototype to the planner bureaucrats in the big city. Star Russian actors we don’t know featured.

Popov’s 1930 Krupnaia Nepriyatnost/ Big Trouble is more of the same with the
Revolutionary Speaker sent to the worker’s meeting getting switched with the priest
arriving to address the Church across the square. The satire is surprisingly gentle if not particularly funny. Ivan Pyriev, later to handle imposing Dostoievsky productions,
contributed Gosudstvennyi Cinovnik/The State Official 1930, a compromised morality
where the clerk who hides a recovered bag of state cash stolen from him, becomes a
local hero and is elected to the Soviet only to achieve a comeuppance.

Victor Shestakov’s Nelzia Li Bez Menia/ Delicious Meals from still silent 1932 is more of the same, with the disgruntled husband going off to eat at the newly established state canteen, part of the first five year plan, and unwittingly becoming part of its reform and triumph. Throw in the 1934 children’s film Razbudite Lenochku about late school attendance and we’ve more than filled our work quota on these.

 A couple of German silents provided some curiosity value. William Wauer’s 1915 Der Tunnel proved to be an earlier filming of the Bernard Kellermann story with one Frederich Kayssler in the role in which we would later see Jean Gabin, Paul Hartmann and Richard Dix again. The narrative content was pared down and uninvolving but, as in the later sound films, the scenes of panic and disaster had a striking, stark quality, here anticipating Metropolis. 1920’s Romeo & Juliet im Schnee was a new (to me) Lubitsch comedy in the unappealing lumpen style of much of his already familiar work, shifting the familiar plot into the snowy Alps for a happy ending.

Complementing the Fleming material were several programs of early western shorts. Nice to have endorsed the conviction that Bronco Billy Anderson was leading the pre-William S. Hart field. His films like A Mexican’s Gratitude (1909) Under Western Skies (1910) or A Pal’s Oath (1911) had stronger narratives and more connection to the western movie ethos to come.

Maciste Alpino
Another program stream dealt with Italian body builder heroes and featured the most famous in Luigi Maggi’s Maciste Alpino of 1916 where Bartolemeo Pagano still in his Cabiria spray tan gets involved in the war with the Austrians. At one point a sentry is about to shoot him and Pagano demands “Are you mad? I’m Maciste!” and presents his Torino Film business card. The film is better crafted and more entertaining than most of what was being shot in its day and for some time after and leaves one hoping to see more of the burly hero’s series of adventures.

Centering the film in Georgette Leblanc’s aging diva undermined any interest generated by the striking decors of the L’Herbier 1924 L’inhumaine, that kitschy cornerstone to French twenties culture, with its high art connections - Fernand Leger no less. Not hard to see where Marienbad came from.

Can’t help feeling that it belongs in the been there seen that basket along with Graham Cutts’ grotesque The Rat with Ivor Novello and Mae Marsh (“Just a couple of kids. They’re in a bad way”) and yet another run on Eisenstein's October in a copy that wasn’t even as good as the one that had our attention wandering fifty years ago. Pordenone is clearly showing that so called montage classics like this and Arsenal have already had more than their share of attention. Have we really run out of Dita Parlo, Alan Crosland, Frtiz Rasp and Maria Jacobini to the point where these merit another go round?

Pordenone tends to look after its own, inviting applause for members of the archive community and screening Tatiana Brandrup’s Cinema: a Public Affair about the ousting of the genial Naum Kleiman from the Russian film museum, with Nikita Mikhalkov in the real life role of villain. Paolo Cerchi Usai got a run on his sixties style abstract feature Picture and Richard Williams aired his striking new short Prologue. One fun development was that the accompanists took to scoring Williams’ festival trailer in their sessions. The Japanese using wood blocks and flute was particularly arresting.

Attention focused on the restored seven hour 1925 Henri Fescourt Les Miserables surfacing in a beautiful tinted copy and backed for the entire event by Neil Brand with a side drummer. After seven hours I was on a music high but I couldn’t have hummed one of the motifs he had been using if my life depended on it.  Whether or not it’s a great film, this was a great show, with the audience spontaneously leaping to their feet to give Brand a sustained standing ovation. That’s not the first time I’ve seen that happen and I rate Brand as one of the great phenomena of the serious movie scene, even more so than the other gifted musicians that Pordenone attracts. His accompaniment turned the pedestrian Fred Niblo-Fairbanks Mark of Zorro, also on show, into a fun interlude.

 Les Miserables itself is pretty impressive though the Harry Baur /Raymond Bernard version or even the Depardieu TV series are really better movies. Gabriel Gabrio is the stand out element, convincing in all the different Valjeans the story presents. The program book writes off Gabrio’s other work, ignoring his confrontation with Charles Vanel in Maurice Tourneur’s splendid Au nom de la loi, his Cesare Borgia and God knows what else among his inaccessible titles. The film’s kids are OK but of the rest only Sandra Milovanoff in her oppressed Fantine rather than her youthful Cosette, registered among all the wardrobe department outfits and crepe hair. Building tension on the barricades is particularly effective (a striking contrast to the growing tedium of similar material in October) and the film’s one departure from the more familiar versions rings, where Cosette/ Milovanoff sees the spitting condemned prisoners on their way to the galleys and asks “Are they still human?” to have Gabrio, answer “Some of them.”

Gabrio leading young Andrée Rolane through the woods, clutching her new doll, is well on the way to the most memorable LES MIS image ever.

It's kind of like making the Haj. You're not a true believer unless you've been.

(A lot) more at 

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