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Tuesday, 27 June 2017

A Bologna Diary (3) - Mozjoukine, Volkov, Musidora, Robert Mitchum

Two years ago the Cinema Ritrovato Award for Best DVD of the year went to Flicker Alley’s disc of House of Mystery (Alexandre Volkov, France, 1921-23). The star, Ivan Mozjoukine, was a big name in the silent cinema of the day. The same team then embarked upon a lengthy adaptation of Alexandre Dumas pere’s play Kean ou Désordre et Génie, a film completed in 1924. The film proposes that it is set in England and the most famous actor of his day Edmund Kean is the subject. It opens with highlights from a performance of Romeo and Juliet with Mozjoukine playing Romeo. He was 35 years old at the time. The sequence went for close to half an hour. That was matched by a long sequence towards the end where a performance by Mozjoukine as Hamlet goes right off the rails in the presence of royalty and causes Kean to plunge into a slough of despair from which there is no turning back.

Mozjoukine (middle) the famous dance sequence
From the beginning this was a lengthy occasion. The ubiquitous silent film programmer Mariann Lewinsky mc’ed the intros and finished by advising that we should all see this film ten times or more. Unlikely. The lengthy element was probably made worse by another of the introducers who mentioned, to catcalls of ‘spoiler alert’ that our hero takes twenty minutes to die leading up to the finale. In between times Kean is a vagabond around town, much loved but always penniless despite living in a grand mansion, a target for his creditors. It’s one great sequence occurs when Kean and his offsider/prompter Salomon repair to a dive pub, The Coaly Hole, where the locals break out into some quite remarkable formation Russian dancing. Mozjoukine proves to be very adept at it.

Albatros Films, the Russian émigré outfit that set up in Paris after the Revolution really did bite off far too much with this one. At 2 hours 20 minutes it turned into a slog. The copy on display, beautifully restored by the Cinémathèque francaise and the Narodni Filmovy Archive in Prague, did it proud. It screened at Pordenone last year. The only difference this time was the presence of Gabriel Thibaudeau tickling the ivories accompanied by Franck Bockius on drums. They added greatly to the occasion.

Musidora
.....Less well-known are the films directed by Musidora, the iconic Irma Vep, star of Louis Feuillade’s Les Vampires way back in 1915-16 and also his Judex (France, 1916). Wikipedia advises that “As well as acting, Musidora became a film producer and director under the tutelage of her mentor, Louis Feuillade. Between the late 1910s and early 1920s, she directed ten films.” One was based on a story by Musidora’s friend Colette.

Which is where Musidora and Il Cinema Ritrovato collide because this year one of the strands is a collection of films paying homage to the French writer. The two films on display in which the actress both acted and directed comprised the only surviving single reel of her 1919 Vicenta, and a complete copy of her 1922 Spanish set, Soleil et Ombre. In the latter she plays two roles, both women who have fallen for the local celebrity bullfighter. One is a homey type who dresses in severe black, the other is a frizzy haired blonde whom the bullfighter picks up in a local bar. Things get strained though not before there is a lengthy bullfighting sequence which features all the usual appalling behavior of the Spanish as the bull is taunted and then despatched. Finally the blonde is knifed by the homey type but not before (spoiler alert) the bullfighter gets his just desserts at the horns of the next bull he faces. Listed in the program booklet as “Programme 3: Best Friend Musidora” and only tangentially linked to the Colette section, the films were preceded by another lengthy intro from Mariann and others and a sort of book launch for a tome on Silent Women Film-makers.


….Elsewhere, not having seen it at the Brunswick Padua in 1956 or 1957, I finally caught up with,  in a beautiful new scope copy, Richard Fleischer’s Bandido (USA, 1956), part of the Robert Mitchum homage, and if it’s possible, a portrait of the quintessential Mitchum character, a steely determination and an individual out on his own trying to be moral according to his rights. His character’s first intrusion into the relentless 1916 Mexican Civil War is to lob a couple of hand grenades from his hotel balcony into the Government forces mowing down peasant rebels, thus evening things up and allowing the peasants to take back their lost territory and feel well-disposed toward Mitchum the opportunist treasure seeker…

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