23rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival poster

October 9–16, 2004

If festival director David Robinson’s annual opening night greeting “Welcome home!” seems a bit corny to non-participants, it comes as a bright fillip to an audience accustomed to clearing their October calendars of all appointments other than the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. The 23rd edition was ever true to the high standards of earlier years; in particular the first complete silent Dziga Vertov retrospective represents a monumental achievement which will form the genesis of countless studies and discoveries in the years to come. Other features, including British silent cinema, a tribute to the studios in Fort Lee, the continuation of the invaluable Griffith Project, plus the customary selection of recent restorations, all reinforced Pordenone’s invaluable place among academically-minded film festivals. I know of no other festival which so effortlessly combines rigorous scholarship with such a keen sense of fun.

If one were to quibble, the programmers scheduled too many films this year, forcing participants to make tough decisions that invariably combined pleasure (the films caught) with disappointment (the films missed). The festival appears to have loosened their rule about not screening films from past editions (there were several repeats this year), which is a welcome change: just as viewing a painting one knows well in a local museum can open new avenues of inquiry when seen in an exhibition, so too being able to view something as well studied as The Birth of a Nation within the context of Griffith’s 1914–1915 films serves to contextualise the director’s development within this crucial period.

While always the leading supporter of live music accompaniment, this year’s festival proved especially strong in performances, and boasted what was, to my ears and eyes, one of the most felicitous marriages between film and musician I have yet witnessed: British pianist Stephen Horne’s work with Anthony Asquith’s masterpiece, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929/30). The BFI should jump at the chance to release on DVD this stunning film – in a breathtaking print – with Horne’s perfect score (performed earlier in Britain). The lack of a proper study of Asquith’s silents is surprising considering their extraordinary quality; Jacques Belmans’ appraisal that Cottage “est un divertissement sans aucun doute et non un film important” (1) is more than ripe for challenging. A pinnacle of silent film artistry, Cottage exhibits a bravura understanding of technique from a relatively young Asquith, who obviously imbibed the lessons of the German stylists as well as Soviet masters. The brilliantly edited opening leads to a thoroughly accomplished use of space and frame, and combined with expressionistic lighting and a light touch with finely nuanced acting, the film is a perfect example of cinema’s exciting capabilities in the late ’20s. Despite Rachel Low’s labeling Asquith’s work of this period as containing a “rather derivative brilliance”, (2) I would argue that his use of virtuoso camerawork to underline psychological elements calls into question such assessments of a flashy but superficial talent.

The British section was entitled “Asquith and the Others: New Light on British Silent Film”, emphasising a recognition of Asquith’s importance, although the latter half of the title is truer to the wide-ranging presentations, covering a period from 1916 to 1930. Asquith’s debut, for which he shared director’s billing with A.V. Bramble, was the terrific Shooting Stars (1928), a wry, cynical look at the movie industry and the star system which Low herself calls “a spectacularly brilliant film” (3). Unquestionably Asquith’s film (the more experienced Bramble was attached to the project as a guide but wound up overshadowed by the novice), it’s also a showcase for the breathtaking beauty of a young Brian Aherne, playing a gentle film star married to a prima donna (Annette Benson) who’s having an affair with Chaplin imitator Andy Wilkes (Donald Calthrop). There are several extraordinary moments, including a wonderful crane shot in the movie studio that follows Benson as she moves through a set being taken down. The climax is justly famous for its riveting tension and fast-paced editing; less heralded but worthy of mention are the superb sets by Ian Campbell-Gray and Walter Murton, made even more sculptural by Karl Fischer’s chiaroscuro lighting.

Nora Baring, Brian Aherne and Cyril McLaglen's shadow in Underground

The third Asquith film featured was Underground (1928), his first solo effort and again a masterful example of his bravura method, although as Low points out the public found such techniques disconcerting (4). Just as Shooting Stars contains some of the most perspicacious, and amusing, passages on film audiences, so Underground slyly comments on the uses and abuses of public transportation, not just the underground itself but, in a lovely location sequence, double-decker buses. Again, the best and brightest actors are assembled, including Aherne and a very young Elissa Landi as a working class shopgirl (which must have caused her mother some discomfort since she claimed to be the illegitimate daughter of the Empress Elizabeth of Austria!). Part social commentary and part thriller, the electrifying rooftop climax has a Langian feel, which Asquith again picks up in A Cottage on Dartmoor.

Earliest among the British films screened was East is East (1916), directed by Cecil Hepworth protégé Henry Edwards, who co-stars with the American Florence Turner. The only film known to survive featuring this key team, it’s a typical tale of a cockney girl’s plunge into “society” once she’s inherited a small fortune, all serving to reinforce the idea that you can take the girl out of the East End, but you can’t take the East End out of the girl. What makes it stand apart is both its ambitious, and playful, styling and the superb performances. Turner, already a ten-year film veteran, carved an important space for herself in English cinema when she set up production there in 1913, (5) and her natural, unforced manner works beautifully with Edwards’ own exuberant style.

The Lure of Crooning Water (1920, directed by Arthur Rooke) may not be the first film to feature a worldly actress from the city learning about values from good-hearted country folk, but it has a surprising psychological complexity. In a fascinating flashback, Ivy Duke, charm and sophistication personified, recounts a youth badgered by lecherous men, from employers to Sugar Daddies, explaining her cynical take on the male animal in general. Guy Newall, Duke’s husband at the time and a frequent collaborator, is the gentle-spirited farmer she seduces, and together this pair brought a “realistic, shrewd and humorous observation of the interplay of personal relations” (6) to their work. Christine Gledhill, in her excellent new treatment of British cinema in these years, offers an acute analysis of Newall’s role in the film industry and helps to rescue him from Low’s appreciative but damning remark that his work was “one of the biggest disappointments of the silent British film” (7).

Fox Farm, with Ivy Duke and Guy Newall

Newall himself directed Fox Farm (1922), a beautifully composed if sentimental work in which he co-stars with Ivy Duke that lovingly captures a quintessential English countryside owing much to the pastoral painters of the previous century. Contemplating both the naturalism Newall brought to his work and the near-hagiographic view of rural life suffusing Fox Farm, co-curator Bryony Dixon suggests, in the festival catalogue, that “if the British film industry had been allowed to develop along the lines that Guy Newall was working on in these films, it might have attained the heights that French cinema was achieving in the late 1920s” (p. 82) (8).

The familiar theme of cockneys striking it rich is revisited in Squibs Wins the Calcutta Sweep (1922, directed by George Pearson), the second of the four Squibs films featuring the plucky Betty Balfour as the eponymous working class heroine (9). At times an uneasy blend of comedy and crime drama which “polarizes material and emotional extremes”, the film celebrates the bonds of working class camaraderie and receives a particularly fine analysis by Gledhill (10).

The Ivor Novello vehicle The Triumph of the Rat (1926), co-written by Novello and Constance Collier and directed with great visual flair by Graham Cutts, presents an uneasy mix of the upper and lower classes, with Novello’s character the Rat ultimately unsuccessfully negotiating parallel lives amidst the diverse strata. In his recent book on Novello, Michael Williams mines the post-War trauma of 1920s England to draw illuminating parallels between the astonishingly ambivalent ending of the film and the “’mad’ vicissitudes between pleasure and the pain of remembering” (11) so characteristic of the Jazz Age. Unfortunately however, Williams pushes his interpretation of Novello’s bared torso in a knife fight sequence to unsupportable conclusions, suggesting that the exposed flesh is a “signifier of vulnerability”, and arguing for parallels with images of St. Sebastian (12). Such comparisons, hauled out far too often when dealing with gay icons, fall flat when considering that Sebastian’s naked body, far from being a sign of vulnerability, was traditionally seen as a sign of masculine strength (let’s not forget that Sebastian does not die from all those arrows).

The Triumph of the Rat: Ivor Novello as “the Rat”

That Novello’s flesh is fetishised in this scene is unquestionable, but I would argue that parallels can be better made with images of the Roman matron Lucretia, often painted with breasts exposed and a knife placed seductively against her flesh. The star’s torso is exposed because its muscled, smooth tones give an erotic frisson to the brawl and represent strength and beauty unjustly at the mercy of cold naked steel. Comparisons can also be made between Novello’s bared torso and Valentino’s ritual undressing in films like Monsieur Beaucaire (1924), which fetishises male flesh as a site of purity and masculine virility rather than vulnerability or weakness (notwithstanding contemporary accusations of effeminacy).

Cutts’ influences seem balanced between contemporary Hollywood social comedies and the stylisations of his European counterparts: his use of travelling shots is especially noteworthy, as well as his use of Expressionistic sets and lighting. In Gledhill’s assessment, “[Cutts] is perhaps the only director of this period whose work suggests an excess that gets ‘under the skin’ of both his characters and reviewers.” (13) Not to be forgotten amidst all this heavy analysis are co-stars Isabel Jeans, dressed to the nines with gowns trimmed in monkey fur and injecting just the right note of added wry humour, and the fragile beauty of Nina Vanna, as the Rat’s new love, seemingly born to be framed in tulle.

Carl Harbord in The Informer

Of the remaining British films screened this year, The Informer (1929) stands out as further proof of the exquisite artistry of a number of those works created on the cusp of the coming of sound. It’s probably 18 years since I was first struck by its power and beauty, and I was delighted that my memories were accurate. The gorgeous print screened perfectly showed off the atmospheric sets and moody lighting, all highlighted by Arthur Robison’s beautifully composed shots. Lya de Putti’s wrenching performance is equally matched by an ideally cast Lars Hanson: his tired eyes and world-weary stance is miles away from the willowy, effete character he plays in Flesh and the Devil. While John Ford’s remake accrues the praise, the 1929 version is the superior film.

Wrapping up this section, other works screened were Lady Audley’s Secret (1920), an interesting take on Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s classic crime melodrama which uses the more conclusive stage version ending rather than the novel’s mad house coda (14). Kipps (1921), based on the H.G. Wells novel, is an average comic tale enlivened by George K. Arthur’s charm, and The Ghost Train (1927), Geza von Bolvary’s pacey comic thriller, is always enjoyable. All the films in this section have been screened at various editions of the superb (and under-publicised) British Silent Cinema festival and seminar held in Nottingham in April, now entering its eighth year. Founder Laraine Porter and her colleagues are performing a monumental service in invigorating interest and research into the study of British silent cinema, all too often neglected in histories by those looking either across the ocean or across the Channel. Last year’s edition on British cinema and the First World War opened up intriguing channels for research, and no doubt the 2005 edition, focusing on Anglo-European film relations, will likewise begin a proper exploration of an area in desperate need of further consideration.

A proper discussion of the Vertov program must be left to scholars better equipped than I am to fully process the unique opportunity offered by the festival in screening all of Vertov’s available silent work (and with musical accompaniment!), along with films by his brother Mikhail Kaufman, and their contemporaries. 19 programs can seem a daunting challenge, but given that Vertov himself considered his films to be part of a greater whole rather than individual works, the chance to view them all chronologically proved revelatory. As co-curator Yuri Tsivian asks in the festival catalogue, “Can anyone say one really understands Man with a Movie Camera – even if one knows it like the back of one’s hand – unless one has seen, say, Kino–Pravda No. 18, or State Kino–Calendar No. 47?” (p. 27). Tsivian’s stellar work on this series, combined with the contributions of fellow scholars in the catalogue and complemented by his invaluable new book anthologising the storms of essays and letters surrounding Vertov’s output, (15) are now indispensable tools for any study not only of Vertov himself, but of all Soviet film production.

Lenin in Kino–Pravda 21 (the writing on his sleeve says “May is with you”)

It’s not just that newsreels were never the same after Vertov’s experiments, but the relationship between montage and the object filmed, as well as that between camera and viewer, underwent an almost alchemical transformation. Tsivian relates “how porous Vertov has made the frontier between words and images…[and] how ready he was to tamper with images to play with words.” (16) The earliest programs, consisting of Kino–Weeks from 1918–19, are fairly standard stuff, more fascinating for their scenes of the immediate post-Revolutionary period than for any technical capabilities. It’s with the Kino–Pravdas, beginning in 1922, that the transformation begins to become apparent, and Vertov’s understanding of the power of images comes to the fore. Now, along with his cameraman brother, editor wife (Elizaveta Svilova), and other collaborators, known as the “kinocs”, Vertov harnesses rapid editing, creative titles, and unusual angles to manipulate both the emotion and the intellect. Friend and theorist Aleksei Gan, writing in 1922, already remarked that “The newsreel ceases to be illustrative material reflecting this or that place in our many-sided contemporary life, and becomes contemporary life as such, outside of territories, time, or individual significance.” (17)

In further editions of Kino–Pravda, Vertov manages to make the Revolution look fun, not just pontificating party members with long beards but parading youth mocking the old authorities and altruistically building a better future. Then with Kino–Eye (Life Off–Guard) (1924) a new aesthetic comes in, a boldly declared manifesto in which the ever-arrogant Vertov declares his intention of filming life as it happens, dismissing directors who stage events or choose fictional narratives. Viewed from a modern eye, the scenes of youth corps members fascistically patrolling remaining capitalist-style markets appear chilling in their prescient reminders of movements to come, from the Hitler Youth to the child gangs of the Khmer Rouge, but Vertov’s commitment to the glories of the new order were unswerving. Stride, Soviet! (1926) epitomises his presentation of the glories of the Revolution, making careful parallels with the miseries before the War and using shots of ice-bound winter giving way to spring as the perfect metaphor for the life-giving bounties of communism, where every functioning light bulb and every turn of a machine furthers the cause begun so gloriously by Lenin.

This elevation of the mechanical and industrial, which Malevich himself understood as a connecting current to the Italian Futurists, (18) becomes the leitmotif of much of Vertov’s work, so much so that the human element appears relegated to a subsidiary level. Critic Boris Arvatov, in 1925, argued that “the intellectuals…have bowed down fetishistically before industry, which for the worker is something perfectly ordinary”, (19) an accurate assessment of so many artists and thinkers of the period who made great shows of solidarity with the proletariat but then never bothered to understand their psyche (there are uneasy attempts to build bridges between the peasant and working classes in Kino–Pravda 18, and In Spring, but none seem especially successful). But all this is politics rather than art, and as Tsivian declares in the catalogue, “One good thing about Vertov is that he never felt enslaved by his own dogmas” (p. 38).

Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman was the director of Moscow (1926), a beautiful if less organisationally inventive poem on the capital and its people. Beginning with the slow pace of early morning and building up rhythm from there, the documentary presents a city teeming with life, where cars and trams crisscross the streets like a black and white anticipation of Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie and factories are cast as the new cathedrals, all soaring forms, with light streaming into the gleaming spaces in great diagonal shafts. Not instructional in a formal sense, Moscow was hailed by Eisenstein, (20) who evidently enjoyed rankling Vertov by denigrating his work in comparison to that of his brother.

Eisenstein was pointedly damning Vertov’s great work of the same year, A Sixth Part of the World, whose philosophy, he declared, “in the absence of artistic means, is bound to sink and does sink into extensive speaking through intertitles”, a not uncommon criticism but given the originality with which Vertov uses those titles, and their sheer playfulness (first noticeable in Kino–Pravda 2 [1922]), the criticism becomes another sign of theoretical rigidity – certainly not a concept unknown to either Eisenstein or Vertov, nor the Party apparatchiks demanding a more formally dogmatic work – rather than a legitimate obstacle as seen from our eyes. A Sixth Part of the World, in which Vertov makes the whole Soviet people feel ownership of their vast country along with its resources, contains extraordinary images of ethnic groupings, encompassing women in yashmaks, shamans, Buddhists, Inuit, but, curiously enough, no mention of Vertov’s own people, the Jews.

The Eleventh Year

The Man with a Movie Camera

As Vertov’s methods eschewed demands for simple and clear montage, he fell increasingly foul of arguments bemoaning that doctrine was being sacrificed to aesthetic considerations; in truth, his championing of Communism’s goals remained unwavering. The Eleventh Year (1928), an astonishingly inventive paean to the triumph of the worker, could of course never question the forward-rushing path paved by the Revolution; as Tsivian writes in the catalogue, “It is true that the political theme of this film is as orthodox and plain as its photography and editing are daring and complex, but why do we always have to treat such things as contradictions?” (p. 60). This was followed a year later by the work Vertov is most identified with, The Man with a Movie Camera, representing the apotheosis of the camera and cameraman and playing with forms of creatorship and spectatorship with an innovation that still astonishes: Tsivian discusses how it has “two, even three identities at once: the film that we are watching, the film which we see being made, and the film that we are being shown somewhere else. There are no clear boundaries between the three – or, to be more exact, the boundaries are clear; it is Vertov who keeps teasing us by constantly shifting these boundaries.” (p. 67). Having followed Vertov’s progression, having images fresh in the mind from Kino–Pravda 19 (1924), in which Svilova edits footage which then becomes part of the newsreel, and seeing how Vertov recycles previously shot passages from his own and Kaufman’s work, encapsulates the enormous contribution to film scholarship this year’s festival has made.

In the interests of space I’ll pass over films such as In Spring and A Shanghai Document, both well-considered in the catalogue and accompanying publication. The festival screened the silent version of Vertov’s beautifully composed Three Songs of Lenin (1935/38), which differs from the sound version more generally available. Here the cult of Lenin is brought to its highest level, proclaiming a triumphalism in the wake of the great man’s achievements while waging a hagiographic campaign that reaches a religious fervor in its worshipful depiction of items such as the famous bench where Lenin was wont to sit. The glorification of this relic is oddly akin to an item such as the stairs St. Alexis used to sleep under, now reverently displayed in a church in Rome, and there’s no denying the pointedly religious tones used in treating Lenin throughout the twenties. Pordenone’s sister festival, Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, have pledged to screen all of Vertov’s sound films at the next edition in July, completing the monumental task first conceived by Yuri Tsivian.

Alice Eis and Bert French performing their famous “Vampire Dance” in The Vampire

On a completely different note, the tribute to Fort Lee, New Jersey was accompanied by Richard Koszarski’s enormously enjoyable (and invaluable) compendium of contemporary articles, memoirs, unpublished correspondence and photos highlighting Fort Lee’s role in early cinema production (21). A high spot of the film presentations was Robert Vignola’s 1913 cautionary tale of female wiliness, The Vampire, a deliciously ripe story whose overriding moral is: beware of overdressed women sitting alone in pricey eating establishments. James Card mistakenly believed it was filmed on Kalem Studio’s Florida lot, but Koszarski proves it’s a New Jersey production all the way (22). Supporting this are two articles from Canadian newspapers pasted into dancer Alice Eis’ scrapbook, confirming the location and adding the intriguing statement that Eis and her partner Bert French were offered the unlikely sum of $2,000 to recreate their famed “Vampire Dance” on the Kalem lot (23). Eis and French’s dance, based on the Burne-Jones painting, originated around 1909, and made quite a scandal with the scantily-clad Eis as a cross between Eve and the snake itself, gesturing in a bacchic frenzy as she seduces and destroys her man. The dance was obviously so well known at the time of the film that Vignola not only includes the entire piece but only cuts three times for audience reaction shots (our hero has his potential fate made clear and consequently rediscovers his manhood).

Just as the image of the vamp gave way to that of the flapper, so at Pordenone The Vampire was followed by Alan Crosland’s 1920 feature The Flapper, starring the charming Olive Thomas, whom Lenore Coffee quipped “had the face of an angel and the speech of a guttersnipe” (24), and who was tragically dead four months after the film’s release. At the time Gavin Lambert was writing his biography of Norma Shearer, no prints were known, so it’s an added bonus to see a very young Shearer in a brief role as one of Thomas’ school chums (25). Milestone Film & Video are releasing this on DVD, along with a new documentary on Thomas, offering a rare opportunity to understand the lovely star’s brief career. We can also look forward to the screening of her 1919 film Out Yonder (directed by Ralph Ince) at this year’s Amsterdam Filmmuseum Biennale in April.

The Enchanted Cottage, with May McAvoy and Richard Barthelmess

Worth mentioning in this section as well is John S. Robertson’s The Enchanted Cottage, based on the old chestnut by Sir Arthur Wing Pinero and featuring Richard Barthelmess and May McAvoy as two misfits, he scarred by the War and she born painfully plain, who find each other and become convinced of love’s power to magically transform themselves into attractive people. Beautifully shot and sensitively performed, this is the only film I’ve seen of McAvoy’s where she begins to partly justify Edward Wagenknecht’s inexplicable overpraise, although I still cannot see how “her beauty always took second place compared to the moral and spiritual sensitivity in which she seemed to me to outrank nearly all her cinematic contemporaries.” (26)

When considering D.W. Griffith’s career, the milestone years of 1914–1915 cause instant problems which probably will never be properly resolved. Chief among these of course are debates over the racist content in The Birth of a Nation, and Griffith’s true implication in its hateful and twisted depiction of blacks. In 1994 Paolo Cherchi Usai wrote:

The reaction against the former penchant towards the ‘great man’ theory and its unbalanced view of Griffith’s life as the rise and fall of a genius has resulted into an unequally [sic] unbalanced attention towards his ideology, sexuality, and political beliefs, to the detriment of an understanding of the aesthetics underlying them…. Eighty years since its release, Griffith’s epic [The Birth of a Nation] is still awaiting an authoritative analysis of its style and technique. (27)

Answering his own call, Cherchi Usai has collected a penetrating collection of essays in the new volume of The Griffith Project, analysing the film from every angle imaginable (28). Charlie Keil’s essay is on the whole the most balanced of the group in its discussion of how Griffith’s style, and not just the content of the Dixon novel, reinforced the racism inherent in the source material. “Few films,” he writes, “have been as reviled as The Birth of a Nation and still remain central to a history of the medium.” (29) While it’s not within the scope of this essay to delve into the socio-historical merits of all the essays in this volume, I do want to posit the suggestion that Linda Williams’ essay lays too much at Griffith’s door, arguing as she does that The Birth of a Nation was responsible for turning the majority of white Americans from a patronisingly benign view of blacks fostered by Uncle Tom’s Cabin into rabid KKK supporters (30). Keil’s level-headed call for a reasoned analysis refuses to countenance either overinterpretation or pussyfooting:

Extolling the film’s stylistic achievements need not deny its racist intent; if anything, it should focus our awareness on better understanding how Griffith achieved the power to create a film that can still simultaneously impress and outrage audiences today. (31)

These essays, combined with David Gill’s 1997 article about the film’s restoration, (32) form essential reading for anyone studying Griffith, and the problems of racism in early American cinema.

Of the films screened at Pordenone listed as supervised, but not directed by Griffith, Enoch Arden (1915, directed by W. Christy Cabanne) was a real stand-out, obviously inspired by the master’s ability to foreground psychological acuity with a sparing use of shots, and featuring, along with The Lily and the Rose (1915, directed by Paul Powell), yet one more sensitive performance by Lillian Gish. Another kind of film entirely is Double Trouble (1915, directed by Cabanne), starring Douglas Fairbanks as the lily-livered, fay Florian Amidon, transformed into the brash ladies’ man Gene Brassfield by a knock on the head. As is so often the case with Fairbanks’ films, along with the sparkle and physical exuberance so manifestly American come subtle reminders of the imperfection of US society, in this case through Gene’s use of political dirty tricks. All of these films receive superb entries in The Griffith Project‘s latest volume.

Carmel Myers enjoys humiliating H.B. Warner in Sorrel and Son

Among the recent discoveries and restorations this year, Herbert Brenon’s Sorrel and Son (1927), previously thought lost, proved strong enough to transcend the poor print material. James Wong Howe’s camerawork unfortunately could not be properly appreciated, but this is an excellent example of the kind of quality production Hollywood made at the time, and Brenon was nominated for an Academy Award (33). H.B. Warner gives a moving performance as a gentleman soldier trying to raise his son through hard times, and Carmel Myers especially stands out as a sluttish tavern owner, leading Variety to single out a scene in which she sadistically makes Warner wash the floors: “The manner in which Miss Myers handles this scene is great, and for that reason it is doubtful if it will pass uncensored.” (34) Anna Q. Nilsson has a small role as Warner’s gold-digging ex-wife – it would be another 27 years before they were reunited, as Norma Desmond’s “waxworks”, in Sunset Boulevard.

The exciting announcement that the Nell Shipman vehicle Wolf’s Brush was found and being screened proved false, but Herbert Blaché’s The Beggar Maid was a welcome substitute, featuring a very young Mary Astor in one of her first roles. A fictionalised treatment of Burne-Jones’ inspiration for “King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid”, it was atmospherically shot by photographer Lejaren à Hiller and twice praised by The New York Times, first for “a lovely girl, a newcomer to the screen, Miss Mary Astor, [who] gives the beggar girl all of the grace and charm she is supposed to have.” The Times critic later calls the film “one of the most inspiriting experiments that has been made for a long time.” (35) Also screened in the “Out of Frame” section were two fragmentary Hans Steinhoff films, Kleider Machen Leute (1921) and Der Falsche Dimitry (1922), part of Horst Claus’ admirable Steinhoff project. The latter, in particular, featured some powerful shots, and terrifically operatic sets.

Two years ago, the Pordenone Festival screened the first chapter from the American serial Wolves of Kultur (1918, directed by Joseph A. Golden), and made the announcement that the full 15-episode serial was being restored in a maverick joint restoration project between 15 film archives. Previously known only through a poorly preserved and incomplete print, now only reel two of Episode 10 is missing. Although originality is not its strong suit, and the writers’ predilection for tossing characters into raging rivers gets a bit tired, my chief interest was in how it fleshed out the anti-German propaganda inherent in the title. Surprisingly, given chapter headings such as “In the Hands of the Hun”, none of the intertitles mentioned Germans or Huns, and only a generic xenophobia suffuses lines such as “Walker treats the woman with the brutality typical of his race.” Unlike On Dangerous Ground (1917), also screened this year and featuring stereotypical Prussians with waxed moustaches, none of the characters in their outward appearance evoke anything other than your average businessman. Reading contemporary articles about the serial and its star Leah Baird, however, the explicitly anti-German ideas are much clearer: “By pitting a young and beautiful American girl of her type against a viperish gang of Kaiser-kowtowers, an excellent opportunity is afforded to drive home in a forceful way the real nature of the brutes with whom we are at war.” And later, in the same article, “Even the producers, at the beginning, did not realize that powerful influences would seize this opportunity to further anti-Hun sentiment, as they are surely going to do.” (36) Variety‘s review of Episode 4 specifies “German propagandists” as the villains, (37) although the surviving intertitles never pinpoint the enemy. By the time the last chapter was released in January 1919, the War was over; could it be that the intertitles were toned down, perhaps in reissued prints, in the wake of a public tired of propaganda? Released by Pathé but shot at Crystal Studios in the Bronx, many of the outdoor scenes appear to be in the Palisades, but a contemporary newspaper states that the serial was being shot partly “near the Banks of Newfoundland.” (38) Both the question of intertitles and location work provide further areas for investigation.

Tillie's Punctured Romance, with Mabel Normand, Charlie Chaplin and Marie Dressler

Two films highlighted not just for their recent restorations but also for specially commissioned scores were Tillie’s Punctured Romance and The Cat and the Canary. The former, for decades only available in choppy prints of very mixed quality, has been lovingly pieced together from the best material available, and despite frequent passages that switch from graininess to finer material and back again, the transitions are now flawless, and the matches perfect (39). The only frustration remaining is the ever-present desire to view the film three times: once to concentrate on Chaplin, the second time Normand, and the third Dressler. The musical score, by Tillie’s Nightmare, unfortunately relied too heavily on the sorts of drum knocks and silly sounds usually associated with 1940s reissues. The same can’t be said for Neil Brand’s superb orchestration of The Cat and the Canary, in which his judicious use of that wonderful instrument, the theremin, filled the cinema with smiles whenever those other-worldly sounds warbled through the air. The print was near flawless, and the programmers somewhat made up for Laura La Plante’s exclusion two years ago from the “Funny Ladies” series by scheduling this classic now.

Baby Peggy

Finally, a few words about this year’s guests: the great cameraman Jack Cardiff, a spry 90, was on hand to discuss his memories not just of early British cinema production in general but specific recollections of his time as errand boy on the set of The Informer. The second guest was Diana Serra Cary, formerly known as Baby Peggy and the last surviving star of Hollywood’s silent period. Warm and knowledgeable, Cary was a welcome presence (it was great fun watching fellow attendees spotting this grey-haired woman of 86 and pointing “look, there’s Baby Peggy!”) whose informative, sharp reflections kept everyone in thrall. Two of her films were screened: Helen’s Babies (1924, director William A. Seiter), a repeat from two years earlier and always a pleasure, and Captain January (1924, director Edward F. Cline), a less mawkish version of the children’s classic later filmed by Shirley Temple. Baby Peggy was always a delightful performer, with a quick perception and delicious smile, and whose wide-eyed looks of wonderment managed to be endearing without feeling cutesy. No stranger to film history, (40) she closed her talk with an evocative summation, opining that silent cinema itself “was a great beauty, who died at the height of her beauty.”

Endnotes

  1. Jacques Belmans, “Anthony Asquith, 1902–1968” in Anthologie du Cinéma, 67, March–April 1972 (supplement to L’Avant-Scène du Cinéma, 67, vol. VII), p. 359.
  2. Rachel Low, The History of the British Film, 1918–1929, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1971, p. 308. See also (p. 184 therein) her quotation from Paul Rotha.
  3. Low, p. 182.
  4. Low, p. 183.
  5. Ann-Marie Cook, “The Adventures of the ‘Vitagraph Girl’ in England” in Alan Burton and Laraine Porter (eds), Pimple, Pranks & Pratfalls, British Film Comedy Before 1930, Flicks Books, Trowbridge, 2000, pp. 33–41.
  6. Low, op. cit., p. 147.
  7. Christine Gledhill, Reframing British Cinema, 1918–1928. Between Restraint and Passion, BFI Publishing, London, 2003, pp. 85–87, 162–63; Low, op. cit., p. 146.
  8. See also the forthcoming publication of the 2003 British Silent Cinema Festival symposium, Location! Location! Location! Landscape, Place and Travel in pre-1930 British Cinema.
  9. For a look at Balfour’s image as Squibs, see Judith McLaren, “’My career up to now’: Betty Balfour and the Background to the Squibs Series” in Burton and Porter, pp. 76–81.
  10. Gledhill, pp. 146–48.
  11. Michael Williams, Ivor Novello. Screen Idol, BFI Publishing, London, 2003, p. 149.
  12. Williams, p. 150.
  13. Gledhill, p. 113. See also her analysis of Novello’s performing style, pp. 83–84.
  14. I am very grateful to Matthew Sweet for confirming the different endings.
  15. Yuri Tsivian (ed.), Lines of Resistance, Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Gemona, 2004.
  16. Tsivian, p. 16.
  17. Tsivian, p. 55.
  18. Tsivian, pp. 343–44.
  19. Tsivian, p. 132.
  20. Tsivian, p. 145.
  21. Richard Koszarski, Fort Lee: The Film Town, John Libbey Publishing, Rome, 2004.
  22. James Card, Seductive Cinema. The Art of Silent Film, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1994, p. 183; Koszarski, p. 86.
  23. Alice Eis Scrapbook, Library of Performing Arts, New York. The first article, from an unidentified Vancouver newspaper dated March 26, 1914, states “The Vampire Dance recently attracted large numbers at a local moving picture house and Miss Eis describes her experiences in acting for this film for the Salem [sic] Company in New Jersey.” (Scrapbook, p. 23). The second article, from The Sun, March 27, 1914 provides more details: “At the time that the photo play was being made, they were appearing at Hammerstein’s, in New York City, presenting the same dance that they are doing here, and were offered $2,000 by the Kalem Film Company to present their Vampire number in the film. The offer was readily accepted by both the dancers, and in six hours the dance was filmed and French & Eis became world famous.” (Scrapbook, p. 28).
  24. Lenore Coffee, Storyline. Recollections of a Hollywood Screenwriter, Cassell, London, 1973, p. 43.
  25. Gavin Lambert, Norma Shearer. A Life, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1990, p. 20.
  26. Edward Wagenknecht, Stars of the Silents, Scarecrow Press Inc, Metuchen, NJ, 1987, p. 65. See also Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1963, p. 229, in which he calls her “one of the most sensitive actresses indeed that our screen has known”.
  27. Paolo Cherchi Usai, “The Silent Library”, Griffithiana, no. 51/52, October 1994, p. 259.
  28. Paolo Cherchi Usai (ed.), The Griffith Project, Volume 8: Films Produced in 1914–15, BFI Publishing, London, 2004.
  29. Charlie Keil, “The Birth of a Nation: Style and Technique” in Cherchi Usai (2004), p. 62.
  30. Linda Williams, “Politics” in Cherchi Usai (2004), especially p. 101.
  31. Keil, p. 62.
  32. David Gill, “The Birth of a Nation. Orphan or Pariah?”, Griffithiana, no. 60/61, October 1997, pp. 17–29.
  33. The most complete modern assessment of Brenon’s career appears in Jack Lodge, “The Career of Herbert Brenon”, Griffithiana, 57/58, October 1996. Lodge lists Sorrell and Son as lost.
  34. Variety, November 16, 1927.
  35. The New York Times, September 26, 1921, p. 18; and October 2, 1921, VII, p. 3.
  36. “October Stars World-Wide Advertising for Leah Baird, Covering All Allied Countries”, The Morning Telegraph, September 22, 1918. From Leah Baird clippings file, Library of Performing Arts, New York.
  37. Variety, October 25, 1918.
  38. The New York Telegraph, August 18, 1918. From Leah Baird clipping file.
  39. The forthcoming issue of Griffithiana, no. 75, will contain Bo Berglund’s definitive essay “The Making of Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and Ross Lipman’s article detailing the difficult restoration.
  40. She’s recently published a biography of fellow star Jackie Coogan: Jackie Coogan, The World’s Boy King: A Biography of Hollywood’s Legendary Child Star, Scarecrow Press, Metuchen, NJ, 2003. See especially her moving autobiography: Diana Serra Cary, What Ever Happened to Baby Peggy? The Autobiography of Hollywood’s Pioneer Child Star, New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1996.

About The Author

Jay Weissberg is an American film critic living in Rome, Italy. He writes regularly for Variety.