Pordenone Silent Film Festival; October 3-10, 2020

I finally had the opportunity to attend the Pordenone Silent Film Festival! It’s been a wonderful week of silent films, something to look forward to each day. I had heard about Pordenone for many years but it just wasn’t on my radar to be able to attend; it was an event I was aiming towards when I eventually hit my retirement days. So, trying to find the silver lining during Covid times, I would say bravo to the people of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and host Jay Weissberg for programming something special to these less than social times.


The film festival opened up with the 1923 Penrod and Sam, a film I recognized having seen previously. Okay, to be truthful, I didn’t remember the title or that I had ever seen this film until it started screening. It was one of those déjà vu moments, where you recognize scenes and know what’s going to happen in a future sequence. For instance, although Ben Alexander as Penrod looked vaguely familiar, I didn’t recognize the kid who played the bully, Rodney Bitts (Buddy Messinger) but I did recognize Georgie (Newton Hall), the rich, sissy kid with the round-rimmed glasses who is eventually accepted as an important member of the “boys club”.

Also in the film was Mary Philbin, best known to me for her role opposite Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928) although I have also seen her in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) with Lon Chaney (what silent-film appreciator hasn’t), but that performance didn’t effect me as much as her role as the blind girl.

The other character that I most enjoyed was, I believe, Marjorie played by Gertrude Messinger. And yes, she was Buddy’s sister. She wanted to be in charge of herself and join the boys, yet she wanted to be like other females of her era–domesticated. A dichotomy.

After the screening, there was a round-house discussion featuring Jay Weissberg, Karen Fusco of the University of Nevada, Reno, composer Stephen Horne and David Pierce from Library of Congress, Washington, D.C, who could bring up minute details that cinephiles care to hear about when discussing aspects and tangents of the evening’s film, you can listen to here. Although I’ve only met him briefly on a couple of occasions, I know David Pierce from a number of his presentations at film festivals I’ve attended, one of them being with regard to his and co-author James Layton’s introduction to their highly informative book, The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935. What I remember best was his most interesting but disturbing lecture, “Where Did Our Films Go? The Destruction of Some American Silent Features” at the June 2017 Mostly Lost 6 weekend. Which brings me to where I first saw tonight’s feature film, at the last Mostly Lost 8 weekend in June 2019–which makes total sense since the print was borrowed from the Library of Congress. If I had initially read the write up on the Pordenone home page, I would have read Kevin Brownlow’s article where his opening line states that fact.

Penrod and Sam is based on the 1916 Booth Tarkington sequel to his 1914 Penrod novel, focusing on Penrod’s love of his dog, boyhood adventures, and relationships particularly within the secret boys’ club he has formed along with best pal Sam, with a final book, Penrod Jashber being published in 1929. Directed by William Beaudine, who made short films from 1915 until he graduated to full features in 1922, was mostly known for making pictures at Poverty Row studios, although his most prestigious and best known films would be Mary Pickford’s Little Annie Rooney (1925) and Sparrows (1926), Jean Harlow’s Three Wise Girls (1932), Joan Blondell’s Make Me a Star (1932) as well as remaking his own film, Penrod and Sam in 1931.

Sunday night’s film was the Chinese Guofeng  [National Customs] (1935).  I have only seen a couple of films from China from the early 1930s and they have been silent, so it’s safe to say that China was late in coming into the talkie era of movie making.  I know little–or nothing–about the Chinese film industry so when Jay Weissberg introduced the film and told us that this was actress Ruan Lingyu’s last role before committing suicide, I then guessed that she played the role of the serious sister, Zhang Lan.  

The short synopsis is that the story is about two sisters, Zhang Lan and Zhang Tao (Li-li Li), who are in love with the same man.  But this story has a lot more to offer than just this simple narrative.  I would say that the main idea or value that jumps out is “responsibility”.  To understand the ideological and historical context of this film, there is a write up by Dr. Victor Fan, professor at King’s College which you can read here.  

Ruan Lingyu, also known by her English name Lily Yuen made her film debut in 1927.  She fell in love with gambler Zhang Damin who she financially supported as he had been disowned by his wealthy family.  Eventually she broke up with him and became the mistress of married tea tycoon Tang Jishan, who bought her a mansion in Shanghai.  In 1934 Damin sued her, claiming she was in fact his wife and owed him money.  The scandal papers couldn’t get enough of making her private troubles headline news and just a month and half before she turned 25, Lingyu committed suicide by overdosing on barbiturates, apparently mirroring her character of real-life actress Ai Xia in her second last film New Women.  

In Guofeng, though, she plays the profound, intense sister who–of course–sacrifices her own happiness by giving up the man she loves so Zhang Tao can marry him instead.  Lan doesn’t understand her sister’s nature because we are almost sure that the thoughtless younger girl will not find her fantasies of marriage to a serious young teacher anything close to reality.  

And what about this husband material?  Living in a small rural village, Chen Zuo (Junli Zheng) has always loved Zhang Lan and they are now planning to marry.  So, even if her selfish younger sister wants him for herself “or will die”, is that any reason for Lan to give him up?  She gives him a cryptic reason as to why, and then of course, he gives up on her so easily, taking up with the with her sister’s and her childlike but much more direct advances.  True, he’s a modest man, especially when compared to the very handsome Bo Yang (Peng Luo) who innocent-turned-sexy Tao becomes involved with in the latter part of the story, but it’s still disconcerting nonetheless that he didn’t fight harder–or at all–for Zhang Lan.  

The film is divided up into three segments: the first when they live in their village; the second when both sisters head off to school; and the final scenes when they come back home.  It’s in the third section where the propaganda of the country is really noticed and felt–everything you do is for the betterment of others generally, and in particular, China.  

The film was directed by Ming-Yau Lo and Shilin Zhu.  To hear more about this film, you can tune in to the virtual round table discussion including Jay Weissberg, Victor Fan (King’s College, London) and composer Gabriel Thibaudeau here.  

Where Lights Are Low (1921) was one of the films I was especially excited to see listed in the Pordenone program.  The only silent film I remember ever seeing Sessue Hayakawa in is DeMille’s The Cheat (1915).  I also remember once seeing a beautiful layout in what I thought was an Architectural Digest magazine of the exquisite  Hollywood home that Hayakawa and his wife, Tsuru Aoki, lived in.  The owner of only one Architectural Digest (April 1994), I expected to find the article there.  However, it wasn’t, but there is one on the home Fay Wray purchased from Florence Vidor in 1928 after Florence divorced her director husband King Vidor.  Why do I mention this?  Because on the last day of the festival, Wray, at the age of 17, makes an appearance in a 1925 short.  There’s always some tangent, somewhere.

Where Lights Are Low didn’t disappoint me.  It’s the story of a Chinese Prince (Hayakawa was Japanese) who a) is refusing to marry royalty, wanting to follow his heart and marry the gardener’s daughter, and b) is being sent off to an American university to study (if I remember correctly) engineering.  The film allows us to see Hayakawa in both Asian costume and European/American black tails.  When the love of his life is kidnapped, brought to San Francisco to be sold as a sex slave, we see Prince T’su Wong Shih swing into noble action.  

In Jay Weissberg’s introduction, he mentions that the White Slavery market in San Francisco wasn’t as widespread or “dangerous” as the tabloids were making it out to be.  This remark then brought to mind two other films that employ this theme in comedic form–the 1916 short with Douglas Fairbanks, The Mystery  of the Leaping Fish and the 1967 Thoroughly Modern Millie.  

What’s really in this box under the imported tea?!

Although many of the actors were Japanese in this Chinese-based film, the love interest Quin Yin was played by American actress Gloria Payton in yellow face.  It’s less disconcerting to see an Asian play an Asian, even if it’s not his or her true ethnicity, but it’s difficult to watch a Caucasian play someone of a different race.  Payton passed for Chinese about as well as she would have passed as a black woman.  But the story must go on and her job was to stay locked in a room for about three years until our hero could rescue her from the clutches of the evil Chang Bong Lo (Tôgô Yamamoto) who was obsessed with possessing her!  

Our hero must sacrifice his princely position, work as a commoner in order to earn the staggering $10,000 to save his love’s honour and buy her freedom, but when his business is destroyed by Lo, he enters a lottery where he wins just the amount he needs.  Now comes the best scene of the film; the physical battle between good and evil–Shih and Lo.  And these two men fight for a long while, punching and ripping at clothes until the Prince and his love are able to escape.  There’s a subtle but significant ending to the film, with regards to the fate of the gangster Lo as the lovers set sail on a ship heading back home.  Although I have to admit, I wondered what kind of reception would be awaiting them since the Prince’s uncle explicitly forbid this marriage to a commoner, citing disinheritance if his demand was ignored.

As with the two previous prints, the restorations were beautifully done and this film’s cinematography and crispness were lovely for the eyes.  My only complaint was that the logo by the National Film Archive of Japan was so large, you couldn’t help but continually notice it as it sat in the bottom righthand corner of the screen throughout the film.  Other films place their ownership logos, which I get, but this one was so obtrusive that it took away from the viewing experience.

The film was directed by Colin Campbell, a director who’s only other film I have seen is Little Orphant Annie (1918) starring Colleen Moore which has only recently been restored by film historian and collector Eric Grayson and released by the Library of Congress.  Campbell died at the age of 68 in 1928.

Click here to read more about this film by Daisuke Miyao who wrote the definitive biography, Sessue Hayakawa: Silent Cinema and Transnational Stardom, and which won the 2007 Book Award in History from the Association of Asian American Studies and the John Hope Franklin Book Award from Duke University.

To hear more about his film, you can join Jay Weissberg, Daisuke Miyao (University of California, San Diego), Ned Thanhouser (Thanhouser Company Film Preservation Inc, Portland, Oregon), and composer/accompanist Philip Carli here.  Again, it was delightful to see that there was someone I knew on this panel of film experts, Philip Carli.  Dr. Carli has been involved with Toronto Film Society for many, many years and I became acquainted with him when he would play for us when we held our annual weekend at Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY.  I also run into Philip at many other film festivals that I attend, and I have to say he is a marvellous composer and accompanist of silent film.  His scores always perfectly suit any given situation our stars are facing, and this evening’s composition was no exception.  

La Tempesta in un Cranio [The Storm in a Skull/Kill or Cure] (1921) was probably my least favourite film in the week’s program and that’s probably partially because it was a comedy, a genre I am less fond of than Drama.  Everything is subjective and what I find funny is less than what others do, particularly because I don’t find a lot of humour in most slapstick even though I’m weirdly partial to The Three Stooges.  When I was a kid, my parents would screen Laurel and Hardy films and I would have to get up and leave the room because I couldn’t handle the physical destruction that took place, which left my parents and their friends in stitches.  But I digress.

La Tempesta in un Cranio isn’t really quite slapstick, but it’s a lot of running around, escaping situations, being caught, escaping again, and getting nowhere.  But isn’t that how many of our dreams–or nightmares–work?  We wake up anxious but then relieved that all this crazy activity wasn’t real, we can sigh with relief and get on with our day.  So, this story is about a descendant from a wealthy family, Renato De Ortis, who believes he is genetically disposed to madness.

I am such a glamour queen.  No, I don’t mean I am glamour queen, I mean that I love my actors to look glamourous.  And that can mean that I am perfectly okay with the Hollywood makeup industry and the photographers that make our stars, particularly the female ones, look breathtaking.  In this 1921 Italian film, I thought that the female lead, actress Letizia Quaranta, looked beautiful when she wasn’t so made up which is how she appeared during our hero’s escape from being captured.  Purposefully, made to look softer, when De Ortis meets her on his escape route.  

Carlo Campogalliani was quite prolific, not only playing the lead Renato De Ortis, but was also the director.  His history shows that he not only directed and acted in many films between 1914 and 1964, but that he wrote screenplays as well as got behind the camera on occasion.  Around the time of the making of this film, he and Quaranta were married.  To read more about this film, check out Matteo Pavesi of Cineteca Italiana’s write up here.

To listen to a conversation with Jay Weissberg, Matteo Pavesi (Cineteca Italiana, Milano) and the score’s composers Frank Bockius and Günter Buchwald, click here.

Wednesday evening’s film was Oi Apachides Ton Athinon [Gli apache di Atene/The Apaches of Athens] (1930), a Greek silent whose street scenes were shot in Athens.  The story is based on an operetta and tells the story about poor, penniless 20-year-old Kostas, who’s known in his community as “The Prince” and is secretly loved by the domestically abused flower peddler Titika.  The Prince and his two loyal but irresponsible friends eventually come up with a scheme to infiltrate a socialites party, only for The Prince to discover that the rich man’s daughter is the woman he recently rescued in a horse riding accident. Unbeknownst to each other, they both had “fallen in love”, so meeting each other at this party could potentially lead to more.  And to top things off,  Kostas has only just discovered that he is the recipient of an inheritance!  But what will become of poor Titika?!

Even back then European actors were far different in appearance than their Hollywood counterparts.  Actor Petros Epitropakis was handsome and chubby, while Stella Hristoforidou who played the socialite Vera had the most heavy artificial makeup applied to her face, that she looked almost clownish, possibly even mannish, not that clownish and mannish are synonymous.  Reeling back at times in any case, I certainly had to pretend that she was beautiful.

Regardless, this film was beautifully photographed by Mihallis Gaziadis.  And for one particular touch that I found amusing, Kostas lives in a barren flat, with a few pictures pinned to his wall.  Standing alone on one wall is a photograph of Charlie Chaplin who otherwise is never mentioned.

To read more about this film by Greek Film Archivist Maria Komninos, click here.  To listen to the conversation about this film with Jay Weissberg, Maria Komninos (Greek Film Archive, Athens), Céline Ruivo, Ioannis Tselikas (Hellenic Music Centre, Athens), click here.

Thursday was the evening I was most looking forward to when I first registered to attend Pordenone.  What silent film connoisseur doesn’t love to see films by G.W. Pabst or with Brigitte Helm!  Not only was the 1928 Abwege a beautiful print, it was the most recent remastering of the film, adding in tints to scenes that had not discovered before the last remastering.  

It’s the story of Irene Beck (Helm) married to handsome lawyer Thomas (Gustav Diessl) and her restlessness of being in a marriage that both want to dominate.  As in so many stories, men want their wives to be domesticated, staying home to do all those exciting chores that they claim they are not skilled enough to do–you know, cleaning, cooking, mending.  But when you live a childless lifestyle of a wealthy woman, there is much less to do because you can afford to hire servants to do all those tedious jobs.  

So the story begins with Thomas arrives home to a loving embrace, only to immediately show his distain when he sees that his wife is entertaining socialite Liane (Hertha von Walther) and artist Walter Frank (Jack Trevor).  He does not like these people and reminds her that he has already told her that he has forbidden her to see them.  After all, he doesn’t trust Liane not to tempt in leading Irene astray, along with noting Frank’s attraction to his wife.  Once they leave, she follows Thomas into his study where he deliberately and calculatedly ignores her by taking a business phone call.  The game is now set in motion.

We don’t know if this is the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back for Irene, but she heads off to Walter Frank’s studio, seducing him into taking her away from her controlling husband.  He suggests they take the night train to Vienna, and while she goes home to pack, he arranges the overnight sleeping arrangements, but in second, not first class.  Frank, we learn, is not wealthy, but her husband is.  Meanwhile, unbeknownst to her, Thomas has followed her to this rendezvous.  When Irene leaves, Thomas goes up to Walter’s apartment to confront him.  How convenient, I thought, that Irene left the apartment door ajar, so Thomas was able to walk right in and nip that plan in the bud.

So Irene, waiting with bags packed at the train station is quite surprised when her husband and valet show up to take her back home.  So now what does she do?  Here’s where the most entertaining part of the story begins–Irene dresses exquisitely in what I envisioned was a gold evening gown to attend an underground Berlin nightclub, using her husband’s government friend to act as her escort there.  When she enters the club, she seemed so real to me as she scans the club looking for Liane’s familiar face.  She doesn’t look happy and continues to appear miserable throughout her night there.  

A most interesting scene is one of a fading beautiful woman who’s face is becoming ruined by the usage of drugs.  She’s looking for a fix and is able to purchase her drug of choice from her dealer by pawning money from the government official who accompanied Irene.  Like most people at the club, she is attracted to Irene and when Irene asks Liane who she is and what she is doing, Liane tells her that the woman was the wife of a well-known banker who committed suicide when she left him.  Now she fills her evenings by visiting paradise.  And so Irene is led down the path to try some “heaven” too.  This emboldens her to embarrass Walter who is sitting at the bar, drinking despondently.  She attracts the attention of a well-known boxer, and when the night is over, heads home with an ugly doll in his likeness.

I wondered why this somewhat depraved and mysterious woman was on the path of destruction.  Was it because she had inadvertently felt that she had caused the death of her husband?  Or had she already started on this road before she left him?

This is point where you think the couple’s game might come to an end, at least for now.  When Irene reaches home, the spouses reconcile; they prepare for a night of sex but when Thomas sees the doll, he spurns Irene.  I’m not sure of the reason for this–is he jealous of something he believes the doll means?  In any event, the night does not end happily.

I will jump ahead to the ending, leaving as to how we get there for you to find out.  But the two end up in divorce court, and just seconds after the marriage has been dissolved, the two reconcile and plan to re-wed.  In its finality, I suddenly feel like the film has turned into a screwball comedy!  They may still be in love with each other, but how is anything in their marriage going to change if they haven’t?  Irene would most probably have been financial well enough off now to be able to live a comfortable life on her own and I’m sure it wouldn’t take her long to find someone else, considering how many people found her attractive.  And as much as Thomas may have been an intelligent, even interesting man, he was just way too possessive and controlling.

What makes this film worth seeing in particular Brigitte Helm.  She has a most expressive face.  It can be plain, beautiful, frightening, erotic, hypnotic and, even in black and white, her eyes have the piercing look of the palest of blue.  In the notes by Stefan Droessler, he remarks that the audience of the day laughed and booed at her performance, which is a surprise as it never once struck me to feel this way.  You can read his further remarks here.

I have seen Helm in (no need to mention but I will) Metropolis (1927), The Wonderful Lies of Nina Petrovna (1929) and more recently in Pabst’s earlier film The Love of Jeanne Ney (1927)–and while she doesn’t play the main role, she is noticeably effective in the role of the blind girl Gabrielle.  I think I liked this first film of theirs better, but you will have to watch both films to make your own decision.  

Until the day of the screening when I noticed the English title, The Devious Path, I didn’t realize that I actually owned a copy of this film.  That’s fine, I thought, because my copy is probably a poor dupe and the one being screened  tonight will be the latest remastered copy.  Still, I put my copy of the DVD which I would have purchased from collector Marty Kearns a couple of years ago into the player and saw that it was actually a very nice print (however with a logo), but it had only German intertitles.  But because, as it turns out, Abwege has a very limited amount of intertitles–and now that I know the story–it won’t be at all difficult to watch my German-only copy.

Mentioning this gives me the opportunity to say that Marty Kearns passed away on October 4th, the opening day of the Pordenone festival.  There were a number of tributes to him on several sites including Facebook, 16mmFilmtalk and  NitrateVille which you can read here.  I’m pretty certain that Marty was a regular dealer at film festivals for over at least the 25 or more years that I have been attending them.  He always had the rarest of films, some were highdef copies while others were not so great, but then there was nowhere else you were likely to see these vintage films.  For the last number of years, no longer being able to attend due to being ill, Marty entrusted  his friend John to selling his enormous collection at film events.  The last time I saw Marty was last year at Cinecon 2019 and although I did say hello, I could see he looked more frail than in the past. 

To watch the discussion with Jay Weissberg, Stefan Dröβler, (Filmmuseum München) and tonight’s film’s composer Mauro Colombis, click here.

Friday is always my favourite day of the week and it was with much anticipation that I was looking forward to seeing Cecil B. DeMille and Mary Pickford 1917 collaborate together to make A Romance of the Redwoods. It could be considered in the genre of Westerns, but that’s just the background for a story about a young woman who, after her last parent has died, moves out to California to live with her uncle.  But unbeknownst to her, Uncle John (Winter Hall) has been killed by Indians and his identity has been taken over by outlaw Black Brown (Elliott Dexter) in order to escape being hunted down by the law for highway robbery.

Brown is able to convince the honest Jenny (Pickford) that it’s in her best interest to go along with this charade. When no one in the town’s saloon has any interest in what she has to declare, other than the madam of the honky-tonk for purely unsavoury business reasons, Jenny has no choice but to go along with this pretense.  It’s certainly interesting that Jenny is (literally) shacking up with a man who looks much younger than her real uncle, but in fact Elliott Dexter is only 7 years younger than Winter Hall and 13 years older than Mary.  Still, at 45 Uncle John looks like an aged uncle, while at 38 Black Brown is rather handsome and still youthful looking, looking closer in age to Jenny than he does to Uncle John.

So, with honest, decent Jenny living with bad boy Black, her breeding and good manners begin to rub off on him, and he begins to care about her opinion of him.  You probably know where this is heading, but there’s an unusual scenario at the end when Jenny (again literally) saves Black’s neck.  And by this ” unusual scenario”, I mean that if you think of most of Pickford’s pictures where she plays children and young girls well into her twenties, not only is it a bit surprising that she’s living alone in a cabin with a man, albeit, it appears, not in the biblical sense, but the ending is even more defiant of that Pickford image.

I had read both of Scott Eyman’s biographies on these two people, the most recent reading being the book on DeMille.  I found DeMille’s life fascinating, while it has been close to 30 years since I read his book on Pickford.  Eyman doesn’t comment on the film at all in Pickford’s biography, and only briefly in DeMille’s stating that it was shot in five weeks in Santa Cruz County in northern California doing well at the box office by grossing $424,718, just over three times the amount of the cost of production.  DeMille had only complimentary things to say about Pickford in his autobiography, but giving away the un-Pickford-like ending to the story.  And although Mary, in the biography by Eileen Whitfield The Woman Who Made Hollywood “haltingly praised DeMille as a great producer, didn’t think he had any heart.  ‘He was a very commanding person, but he wasn’t a great director.  However, I loved him.'”

More detailed information can be found about the film in Kevin Brownlow’s Mary Pickford Rediscovered.  While this film was being shot, not only were there 8 x 10 stills being taken with a plate camera, but the Artcraft company photographer used a Graflex–a hand-held camera with a reflex view finder, loaded with film producing 5×7 negatives–to take over a thousand photos while shooting was in production.  Mary Pickford never left California to make another picture elsewhere, and after making a second film with DeMille, The Little American, left him and Jeanie Macpherson for director Marshall Neilan and screenwriter Frances Marion.

I thought it worth noting that Jeanie Macpherson wrote many of DeMilles screenplays, with both of them collaborating on the one for tonight’s film.  Besides being DeMille’s mistress for a period of time, she was important in her own right, devoting herself to writing for him.  She first began working for DeMille in early 1915, having written the screenplay for The Captive, and continued to write scripts until her death at the age of 60 in 1946.

To read more about the film, click here.  To listen to the conversation with Jay Weissberg, Anke Brouwers (Antwerp), composer Donald Sosin and John Sweeney, click here.

The last full-length feature (at only 55 minutes) was shown on the last day of the virtual festival.  Ballettens Datter [La figlia del balletto/Daughter of the Ballet] (1913), although not at all thrilling, still had something to offer of interest to silent film fans.  It was an early Danish film starring actress and ballet dancer Rita Sacchetto in a role about…a dancer.  She is famous and coveted by many, so when Count de Croisset (Svend Aggerholm) pursues Odette Blant (Sacchetto), winning her love and her hand, his only stipulation is that she give up her dancing career forever.  It’s the old story, and although it may be what is expected in stories from the good old days, it is tiresome and sigh worthy today.  I supposed the logic behind insisting a woman give up the thing that makes her life worthwhile, and what attracted him to her in the first place, is that the man now possesses the spark of her essence.  Either this man doesn’t see or care that he has taken away what gives her joy and feeling of worthiness is based on the idea that a woman isn’t quite human.  What, of course, would make more sense is for him to want the world to see what made her so wonderful to him, yet know that she also chose him and is his partner in life.  

Eventually Odette “betrays” her husband by accepting to cover for another dancer, asking that it be kept secret with no announcement made.  Her husband attends this performance, recognizes his wife and accuses her of infidelity with the theatre manager.  This leads to an usual poison pill popping duel between the two men.

Physical attraction and talent have their time and place in history.  Neither Rita Sacchetto’s dancing style nor her looks would be considered note worthy, probably starting as early as the mid to late 1920s.  She wasn’t particularly pretty and had a rather average size figure, not the physique of a ballet dancer as we know.

An interesting critique of the film by Cineanalyst can be found on IMDb.  You can also read the festival write ups by Casper Typberg and Mary Simonson here and listen to the conversation with Jay Weissberg, Mary Simonson (Colgate University, Hamilton, NY) and Casper Tyberg (Københavns Universitet) here.

The festival finished off with five delightful Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy shorts, only separately, before they became a team in 1926.  The music accompaniment for all the films were by Neil Brand, who did a brilliant job.  When I was a kid, my parents would have get togethers with film collectors and friends to watch movies every month or so. When they showed Laurel and Hardy films, I had a hard time remaining in the room because I would find the chaos made me feel incredibly nervous.  I can enjoy Laurel and Hardy films now, but they definitely have that destructive edge that many other comedians of that time didn’t.

The first film was The Serenade (1916) with a mustachio-free Oliver Hardy, who was then known as Babe Hardy.  It’s already slipping from memory, but I mainly recall guffawing, silliness and musical instruments filled with beer.

The Rent Collector (1921) was more entertaining–and interesting, to be sure.  The main star was comedian Larry Semon, who looked years older than his 32.  Here he takes on the unthankful job of rent collecting and is harassed miserably but hilariously by The Big Boss (Babe Hardy) and an even bigger thug underling.  There are some wonderful scenes in this film including an optical illusion that has probably been used many times, possibly before, but certainly since, of dozens of women piling out of the back seat of a motor car. 

Although Semon and Hardy have their talents, it was hard not to be impressed by Pete Gordon who played the barber in his underground barbershop.  While The Big Boss irrationally decides that it’s time to get a shave, his young sons figure this is a also a good time to play a trick on him with a spider.  This puts Big Boss into a rage, taking it out on the poor barber.  When an even more unfortunate accident befalls the Big Boss, with mounds and mounds of mud dripping onto his face–which looked to me like chocolate cake icing, so I imagined it actually tasted yummy–he sends the poor barber flying right out of his shop.  In these type of slapstick comedies, there is a huge amount of physicality, and the majority of it looks painful.  Lots of pushing, hitting, flinging and shaking occur and in Pete Gordon’s case, it was quite impressive to see how dexterous he was as the “object” being flung.  Pete changed his name in 1924 to Eddie Gordon, and although he played in many shorts and had some bit parts in only a few feature length films, he had his last hurrah in Barbara Stanwyck’s Lady of Burlesque (1943) before he passed away at the age of 56. 

As for Larry Semon, I only remember seeing him in one film or short at a recent film festival, but before that, knew nothing about him.  Sadly, Semon had made and lost his fortune by the time he died in 1928 at the age of 39.  He, along with prodigious director Norman Taurog, who incidentally got his start making these Semon two-reelers, directed this film together.  Contrastively, when I was a teen and first became aware of the name Norman Taurog, it was for the several Elvis films he had made at the end of his career.  

Next was Laurel in action in Detained (1924) playing the poor sap who gets robbed of his clothes by an escaped convict, and who then has no choice but to wear the striped suit himself.  Before he even has a chance to launch a complaint, he is immediately “detained” by the first policeman who strolls by and tossed “back” to jail.  The intertitles were written by Tay Garnett, but I feel that some of the darker humour might be Laurel’s own.  There is a gallows joke that causes you to smile questionably, and lots of electric chair near mishaps.  There was also a scene with a fly, a cake covered in white icing and a gun that couldn’t help bring to mind a current unrelated political US debate.  And although I didn’t recognize her, Agnes Ayres of The Son of the Sheik (1926) fame, had a small role somewhere in the short.

Moonlight and Noses (1925) starred either Laurel or Hardy and included one of twelve shorts directed by the former, who also had a hand in the writing credits.  Clyde Cook and Noah Young play to bungling burglars while 17-year-old Fay Wray plays the daughter of Professor Sniff (James Finalyson) and love interest to Ashley (Tyler Brooke).  Lots of silliness abound, from attempted robbery to grave digging robbery, from “ghostly” apparitions to a lovers reunion.

Last but not least was Stan Laurel in When Knights Were Cold (1923).  The short is missing the first reel so whatever has happened there, our journey begins with Lord Helpus, a Slippery Knight being chased by a team knight-ridden-horses gallooping–and I mean gallooping–towards a medieval kingdom.  These horses are costumes worn by the actors and it is quite an amusing sight to see them sprinting along in a tight group, some almost tripping over each other. 

The names of the characters are lots of fun: Countess Out, a Classy Eve (Mae Laurel); Princess Elizabeth New Jersey, a Swell Eve (Catherine Bennett); and lots of knights–rough, hot, tough, bad and good.  Lord Helpus is there to save the princess and one of the scenes that actually made me laugh was the Fairbanks-like sword fight.  Imagine what at first is an active sword fight between two men who in your own mind morph into children, clanging their swords back and forth waiting for something to happen.  If my explanation doesn’t conjure up an amusing image, just trust me, it was funny.   And since this was the jazz age, reference to the music of the day didn’t get left out of the pudding.  After tasting the second reel, I wonder what laughs were lost in the first.  Perhaps one day we’ll find out if the first reel is found in someone’s old attic or dilapidated barn.

After the screenings, I watched the conversation with Jay Wessberg, Serge Bromberg (Lobster Films, Paris), Victoria Riskin, Rob Stone (Library of Congress), composer Neil Brand and director David Robinson.  What made this special for me was that I knew three of these people, having met both Serge Bromberg at Mostly Lost and Victoria Riskin at Capitolfest.  As well, although I’ve never met him, Rob Stone cohosts Mostly Lost, and has the talent for eliciting witty and funny quips throughout the weekend.  Serge Bromberg, at Mostly Lost 8, presented “The Lost Negatives of Georges Méliès” while the previous year co-presented with Dino Everett “Blackhawk Films: Anatomy of a Legend.”  These people always have something interesting to say, but above all are silent film fans. Victoria Riskin, the daughter and author of her parents’ biography, “Fay Wray and Robert Riskin: A Hollywood Memoir”, first attended Capitolfest in 2018.   Each year Capitolfest chooses an actor or actress who made both silent and talkie films and pay tribute to them by screening a half dozen or so of their films.  That year, it was Fay Wray’s turn and her daughter was a special guest.  Victoria had mentioned that she was just finishing up writing her parents biography and in 2019 she returned to sign our copies.  To listen to the conversation, click here.  To read Rob Stones notes on the five short films, click here.

Thank you to everyone who made the virtual Pordenone Silent Film Festival possible.  It made for a most enjoyable event during these reclusive times.  Let’s hope that sometime next year attending film festivals will be something we can enjoy instead of only reminisce about in our dreams.

4 thoughts on “Pordenone Silent Film Festival; October 3-10, 2020

  1. Wow, this lineup hits a lot of different genres and countries. It seems like they did as good a job as possible with the virtual format. Thanks for the the comprehensive writeup.

    My memory of ABWEGE is fading except for that nightclub scene which I remember being completely debauched in the great Weimar tradition. Maybe Helm is not the most subtle actress but she has such presence. As you noted, those eyes are incredible.

    I’m not usually interested in Pickford but I want to see this DeMille movie just for the redwoods!

    • I agree Adam, that the nightclub scene in ABWEGE is certainly the centre piece of the story.

      What I didn’t write, but thought I’d mention here, is in the last segment of the film I questioned why Liane seeks out Thomas, advising him that he’d be wise to visit Frank’s apartment because she “fears Irene is making the mistake of her life”. I didn’t actually understand her motive; and Thomas arrives when the scenario has completely changed, from boxer to artist, so nothing is as it seems.

  2. I enjoyed your recap of the festival. I felt petty for thinking Rita Sacchetto did not exactly seem type cast as a lithe dancer or screen beauty, but feel a bit better seeing I’m not alone with that assessment. Per usual in such films, the husband is a complete jerk, and yet they reconcile for a “happy” ending.

  3. Thank you, John! It’s always interesting to see these old films when you’re interested in silents, even if it’s to wonder what others saw in “stars” of the time. The story is fading, but I believe she was wrongfully accused by her husband, and the “affair” was with her dancing rather than the stage manager. And I’d never heard of duel-by-poison-pill before!

    I have had a lot less exposure to European silents than Hollywood, other than German films, and they definitely have a different flavour as seen by the examples at the festival. So I don’t think it’s petty. I think it’s an obvious observation. Knowing nothing about Sacchetto or Danish filmmaking, I’m sure there are technical and scholary ideas that can be left to those who study these films. But I am grateful to see them, nonetheless.

    By the way, I quite enjoyed your post on Harold Lloyd and the making of the stunts in SAFETY LAST. They still seemed dangerous even if some sets were scaled down to two-storeys!

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