Pordenone Screens the Best of Silent Films

A PDF of the film festival’s 240-page catalog can be downloaded here.

Note: Mike Hawks recently returned from the Pordenone Silent Film Festival and this is what he tells Mary Mallory.

By Mike Hawks as Told to Mary Mallory

For 34 years, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (the Pordenone Silent Film Festival) has been screening the best of silent cinema from around the world in Pordenone, Italy, about seventy miles from Venice. Co-founded by Americans and Italians, the festival lasts a week, with a diverse slate of films from virtually every country in the world. Audiences are just as varied and international, ranging from silent film cineastes to cosmopolitan journalists to renowned scholars.

The best available prints are presented to audiences with subtitles in English and Italian and accompanied by a wide range of musicians, screening from 9 in the morning to midnight each day. Ample lunch and dinner breaks are provided, along with opportunities to attend panel sessions or the book fair. It’s a week to enjoy old favorites, discover new treasures, broaden knowledge, and soak in the rich history of silent film and Italy.

'Phantom of the Opera'
A publicity still for “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925).

Mike Hawks attended the Festival from October 3 to 11, 2015, and relayed his visit to me. This was his second time to attend, after his first trip with friends in 2000. While the price has gone up, one pays only 200 Euros to see a week’s worth of films in a main theatre of three levels and opera-style box seats.

'The Rat'
Ivor Novello in “The Rat,” (1925).


Mike enjoyed the fall weather, visiting with lots of familiar friends, and watching an amazing array of movies at the Teatro Verdi. While there were occasional screenings in a smaller venue, Mike focused his time on screenings in the main theatre. Just outside the theatre, an endless choice of restaurants beckoned to moviegoers, along with plenty of tempting gelaterias.

'Phantom of the Opera'

A publicity still from “The Phantom of the Opera,” (1925).

His favorite film of the entire week was the 1928 German film “Invincible,” an all-round entertaining movie with great stunt work by an actor who was an aerialist with the circus. Also highly recommended was “Drifting” (1923), the last film Tod Browning directed for Universal, starring Priscilla Dean, Wallace Beery, Matt Moore, and Anna May Wong. It was a story set in China about opium smugglers, with nice acting By Wong and Dean.

'Romeo und Julia im Schnee'
An image from Ernst Lubitsch’s “Romeo und Julia im Schnee,” 1920.


Ernst Lubitsch’s rarely shown 1920 film, “Romeo and Juliet in the Snow,” a fully restored print, officially kicked off the festival, accompanied by full orchestra. Lubitsch and writer Hans Kraly update the story to the 20th Century and set it in a snowbound city in the Black Forest, telling a comic story of two warring families and how their children fall in love.

An image from “Maciste Alpino,” (1916).

Also screening that evening was the 1916 Italian film, “Maciste Alpino,” showing how the Italians and Austro-Hungarians found themselves fighting face-to-face on a 250-mile front in the Alps, up to 6500 feet. Sadly at the time of the film’s release, 10,000 men died in a single day in avalanches. The Italian propaganda film lifted Italian spirits with a likable and indefatigable leading man.

'Maciste Alpino'
An image from “Maciste Alpino,” (1916).

One of the highlights of the Festival was the premiere of the formerly mostly lost but now restored Laurel and Hardy film, “The Battle of the Century” from 1927, accompanied by the irrepressible Serge Bromberg on the piano. A full house, including locals and their children, turned out to see the Lobster Films’ restoration of the movie, thanks to the discovery of a missing reel in a deceased collector’s archive. For the first time in almost 90 years, filmgoers witnessed the hysterical 3000 custard pie fight. This was a comic highlight of the week.

Other American films played throughout the festival, including three Douglas Fairbanks’ films: “The Mollycoddle” (1920), the imaginative “When the Clouds Roll By” (1919), an early Victor Fleming-directed film, and the great stunt-filled and crowd-pleaser, “The Mark of Zorro” (1920). Other Victor Fleming films that played included 4 minutes of fragments for the rare “Call of the Canyon” (1923), the violent 1927 Richard Dix vehicle, “To the Last Man,” “The Way of All Flesh” (1927), and “Wolf Song” (1929), part talkie, part silent with Lupe Velez, Gary Cooper, and a young Russ Colombo.


An essay by Ron Magliozzi in the festival catalog examined the career of Bert Williams.


A running program throughout the Fest was dedicated to the Beginnings of the Western, with primitive shorts featuring G. M. Broncho Billy Anderson, J. Warren Kerrigan, and other Selig, Kalem, American, and Bison films.

Cartoons featuring Koko the Clown, Disney’s Alice, and Oswald the Lucky Rabbit also screened. Such films as “Ramona” (1928), “Sherlock Holmes” (1916), and the moving documentary “The Champion” (2015) played at the Festival, after screenings here in the United States.

Restored American prints made their film debuts. The pleasant Alice White comedy “Show Girl” (1928) played, along with the 1925 “The Phantom of the Opera,” featuring restored tints and scenes, along with Carl Davis directing an orchestra playing his new score. It looked fabulous.

'Natural Born Gambler'

An image of Bert Williams in “A Natural Born Gambler,” (1916).

There were foreign films from many countries: Japan, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Argentina, Mexico, Bolivia, and Norway. Mike enjoyed the Ivor Novello and Mae Marsh 1925 English film, “The Rat,” and the striking visual fragments of Japanese films that played, many about samurai, featuring a Benshi performing the narration with a three-piece ensemble. He thought the 1924 French film “L’Inhumaine” by Marcel L’Herbier stylistically incredible. He also found Sergei Eisenstein’s “October” (1928), the two-part 1924 German film “Helena,” and the almost seven hour 1925-1926 French film “Les Miserables” very good.

'Lime Kiln Field Day'
Bert Williams in “Lime Kiln Field Day,” (1913).

Mike was not impressed with the series called Russian Laughter, featuring Soviet films made during the 1920s. He did not find them funny and couldn’t take much of that, so skipped most of the films.

'On the Firing Line With the Germans.'

An image from “On the Firing Line With the Germans,” (1915).

During the Festival, he ran into many friends and acquaintances from both the East and West Coasts, whom he shared meals and free time with, including taking time off on Tuesday to visit Venice with Marc Wanamaker and a few others. They traversed the city on foot and by vaporetto, seeing much of the town, along with passing Bette Midler and her husband during their sojourn.

Music accompaniment was very good per Mike, with his favorite piano playing accompanists including Phillip Carli, Donald Sosin, and Stephen Horne.

For silent film fans, the Pordenone Silent Film Festival is a week in heaven, devoted to the art and craft of the emotional and visceral films of the period.

About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in 2015, Film, Hollywood and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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