In a tumultuous year filled with pandemic, isolation, ill will, and seeming madness, the 39th Annual Pordenone Silent Film Festival transported guests on magical journeys to other worlds, eras, and even dimensions, revealing the richness of love and humanity at a time it is so desperately lacking. Turning lemons into lemonade, the festival’s organizers masterfully arranged a thoughtful, select program of motion pictures, author talks, master classes, and live discussions that still engendered community, discussion, and scholarship.
At the conclusion of each film program, live discussion between festival director Jay Weissberg, archivists, scholars, authors, performers, and the like provided further context to the motion picture, performers, and themes located in the work, further enriching the experience.
Mary Mallory’s “Living With Grace” is now on sale.
The festival began October 3 with a program of short film pieces titled “The Urge to Travel,” showcasing striking street scenes and landscapes around the world, helping transport audiences on journeys to new lands, new hopes, outside of the melancholic confinements of Covid-19 and the sterility of their homes. These shorts provided an escape to beauty, serenity and joy. Spanning 1912 to 1939, the one-reel shorts provided views of the bustle of early New York City, the beautiful canals of Bruges, Belgium, Planty Park in Krakow, Poland, a humorously surreal Switzerland cigarette ad, a charming bicycle ad, a happy, relaxed Trieste in 1939, little dreaming of war, and a gorgeous hand-tinted view of Cairo, Egypt and the Pyramids and Sphinx in 1928, isolated and inspiring in the wide-open vistas. Jose Maria Serralde Ruiz provided lush, romantic stylings to suggest yearning for travel.
That evening, the 1923 First National picture “Penrod and Sam” played, a sequel to Booth Tarkington’s original “Penrod” novel, about the adventures of an all-American boy and his friends in small town USA, starring a young Ben Alexander, scene-stealing Eugene Jackson, Mary Philbin, Gladys Brockwell, Rockcliff Fellowes, a smarmy William Mong, and a brief Flora Finch. A touching and sweet slice of Americana carrying audiences back to a nostalgic, bucolic past, boyhood, and family life, “Penrod and Sam” featured the heart-tugging antics of a little dog. Beautifully tinted, the charming production included fine performances by its young cast, particularly the African American children willingly accepted as part of the group, ahead of its time in its on-screen depiction, and naturalistic direction by long time director William Beaudine. Stephen Horne’s moving score moved between jaunty playfulness and darker detailings as the film shifted between joyful play and melancholic moments.
Sunday afternoon featured a program entitled “The Brilliant Biograph: the Earliest Views of Europe, 1897-1902,” providing tasty bites of actuality travelogues offering moments of escape. Filmed by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and shot on 68 millimeter, these snippets provided a rich clarity and detailed view of street/daily life in such places as Venice (with inventor/cameraman W. K.L. Dickson clowning for the camera),Venice, London, the ruins of Pompeii, romantic English countryside, and the like. Daan van der Hurk provided a lovely, romantic interlude to accompany the films.
Sunday night’s program presented the 1935 Chinese film “Guofeng” starring renowned, tragic actress Ruan Lingyu, in a story of two sisters dueling over the love of their cousin while finding their place in the nation’s collective as it fights over following decadent, selfish western values or supportive, collective eastern values. Ruan, who committed suicide the next year, provides another expressive, vulnerable performance, revealing so much through her eyes. Her character disappears during the middle third of the film, perhaps she was already feeling ill.
The film jumps between conflicted family relationships and sensitive romance and flag-waving propaganda for a happy, peaceful population working together for the greater good. While the political moments were a little heavy handed, one could glimpse conflicts in our own culture between ego-driven, status-obsessed individuals and empathetic, intelligent givers working for the greater good. Gabriel Thibaudeau’s melancholic musings mixed well with his more upbeat, forward leaning collective score.
The 1921 Sessue Hayakawa film “When Lights Are Low” played Monday, produced by Hayakawa’s own Haworth Production Co. and featuring many Asian actors in a story of a Chinese prince (Hayakawa) who finds his true love kidnapped and sold to a white traffic slave ring in San Francisco, where he works to raise money to free her himself. Hayakawa gives an expressive, intense performance and Yamamoto underplays the villainous Chang Bo Lo with the coiled intensity of a Lon Chaney. Bracingly unattractive Mrs. Louise Emmons makes a cameo as Lo’s devious messenger. Remarkably, Hollywood’s own Yamashiro stands in for Hayakawa’s Chinese palace in a film with rich atmosphere and lighting.
The hilarious, energetic surreal stop-motion Thanhouser short “Toodles, Tom and Trouble” preceded the feature, with a husband who misplaces his baby and chases a Collie dog carrying what he believes is his child around New Rochelle, N.Y. through lake, park, roads, quarry, and mining site. Philip Carli’s accompaniment provided jaunty, madcap fun to the wacky short, and lush, romantic scoring to the dramatic feature.
The 1921 Italian film “Kill or Cure” screened Tuesday, a beautifully tinted and designed, so-so frenetic film about a man who fears he is inheriting his family’s bent towards insanity and his friends’ over-the-top efforts to demonstrate he isn’t. The 1916 Czechoslovakian short “Bohemian Castles and Fortresses” preceded the feature, a mildly amusing tale of an actor romancing his girlfriend in the lovely countryside who realizes he must speed to the city to make opening curtain for his show. Featuring all types of chases through gorgeous countryside, the film concludes as the hero jumps through a window to run onto the stage, as this film was to energetically start a real play. While both featured stunts and chases similar to Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd, both provided bland entertainment. Frank Bockius and Gunther Buchwald’s score mixed jaunty set pieces playing off a beating clock and moving train with overly busy underscoring.
Wednesday night’s presentation featured the recently restored 1930 Greek film “The Apaches of Athens,” a middle of the road operetta of a young man role playing as a rich man in attempts to win the hand of a wealthy young woman. A little bit of a stuffed shirt, the main character offers a lighthearted impersonation, with his two scene-stealing friends, Italian versions of 1930s Warner Bros. character actors like Allan Jenkins and Frank McHugh provide nice comic relief. The film includes gorgeous shots of the actual Acropolis and other sites across the now famous city, along with the ironic if appropriate image of Chaplin as the Tramp on the wall of the hero’s living quarters. The original sound on film score has been lost, so a new score blending effects, traditional cues, and Greek chorus singing popular songs of the day adds a small bit of texture.
Brigitte Helm starred in G.W. Pabst’s moving, dramatic 1928 film “Astray/The Devious Path” on Thursday, providing an intense, expressive performance of a woman growing bored with her workaholic, uncaring husband and finding a night of distraction at a staid Berlin cabaret. Expressive with both her eyes and her whole physical body, Helm steals the show as a woman unsure of what she wants, but desiring a more heated, passionate relationship. Camerawork is first rate, from the framing of Helm’s eyes by her hat brim and large collar, to night time shots to framing in the nightclub scenes. Art direction, story, and acting are all first-rate, and Mauro Colombis provided an understated but lush score.
Friday featured a moving Mary Pickford adjusting both to backward life in gold rush California and living with a sensual if duplicitous good bad man in the striking Cecil B. DeMille directed “Romance of the Redwoods” (1917). Wooed by an older if naive Charles Ogle, she must choose between staid respectability and passionate attraction in this solid Western, shot in northern California among the actual redwoods. Cameraman Alvin Wyckoff creates beautiful effects with his lighting, from a hand held light projecting a moonlight glow on Elliot Dexter’s face, to moonlight, to framing of Pickford. Tully Marshall plays a slightly skuzzy leading citizen and Raymond Hatton plays a young miner. Donald Sosin provided a rousing, dynamic western score, which included saloon type interlude songs sung by his wife, Joanna Seaton.
Saturday concluded with two programs, a 1913 Danish romance in the afternoon and the lighthearted “Laured or Hardy” that evening. “Daughter of the Ballet” featured a likable, impish Rita Satchetto as one of Denmark’s prima ballerinas who finds herself wooed by a charming, refined admirer. Once they marry, he demands she retire, but soon bored, she secretly fills in one night for her former ballet company when her husband makes a surprise visit. After some lighthearted moments, the couple reunites. The film displays the high quality production mise en scene, acting, and cinematography of Danish cinema, with John Sweeney provided a romantic, sweet counterpoint in his accompaniment.
The festival finished with the entertaining and lighthearted “Laurel or Hardy” program, featuring shorts starring one or other of the boys before they became Hal Roach’s top comic team. Hardy starred in a 1915 short “The Serenade” shot in Jacksonville, Fla., in one of the world’s most terrible bands. Hardy also appeared in the frenetic 1921 Larry Semon Vitagraph short “The Rent Collector,” shot at the Vitagraph lot at what is now Prospect Avenue in East Hollywood, with scenes at Echo Park Lake and the streets of East Hollywood.
Laurel starred in the wacky prison comedy “Detained,” showing shtick that would become a regular part of his performance in the team, winking at the audience, crying, the odd giggle, and the like. Off the wall humor featuring questionable gags about the gallows and the electric chair combined with witty titles to sell the picture. Laurel directed the 1925 short “Moonlight and Noses” starring Noah Young and Clyde Cook attempting to rob a house and getting mixed up in ghostly proceedings with wacky professor James Finlayson. Closing out the Festival, one reel of a hilarious 1923 parody short “When Knights Were Cold” played, with Laurel zanily fighting off scores of treacherous knights as he attempts to rescue his lady love from a tower. The program featured high-spirited, sprightly accompaniment by Neil Brand.
During the week, the Festival hosted daily interviews with authors as part of its Bookfair presentation, highlighting scholarly histories, biographies, and overviews of the silent period. The host conducted thoughtful interviews with authors on the background and evolution of their books, with some providing illustrations to augment their talks and others providing a more detailed synopsis of their works.
Composers and accompanists also gained the opportunity to discuss their creative process in creating a score to accompany a silent film, be it through researching the music of the period, either popular or cues/scores created at time, understanding the filmmakers and their intentions through readings and preparations, watching the films, or even playing to the rise and fall of scene action throughout the movie. Each comes from different backgrounds: some with deep musical knowledge and experience, others from accompanying dance, and others from education.
These talks allowed audiences to gain a deeper appreciation of the work entailed in creating a score, be it in live improvisation or in actually composing a prepared score ahead of time. Accompanists at Pordenone exhibit great artistry in their accompaniment, bringing alive the emotions and passions engendered in the films. Pianist Philip Carli described how his best playing came when he tapped into the film’s emotions, becoming one with the presentation, riding the wave of feeling to the end. British accompanist Neil Brand revealed how his most evocative playing usually occurs as he forgets himself and gives way to feeling as the music flows out of him, little remembering what he played when the film concludes. Many felt that their accompaniments occurred in spite of themselves, as almost Zen moments in harmony with the film.
An edifying and entertaining respite from troubles, the 39th Pordenone Silent Film Festival showcased world cinema and its abilities to document humanity and culture, allowing an escape from troubles as well as an opportunity to learn and grow from the past.