It was wonderful to see a full house and an enthusiastic reception for Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, the WWI-themed film that propelled Rudolph Valentino into the stratosphere. There are those who prefer Valentino's Son of the Sheik (1926), but Horsemen is the better film - majestic, tragic and epic, with a smouldering performance from our leading man. I liked the Mont Alto Picture Orchestra’s stark treatment of the war scenes, which often consisted of little more than percussive beats to imitate marching or gunfire - but it was difficult to create the same sense of menace that a big orchestral accompaniment can provide.
The Song of the Fishermen (1934)
This lyrical Chinese film tells with simple elegance the story of a pair of impoverished siblings, the gutsy ‘Kitty’ (Wang Renmei) and her sickly brother 'Monkey’ (Han Langen), and their attempts to escape their life of poverty in a rural fishing village, with the help of the kindly son of the master for whom they were once servants (He Ziying). Donald Sosin’s piano accompaniment cleverly incorporated lead actress Wang Renmei’s rendition of the theme song, which was a Chinese hit of its day.
Midnight Madness (1928)
One of the previously lost films repatriated from New Zealand, this is a competently made but rather thin tale of a shopgirl (a cute Jacqueline Logan) who agrees to marry a rich diamond miner (Clive Brook) rather than the crooked boss whom, for unaccountable reasons, she really loves (Walter McGrail). Overhearing the ruse, Brook pretends to be penniless in order to teach the girl a lesson as they venture out into deepest darkest Africa, complete with lions. The cast does their best with a scenario that presents them with some flimsy plot points and inconsistent motivations, and the result is entertaining enough without feeling very substantial.
The Parson’s Widow (1920)
Imagine casting and production design by Bruegel and a scenario by Franz Kafka, and you’re halfway towards capturing the unique tone of this delightful early work by Carl Theodor Dreyer. The story concerns a young man (Einar Rød) in a strange dilemma: in order to marry his lady love, her father insists he must become a parson. If he becomes a parson, however, he is obliged to marry the late parson’s elderly and thrice-married widow - who may or may not be a witch. Matters work themselves to a warm and strangely poignant conclusion, and Dreyer shows himself as a real artist even at this early stage of his career. Matti Bye’s accompaniment might have seemed too sombre for any other comedy, but it was just right for this one. One of my favourites of the festival.
For those who have always wondered if they’d ever see it, the newly rediscovered and restored Ramona (1928) should not disappoint. It’s a slick, well-made and enjoyable slab of soap, short on psychological depth but long on pictorial beauty, with numerous shots composed as if they were paintings come to life. In the title role, Dolores del Rio is the high-spirited ward of a stern Spanish-American mother, who, upon falling in love with an Indian, discovers that she herself is part-Indian. The racial angle is not covered in any great depth, although an Indian massacre is surprisingly brutal. Though Carewe’s eye is firmly on the epic, there are a number of lovely minor touches that push the film above the average.
Likewise, where Dolores Del Rio could have gotten away with sitting around looking staggeringly beautiful (which she does), she contributes a spirited performance that largely avoids straying into cutesy-poo. Warner Baxter is nearly unrecognisable as her Indian love, Alessandro. Top marks to the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra’s lush score, and also for dispensing with the famous theme song in a fun singalong prior to the actual film (though it still remained lodged in my head for days).
Serge Bromberg introduces his Treasure Trove. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
I already reviewedThe Good Bad Man (1916) when it played at Cinecon last year; I have not much to add to my earlier review except to say that this new restoration looks great and has been put together with loving care and attention to detail.
Serge Bromberg’s Treasure Trove
This comprised three shorts: a work-in-progress preview of a restoration of Chaplin’s A Night In The Show (1915) from the original camera negative; David Shepherd’s reconstruction of the two-reel version of Fatty Arbuckle’s The Waiter’s Ball (1916) and, in the presence of Fernando Peña, who made the gobsmacking discovery we were privileged to see: the ‘new’ version of Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith (1922).
I was not prepared for this to be such a revelation. A few extra gags? Well, that will be fun enough, thought I - but it’s so much more. It turns out that the version of The Blacksmith with which we’re all familiar was merely a sketch. This is the finished drawing - a better and more coherent film which not only includes some funnier gags than the ones we know, but ties the whole thing up into a proper narrative. It’s exciting enough to discover this new material, but even more so to be able to say that we need no longer automatically rank The Blacksmith amongst the lesser Keaton shorts.
As an added bonus, we saw another fascinating new discovery - a previously lost 1908 cartoon by Emile Cohl, thought to be his second film - and therefore the second ever animated film in existence - an even more surreal and abstract work than his famous Phantasmagorie (1908). It was found on Ebay by Serge Bromberg, and purchased for $7!
The Epic of Everest (1924)
This film's hypnotic images were greatly enhanced by an eerie accompaniment by Stephen Horne and Frank Bockus that gaves something of the sense of spiritual quest with which the tragic 1924 expedition was regarded. As the film continues, the figures before us - captured at a great distance away using telephoto lenses - begin to shrink. Smaller and smaller they become, until it is almost no surprise that two are destined to blink out all together, a moment that is chillingly captured on film.
From figures being swallowed by nature, we move to figures being swallowed by the great metropolis of London. It’s a quintessential late silent - a simple story, strongly and evocatively told with an evident debt to German Expressionism; The Crowd (1928) might form a good basis for comparison. Four people meet in the London underground and are subsequently linked by fate - an amorous but ultimately sinister Cockney electrician (Cyril McLaghlen), the shopgirl for whom he nurses an unrequited love (a beautiful and understated Elissa Landi), the sweet-natured porter whom she prefers (Brian Aherne), and the lovelorn girl the electrician has spurned (Norah Baring, who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Mrs Danvers). When matters turn sour, we are plunged into an unexpected but genuinely edge-of-your-seat chase that leads through a power station and into the bowels of the great Underground itself.
It is astonishing to note that this excellent film was critically lambasted upon release; I can only assume that the British critical fraternity suffered from the same self-flagellatory tendencies as their equivalents in Australia. Highly recommended.
Under the Lantern (1928)
This German feature ultimately feels like a noble but failed experiment in social realism. In a Diary of a Lost Girl-style plot, the essentially virtuous good-time girl Else (Lissy Arna) struggles to escape from a spiral of degradation, drifting first to the cabaret and later to streetwalking, with her lover and his best friend fruitlessly attempting to arrest her fall. Glimpses of lost landmarks such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Church make it is an interesting document of Weimar Berlin, but a circuitous plot means its ninety minutes feel interminable, and the main character’s frustrating passivity as she tumbles towards her fate makes it is hard to sustain interest in her character.
Lissy Arna and Sig Arno in the wonderful Weimar-era discovery 'Harbour Drift' (1929).
Max Linder Double Feature
A Max Linder double opened Sunday’s viewing - the short Max Wants a Divorce (1917), followed by the more substantial and amusing feature, Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). A series of very funny set pieces and distract us from the fact that there isn’t much to the plot - to my mind, the mirror sequence is even more cleverly achieved than the more famous Marx Brothers version. Linder’s zany bug-eyed persona is appealing, and it is a shame that more of his work does not survive.
Dragnet Girl (1933)
The intriguing Dragnet Girl (1933) is certainly not your typical Yasujiro Ozu film - a stylishly shot, smartly paced and entertaining dispatch from the front lines of a juvenile delinquency epidemic that never occurred, in a fetishised pseudo-American Tokyo that never existed. An impressionable young boxer (Koji Mitsui) falls under the influence of faded boxer-turned-crook Joji (Joji Oka), much to the concern of his innocent sister (Sumiko Mizukubo). The Dragnet Girl of the title is Joji’s lover, the appealing Kinuyo Tanaka who, inspired by the sister’s virtuousness, decides to try and find a way out of the hoodlum’s life. Guenter Buchwald contributed an effective jazzy score.
The Girl in Tails (1926)
The wryly humorous Swedish film The Girl in Tails (1926) was one of the great delights of the festival. The lovely but downtrodden Katja (Magda Holm) is neglected by her father, who is happy to lavish money on expensive suits for her brother (Erik Zetterstrom) but refuses to lay out a penny on an evening dress for a swanky graduation ball. Sick of her mistreatment, Katja takes matters into her own hands in dramatic fashion, arriving in her brother’s most expensive suit. The incident creates a scandal amongst the small-minded local townspeople - the most formidable of which is played by the film’s director, Karin Swanstrom - but also leads to her emancipation.
The witty intertitles, a number of quirky elements, such as the ‘herd of learned women’ who have formed a kind of rural sorority, and a sense of genuine empathy amidst the comedy ensures that a concept that might have been thin and gimmicky in other hands remains good to the last. Katja’s emergence from her shell drew genuine cheers from the audience. A really fun experience, with no little thanks to another quality Mont Alto accompaniment.
The Sign of Four (1923)
The Sign of Four (1923) is a solid and serviceable adaptation of the Sherlock Holmes tale, shot on location in London and starring Eille Norwood, reportedly Arthur Conan Doyle’s preferred Holmes. Norwood’s interpretation of Holmes is light on the quirk and heavy on the quiet watchfulness and razor-sharp intellect. The story deviates from the original, but a terrific speedboat chase along the Thames provides the action climax.
Harbour Drift (1929)
Like all the best late silents, the exquisiteHarbour Drift (1929) is based around the simplest of tales, told with sensitivity and visual style. An elderly beggar, a young dock worker and a world-weary streetwalker are yoked together in their pursuit of a pearl necklace, dropped by a haughty wealthy woman, which could provide all three with a ticket out of their crushing poverty.
What Under the Lantern sketches in crayons, Harbour Drift renders in vivid pastels. Its vision of city life is grim, but it’s drawn with compelling beauty. Lissy Arna is superb as the streetwalker; within the first five minutes, she gives ten times the performance she gave in Under the Lantern. Shot in high Expressionist style, it’s visually stunning, emotionally resonant, and also unflinching. Aside from the customary glimpses of gay couples of both sexes, we see a drug addict snorting cocaine, and a realistic pre-sex scene that continues for some time past the point many other films would have faded to black.
Harbour Drift is a real discovery - a beautiful and beautifully sad film. The gem of the festival.
The Matti Bye Orchestra prepares for 'The Navigator'. Photo by Camille Scaysbrook.
The Navigator (1924)
Buster Keaton's seafaring feature The Navigator (1924) concluded proceedings in high style, with a full and appreciative house that contained several Keaton family members. Keaton plays a rich buffoon who boards the wrong ship in pursuit of his scornful would-be sweetheart (the always appealing Kathryn McGuire). Hijinks ensue as Buster and Kathryn find themselves adrift on the high seas on a ship built to accommodate hundreds! Thanks to the pioneering efforts of John Bengtson, I had been able to visit the actual location of the famous scene in which Keaton is chauffeur-driven across a single road prior to this screening. The Matti Bye Ensemble’s accompaniment, though a little too foley-heavy for my taste, was particularly effective during the underwater sequences.
I was once again glad to catch up with a number of friends and fellow film fans, and was particularly honoured to briefly meet film preservationist David Shepherd, without whose efforts the film world - and particularly the silent film world - would be much poorer.