Almost all of the film festivals that normally take place this time of year have sadly had to cancel in-person screenings and events due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But as hard as it is not to be able to gather in person, many of these festivals have moved to a virtual platform, making it more accessible for people who normally wouldn’t be able to travel to some of the places where these festivals take place. The festival that I derived the most joy from attending virtually this year is the Pordenone Silent Film Festival (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), which took place October 3-10. The festival, which takes place annually in Pordenone, Italy (this was its 39th year), is the world’s leading silent film festival, and this year, anyone from all over the world could attend all of the screenings from the comfort of their home. I had the great pleasure of watching all 11 of this year’s programs, which included everything from comedy shorts to travelogues to dramas from eight different countries, followed by talks with festival director Jay Weissberg and special guests. Each film, many of which are rarely screened or available elsewhere, some of which are fairly recent discoveries once thought lost, contained its own special delights, so I wanted to highlight each of them here. And having never attended the festival in person (in fact, I’ve never even been to Italy), this virtual festival was extremely well put together, and a great discovery that made me look forward to attending it in person someday when it is safe to do so.
THE URGE TO TRAVEL
The Urge to Travel is a compilation assembled to satiate the urge to travel that so many of us feel during the pandemic. The series contains nine short films shot between 1911 and 1939, depicting cities and countries from around the world, from New York to Trieste, Italy. Each film is gorgeous, but perhaps the most impressive is “Un voyage au Caire” (1928), a beautiful color film that follows a family of tourists as they explore Cairo.
“PENROD AND SAM” (U.S., 1923)
This adaptation of Booth Tarkington’s popular novel is directed by William Beaudine, who was at the start of his feature directing career here but would soon become one of the most prolific directors in Hollywood (and who would direct another adaptation of this same story in 1931). “Penrod and Sam” is a funny and endearing portrait of boyhood in America. Beaudine worked well with child actors, and that is apparent here, as each actor is charming and likeable. And at a time when racial stereotypes were prevalent in film, the young Black characters in the cast largely avoid that.
“THE BRILLIANT BIOGRAPH” (Netherlands, 2020)
“The Brilliant Biograph” is another compilation, this one of films from Biography and Mutoscope shot on 68mm film stock between 1897 and 1902. The 45 short films are divided into five chapters (Daily Life, Riding the Waves, Greetings From…, Moving Forward, and Body in Movement) and are beautifully restored. Containing everything from travel films to advertisements to a family of jugglers, the films serve as a lovingly assembled portal to another time.
“GUO FENG”/”NATIONAL CUSTOMS” (China, 1935)
Chinese silent films are rare, so “Guo Feng” was really a treat, and ended up being one of my favorite films of the festival. Directed by Lo Ming Yau and Chu Shek-lin, the story follows two sisters from the country Zhang Lan (Lily Yuen) and Zhang Tao (Li Lili), who both fall in love with the same man, but who venture on very different paths when they move to Shanghai to attend college. The final act leans heavily into propaganda for the New Life Movement in China, but overall it doesn’t detract from this engaging tale of two sisters. And its portrayal of the negative effects of Westernization on the country is effective. “Guo Feng” is notable for being the last film of Lily Yuen, an incredibly popular actress in China at the time; she committed suicide in March 1935, and the start of this film includes a tribute to her memory.
SHORT: “TOODLES, TOM, AND TROUBLE” (U.S., 1915)
This fun and frantic comedy short directed by Lloyd Lonergan follows Tom as he tries to find lost baby Toodles, who he believes was stolen by collie Trouble.
“WHERE LIGHTS ARE LOW” (U.S., 1921)
Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa was the first actor of Asian descent to reach movie stardom, and in director Colin Campbell’s film here, he plays a Chinese prince who travels to San Francisco to study. He later stumbles upon a slave auction and finds the girl he loved in China up for sale, and must work to win her freedom. The plot is ridiculous but entertaining, culminating in a thrilling fight scene followed by one last twist. Hayakawa is charming throughout, and it’s great to see an Asian lead in an early American silent film, but his role attempts to please two sides as he simultaneously subverts ethnic stereotypes while also playing right into them.
SHORT: “České hrady a zámky” (Czechoslovakia, 1916)
Karel Hasler directs and stars in this comedy short in which he plays an actor running late for a performance. The entire film revolves around Hasler running through the countryside to make it to the theatre on time, and it’s a quick and entertaining physical comedy. At the time it was made, the film would play in conjunction with a live performance from Hasler, who would step out onstage as he was seen arriving at the theatre in the film.
“LA TEMPESTA IN UN CRANIO”/”KILL OR CURE” (Italy, 1921)
This delightfully surreal Italian comedy is directed by Carlo Campogalliani, who also stars as Renato De Ortis. Renato comes from a noble and wealthy family, but he is tormented by the fact that his ancestors were all predisposed to madness, and is afraid that he too will lose his mind (a humorous montage at the start reveals what happened to some of these relatives). So his friends play an elaborate trick on him to show him that his fears are unfounded. Strange, adventurous, and amusing, with beautiful tinting helping to divide up each new sequence, “La tempest in un cranio” is occasionally confusing but overall a fascinating film to watch, and Campogalliani plays by the laconic playboy and the potential madman well. The leading lady is played by Campogalliani’s future wife, Letizia Quaranta.
“THE APACHES OF ATHENS” (Greece, 1930)
This film directed by Dimitrios Gaziades is based on an operetta, and involves a penniless young man who, along with his two friends, masquerades as a prince to crash a wealthy man’s party, only to fall in love with the man’s daughter. The plot of the film didn’t engage me so much, but the cinematography is lovely, with on location shooting in Athens delivering a glimpse of that city as it looked nearly 100 years ago. “The Apaches of Athens” was supposedly Greece’s first sound feature (no spoken dialogue, but it did have music and effects) and the music here is unlike anything I’ve ever heard in a silent film before. When this film was discovered four years ago and restored, the music tracks were reconstructed based on the score of the operetta it’s based on, and three new songs were composed specifically for the film, and the result is some pretty operatic songs played over the action of the film, giving it an even more musical quality.
“ABWEGE”/”THE DEVIOUS PATH” (Germany, 1928)
This drama is directed by Georg Wilhelm Pabst and stars the wonderful Bridgette Helm. Helm plays a woman looking to free herself from the confines of her marriage. The busy party scenes are in perfect contrast to the dull life of luxury Helm’s character, Irene, shares with her doctor husband (played by Gustav Diessl). The film contains some powerful dramatic moments brimming with risqué content, and while the rather sappy ending feels like a stark contrast to what came before, it still wraps everything up sweetly and satisfactorily.
“A ROMANCE OF THE REDWOODS” (U.S., 1917)
Another one of my favorites of the festival, this Cecil B. DeMille western stars Mary Pickford in one of her few roles from this time where she wasn’t playing a little girl (despite being well into adulthood). Pickford plays Jenny Lawrence, a young woman who travels west to California during the gold rush to live with her uncle. But when she arrives, she learns that her uncle has died, and a robber called “Black” Brown (Elliott Dexter) has taken over his identity and created a respectable standing for himself in the town. He forces Jenny to go along with the ruse, but eventually the two fall in love—but Jenny needs to know that Black has renounced his criminal ways before they can be together. The story was written by DeMille and frequent collaborator Jeanie Macpherson, and while it is a rather straightforward yarn, it is elevated by some clever sequences (just wait until you see how Jenny gets Black out of a bind in the climax) and contains an entertaining mix of action, suspense, romance, humor, and the usual western clichés. Pickford is completely charming, and DeMille makes good use of close-ups on his leading lady. The film was also shot on location and contains some beautiful scenes set in the redwoods.
“BALLETTENS DATTER”/”DAUGHTER OF THE BALLET” (Denmark, 1913)
This short Danish feature directed by Holger-Madsen stars ballerina Rita Sacchetto as stage performer Odette, who catches the attention of a count (Svend Aggerholm) during one of her performances. He falls in love with her immediately and asks her to marry him, with the condition that she will leave her life as a performer behind. Odette agrees, but soon finds herself missing the stage; mishaps and misunderstandings ensue when a theater director asks Odette to step in for his injured leading lady at the last minute, ending with a duel between the theater director and the count in which they both have to swallow a pill, one of which is supposedly poisonous. The plot is pretty standard, and the idea that a woman needs to leave her career behind when she marries is of course very dated today, but Sacchetto is a fun, sassy presence, and despite what it sounds like, the film leans heavier into comedy than drama, with good results.
LAUREL OR HARDY
The final program of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival was a series of five comedy shorts starring legendary comedians Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy—but separately, not together, as they would later most famously be known. And what is there to say except that, while they are both different performers, they are just as funny separately as they are together, and these films serve as a nice glimpse into their evolving early careers. “The Serenade” (1916) and “The Rent Collector” (1921) both star Hardy. “Detained” (1924) and “When Knights Were Cold” (1923) star Laurel. And “Moonlight and Noses” (1925) stars neither of them, but it was directed and co-written by Stan Laurel after he returned to Hal Roach Studios in 1925, and film fans will likely enjoy noticing Fay Wray in the cast.