Thursday, 2 April 2015

A real diva… Sangue blu (1914) with John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

Watching the extract from the documentary before the main screening, it’s hard to escape the impression that Francesca Bertini was almost more of a diva in real life than on film. Here she was at 94 bossing not just her grandson around but also the man at the Italian film archive and the man trying to direct the documentary: having performed sitting down she decided to stand “… the light is better…” and a re-take ensued.

Such presence of mind and command from a woman who had stopped making films 60 years before: what a remarkable energy she still had.

But as Amran Vance reminded us in his introduction, the great Italian silent divas were not always in command and would suffer for their art and our entertainment and he warned of impending struggles in the film to follow:  Sangue blu (Blue Blood).

Directed by Nino Oxilia, who almost certainly got assistance from his star… the film was thought lost until recovered in a Dutch collection and this extant 35mm tinted nitrate print has now been restored by the EYE Filmmuseum in Holland and it just looks stunning!

The cinematography of Giorgino Ricci captured rich depth of field for large-scale interiors built outside to make use of the external light – the Italians didn’t have the American’s lighting budgets. Similarly there are some wonderful shots of the Riviera and, at one point, Bertini making a break for freedom along a country road lined by trees with the camera pulling further and further away.

GIF from the excellent Silents Please blog
“Inside” there’s one especially noteworthy sequence when Bertinin walks in turmoil along a corridor with large windows to her left, her figure marches camera-ward alternating between shadow and bright light: she is furious. The tints are also wonderfully vivid: there may not be much camera movement or close ups but this is a technically accomplished film.

The film, also known as The Princess of Monte Cabello, is based on the unhappy marriage between Bertini, the titular princess, and her husband played by Amedeo Ciaffi. They have a daughter, Diana (Anna Cipriani) whom they both dote on, but the Princess cannot trust her husband’s feelings especially when he is in the orbit of the scheming Contessa Simone de la Croix (Fulvia Perini).

The spaces between friends...
After one especially fraught party the Prince decides enough is enough and sues for divorce. For a while the Princesses life carries on, as she cares for Diana and performs good works but then she comes into contact with an actor, Jacques Wilson (Angelo Gallina). She is to perform with Wilson in a charity play but, whilst one thing doesn’t lead to another, the Contessa makes sure that her private eyes make it look that way.

Appalled the Prince removes his ex-wife from court and, worst of all, makes sure she can never see her daughter. Cast adrift, the Princess lands herself with Wilson who turns out to be less of a man than she expected and soon bankrupts them both by gambling away their funds in the casino at Monte Carlo.

Wilson taunts the Princess
His only hope is to persuade the Princess to take to the stage and, aided by an aggressive money-lender, he sets about increasing her degradation until she is left with only one choice… or is she?

No spoilers as… a) you really should see this film if you like early Italian silent films and b) the Cineteca Bologna, together with Eye, has now produced a DVD version of this film which is available direct or readily available on eBay.

Bertini is a class act and whilst I don’t think the film is of the standard of Assunta Spina, it is certainly a fascinating watch 101 years after release. It also includes Bertini’s take on Asta Nielsen’s dirty dancing from Afgrunden (1910)… there are fewer gyrations and certainly no bondage but the intent is there…

John Sweeney caressed the keys with his usual fluency and between the Sign of Four on Sunday and tonight really showed his tremendous range and versatility: accompaniment suitable for the great diva!

There were also a number of special treats on tonight’s under-card…
Charley gets the bird in Movie Night
Events kicked off with a Charley Chase romp called Movie Night (1929) in which the Chase family struggle to enjoy their weekly Monday night trip to the flix – on this occasion to see Buster Keaton and Marceline Day in The Cameraman. Stingy dad tries to get over-age son in as a child but his bum-fluff gives him away whilst there’s some trouble involving a free bird: never look a gift goose in the mouth Mr Chase.

It was laugh-out-laugh comedy in the old school sense with some spritely support from Lillian Henley on piano. It might depend on your mood but is it more fun playing along to comedy than drama? Lillian clearly relished the Chase challenge!

Next up was a Disney animation from when he was funny – Oswald the Lucky Rabbit in Trolley Troubles (1927) – a stream of consciousness, surreal symphony in which the titular rabbit tries to navigate the everyday perils of the track, angry goats, immobile cows and unexpected gradients.

That's hazardous, Helen!
It was Cyrus Gabrysch’s turn to hang on to the nonsense narrative and he repeated the trick with a rare sighting of one of the Hazards of Helen shorts. Helen is played by Helen Holmes who did “all of her own stunts” and there are some doozies in this 1915 episode (number 13 of 119!) in which she allows the telegraph to get robbed, loses her job and then catches the thieves and recovers job and money: all in a breathless ten minutes and with her hair almost unruffled.

There was also a tantalizing preview of a brand new silent film called Written in Dust from its director Gareth Rees. Details can be found on the project’s website here. The film is coming to the Bioscope in November and looks a really interesting prospect all round: a modern, naturalistic, gritty drama just like Miss Bertini used to make!

 Written in Dust


  1. I was just coming to post that I love Bertini and Sangue Bleu, then I saw that familiar gif! Thanks for the blog compliment. It really is a very stylish film, so very lavish.

    1. It's a lovely looking film and FB has such a presence - looking forward to re-watching on the DVD!

      Thanks for not minding my appropriating that gif - a superb sequence!