Saturday, 7 October 2017

“Patriotism is not enough…” Dawn (1928), Stephen Horne, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Day 7

This was one of the most moving films we’ve seen this week and all the more so for two ending beings shown, one from the Belgian digital transfer and the other from the BFI’s 35mm copy. There are differences between the two, not just the warmer tones of the film but also in the way that Nurse Cavell meets her end… the inevitability of violent death by gunshot.

Sybil Thorndike is outstanding as Nurse Edith Cavell and that final walk, her eyes wet with mortal fear, are truly heart-wrenching, bringing tears for the second time this week (the other occasion being the children of Vienna maimed by war). Stephen Horne played an absolute blinder with bass drum punching out Cavell’s final few paces in the first version and the piano taking the lead for the second. The accompaniment has to be as precisely judged as the action on screen and both were in step to devastating effect.

The Belgian version is the uncensored cut of what was a highly-controversial film… there was still plenty of sensitivity about this infamous episode and clearly, as the UK version shows, possible offense had to be limited.

This is not easy though especially when you have an actual member of Cavell’s team, Ada Bodart, playing herself… history as film, film actor as her own history.

"Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."
After Dawn, a section on those Nasty Women was more than welcome and I especially laughed at the last, She's a Prince (1926) a crazy-cross-dressed, paparazzi-dumping, case of mistaken royal identity starring Billy Franey as the sorority “girl” formerly known as Prince and Alyce Ardell as… the “prince” formerly known as Alice.

The Swedish Challenge strand continues to impress and Thora van Deken (1920) featured a powerhouse performance from Pauline Brunius as the title character. She is fighting to protect her daughter’s inheritance by hiding her former husband’s will and Brunius display of determination in the face of her dubious action and motherly love is so… human. She was wrong but we are on her side… Brunius has the kind of face that can hold a movie on its own twisting conflicted emotions across strong features that fail to hide her darting eyes. This is why Swedish cinema was indeed “challenging” – completely naturalistic performance matched with films that deal in moral questions in a realistic and compelling way.

The restored print was more 2020 than 1920 and a delight to behold. It was a kind of Blue but emotions were melting through…

Maud Nelissen accompanied with pensive piano lines which perfectly matched this absorbing play of conscience and forbearance. I’d never heard of actress of film until this week and that, my friends, is what this show they call Le Giornate is all about!

On to the evening and two films from people I know and in films I’ve seen.

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones
Rudyard Kipling’s The Vampire was written to accompany the exhibition of a illustration by his cousin Philip Burne-Jones depicting a female vampire; another link between cinema and painting as per Tableaux Vivants. This vampire is a sexual predator draining her partners of their energies, funds and self-respect. The poem begins with the line A fool there was… and warns against the folly of falling for women who “…could never know why and could never understand!” decent family society presumably.

It is not a hugely complex story but it has one massive power point: Theodosia Goodman aka Theda Bara who turns what could have been a run of the deMille Victorian morality tale in to very modern sexual picaresque. Her vamp is working her way through male batteries like there’s no tomorrow and lives only for herself and yet she’s doing it in style! We want to go to Theda’s parties, hang out at the clothes store for the endless fittings her cool, cool, cool clothes demand and tell the straights to just go hang!

Theda is a punk rocker, Theda is a punk rocker, etc...
Theda is punk – Siouxsie, Poly and Pauline Murray would be nothing without her approach to mascara – and has a wit that just blasts everyone else off screen. Yes, there are deeper meanings to the struggle between family and pheromones but we’d all like a friend like Theda… er, wouldn’t we?

This was a much better print than the one used for the old Kino DVD although the source material is sadly not perfect. Still a real thrill to see it projected and to have accompaniment from Philip Carli with the premier of his new score for quintet! The music was as closely fit as one of Theda’s dresses and played off the humour as much as the drama just as Theda and, indeed, you and I… Philip played piano and was joined by David Shemancik, Günter A. Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Cristina Nadal. They are Theda’s band for her next all-nighter!

Last up was another who took sexual liberation a major cinematic step forward with Pola Negri in Mania, her third film of the week and her first film (?). This is not the playful Pola of Carmen but an equally passionate one who follows her heart into all kinds of trouble. A matchgirl spotted as the face of the brand, she falls for the artist’s muso buddy and, two stars of kind of born as Mania uses her “connections” to get her guy a break… Needless to say he doesn’t appreciate it and, as is usual – Theda being the exception… the woman pays.

I’d seen Mania before at its UK premier in 2011 and it is a very impressive restoration with some gorgeous close-ups of our heroine and without her trademark eye makeup… but it’s not the mascara that maketh the woman it’s the personality! Pola is also “punk” as it happens: fresh, to the point and boundless…

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