Saturday, 6 October 2018

My ship is coming in... Captain Salvation (1927) with Philip Carli, Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone Giornate del Cinema Muto

This was my film of the day without a doubt as it was the only film I saw today (thanks London fog etc) but others would be hard-pressed to compete with the visceral visuals of a larger than life Lars Hanson, massive Marceline Day, super-sized Pauline Starke and the gigantic sounds of Philip Carli with a full orchestra.

Lars Hanson, was the poster boy for last year’s festival but, presumably, got lost at sea, soon made up for lost time by forging ahead in the festival's glamorous opening gala. Was it worth the wait… but of course! The Swede’s tardiness was soon blown away by the forceful squals of this film – minds thrown to the elements and survival more than salvation the driver as Lars’ self-doubting preacher rediscovers himself with the help of a bad woman.

Worse things happen at sea and, if this film is anything to go by, that is entirely the case. But all the elements combined to magnificent affect in the Teatro Verdi: perfect, pure Pordenone on day one, just like last year with The Crowd.

So, began my second year at Pordenone’s unique Giornate del Cinema Muto … My debut is so still fresh that this year I barely looked right to see Venice, so intent was I on the Festival. One of tonight's comperes quoted David Robinson saying “welcome home”, but it’s not just the familiar, it’s a week-long Christmas full of unopened presents, all with World-class live musical accompaniment… It may be raining gatti e cani but who cares: no outdoor screenings are planned.

Captain Salvation was pleasing viewing as a Warner Archives DVD but tonight it was a genuinely uplifting combination of Carli’s sympathetic score and a story that is at least as much of the need for forgiveness and understanding as of spiritual concerns. You don’t have to believe in an ancient deity to want to treat people fairly and Anson Campbell stands up for what he believes as the local community turns on him for defending a fallen woman. This may well speaks to us as much now as in 1927 as our collective conscience tumbles backwards, grasping more at negativity as a way of defining a morality largely missing from every day.

Hanson’s Anson Campbell is young, vibrant and on the verge of priesthood and yet, he is always drawn back to the sea despite expectations. Lars’ sweetheart, Mary Phillips (the impossibly wholesome Marceline Day), is the daughter of the local priest and she looks forward to the time when he preaches from her father’s pulpit.

As its title suggests Captain Salvation deals with themes of Christianity and the sea - faith lost and regained on the edge of the world. Directed by John S. Robertson the film was based on the 1925 novel by Frederick William Wallace, a maritime journalist who had commanded a First World War Q-Ship. Not surprisingly, there's an authentic feel to the maritime action and if you like sailing ships, this film has some good ones.

The opening sees the return of Anson from seminary as the locals in a small coastal town gather to greet him. Robertson uses his locations well as Mary runs from her house to greet her lover but as his ship rolls into the quay he is also met with disappointment by his stern Uncle Peter Campbell (Sam De Grasse) who views his sea-going passions with disdain.

Anson is not dressed in a manner befitting the clergy and clearly enjoys the sea air far too much... The small God-fearing community follows Peter's lead and generally disapproves of Anson’s resistance to the call of the cloth, but Mary is head over heels and can only see the good in her man. The two share some lovely naturalistic moments on the beach as Anson presents Mary with a ring and proposes marriage… this section looks scripted (not all silent film was...) and Day can clearly be lip-read… you can almost hear them. Day is so freshly naturalistic and counterpoints the more intensely-expressive Larson well.

The weather changes and they both know a storm is on the way. They make it back to Anson’s friends’ house in time but are called out along with the rest of the village as a ship runs aground and survivors are hauled onto land. It’s a grim scene – a foretaste of what’s to come. One of these poor souls is that of Bess Morgan (Pauline Starke) a fallen woman who one crew mate blames for the wreck. There’s little sympathy form the locals with Uncle Peter suggesting that she recuperates in the jail “where she belongs”. This angers Anson who demands that she be treated like everyone else as a “person”.

Battle lines of compassion are drawn across the community as Bess stays with Anson and his reputation is ripped to shreds… even Mary cannot stand it and is finally unable to resist the pressure of her simple-minded kin – all too eager to judge rather than help. Reader, it’s pretty much like social media out there…

Pauline Starke
There seems nowhere left to turn and Anson follows Bess onto a schooner and a new life beyond the poisonous village. They board and are greeted by the larger than life Captain George Fawcett (all six feet and four inches of Ernest Torrence… Clara Bow’s co-star in Manhunt and brother of City Girl’s David as well as being an opera singer as I was reliably informed by a man from Bristol!). But, from the frying pan they have fallen through the fire and straight into Hell. This is a prison ship whose warders are more brutal than their inmates, each of whom is branded and treated like animals. Anson soon becomes dragged into the hideous depths of the hold whilst Bess must contend with the lecherous advances of the not so good Captain.

Torrence is great as the relentlessly callous officer and Starke is incredibly moving as the woman who’s hard-heart softens. Anson’s faith in her has given her belief in good even as Anson’s faith falls away as all around him look lost and without hope of charity. He is driven almost mad by the extent of the cruelty and the depths of their despair until he gains courage in return from the woman he has saved.

Now, make what you will of the film’s Christianity but there’s no denying that Captain Salvation is a powerful story. It’s specific on the nature of Bess’ wrong-doings – she chides one man for leaving before paying… and unflinching in the brutality of the prison ship… as Anson says, this is Hell.

Ernest: not singing
Pauline Starke is more of a clear match for Hanson than the winsome Day and she goes from hard-hearted pragmatism to compassion and Christian sacrifice. It’s a journey that could be so cliched but one that she makes convincingly and there were some moist eyes in the hall.

Philip Carli’s score as played by the Teatro San Marco’s house orchestra was gigantic, not overwhelming the film but enhancing it with some compelling melodies and rich, satisfying orchestration. As I said at the top: pure Pordenone and a great start to the week!

And now it's tomorrow and in a few hours my first full day starts. It's Cine-muto-Christmas!

Marceline (Sunny) Day

No comments:

Post a Comment