Pordenone 2001
feature by Sean Axmaker, 7 December 2001

Special Presentations

Maldone (1928) is the debut feature by Jean Gremillion, a rural drama of a different kind than Finis Terrae. For one thing, its gentle rhythms and flowing images are more impressionist than the exacting dramatic images in display in Finis Terrae. Charles Dullin plays Olivier Maldone, a rugged cart driver taken from his simple but happy rural life and dropped into a constricting suit and made the lord of the family manor he left in the hands of his late brother years ago. Gremillion builds his film in two acts, the first full of open countryside and sunny image set to a lolling, lazy pace, the second arch and stifling as he’s stuck in a manor where everyone stiffly takes their place at the gloomy dinner table in silence, never talking or laughing. There’s the usual love triangle when he takes his young bride (Annabella), a sweet girl whom he never really loved, on a honeymoon and meets the fiery gypsy he once loved, but Gremillion takes a refreshingly adult route out of it.

Only about half of the original German cliffhanger adventure serial Was Ist Los Im Zirkus Beely? (1926, a.k.a. Circle of Death) survives, saved in a shortened feature length compilation, but it’s a kick nonetheless. The dramatic frame is patchy and inconsistent, but the film is built around elaborate showcase set pieces designed and performed by director/star Harry Piel. Piel, a barrel-chested man who resembles a young Victor McLaglen, and was dubbed “The German Fairbanks,” but he has a more wry personality and an urban sophistication, and his stunts are less acrobatic than simply nervy. The story has something to do with the murder of Harry’s pal, a hidden fortune in an abandoned circus building, a sinister hooded figure lurking through the dark basement, a blind girl Harry constantly saves, and a blustery police chief trying to beat private detective Piel to the punch. The film, however, has everything to do with big set pieces: a giant room with a descending ceiling (and, in a clever twist, a corresponding floor that drops), a room full of lions that Piel has to dodge, a chase through a full scale indoor one ring circus that ends up with a battle on a spinning ladder. The sets are, simply put, big, designed to impress by sheer scale and uncluttered by props. It’s like someone borrowed the sets from one of Fritz Lang’s UFA epics at night to shoot this lark of a lark, and it was one of the most purely entertaining pieces of the festival.

The only surviving print of Allan Dwan’s East Side, West Side (1927) was recently restored by the Museum of Modern Art, and it’s a revelation. This delightful romantic drama from Fox was shot on location in New York and on gorgeously detailed studio reconstructions of key locations: a slum street under an elevated train, an underground subway tunnel under construction, and the skeleton of a skyscraper in progress, all quite beautiful. The screening was barely a month after September 11 and the sight of the proud New York skyline of 1927 became more than simply the hope of the future embodied in the film. George O’Brien is the gentle giant of a hero, a veritable American Hercules raised hauling bricks on a barge and left homeless when an ocean liner rams it one misty night, drowning his mother and stepfather. The sequence is a beautifully shot miniature, directed in a somber key and the tone is echoed in a later scene, an even more astounding and affecting shipwreck scene fashioned very deliberately on the wreck of the Titanic. While the miniature work is never “realistic,” it is always impressive, with a high level of craftsmanship that makes it more suggestive and, yes, more effective than many more convincing modern effects: what’s the point of verisimilitude if it can’t move you? O’Brien washes ashore and is adopted by an outspoken Jewish tailor’s daughter (Virginia Valli, coming off very much like a young Irene Dunne), the first step on an adventure that takes him up the ladder of success: from tailor shop gopher to prizefighter to architect. This is the glory of the last hurrah of silent cinema, a strong, graceful, gorgeous film with a strong emotional undercurrent of familial devotion and friendship, and a nearly-tragic romantic disaster as the lovers are parted by sudden class differences. It’s a testament to Dwan that he can play this all without the usual stereotypes and pull off a happy ending from all this without a trace of sentimental goo: the film ends on a strong sense of hope and renewal. The print was beautiful, amazingly clear and clean and sharp, and the musical accompaniment was one of the treats of the festival. A jazzy quintet played a score of period songs (with periodic vocal accompaniment) arranged by pianist Donald Sosin and supplemented by a couple of tunes written by Sosin especially for this picture. The result was a lovely experiment: a silent musical that, like all the best accompaniment, served the picture.

The newly discovered “lost” Mabel Norman comedy Molly O’ (1921), directed by F. Richard Jones, is nowhere in the same company as East Side but it’s an enjoyable showcase for the great comedienne of the teens. It plays something like a traditional Mary Pickford picture. You know the genre: plucky poor urban girl wins the heart of the boss’ son. In this case it’s a young doctor from a wealthy family that works with the poor and is in the clutches of a gold-digging socialite, but Normand puts a street-smart and sassy slapstick twist to the formula. The humor can be a little questionable at times, like when her forgetfulness leads to a fire in the family barn, but Normand has a marvelously devilish side: sweet but no babe in the woods. She can take the snotty society girls who look down their noses at  her and dish it all back with interest. The print is missing some footage that creates a knotty pacing problem and just as the film is wrapping up in a dark melodramatic twist of near tragic misunderstanding, it launches into a bizarre fourth act adventure that involves the socialite’s revenge (with the help of her confidence man of a brother) and a dirigible, resulting in a second climax of high flying stunts. It doesn’t make any sense, but the spectacle is wonderful.

You don’t see things like The Te Kooti Trail (1927) everyday. This New Zealand shot and produced adventure is their version of The Alamo or Zulu, a rousing tale of colonialist triumph over the Maori rebel Te Kooti in the 1870s with a veritable rainbow coalition of heroes: British, Irish, French, and Maori soldiers band together with a small community of Maori farmers to hold off the attack. The filmmaking is a bit stiff and director Rudall Hayward (who was also writer, producer, and cameraman) tends to let the drama drag in his meticulous historical reconstruction, but it turns into a surprisingly rousing picture shot on many of the original locations (which make suitably impressive backdrops). Most interesting is the portrayal of Te Kooti, the real life guerrilla leader who battled the colonialist troops to recover Maori land. Though he starts out a bloodthirsty villain, he emerges more complex and honorable, though the film stops short of allowing a heroic dimension to his war against the settlers. This festival was honored with the world premiere of the newly restored print.




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