My Favorite Features from the 2021 Pordenone Silent Film Festival

November 29, 2021

The 40th edition of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival wrapped about a month and a half ago, and I’m finally getting around to my fest recap. (I know, but it’s been a busy month!)

This year, the proceedings were split between in-person and virtual programming. While the online package differed from the live experience in Italy, it was still a thrill to access so many international silent movies I’d never heard of and probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. So without further ado, here’s a brief recap of my favorites from the fest – and I hope they continue an online option in the future!

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Evelyn Greeley in the delightful Phil-for-Short.

Phil-for-Short (US, 1919)
It was a close race, but Phil-for-Short wins as my favorite feature of Pordenone this year. From the main character’s spunk to the hilarious title cards, this film charmed from start to finish due in large part to star Evelyn Greeley and her effervescent, natural performance.

The free-spirited Phil (short for Damophilia, and she’d rather be called Phil than damn!), lives with her father, a progressive university professor with an affinity for Greek history. On her own for most of the day, she dresses and does as she likes. When her dad dies, her independent lifestyle is threatened. She sprints away from her new strict guardian, and, dressed as a boy, meets the recently jilted John (Hugh Thompson) in the woods, a woman-hating Greek professor on the verge of quitting his job. Romantic chaos and flirtation ensue when she tells him she has a twin, and her ‘twin’ is hired to assist him with all the women in his class.

I’d love it if this film were more widely available so others could experience the captivating Phil – and I could see it again! Seriously, her fierce autonomy and lovable attitude makes her my hero… from 102 years ago.

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Every title card in Moral was a piece of art.

Moral (Morality) (Germany, 1927-1928)

Coming in right after Phil-for-Short in my fest favorites category would be Moral, featuring yet another strong, independent woman (and fantastic title cards). That star would be Ellen Richter, who appeared in over 70 movies from 1913-33, but as most of those pictures weren’t directed by big names, few still exist. (She also founded her own production company, Ellen Richter Productions, in 1920.)

 

This film was not complete – some stills were added to help fill in holes – but it was still highly entertaining. Ninon (Richter) plays a sophisticated, modern performer who has to fend off unwanted male advances, well, it would seem every second of every day. It starts on a train, where she secretly trades places to escape a handsy fellow passenger. Turns out, that man is the head of a morality society... in the town where the revue show she’s in is stopping. Of course, he walks in her dressing room to protest her performance. Double standard much? Oh, this is just the beginning. (One title card roughly translates to, “You play the moralist here but on the train you prey upon women traveling alone?”) Moral has a ball exposing these hypocritical men who publicly decry a modern woman embracing her talents and freedom.

 

A rather random subplot involves a prince who wants her to teach his heir piano (because all heirs must possess some musical ability!). So, Ninon gives him lessons. While the morality men again decry her for making an honest living, they secretly sign up for piano lessons one by one, too. No father would send their child to her… but they come themselves, she sighs. Being the smart woman she is, Ninon turns the tables on them and secretly records them during their lessons, capturing all their gross advances. Ah, the power of film. 

 

She eventually reveals the film, and demands a public apology – or else she’ll show the reels. That sufficiently scares them, and by the end of the movie she has them wrapped around her finger. While I both cringed and laughed at parts of this movie, it was ultimately wonderful and empowering to see these stodgy old men get taught a lesson by such a worldly, modern woman. And in 1928, no less. (It did make me a tad sad that women still deal with the same BS a century later, though.)

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Jokeren (The Joker) (Denmark/Germany, 1928)
For a film basically lost/forgotten about for years, Jokeren makes quite the impression, and it looks stunning, too. Directed by German director Georg Jacoby and featuring a Danish/ America/German cast, Jokeren serves up Drama with a capital D, so much so that it was sometimes hard for me to keep straight!

As far as the plot goes, a man who gets into an accident outside a cafe is helped by a lawyer and directs him to destroy his love letters and locket as he lay dying. But the lawyer is broke from spoiling his cheating mistress, and when he spots the high-class looking woman from the locket at a So This is Paris-type soirée, he gets to thinking: blackmail it is! From there, masked mysterious men, misunderstandings, murder attempts, twists, and turns abound. Jokeren is thoroughly suspenseful, entertaining, beautiful to look at, and well-acted, especially by the villainous lawyer (Miles Mander), the joker (Henry Edwards) and the sister who falls for the joker (Elga Brink). 

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Burn it all down, girl. (From Fool's Paradise.)

Fool’s Paradise (US, 1921)
Fool’s Paradise, penned by Sada Cowan and Beulah Marie Dix, screened as part of a larger series celebrating female screenwriters.

I’ve only seen two DeMille silent films, The Cheat and The Golden Chance (both 1915), both of which blew me away by how far ahead of the pack DeMille was in technical ability, style, and substance on screen. I was very eager to see how he progressed by the early 1920s with this picture, and I was not disappointed!

The film runs long and can be a bit convoluted at times, but the basic premise finds a young veteran with sight issues falling for a French dancer who gifted him a handkerchief during the war. She means everything to him, and of course, he barely registers on her radar. When a local dance hall girl (who actually accidentally makes him fully blind) falls for him and he rejects her, she assumes the guise of the French girl to make him fall in love with her… and yes, it gets even more complicated when she digs herself a deeper hole with her lies and he gains his sight back through an experimental surgery, eventually revealing her gigantic ruse. (And it doesn’t end there, there’s a lot more, including crocodiles!)

This was another ~dramatic~ picture, but, as expected from DeMille, it looked breathtaking, featuring top notch production design, camera movements, effects – everything. The acting was superb, too; the two leads, Conrad Nagel and Dorothy Dalton, turned in marvelous, nuanced performances. Compared to other movies made around the same time, DeMille’s work continued to feel incredibly advanced in every way.

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The Prosecutor and the Teacher was rough but exceptionally unique.

Geomsa-Wa Yeoseonsaeng (The Prosecutor and the Teacher) (Korea, 1948)
I was very excited to see this movie, because I know nothing about this unique period in Korean cinema history. Though sound was introduced to the industry in 1935, half of the films made in Korea between 1945-48 were silent. Part of this was due to the lack of sound projectors post-WWII. So, a byeonsa, the Korean equivalent of a benshi, provided live narration. In this era, byeonsas were like family to moviegoers and a comforting presence.

Shin Chool provided his talents as the byeonsa here. He grew up in poverty and found work at a cinema, cleaning it in exchange for food. At the age of 14, he stepped in for a byeonsa who couldn’t make a show, and the rest was history; he became popular, which in turn was a reason this movie proved popular, too. He worked well into the 1980s as one of Korea’s last byeonsas.

Shin Chool not only narrates the action here, he also speaks as the characters and reads the title cards. His impassioned performance gave the film much more emotion than the action on screen, providing a vastly different experience had we seen it silently.

The story itself is rather rough and tragic, save for the core relationship between the student (Kim Dong-min) and his teacher (Lee Yeong-ae). Over the course of the film, the empathy and support the teacher shows her poor, hungry student eventually gets reversed. Late in the movie after he’s grown up, he has the opportunity to pay her kindness back by helping clear her name from a murder charge after her husband trips on a knife and dies… on said knife he meant to kill her with. (All because she brought food to a man in jail and watched over his young daughter!) Seriously, she catches no breaks. At least the film ended on a high note and comes full circle; after generously giving the student a bank book to help better himself when he was young, he gives it back to her at the very end in a touching, beautiful exchange.

Normally, I don't find movies as bleak as this enjoyable to watch, but the unique circumstances and history behind The Prosecutor and the Teacher made this a captivating screening.

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What's old is new again (kind of) in An Old Fashioned Boy.

An Old Fashioned Boy (US, 1920)
Going into the festival, this rare title, which only exists in 16mm, was one of my most anticipated movies. Anything advertised as making fun of marriage expectations during the first half of the 20th century naturally will catch my eye. But they can’t all be winners.

Why did I include this on my fest favorites list? Well, to be honest, my dissatisfaction may be more of a differing expectation. Though the gender dynamics between the lead couple were intriguing – he dreams of having kids and a house of their own, while she wants to live in an apartment hotel, aka freedom – any quasi-meaningful observation of that plot point was completely buried by zany comedy. Now, I normally adore crazy antics, but for some reason, the humor here, and the way it was played, just didn’t entice me. (Perhaps a second screening would help!)

An Old Fashioned Boy does feature another minor story element that probably went unnoticed in years past but was the subject of many a screenshot today: the main character fakes having black measles, puts himself into (another fake) quarantine, and comedy ensues from there. Obviously, in 2021, that got a lot of attention.

That’s a wrap on Pordenone 40! While I’d love to make it to Italy for the in-person celebration one day, I do hope they continue a virtual option in the future so fans around the globe can continue to experience the wonderful gems this festival offers.

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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