|The Dumb Girl of Portici. Douglas Gerrard (Alphonse), Anna Pavlova (Fenella), Edna Maison (Elvire). Click to enlarge.|
Viewed at Sala Mastroianni (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Recovered & Restored, Beloved Bluebirds, About a Hundred Years Ago. 1915), introduced by Mariann Lewinsky and John Sweeney, grand piano: John Sweeney, percussions: Frank Bockius, earphone translation in Italian, 30 June 2015
Based on the opera La Muette de Portici (FR 1828) composed by Daniel Auber with a libretto by Germain Delavigne revised by Eugène Scribe.
Geo Willeman and Valerie Cervantes (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) was a project by two powerful artists: director Lois Weber and dancer / choreographer Anna Pavlova. The production was huge, one of Universal’s most expensive up to that time."
"The only version known to have survived was a 35 mm nitrate reissue print dating from the 1920’s preserved at the BFI until we located a second print at the New York Public Library. Even though this was 16 mm and probably duped from a Kodascope reduction, it could be used to complete the existing 35 mm print and bring the film back closer to the original version."
"The 35 mm print had remade 1920’s intertitles but fortunately the 16 mm print had the original plain-looking titles standard to Universal productions. The decision to replace all the titles in the 35 mm print with the originals considerably smoothed the narrative flow."
"As examined the 16 mm print in detail, we found extra shots that were absent from the 35 mm print. (Invariably, these turned out to be scenes of extreme violence and bloodshed – pretty graphic stuff for 1915.) It was fairly easy to reinstate them into the continuity of our digital workprint from a narrative point of view and although the image quality is decidedly lower than the bulk of the film, we feel that the restored version is now probably as close as we can get to the original continuity until (wishful thinking) a more complete print is unearthed."
"A final story: the ending of the film bothered us – it bore one of those awkward reissue titles and was exceedingly abrupt. The film ends with a Pavlova dance number, but in the 35mm print, had been cut to about 35 seconds. We looked back over the 16 mm print and discovered something that had been there all the time, spliced near to the beginning of the film, where the star does a short exhibition dance. It was well over two-and-a-half-minutes long and a complete routine – Pavlova’s parting gift to her audience. Feverishly, we placed the sequence at the tail and removed the intertitle and – there was our ending: delicate, beautiful, sad, and joyful." (Geo Willeman and Valerie Cervantes).
AA: According to Wikipedia the opera La Muette de Portici is "loosely based on the historical uprising of Masaniello against Spanish rule in Naples in 1647." The opera is famous as the first French grand opera and as a revolutionary opera which actually launched revolutions: in Belgium (1830), as well as in France (the 1830 revolution). "Richard Wagner remarked, in his 1871 Reminiscences of Auber, that the opera "whose very representation had brought [revolutions] about, was recognised as an obvious precursor of the July Revolution, and seldom has an artistic product stood in closer connection with a world-event."" Thanks to the central part of the dumb woman "it marked the introduction into opera of mime and gesture as an integral part of an opera plot." Famous dancers were cast in the central role of Fenella, the dumb woman. "La Muette de Portici played a major role in establishing the genre of grand opera. Many of its elements – the five-act structure, the obligatory ballet sequence, the use of spectacular stage effects, the focus on romantic passions against a background of historical troubles – would become the standard features of the form for the rest of the 19th century". "Auber's pioneering work caught the attention of the young Richard Wagner, who was eager to create a new form of music drama. He noted that in La Muette, "arias and duets in the wonted sense were scarcely to be detected any more, and certainly, with the exception of a single prima-donna aria in the first act, did not strike one at all as such; in each instance it was the ensemble of the whole act that riveted attention and carried one away..."". "It also played a large role in the founding of the Kingdom of Belgium. The riots that led to the independence started after hearing the opera."
Mariann Lewinsky introduced Anna Pavlova's only feature film. A 60 piece orchestra would be needed to play Daniel Auber's music.
The Dumb Girl of Portici has been adapted to film by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley in Film d'Art style in the year when The Birth of the Nation among others revolutionized film narrative. The film is mostly constructed as tableaux conveyed in long takes and long shots with an immobile camera. Intertitles predict action. But there are also camera movements (pans and tracking shots) and superimpositions.
The performances are mostly based on grand histrionics. Feelings are telegraphed in grand gestures. The playing is mostly anti-realistic.
Anna Pavlova's stylized and exaggerated pantomime fits into the general performance mode. It is a wild and consistent performance, a grand tragic interpretation which leads to a transcendent final dance number - the ascent into heaven.
The inflammatory revolutionary spirit of Daniel Auber's opera is still alive in Lois Weber and Phillip Smalley's silent film adaptation. There is a true epic sense of history and tragic grandeur. The Dumb Girl of Portici still partly belongs to the "before Hollywood" period - before a general streamlining into slick and polished studio production. It is one of the big early film epics with a constant sense of danger and surprise. The violence is startling in the massive sequences of tyranny, oppression and revolt.
John Sweeney did a splendid job in arranging and performing a piano adaptation of Daniel Auber's music, together with Frank Bockius in the percussions. It was an amazing experience.
The restoration has been conducted with loving care from often battered and difficult sources, sometimes in 16 mm. There was an irresistible drive in this memorable performance of a film which has not been shown in a decent way for generations.