Milestone recently released two Lois Weber films, very different in story and temperament:
THE DUMB GIRL OF PORTICI (1916) 114 min. **1/2 (Blu-ray released February 6, 2018)
I had never heard of Masaniello, who led a peasant uprising against the Habsburg Spanish rulers of Naples, which turned into a terror and led to his own quick demise. He is best known from an opera by Daniel Auber, who is best known for Fra Diavolo,
which later starred Laurel & Hardy. Anyway, this is the silent movie of an opera, starring a ballerina known today for the dessert named after her, Pavlova. Got that?
The ballerina is the famous Anna Pavlova, a petite, dark-eyed Russian who made exactly this one film, for Lois Weber at Universal in 1916. She plays Masaniello's (probably fictitious) sister, a mute girl whose bewitching dancing captures the heart of the nobleman Alphonso, so that there can be a properly convoluted romantic plot, and the movie is constructed around her, so that there's never too long between chances for her to dance. The dancing is the high point—otherwise Pavlova's performance is pitched to the balcony, and she has a tendency to cast her head back, revealing that her petite form includes a neck like a high school wrestler. She has impressive physicality, though not quite movie star magnetism. Your interest in seeing one of the legendary names of dance will determine if you'll rate it higher than my rating.
The film itself—imagine that the French portions of Intolerance
were a movie of their own, so that you didn't forget about them during the Babylonian and modern sequences. That pretty well captures this movie, arguably the only true epic ever directed by a woman at least in pre-CGI days, the story of a simmering revolt that ends in mass mayhem and everyone running around with swords. The visual qualities of the sets are impressive, and the action is pretty well staged for 1916— I was impressed by some moving camera shots in particular, which are effective at making a smaller cast seem bigger at times.
That said, it is 1916, and when every man in the cast looks like Frank Zappa in medium to long shot, and the performances (including Rupert Julian as Masaniello and Jack Holt as a nobleman) do little to distinguish them, it can be hard to follow who's up to what. (Boris Karloff is supposed to be in the revolting masses, but no one's ever spotted him.) Basically, Weber does a creditable enough job in what is not her natural genre, and as Bugs Bunny says, what did you expect from an opera, a happy ending?
The print is a Library of Congress restoration, about 80% from a rough but very clear 35mm print from the BFI, 20% from a softer 16mm print at the New York Public Library. The score is by John Sweeney, using themes from the very
romantic Auber opera. The set comes with a second disc, though early orderers didn't get it and had to be sent it separately; it includes some footage of Pavlova dancing taken by Douglas Fairbanks' crew on the set of The Thief of Bagdad,
a few newsreels and home movies, and The Immortal Swan,
a 1935 dance featurette starring members of her troupe (she was dead by then), dancing some of her famous works.
SHOES (1916) 54 min. ***1/2 (Blu-ray released February 6, 2018)
What Lois Weber's natural genre was, was the social issue drama—and in that field there were things that she could do better than anyone working in her time. Plenty of male directors could convincingly depict the mortgage being due, a time-honored bit of melodrama, but Weber could make you feel the privation of the housewife trying to keep home together on the scrapings of her last pennies like no one else. And many could depict the temptation from the path of virtue, and did—innocent maidens lured by sweet talk, the promise of marriage, a taste of the fancy life.
But only Weber could show it to you with the determinism of Shoes
, dramatizing to the tiniest practical details a poor shop girl's desperate need, day after day, for a new pair of shoes that aren't about to fall off her feet, and how economic logic overcomes virtue. After the historical spectacle in long shot of The Dumb Girl of Portici,
it's almost breathtaking to be swept instantly into the world of a poor girl's deprivation and longing, in heartfelt closeups and keenly rendered detail of then-modern life. It was a big hit for Universal in its day, precisely because, I suspect, no one in 1910s cinema had ever told how girls gave in to temptation with such frankness and so little sentimentality.
The girl is Mary McLaren, effectively making her debut (she's apparently a bit player in Where Are My Children?),
and interestingly something about her—a philosophical sadness and questioning beyond her years—reminded me of Saoirse Ronan in Lady Bird.
Which has some parallels—the father is unemployed and a bit lazy, the mother beaten down but unbowed, the family is considered to be on the wrong side of the tracks, and so on. But it also shows how much the world has changed, how wealthy even the less well off are today—the economic question in that film is whether she can afford an expensive college, not a new pair of shoes that won't fill with water from a hole in the bottom in the rain. (One of McLaren's little sisters, incidentally, is future Godless Girl
and Warner brother widow Lina Basquette. The wolf is William V. Mong
, which made me think throughout that she was going to lose her virtue to Doodles Weaver
was restored by the Eye Film Institute in the Netherlands, from two original prints and a 1932 cutdown that contained material not in the others, with a sensitive piano score by Donald Sosin. There are stretches of nitrate decomp, but most of the time it looks very clear and sharp. The cutdown is also included—and it's appalling: in 1932 Universal took this heartfelt drama and made it into one of those sneering parodies of silent film, narrated by a guy who sounds like Pete Smith, called The Unshod Maiden.
To see work of such quality turned into this contemptible joke will make you queasy, but at least a few shots survive only because of it.
There are also some materials about the restoration, some commentaries, and an audio recording with McLaren from the early 70s (she continued as an actress into the late 40s, usually uncredited once sound began; the other thing you've most likely seen her in is Fairbanks' The Three Musketeers).
The set was supposed to contain an earlier Weber-Phillips Smalley short, The Price,
but it seems to be missing; you can watch it here