Enjoy the Silents: No Talk, All Action at the Pordenone Festival


SACILE, ITALY—This year marks the 70th anniversary of King Kong, the most famous adventure film of all time, and last month’s 22nd Pordenone Silent Film Festival, featured a retrospective devoted to the early silent work of Kong‘s co-directors, Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, and their followers. With Robert Flaherty serving as their inspiration, they began with a “pure” doc, Grass (1925), the spectacular account of the migration of a nomadic Iranian tribe, and graduated to feature films made on location with Chang (1927), which is set in the jungles of Thailand and climaxes with cinema’s definitive elephant stampede.

A hefty sidebar was devoted to Ivan Mozhukhin, one of the giants of silent film. A superstar leading man in czarist Russia, he settled in France in the wake of the revolution and renewed his career as a flamboyant romantic hero. He scripted some of his own best films, and with Le Brasier Ardent (1923) proved himself an innovative director. An unclassifiable and eccentric fantasy, it kicks off with a disturbing nightmare sequence. Thanks to his mercurial personality and skill with makeup, he was a master of disguise—his contemporaries often compared him to Lon Chaney. Mozhukhin is at his best in Victor Tourjansky’s Michel Strogoff (1926) as a daring man of action, and he gives his finest comic performance in Alexandre Volkoff’s Casanova (1927), spoofing the great movie seducers.

The festival’s highlight—a grail, or at least a fragment of a grail, unearthed—was a mere five minutes long. This was a “surprise” screening, unlisted in the program, of a sequence from one of the great legendary lost films, Josef von Sternberg’s The Case of Lena Smith (1929), discovered in Japan a few months ago among some nitrate prints by Hiroshi Komatsu of the Waseda Theatre Museum. In this passage, Lena (Esther Ralston) arrives in Vienna and visits the Prater amusement park. The bold pictorialism of the scene is vintage Sternberg. It was a memorable premiere—of footage unseen for 74 years.