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Only Whoop Dee Do Songs. Bluebird Photoplays Light(en) Up the Cinema Ritrovato

The Dream Lady (Elsie Jane Wilson, 1918)


As Tom Paulus has already lamented in an earlier blog, a new edition of the Cinema Ritrovato equals another week of making hard choices, of running somewhat frantically from one screening to the next (brushing past friends and acquaintances) and of attempting to follow the threads that the festival lays out in its many and ever increasing programs, events, panels and subsections. As is the case every year, I was haunted by the constant fear of missing out on a brilliant print, on a forgotten masterpiece, or on just plain good fun, but all of this nagging is just to say that one of the happiest weeks of the year take place in Bologna. In a great line of dialogue in one of this year’s classics (Leo McCarey’s Love Affair), Irene Dunne says, “all the things we love in life are either immoral, illegal or fattening.” Thankfully, the Cinema Ritrovatoare an exception, even though all that great Italian food is dangerous on the hips.

I had come to this year’s Ritrovato to cover the Ingrid Bergman section (Bergman is the blue-eyed poster girl for this edition, but the photograph cannot do justice to her charm and vitality when one sees her on film), the Bluebird silent film program and the Russian Thaw section, but sadly the screenings of the films in these sections often overlapped or I was not able attend a screening because a previous screening had ended late. (Usually the lengthy introductions had something to do with that.) As a result I have seen many films in many different sections but almost no complete program. The films I did see included breathtaking Technicolor films (and as, CINEMATEK’s big honcho, Nicola Mazzanti shouted out: “Technicolor is God. And God can’t be copied.” The audience loved him for it, needless to say, and I am sure it’s an expression that will stick…); enchanting early tinted and hand-colored prints; Japanese jidai-geki; sophisticated Hollywood comedies and musicals; silent landscape films, historical documents of unspeakable sadness and actualities; drawing room farce comedies; a spectacular restoration of Satyajit Ray’s masterful and intensely moving Apu Trilogy … and so much more.

Here I will briefly talk about one section that I managed to see in its entirety, i.e. a selection of four surviving Bluebird films from the Archives Françaises du Film. Bluebird Photoplays was a short-lived production company that produced pictures from the mid-teens to the early twenties. It was a subsidiary of Universal Pictures and employed Universal stars (and starlets) and used Universal’s facilities but the pictures were marketed independently from Carl Laemmle’s umbrella company. Mark Garret Cooper argues in his illuminating account of the filmmaking practices and production trends and evolutions at Universal how the company’s subsidiaries reflect the ways in which Universal experimented with marketing and developing different strands of feature production. (His account nuances the often-repeated claim that Laemmle’s company was the longest in stubbornly resisting feature length film production.) The companies – Jewel, Butterflies, Red Feather and Bluebird – were differentiated by their production values and prestige, Jewel Photoplays producing the most exclusive and expensive films. Going against contemporaneous practices of feature filmmaking, the Bluebirds matched directors and stars with broad generic schemas (as many companies that produced short films had done), and the Bluebirds specialized in melodramas. Specific units (director, star, writer) made several features together and the results are, judging from what was screened at Bologna, charming but also rather uniform and modest in set-up, development and ambition. At first I concluded that the Bluebirds were interesting mainly (possibly solely) from a historical point of view, as the films are hardly more than charming (again that word!) renditions of or variations on familiar plots and situations. Their lack of aesthetic ambition made me weary (although some directors managed some pictorially pleasing sequences) and as the films feature a lot of talking and standing around to resolve the usual misunderstandings concerning a woman’s virtue, womanliness or values, I saw little remarkable staging. Its female stars – Carmel Myers, Edith Roberts, Ella Hall, are pleasant enough but they don’t really stand out, overwhelm or surprise as I had hoped they would. In many ways they are variants of better-known stars such as Mary Pickford, Dorothy Gish, Mary Miles Minter, Marguerite Clark… However, after having watched them all and when I realized I had enjoyed myself, I had to nuance this opinion and I started thinking about what unifies them and what makes them attractive and worthwhile after all.

It should be clear by now that the Bluebirds pictures are not masterpieces but they were clearly never meant to be more than agreeable, sweet and entertaining. These are no mean feats in their own right and it would be condescending and shortsighted to use it against them. All of them, as CINEMATEK’s Peter Rotsaert pointed out when we discussed the films, exploit the pleasure of the wardrobe change. It’s a simple principle but it is very gratifying to witness a star transform herself within one and the same picture. Indeed, all of the screened films were hinged on this pleasurable principle: In The Dream Lady (Elsie Jane Wilson 1918 – pictured above) the film’s rich heiress Carmel Myers dresses up (or down) as a gypsy fortuneteller who will make everyone’s dreams come true. The wardrobe change, complete with jewelry, a different hair-do and gypsy-chic rags was and is gratifying to audiences and judging from Myers’ energetic jumping around, it was a fun picture to make. In one subplot, one of her clients cross-dresses as a boy (which opens up opportunities for funny and slightly risqué business involving all-male “friendships”) and in another subplot a scrawny ragamuffin transforms into a cute little princess in a gingham dress. So here we have three pleasing transformations and deceptions in one picture. In Little Eve Edgarton (Robert Leonard 1916), the titular Eve (Ella Hall) starts out as a bookish, brainy nerd who knows all about botanics but nothing about beauty until she too transforms into a charming, fashionable lady and then snatches up the film’s hunky star. It’s a triumph for all of us ugly ducklings and we get beauty and brains in one and the same girl. And this in 1916! The heroine of The Little White Savage (Paul Powell 1919) – again Carmel Myers- transforms from a “savage” and obviously ungroomed and wild-mannered girl (the story has it that she was part of a colony that Sir Walter Raleigh founded on a deserted island and she still speaks “the language of Shakespeare” as a result) into a modern, well-dressed girl. Or did she? The film’s curious narrative structure tells the story in two lengthy flashbacks, narrated by two different protagonists. At the end of the second flashback, the frame story suddenly reveals that everything we’ve just been told might not be true after all, only a fiction made up by the circus management that employs the former savage girl. Not that we were really fooled (are we ever in these films?) but it is remarkable to watch a film that fronts and pokes fun at its own implausible narrative baseline. And finally, in The Love Swindle (Jack Dillon 1918 – pictured below) Edith Roberts plays two roles, that of a rich and idle young heiress and that of her so-called poorer and industrious twin sister. The double role is necessary to bag the film’s romantic interest who is fooled by Roberts’ swell double act. (Men will believe what they want to believe when it comes to women, apparently.) The Love Swindle also makes good use of the old “help, there is a tramp in my home!” sensational plotline and handles the scenes in which the tramps attempt to grab the heroine with comic panache and lots of slamming doors and confusing hallways.

The Love Swindle (Jack Dillon, 1918)

Transformations and dress-up fun as well as double roles of these types were popular throughout the silent feature era and particularly sought-after by female stars because they allowed them to show off their dramatic skills. It showed them to be versatile and willing to ugly up and dress down for a part. Mary Pickford did so for Stella Maris(Neilan 1918) and would continue this tradition in Suds (directed by Dillon, who also directed The Love Swindle, in 1918) and The Hoodlum (Franklin 1919), to name just a few. (She had cross-dressed in Poor Little Peppina in Sidney Olcott’s 1916 picture and had starred in an adaptation of Cinderella, a fairy tale that is all about transformation and masquerade with James Kirkwood in 1914.)  Marguerite Clark for example had done one better by playing double roles that bended gender and race in The Prince and the Pauper (Ford and Porter 1915) and Uncle Tom’s Cabin (J. Searle Dawley 1918) respectively. There is of course much pleasure to be found in watching these young women incarnate opposing types and the transformation plot offers quick switches from one to the other. (Other surviving Bluebird pictures apparently vary on the same principles such as Edwin Stevens 1917 The Boy Girl, starring Violet Merserau and Paul Powell’s 1918 A Society Sensation, which included Rudolph Valentino in one of his earliest roles.) Surely, many (if not all) silent film plots include some kind of “transformation” as part of their narrative arch and many a psychologically motivated character will undergo a transformation of some kind, but in these pictures the visual transformation becomes its raison d’être and they come with fabulous wardrobe changes too. When, why and how will the transformation take place and will it involve satin or rags, moustaches or spectacles?

As should be clear, these films offered mostly “just” entertainment, nothing more but also nothing less, and as Mariann Lewinsky reminds us in the festival catalog “a feel good movie should never be undervalued.” And they were valued, popular as they were mostly outside the US. Lewinsky and the program’s curator, Hiroshi Komatsu, suggest that the films did so well in Europe and elsewhere because of their lightness and brightness – Bluebird films stood for “happiness” as the company’s general manager M.H. Hoffman claimed- and because of their naturalness and ease in plotting and pace, which presumably was what Europe (convalescing from the Great War) and Japan (learning about the West through movies) could appreciate.

I should add that the Bluebirds are notable for their modest feminism. Several of the productions were directed by female directors such as Ida May Park, Elsie Jane Wilson and Lois Weber, they were often adaptations of stories or plays written by women (about women) and they usually relied heavily on the charm and pull of their young female stars. Also, these films definitely display a fair amount of feminine agency: the female protagonists know what they want and they get it in the end. This is quite refreshing compared to the advice Rock Hudson is given in the fifties in All that Heaven Allows when his friend tells him how “women don’t want to make up their mind. They want you to do it for them.” The Bluebird do it all themselves and often display nerve, intelligence and prowess in the process. In The Love Swindle for example, it is Edith Roberts who finally strikes down four (!) trespassing tramps after a heroic gentleman has failed to protect her. In The Little White Savage, it is Carmel Myers who jumps into the bed of her unsuspecting love interest and so offers another refreshing variant on the besieged virtuous woman. Yet, in the end, the crux of all these women’s desires boils down to matrimony (and fancy dresses), so the feminism is a little too modest to make too big of a point out of it.

If time was on my side I would comment on other festival gems, or on the fabulous variety of male facial hair styles (from “rabbit feet” to Horse shoe, Fu Manchu and French Style moustaches); ponder on the random (visual) motifs that appear across films and genres (such as for example the locked hands of Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne in Leo McCarey’s magnificent Love Affair and the handshake sign of the hopeful proprietors of “Chez Nous” in Julien Duvivier’s La Belle Equipe). I could also discuss the many “theatermüde” women who either experienced a literal weariness of life in the theater, or more figuratively, are weary of always having to perform, be it femininity or something else. This “Theater weariness” is usually solved through marriage to a rich boring fella and a move to Texas, Oklahoma or “the country.” What also springs to mind is the recurring droll and slightly embarrassing machismo (even misogyny) coming from the likes of Kirk Douglas, Robert Stack, Tony Franciosa, Howard Keel, and the whole community of a suburban New England town and women that put up with them. And of course there was the surprising contrasty darkness as well as the rich chromatic palette of both soft and pastel or flashy and saturated colors in the various color prints. This year’s Cinema Ritrovato was a celebration of light, lightness and the God of light, of course.