Last week, I dug out all of £3 to see some rediscovered and restored silent cinema. I had been to several screenings at the Cinema Museum before – the museum is a perennial source of filmic delights – but this was my first time at a Kennington Bioscope event. The auditorium was impressively full and not just the usual retired crowd that populate these screenings – I spied entire families, film historians and archivists, and more than one fellow PhD student. The audience for silent film screenings (and film projection in general) is ageing, but I am optimistic that there will always be enough new viewers to sustain it as a niche interest at least.
The evening was led by Kevin Brownlow, who introduced Rex Ingram’s lesser seen feature Mare Nostrum (1926), screened in beautiful 35mm, wholly restored after it was rediscovered in 1990s save for one elusive sequence which is still missing. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, and stars Antonio Moreno as Ulysses Ferragut, a Spanish sailor who is drawn into the war and away from his family by a seductive Austrian spy, Freya Talberg (Alice Terry). Apparently the missing scene depicts the lovers in a aquarium, watching some sort of symbolic fight between two octopuses. As Brownlow pointed out, the missing sequence sounds not unlike the similarly symbolic scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (as an aside: the gorgeous restoration of The Lady… is on general release now, go go go!). I will admit that any time the drama lulled I wondered where the ‘octopus love scene’ would have been. Because, I mean, octopus love scene.
For what it’s worth, I was not entirely sold on the plot. Moreno’s hero is so weak willed and Terry’s femme fatale so duplicitous that I could not bring myself to care about the fate of their love (maybe the octopuses would have changed my mind). This is a shame, because the setup of the drama is immediately enthralling… Ulysses’s father tells him the tale of Amphitrite, the Greek goddess who takes care of fallen sailors. When the fully grown Ulysses meets Freya, who looks the spit of a painting he has of the goddess, he is drawn back to the seafaring world that he promised his wife he had left behind.
The Mediterranean is the other character in the film, and is altogether more captivating than either of the two protagonists. The film is a mix of lavish outdoor shots of Barcelona, Pompeii and Naples, and closeted studio sets representing the vessels at sea. Add beautiful tinting and some trick shots and you have a film that is as visually beguiling as any of the period. Ingram produced a staggering amount of footage on the shoot, and it is worth seeking the film out just to see the extravagance and majesty; the chase in the streets of Marseilles is worth the price of entry alone. Ingram is considered to be an early auteur – as a contemporary of Erich von Stroheim and an inspiration to Michael Powell (who worked as a grip on Mare Nostrum), he was certainly forceful and influential.
Brownlow chose two shorts to accompany the main feature: a 16mm copy of American pacificist propaganda film Civilisation (Thomas Ince, 1916) and an unrestored extract from Behind the Door (also Thomas Ince, produced in 1919 but not released until 1925) screened from a DVD. When Civilisation was released to in Britain it was renamed Civilisation: What Every Briton is Fighting For, because pacifism was not exactly a selling point in countries fighting in WWI. The film was another Alice Terry vehicle, from before her marriage to Ingram, and boasts some really lovely tints (I particularly liked the pale pistachio colour, I might paint my bathroom something similar) and one of the first instances of illustrated intertitles. The extract of Behind the Door was in far worse knick, though even the standard definition DVD bore the promise of fantastic action sequences, and I was glad to hear that the whole film has now been found.