Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum, Lambeth, London
16 November 2016
It was very much a Mediterranean evening at tonight’s KenBio. The main feature was Italian silent super-hero Maciste but first up, from the South of France (beautifully standing in for ancient Greece), it was the story of Phidias and his beautiful slave. .
In The Slave of Phidias, (Dir. Leonce Perret, 1917) the sculptor Phidias (Luitz Morat) is commissioned and paid in gold to carve a ceremonial statue of Athena. Yet none of his models provide him with the inspiration to complete the statue. On hearing his slave Callyce (Suzanne Delve) playing the lyre he falls in love with her. His existing mistress Quinta (Madeleine Ramey) becomes jealous of Callyce and has her flogged causing an enraged Phidias to have Quinta thrown out. But in a fit of spite Quinta steals the gold paid to Phidias for the statue. While Quinta leads the high life on the proceeds of her theft, Phidias is charged with misappropriating the gold. Found guilty he is stripped of his possessions and exiled. Callyce follows him and they sail away together.
As a series of beautifully composed artistic tableaux this film succeeded wonderfully, but as a satisfying movie…..well, maybe not quite so good. Despite director Perret’s reputation as one of Gaumont’s leading directors between 1910 and 1916 (with some 350 films to his name including what was probably France’s first feature length production) I didn’t feel that this was his finest hour. True, the film looked great, (apparently shot on location on the coast of southern France, mainly in an ornate neo-classical villa) with scenes reminiscent of a series of almost Pre-Raphaelite tableaux, just think Lawrence Alma-Tadema and you get the idea. But it was hampered by overly-theatrical, almost histrionic, acting. For a director supposedly praised for the naturalistic style of performances in his films this grated somewhat with what we were seeing.
At the time of this film however, Perret (image right) was increasingly critical of the lack of resources available at Gaumont and by the end of 1917 he had relocated to the United States. After considerable success (most significantly with Lest We Forget (1918) which was, ironically, a homage to the patriotic Frenchman) he returned to France, where his subsequent films continued to garner popular and critical acclaim. His 1925 film Madame sans-Gene with Gloria Swanson was the first Franco-US co-production while Printemps d’amour (1926) was the first French colour film and by 1929 he had started making sound films but Perret died suddenly in 1935 at the age of only 55.
Although The Slave of Phidias may not have been a particularly engaging film it was made eminently more watchable by the excellent accompaniment of John Sweeney on the piano.
Then it was but a short jump across the Med to Italy and the delights of Maciste in Love (Dir. Luigi Romano Borgnetto, 1919), in which Maciste (Bartolomeo Pagano) was a famous muscle-bound movie star, shooting a film in the grounds of industrialist Richard Thompson (Orlando Ricci)’s house. Thompson’s attractive daughter Ada (Linda Moglia) and her friends are watching the filming from a balcony. When Maciste sees her he is immediately besotted. After filming is finished Ada invites Maciste in for lunch with her friends. Meanwhile, Thompson’s three private secretaries are involved in a plot to sabotage work in his factory to the benefit of a rival factory owner, Bethel. They spark unrest amongst the workforce who storm Thompson’s house. Maciste single-handedly fights them off until the workers recognise him and the unrest subsides. Not to be out-done, the secretaries organise the kidnapping of Ada. Maciste tracks her down and twice frees her but twice they are recaptured. After escaping yet again from the secretaries’ attempts to drown him Maciste informs Thompson that he has a plan to release Ada, find evidence against the secretaries and uncover the real instigator of the sabotage. Allowing himself to be captured once more he is taken to Bethel’s estate where Ada is now being held, escapes once again and brings all the criminals to justice. At a reception to celebrate his triumph Maciste is initially too shy to tell Ada of his feelings for her but by the time he has plucked up enough courage another suitor is on the scene and Maciste leaves, despondent.
Maciste in Love was never a film destined to be garlanded with Oscars (even had they existed in 1917). It was, nevertheless, an amusing adventure. Pagano was clearly chosen for his muscles rather than his acting ability and cut something of a lumbering presence (think Sylvester Stallone without the style and sophistication!!) but he could hurl an adversary around with ease at all the right moments. The plot required most of the characters to abandon any sort of rationality in their actions but did serve to keep the pace of the action going. The three secretaries, Sherlock, Job and Bile, provide some amusing comic caricatures while Linda Moglia as Ada was an attractive and occasionally resourceful leading lady. But the ending…what a turn-up, with the shy, tongue-tied Maciste not getting the girl. Well, that wouldn’t happen in Hollywood!
Having made his debut in the 1914 Italian epic Cabiria (Dir. Giovanni Pastrone, 1914) as a black slave, such was Maciste’s popularity that Bartolomeo Pagano returned to the screen in the starring vehicle Maciste (Dir. Vincenzo Denizot, 1915) aka “Marvellous Maciste, the Giant of Cabiria. Pagano would go on to play Maciste at least another 28 times until finally calling it a day in 1928. But this was not the end of the Maciste story. The character was revived by Italian filmmakers in the 1960s with another 25 films being made (although with the Maciste character being variously renamed Hercules, Samson, Son of Samson, Atlas (image left) or Colossus in the US release versions) thereby making Machiste one of the oldest and possibly longest running film characters in cinema history. Maciste may also be unique in film history in that there is no continuity of his character from one film to the next. In one film he could be a contemporary real-life person (as in Maciste in Love) while in the next he could be a mythological character from an ancient era. His films are in effect a series of random adventures with no relationship from one to the next. The only recurring theme is that Maciste is always a force for good, imbued with super-human strength and invariably has to overcome some evil character or group.
Prior to taking up the Maciste mantle Bartolomeo Pagano (image right) had been a dock worker in Genoa. Maciste films accounted for pretty much his whole cinema career before retiring in 1929. He so identified with the character that he had his name legally changed to Maciste and lived out his retirement in Villa Maciste! I can find out very little about leading lady Linda Moglia (image left) other than that she was born in Torino, Italy in 1896 and had a sister Lucia Moglia who was also an actress. She starred in around a dozen films the only one of which I know is Cyrano de Bergerac (Dir. Augusto Genina, 1923) in which she was excellent in the part of Roxanne. Her last recorded film was Love’s Sacrifice (aka La Moglie Bella) (Dir. Augusto Genina, 1924) after which the trail goes cold. I’d be interested to find out more about her if anyone can help.
The film was helped along no end by the excellent accompaniment of Meg Morley on piano who perfectly captured both the action and the humour of the film.