The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)

BFI Southbank, London

8 October 2017


(Warning: Contains spoilers)

There was an excellent turn out at BFI Southbank this evening for the first silent film screening of this year’s London Film Festival, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916) with an entertaining and illuminating introduction by Silent London’s Pamela Hutchinson.  Set in 17th century Naples at the time of an oppressive Spanish occupation, the film is loosely based upon the 1829 opera La Muette de Portici by composer Daniel Auber. Directed by Lois Weber who, at that time, was a film maker comparable in both ability and status with the likes of Griffith and de Mille, the film also marked the only screen appearance by world renowned ballet dancer and choreographer Anna Pavlova.

Fenella (Anna Pavlova) is a mute peasant girl living with her brother Masaniello (Rupert Julian), a popular and influential fisherman, in a poor village outside Naples.  Popular dissent is rising amongst the villagers against the harsh treatment meted out by the occupying Spanish forces.  Alphonso (Douglas Gerrard), son of the Spanish viceroy, decides to go out in disguise with his friend among the peasants to discover the cause of their anger. During his trip he meets and becomes infatuated with Fenella.  Although engaged to be married to Spanish aristocrat Elvira (Edna Maison), Alphonso makes further clandestine visits to Fenella.  

Eventually they spend a night together on the beach but the next morning Alphonso decides that their relationship is impossible and returns to the palace and Elvira.  Meanwhile, Masaniello has discovered his sister’s affair and seeks to hunt down her unidentified suitor. Pietro (William Wolbert), Masaniello’s friend (who secretly desires Fenella) offers to marry her but Masaniello refuses.  

Alphonso takes steps to recover evidence of his affair, a scarf given to him by Elvira which he in turn has given to Fenella but this results in Masaniello discovering that his sister’s seducer was a Spaniard which prompts him to whip-up further anti-Spanish sentiment amongst the villagers.  The Viceroy, egged on by his vindictive daughter Isabella (Betty Schade), takes matters into his own hands by having Fenella arrested and tortured.  She eventually escapes but while being pursued she runs into the wedding parade of the newly married Alphonso and Elvira.  Seeing the scarf Fenella is wearing, Elvira realises that this is the woman her husband has been having an affair with but she nevertheless offers Fenella her protection. However, the viceroy once again has Fenella imprisoned.  To mark his son’s wedding day he also levies new taxes on the peasants which prompts them to riot. When Spanish soldiers are called out to suppress the rioters it turns into a full scale uprising.  

With the soldiers overwhelmed, Masaniello leads an assault on the palace and panic breaks out amongst the Spanish gentry.  Fenella is freed and in the chaos Alphonso and Elvira escape to the peasant village. They are discovered there by Fenella but, still having feelings for Alphonso, she helps them evade capture. Meanwhile Pietro, who still lusts after Fenella, administers poison to Masaniello which drives him insane and he presides over a drunken orgy of murder and destruction in the palace.

Alphnso leads an assault by Spanish soldiers to recapture the palace.  Recognising him as the seducer of his sister, Masaniello attempts to run Alphonso through but Fenella leaps to protect him and is killed instead.  Distraught, Masaniello takes his own life.  

When Lois Weber (image, left) made The Dumb Girl of Portici for Universal Pictures she was the studios number one director.  Studio boss Carl Laemmle was reported as saying he “ would trust Miss Weber with any sum of money that she needed to make any picture”, and so it would prove, with this film being Universal’s biggest, most expensive production to date.  But this was also new territory for Lois Weber. Although she had experience in a wide range of film genres, most of what she had done up to this time had been on an altogether smaller scale with much more intimate story-lines  Now she was being given the opportunity to make an epic, on a par perhaps with Cabiria (1914), Intolerance (1916) or Civilization (1916).  

What’s more, she would be making the film with a leading lady for whom this would be her screen debut.  In 1915, Anna Pavlova (image right, as camerawoman) was virtually stranded in America following the outbreak of World War I in Europe. Although reluctant to appear in film, she was then touring with the Boston Opera Company which was on the brink of bankruptcy, so when Universal offered her the then unheard of figure of $50, 000 her screen debut would ensure the company’s survival.

But in a further complication, appearing in the film would have to fit in with Pavlova’s dance schedule.  Shooting began in Chicago (where she was performing) timed to fit in with her matinee and evening performances, before later switching to Los Angeles.  

For all the challenges posed in its making, when seen in this new, beautifully restored version, The Dumb Girl of Portici is indeed an epic film.  As well as successfully capturing the more intimate moments, Weber is equally comfortable with the large scale action scenes.  She captures perfectly the murderous, almost insane, frenzy of the rioting mob as well as the panic and terror of their intended victims. There is some superb and, for the time, innovative, camera work, in particular a wonderful shot as the camera tracks along a row of doors and windows as the peasants burst in through each one and then pulls back to see them flooding into the room. Weber was also not afraid to show in sometimes graphic detail the violence the uprising unleashes (for example, the baby hurled against a wall or the heads impaled on pikes (image,left)), all emphasised with a blood red tint to these scenes. The film is also notable for the superb sets, sumptuous costumes and beautifully choreographed and filmed dance scenes.  .  

As for the performances, it has to be emphasised that The Dumb Girl of Portici was a movie of its time, made when over-dramatisation was the norm amongst the film acting community. Pavlova’s performance is perhaps the most overly theatrical of all in the film (typified at image, right).  But as a dancer rather than an actor her specialty was expression through movement rather than dialogue so this is perhaps not surprising.  She was, additionally,  playing a mute for whom movement rather than speech was her only means of communication.  Yet within the theatricality of her performance, Pavlova imbues her character with great passion and charisma, a true free spirit as she dances on the sea shore or as she leaps forgivingly to protect the man who has seduced and abandoned her. Although apparently fascinated by the art of film making, even to the extent of purchasing and using her own movie camera The Dumb Girl of Portici would remain Pavlova’s only film appearance.  

Amongst the other performers New Zealand born Rupert Julian as Masaniello (image, left, with Pavlova) went increasingly over-the-top as he descended into madness. Active in Hollywood since 1913, Julian had his biggest hit as star and director of The Kaiser: The Beast of Berlin (1918) a crude but hugely successful anti-German propaganda film (perhaps, in this case, thankfully now considered lost) made shortly after America’s entry into World War 1, although he is probably best remembered as the original director of Phantom of the Opera (1925) although he left before the film was completed. Douglas Gerrard was competent enough as Alphonso. Another actor/director he continued with his acting career until the late 1940s although usually in uncredited minor roles.  Of more interest was Betty Schade as Isabella, the scheming and vindictive daughter of the viceroy.  Its a shame that this wasn’t a more substantive part as she played it very well. Between 1913 and 1921, German born Schade made over 120 films before apparently retiring from the movie business.  

As for director Lois Weber (image, right, with Pavlova), born to highly religious parents she spent time working as a street corner evangelist and a pianist before taking up acting.  She began in the film business in 1905, learning on the job from the likes of Alice Guy-Blache and Edwin S Porter, directing her first film, A Heroine of’76 in 1911. She was the first woman to direct a feature length film in the US, The Merchant of Venice (1914), by which time she was turning out over twenty films per year, often as star and writer as well as director.  In 1916, as well as The Dumb Girl of Portici, she made nine other feature length films, eight of which she also scripted, becoming in the process Universal’s best paid director on $5,000 per week. 

But as well as producing films simply for entertainment, Weber wanted to use the medium to highlight critical social and moral issues, going on to tackle subjects such as birth control, low wages, capital punishment and drug abuse.  Up until the early 1920s she had a string of popular and critically acclaimed films including Hop, or The Devil’s Brew (1916), Where Are My Children?(1916), The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917), What Do Men Want (1921) and The Blot (1921). Weber was also keen to mentor other women in the film industry, for example being instrumental in screenwriter Francis Marion’s rise to prominence.

However, by the early 1920s, Weber’s career began a dramatic decline.  Movie making had moved on from small scale independent production where women were able to compete on equal terms.  Instead, it was the big corporations that were taking over and, as with much of the rest of corporate America, there was little room for women. But there were other factors which took their toll as well.  These included; growing male opposition to Weber’s feminist critique of much of the movie industry and in particular its commodification of women; a growing fatigue with the sort of moralistic films Weber was making; and an increasing resentment of the religious views she espoused.  

By the end of the 1920’s her career was all but over and she was already being largely written out of the early history of the film industry.  Although the past decade has witnessed a growing reappraisal of her work and role, this is not helped by the dismally low survival rate for her films.  Of the 138 films she is credited with directing, all but around 20 are considered lost.    

The film was superbly accompanied on piano and flute by Stephen Horne (fresh off a plane from Pordenone) who as usual captured perfectly both the intimacy and excitement of the film. 

( NB  The Dumb Girl of Portici will shortly be available on DVD from Milestone )