Posted in 1900s, 1910s, Dante, Divine Comedy, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A quartet of antique horror films

For the sixth year in a row, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. So much of the language and development of early cinema was his creation.

Released 3 May 1901, Blue Beard (Barbe-Bleue) was based on Charles Perrault’s 1697 fairytale. This popular and famous story is the reason the word “bluebeard” is synonymous with a man who marries and murders one wife after another.

Rich aristocrat Barbe-Bleue (Méliès) is eager for a new wife, but none of the noblewomen brought to meet him like what they see. Not only is he ugly, he’s also been married seven prior times.

However, Barbe-Bleue’s riches convince one man to bestow his daughter in marriage (Méliès’s future wife Jehanne d’Alcy).

Barbe-Bleue gives his wife the keys to his castle before going on a trip, and warns her to never enter a certain room. While deciding between curiosity and fear, an imp (also Méliès) appears to tempt and taunt her. An angel tries to prevail upon her to stay away.

Curiosity gets the better of her, and she enters the room to discover a most macabre sight—seven bags that turn out to be Barbe-Bleue’s first seven wives hanging from a gallows in a torture chamber. In shock, she drops the key and becomes stained with blood she’s unable to wash off.

That night, she dreams of seven giant keys.

When Barbe-Bleue returns, he finds out what happened and tries to murder her too. She flees to the top of a tower and screams for her siblings to help her.

Barbe-Bleue is slain when they come to the rescue, and his first seven wives are resurrected and married to lords.

The Devil and the Statue (Le Diable Géant ou Le Miracle de la Madonna) was also released in 1901. A young man serenades his lover, then goes out a window. Presently a devil appears and begins growing to gigantic proportions.

A Madonna statue comes to life and makes the devil shrink, then opens the window so the lover can return.

The Haunted House (La Maison Hantée, also known as La Maison Ensorcelée) was released in April 1906. Though Méliès appears as one of the three characters, it was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

Three people take refuge at a house on a dark and stormy night, and spooky things immediately begin happening—chairs that appear and disappear, ghosts flying through the air, flying flames, the house tilting and rotating, the bed sliding across the floor, a knife cutting a sausage and bread by itself, a slice of sausage moving all over the table, a teapot pouring by itself, napkins moving.

This entire film is so fun! It made me eager to seek out more of Señor de Chomón’s work.

And finally we come to L’Inferno, which premièred 10 March 1911 at the Mercadante Theatre in Naples, not to be confused with the other 1911 Italian film of the same name, which I reviewed in 2016. This film was produced by Helios Film, a much smaller company than Milano Films, and made in a hurry to try to beat the other film to theatres and take advantage of the huge wave of public anticipation. It did arrive three months earlier, but is only 15 minutes long as opposed to over an hour.

Eleven major episodes from Inferno are depicted—the dark forest, Virgil’s meeting with Beatrice, crossing Charon’s ferry across Acheron, Francesca and Paolo, Minòs, Farinata degli Uberti in his flaming tomb, the usurers in a rain of fire, Ulysses, Pier della Vigna in the Wood of the Suicides, Count Ugolino, and Satan.

This L’Inferno uses only 18 intertitles (drawn right from Dante’s own words) and 25 animated paintings, compared to 54 in the full-length feature. However, the special effects are quite sophisticated, such as the lustful being blown around and Minòs’s gigantic stature.

Like the other L’Inferno, this one too is strongly based on Gustave Doré’s famous woodcut illustrations. And while both films feature nudity, the short film is more sensual regarding Francesca.

Posted in 1910s, 1920s, Movies, Silent film

Lidia, Letizia, and Isabella Quaranta

Lidia Gemma Mattia Quaranta (6 March 1891–5 March 1928) was born in Turin. Her little sisters Letizia and Isabella (twins) were also actors. Lidia got started acting in the legendary Dante Testa’s theatre company, which performed in Piedmontese.

In 1910, Itala Film hired Lidia and Letizia, though Lidia made her film début for Aquila Films, a short called L’ignota (The Unknown Woman in English). Most Aquila films were mystery- and crime-themed, and promoted very sensationalistically. Their strong ties with French and British distributors enabled commercial success abroad.

Lidia débuted for Itala Film in 1911, with Cleo e Filete, and made over a dozen films for them, mostly shorts. She also acted for several other early Italian film companies.

Her breakthrough role came in 1914, when she was cast as the title character of epic production Cabiria, set in Sicily, Carthage, and Cirta (now Constantine, Algeria) during the Second Punic War. This grand film spectacle runs almost two and a half hours.

Cabiria also introduced long-running film character Maciste, who appeared in over two dozen films during the silent era, and was revived for 25 more films from 1960–65. Two final Maciste films followed in 1973.

Lidia became a superstar, and acted in sixteen more films between 1914–20. She earned an unheard-of salary of 10,000 lire a month at her popularity peak, making her Italy’s highest-paid female actor.

Lidia’s work became more sporadic after 1920. Her final film was in 1925.

She contracted pneumonia in Turin in early 1928, and passed away the day before her 37th birthday.

Letizia Beatrice Giuseppina Angela Quaranta (30 December 1892–9 January 1977) was the next-most prolific of the three Quaranta sisters. She began acting in 1913, through Lidia’s influence, and became very popular.

One of her directors, Carlo Campogalliani (10 October 1885–10 August 1974), was so impressed by her, he married her in 1921. They moved to Rome, and later to Argentina. For the rest of her life, Letizia only acted in films directed by Carlo.

Several of her films were Maciste films.

Isabella Maria Rosa Teresa Quaranta (30 December 1892–3 April 1975) was the least-prolific of the three sisters. In comparison to superstar Lidia and frequently-requested Letizia, Isabella only acted from 1912–17.

In spite of her rather short career, Isabella nevertheless starred in some significant films, such as Romanticism (1915), directed by her famous brother-in-law, and A Masquerade in the Sea (1917).

When she was hired in 1912, Itala Film described her as “a brilliant actress.”

Posted in 1910s, Dante, Divine Comedy, holidays, Movies, Religion, Silent film

Italy’s first feature film

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I had the privilege of adding Italy’s first feature film, L’Inferno, to my list of silents seen as #1,117. I can’t believe I’d never had a chance to see it before, given how famous and important it is, and how in love with Dante I am. I went back and forth with a few versions before finally settling on the Tangerine Dream soundtrack. It seemed the most appropriate, as jarring as it was to occasionally hear singing.

Released 10 March 1911 by the Teatro Mercandante in Napoli (Naples), this film was over three years in the making and a huge international success. In the U.S. alone, it made over two million dollars. Since it was over an hour long, theatre owners felt justified in raising ticket prices.

L’Inferno is not only widely considered the first true blockbuster of film history, but the finest film adaptation of any of Dante’s writings ever. I wish they’d gone all the way and done Purgatorio and Paradiso as well!

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1910s films have always been kind of hit-or-miss for me. They remind me of a gangly preteen or teenager with growing pains, in process of finding an established place in the world. Films had evolved beyond short snippets and one-reelers, but the medium couldn’t jump right into fully-blown perfect features and longer short subjects. Everyone was still learning how to tell stories via moving pictures, and that included acting techniques, camera movement and angles, and scripts.

This excellent 105-year-old film isn’t one of those 1910s films which disappointed me. It does such a wonderful job of bringing Dante’s otherworldly journey to life. The scenes and characters are based upon the famous 19th century woodcut illustrations by Gustave Doré, which were very familiar internationally.

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If you’ve read The Divine Comedy, you’re probably familiar with the general outline of the story. On Good Friday in the year 1300, Dante wakes up in the Wood of Error, no idea how he got there or how he lost the way so badly. He takes heart from the rising Sun, and begins climbing the Delectable Mountain.

Dante is ambushed by a leopard (lust), a lion (pride), and a female wolf (avarice). He turns back in terror and encounters his idol, the great Roman poet Virgil. Here the film takes a turn from the book by showing Beatrice summoning Virgil to rescue Dante.

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The film does such a wonderful job at bringing Dante’s rich imagination to life, and depicting each Circle and Ring of Hell. Along the way, several famous stories are told in flashback, such as the stories of murdered lovers Francesca da Rimini and Paolo Malatesta, and the unfortunate Count Ugolino. Some scenes from the book are left out, and some of the geography is altered, but overall, it’s really faithful to the source material.

Some arrogant modern-day folks who can’t think outside of CGI might mock the special effects and otherworldly creatures as lame and outdated, but I really loved them. There was so much effort put into making this film, and Doré’s illustrations really are brought to stunning life.

Some of the creatures are still just as terrifying in the modern era, like Bertram de Born holding his own severed head, the giant head of Lucifer eating a person, and thieves transmogrifying into snakes.

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L’Inferno contains one of film’s rare few depictions of Prophet Mohammed. His chest gapes open and his entrails hang out. Dante, like most Medieval Christians, was under the false impression that Prophet Mohammed was a schismatic, though he was never Christian to begin with!

I’ll have a future post discussing how to handle and express discomfort with things like this when reviewing older books and films.

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There’s really no substitute for reading the book (all the way through, not just Part I!), but the film does a masterful job at showing many of the scenes and conveying the essence of this great work of literature. However, since film technology wasn’t yet equipped to film in the dark, we don’t get to see the stars Dante and Virgil behold again when they climb out of Hell at the end.

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It’s hard to put into words just how very, very much Dante means to me, how much I love and admire him. He represents the best the human race is capable of, a beautiful antidote against all the evil, ignorance, and cruelty that exists. No matter how far we might fall, how badly we’re lost, there’s always hope of finding our way back.