In her excellent history entitled Women Filmmakers in Early Hollywood, film scholar Karen Ward Mahar presents a startling fact, unknown to many of even the most avid cinephiles today: in the 1910s and early 1920s, close to half of the people working in the film industry were women. Women worked not just in the capacities that one might expect—as actresses, assistants, makeup artists, and wardrobe designers—but also as writers, producers, editors, and, crucially, directors. Once movies became what Mahar calls a “Wall-Street defined, vertically integrated big business,” however, directing opportunities for women swiftly began to vanish, leaving only a tiny number of American women working as directors from the late 1920s through the 1960s. (Even now, the Directors Guild of America estimates that only 15% of the directors working in Hollywood today are women.) The prospects for women filmmakers by the end of the 1920s were so bleak, in fact, that one of the most prolific and influential directors of her time, Lois Weber, advised young women seeking to break into directing, “Don’t try it; you’ll never get away with it.”
Though some women did “get away with it,” none enjoyed as much popular success as Weber until our own century. Weber is best known for her high-minded social problem films during the “uplift” period of film history. Her projects considered such topics as birth control (Where Are My Children?), capital punishment (The People vs. John Doe), and income inequality (The Blot). Uplift films, however, were far from her only métier; she also directed white-knuckle thrillers (Suspense), comedies (Discontent), and quasi-historical epics. The last category is represented gorgeously in the recently restored The Dumb Girl of Portici. Based on an opera, the film stars the great ballerina Anna Pavlova as Fenella, a young mute girl tragically swept up in a violent revolution. Pavlova’s extraordinarily expressive performance is the centerpiece of this lavish adaptation, but there’s quite a bit more to commend. Opulent sets, stunning costumes, lively ensemble performances, and inventive special effects make this film a genuine pleasure to watch.
Portici is a visual feast. The film opens with Pavlova dancing an eerie ballet, superimposed on a black screen. She seems spookily airborne, lifted either by unseen dancers or by wireworks (or perhaps both). The moment is arresting and creates an evocative prelude for the film that follows. The story is set in seventeenth-century Italy under Spanish occupation. Pavlova’s peasant Fenella cannot speak but moves so expressively that others have no trouble understanding her meaning. The principal significant others in her life are her devoted brother, Masaniello, and the scoundrel Prince Alphonso, whom she meets when he goes slumming in disguise among the peasants in order to learn more about them so he and his wicked father can oppress them more effectively. Fenella captures Alphonso’s heart, but can he protect her from the depravity of his father and the violent unrest to come? The answer is absorbing and full of spectacle. Scores of meticulously costumed extras populate the worlds of both peasants and aristocrats, and the sets are both fantastical and convincing.
Part of the appeal of the film lies in its use of what were relatively novel cinematic techniques at the time. Something as simple as moving the camera instead of just parking it in front of the actors (as was the norm in the earliest part of the century) produces a startlingly vivid effect. This is particularly notable in a beautifully shot palace invasion scene, in which the camera pans across the violent breach and then slowly pulls back as actors surge into and out of the frame. Weber also often liked to double-expose film to create spectral effects, as she does in Portici when one character is daydreaming of another. Several of the point-of-view shots, too, are nothing less than stunning.
This movie is not short on incident. Over its almost two-hour duration, we witness Shakespearean royal intrigues, the collapse of an arranged marriage, a passionate love affair, bloody uprisings of the dispossessed, espionage, betrayal, a daring prison break, vengeance, flogging, murder, fire, riots, poisoning, suicide, madness, heads on pikes, and a balletic ascension to heaven. It’s a little strange, then, that the film sometimes lags, mostly during long shots of aristocrats dancing or mobs rioting. This, I think, is largely the result of changed expectations of what movies should look like. We now expect faster cuts, more variety in types of shots, and a more dynamically moving camera to enliven the storytelling. Still, even with the benefits of modern filmmaking techniques, two hours is a long running time for a film about a sad girl under Spanish imperialism. It’s not helped by confusion produced by the fact that all the male leads look more or less like Inigo Montoya. The rewards of Portici for the patient, however, are well worth the wait. Few films of the silent era are more visually arresting, and few stars have ever moved as expressively as the Immortal Swan, Pavlova.