Philip Concannon went treasure hunting at Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival, and here’s what he discovered.
What makes a classic? Why do some films establish unassailable reputations as great works of cinema, while other films with just as many virtues slip through the cracks of time and are forgotten? At this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, a number of acknowledged masterpieces from the canon were screened – films such as Singin’ in the Rain, Modern Times, The Godfather, A Streetcar Named Desire and McCabe & Mrs Miller – but the thrill of a festival like this lies in uncovering hidden gems and being surprised by a film that you had no great expectations for, or in some cases had never even heard of. There were plenty of such revelations this year, and we unearthed a few films that really do deserve to have their names listed among the greats.
For example, take the strange case of Only Yesterday. The opening credits of John M. Stahl’s 1933 film suggest that it was adapted from a book by Frederick Lewis Allen, but it quickly transpires that the source material is actually Stefan Zweig’s Letter from an Unknown Woman, and Universal in fact quietly secured the rights to Zweig’s novella just two weeks before the film’s release. Of course, that story was filmed beautifully in 1948 by Max Ophüls, a film that is justifiably renowned as a masterpiece, but it’s hard to see why there is such a disparity between the reputations of these two pictures.
Stahl may lack the fluid visual elegance of Ophüls, but his film has a comparable emotional impact with the added bonus of being surprisingly funny, and it presents characters and relationships that are notable for their modern feel. Making an outstanding screen debut here, Margaret Sullavan as Mary is left alone and pregnant following a one-night stand, but after moving to New York and living with her forward-thinking aunt (Billie Burke), she successfully raises her son while forging a career as an independent businesswoman. She still yearns for the man she fell in love with that night, but doesn’t allow it to be the only thing that defines her. Mary’s interactions with her son have a playful quality that’s mirrored by Aunt Julia’s affectionate bickering with her partner, and the performances across the board possess a naturalistic quality that brings a rich texture and emotional complexity to the film.
Only Yesterday was shown as part of the festival’s Carl Laemmle Jr. strand, originally curated by Dave Kehr at MoMA. He was the head of production at Universal from 1928 to 1936, and while the pictures he oversaw weren’t all masterpieces, they made for a remarkably eclectic and fascinating programme. The Universal selections were shown as double-bills at the start of each day, and it was a joy to wake up in the morning and sit down for pictures such as James Whale’s alcohol-fuelled murder farce Remember Last Night? and his hysterically misogynistic black comedy The Kiss Before the Mirror, the brutal pre-Code prison drama Laughter in Hell, and Stahl’s moving romance Back Street. The new restoration of King of Jazz (one of many musical flops that doomed the producer’s reign) was the season’s flagship screening, and it was both a deeply weird experience and a reminder of what a remarkable machine the studio system of this era was.
The Universal strand formed the core of my Bologna experience but it was the tip of the iceberg in terms of what the wide-ranging programme had to offer, with my second consecutive year at the festival proving to be an even more fulfilling experience. That might be down to a greater familiarity with the festival, or the fact that I had more friends in attendance this year, or perhaps it was simply that we were determined to cherish every minute spent away from home while the UK imploded, but I think it was largely because of a stronger programme all round, with some of the continuing strands from last year yielding many more treasures. The Colour Film in Japan focus, undermined in 2015 by some poor-quality prints, was in much better shape this year and it turned up at least one masterpiece.
Heinosuke Gosho’s The Yellow Crow is the simple story of a nine year-old boy trying to build a relationship with his taciturn father, who has just been repatriated after the Second World War, but the skill with which Gosho tells this story makes it a profoundly moving experience. He portrays the complicated and fraught relationship between Kiyoshi and his parents with acuity and skill, and Kiyoshi is one of the most complex and fully realised child characters I’ve ever seen depicted on film. The Yellow Crow was one of the earliest Japanese films to utilise colour and Gosho really utilises it, emphasising his young protagonist’s emotional state through his the potent use of yellow and via Miyajima Yoshio’s expressive lighting. The film had me in tears by the end and it feels like it should be widely regarded as one of the great films about childhood. Despite winning the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958, its relative obscurity is baffling.
The lack of acclaim for The Yellow Crow today is particularly odd when you consider how many Japanese films of that decade are beloved outside of Japan. In other cases, it’s more understandable that a film hasn’t made any impact here. Argentinean cinema has never gained much of a foothold in the UK, but Leonardo Favio’s Soñar, soñar is a classic ‘70s road movie in the same vein as Scarecrow or Kings of the Road. A flop when first released – as Favio’s fans expected more from him than this rambling, low-key tale – I found Soñar, soñar captivating from the opening scene, which is bathed in golden sunlight by cinematographer Rogelio Chomnalez, who does sensational work throughout. The film’s motor is the odd-couple relationship between its two leads, protest singer Gian Franco Pagliaro as a travelling conman, and former middleweight boxing champion Carlos Monzón as the childlike dreamer he takes under his wing. Perhaps casting people famous in other fields as the lead in your movie was an Argentinean trend? Pierre Chenal’s 1951 adaptation of Richard Wright’s Native Son features Wright himself as protagonist Bigger Thomas, and while the author may seem a little unsure of himself in a role he’s plainly too old for, the film remains an impressive adaptation, compensating for the budget limitations and uneven performances with a striking noir-ish atmosphere and a handful of vividly staged scenes. It’s a fascinating curio.
We watched Native Son on the only complete 35mm print available in the world, and sometimes in Bologna the screening format is as much of a draw as the film itself. The Band Wagon on Martin Scorsese’s personal 35mm print; Cœur fidèle screened from a carbon arc lamp projector; Flesh and the Devil on a fine-grain print taken from the nitrate negative. I didn’t actually get to see Flesh and the Devil as I found myself shut out of the oversubscribed screening (never underestimate the draw of Garbo!), but I quickly got over my disappointment by sitting down to watch a pre-Code film that hadn’t been on my radar and discovering one of the most entertaining films of the festival. Tay Garnett’s rediscovered Her Man is a romantic drama that boasts tight direction – full of strong compositions and skilfully executed tracking shots – and an eccentric sense of humour, and it never settles into a regular rhythm long enough for the audience to figure out where it’s going next. For some time you’re not even sure who the central character is going to be, and the film keeps getting sidetracked by strange running gags involving a hat or a slot machine, before climaxing with a rapidly escalating fight sequence that has to be seen to be believed. It was a major treat, and proof that in Bologna there are great discoveries to be made wherever you look.
But when I think about this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, the face that keeps coming to mind is that of Margaret Sullavan. Two years after making her debut in Only Yesterday she made her third feature The Good Fairy, proving that she was either extraordinarily lucky or she had a nose for a first-rate script. The Good Fairy is directed by William Wyler, but this feels like a Preston Sturges movie all the way, with his distinctive voice coming through loud and clear, and the actors’ delivery of his hilarious dialogue recalling the mannerisms and inflections of the later films that would win him such acclaim as a writer-director. The Good Fairy is every bit the equal of those films, and seeing it on an excellent 35mm print with a packed audience in Bologna was a glorious way to experience it for the first time. Like so many films at this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, its rediscovery is long overdue.