I’ve got a mystery on my hands. Literally. Last Tuesday I got a package from Amazon in the mail, and when I opened it, found a Blu-ray of The Dumb Girl From Portici, along with a note on the receipt that read, “Dear Rebecca: Thanks a million.”
That’s it. No signature.
Cue the profound mystification. My face looked like that one Britney Spears meme for the next hour or two. I still get it now and then when I think about who my mysterious gifter could possibly be.
Actually, scratch that. I have a very good inkling of who it could be, but since they’ve chosen to remain anonymous, I’m going to respect that and thank them the only way I really can, which is to review their present. I don’t know if Mystery Person reads Taking Up Room, but anyway, this review exists because of them.
Gee, this is fun. Seriously. I’m liking this. 🙂
Anyway, The Dumb Girl From Portici was released in 1916 and has the distinction of being the first of two film appearances by Anna Pavlova. Adapted from the 1828 Daniel Auber opera, La Muet du Portici, which is based on the Naples Revolt of 1647, it’s a melee of guys in tights and shorts, weird-looking fake mustaches, jealous fiancees, and crossed signals. Oh, and just so we’re clear, “dumb” denotes the titular character as being a mute as opposed to “not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
The film opens with Pavlova dancing and leaping as if she has Flubber on her pointe shoes, and then it takes us to Naples. The rich are very rich, the poor are very poor, the taxes are high and getting higher. Masaniello (Rupert Julian) is a fisherman and the self-appointed king of all the poor people in Naples. His sister, Fenella (Anna Pavlova) while being unable to speak, is easily the most joyous and beloved person in the city. She flits around on the beach in toe shoes and seems delighted with every aspect of her existence.
Meanwhile, in Guilded Cage Land, Alphonso (Douglas Gerrard) and his brother, Conde (Jack Holt) decide to dress in commoner clothes and go slumming. Alphonso is getting married to Elvira (Edna Mason) so he figures he’ll have one final fling. What he doesn’t count on, however, is Fenella, who easily makes him forget that he’s betrothed.
Alphonso’s bachelor party is short-lived, of course. His dad, the Duke d’Arcos (Wadsworth Harris) has Fenella thrown in prison so she won’t be a nuisance at the wedding. Fenella being Fenella, she makes friends with the rats, feeding them her bread. She also escapes from her cell, where she makes a beeline for Alphonso and his new wife. Elvira isn’t having any of it, though, and has Fenella put back in jail.
Masaniello is incensed that his sister’s been imprisoned, and he’s sick of the high taxes. The proverbial last straw is when the tax on fruit is raised, which sounds funny, but fruit actually was the staple of the people in 1647 Naples. It doesn’t take much to fan the flames of revolution, and Masaniello and Company storm the palace, right in the middle of Alphonso and Elvira’s wedding reception. The spectacle looks like something out of the French Revolution, with aristocrats suddenly personae non grata, and among other grisly-but-historically-correct sights, we see fancy heads set on spikes in the town square.
Fenella, who suspects no one is minding the store, climbs out of her cell using the good ol’ knotted bedsheet trick, and when she goes back to her brother’s house, realizes to her horror that Alphonso and Elvira are among the hunted. They plead with her for help and she relents, concealing their presence from her brother.
Now that he’s in charge, Masaniello is stressed. Like, super-stressed. He starts making bad decisions and his popularity takes a nosedive. Alphonso may or may not be completely out of the picture, either. There also may be tragedy ahead, because a story like Portici wants drama.
At the time of its release, magazines and trade papers heavily showered Portici with superlatives. Pavlova was already accustomed to being referred to as “The Incomparable,” and any movie connected with her had to be no less than stupendous, astounding, the zenith of motion pictures.
Over a hundred years later, I can safely say the film is a marvel, as in, it’s absolutely eye-popping. Every set is intensely detailed and the action has about as much subtlety as a Scud missile. It’s both overwhelming and captivating.
Anna Pavlova was a sublime dancer, and it’s a very rare treat to see her talents captured on film. She was generous with them to say the least. As an actress, she sometimes exploded off the screen like an Russian Carol Channing, albeit an inaudible one (Respect to Ms. Channing, rest her soul). Even during the silent era, when facial expressions were so important in conveying emotion, subtlety was still pretty much a thing. On the other hand, since Pavlova’s character is supposed to be a mute, big emotives probably helped make up for what couldn’t be said.
What’s really impressive about Portici is the direction. Lois Weber’s final product, while stage-y, is also very fluid and graceful, showing off the Revolt with big tracking shots. Weber had some practice at Portici-type period films, having made The Merchant of Venice two years previously. It would be interesting to see what Weber would have done if Portici had retained Auber’s original ending, which apparently involved Fenella jumping into Mount Vesuvius.
Portici might be overwhelming at times, but it’s also a film I would like to dig into again because it feels like there’s a lot to discover. Thank you, Mystery Person or Persons who sent it to me. It was very kind of you, whoever you are. Hope you get to see Portici yourself someday.
That goes for everyone–this movie really is a spectacle. Thanks for reading, all, and hope to see you next time for Crystal’s Carole Lombard Memorial Blogathon. Until then…
The Dumb Girl of Portici is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.