An opera adaptation starring a ballerina set in Naples but shot in Chicago. The silent era, ladies and gentlemen! Ballet superstar Anna Pavlova made her screen debut in this Universal epic about love, revolution and trunk hose.
Scuzza me, but you see, back in old Napoli, that’s amore
The only thing the Habsburgs liked more than marrying near relations was conquering bits of other countries and that should be enough to explain what the Spaniards were doing in Naples, Italy for a few centuries. The Dumb Girl of Portici was based on a real uprising against the tax-happy nobility led by a fisherman named Masaniello. Or, rather, it was based on an opera by Daniel Auber that was based on the real uprising. But, let’s face it, it was all in the service of showcasing the film debut of ballet superstar Anna Pavlova.
At this point in film history, stage talent and other celebrities had figured out that movies were popular, profitable and promised something resembling immortality. (Assuming their films weren’t scrapped or burned, that is.) As a result, there was a flood of stage stars in Hollywood and almost all of them washed out after a few pictures. Silent film acting was not as easy as it looked.
The gold standard for this kind of transition, in my opinion, is Geraldine Farrar, an opera diva who managed to utterly charm movie audiences without singing a note and who managed to please critics with her enthusiastic but appropriate performances. Her debut film, Carmen, is also what I would consider to be the gold standard for a silent film adaptation of an opera. It maintained all the drama and romance while still opening up the story and making it feel cinematic rather than stagy.
Anna Pavlova was a beloved superstar and on the surface, it would seem like pantomime acting would be right up her alley. After all, a great many silent stars had some background in dance and the kind of control a ballet star had over her body would surely help her as she conveyed her emotions to the motion picture audience. Further, Pavlova was not one for feats of exhausting athleticism. She was a delicate figure who charmed her audience with emotion and sensitivity.
(Pavlova is also part of a select club, along with Shirley Temple and Nellie Melba, of celebrities whose namesake recipe has outlived them. A pavlova is a meringue and fruit affair claimed by both Australia and New Zealand but it seems that it was originally an American dish.)
So, we have ballet, celebrity, opera and direction by Lois Weber with her husband, Phillips Smalley. That’s quite a lot to pack into one film but let’s dig in.
The picture opens in typical 1910s fashion with a brief intro shot of the star. These things are charming and sometimes would involve the actors in modern dress transforming into their costumed characters thanks to the magic of the movie camera. There’s none of that for Pavlova but we do get a fun sequence of her twirling about with a nearly-invisible partner clad in black. The Dumb Girl of Portici has no proper ballet scenes so this introduction takes care of any “When will Pavlova dance?” questions right off the bat. Smart.
Seventeenth century Naples: Masaniello (Rupert Julian, future Kaiser impersonator and director of The Phantom of the Opera) is an educated fisherman living in Portici. His desire for revolution couldn’t have been clearer if he had a hammer and sickle tattooed to his chest but of all the things I thought I would see in my lifetime, Rupert Julian in short shorts was not one of them. Consider this a warning, it’s too late for me but you can save yourselves.
He has a sister named Fenella (Pavlova) who cannot speak but who can, unsurprisingly, dance up a storm. When you cast a ballerina, these things are inevitable.
When I read this title card, I groaned. You see, 1910s films are positively silly with thistledown dames shrieking with delight at squirrels and generally acting like blithering idiots in an attempt to be rustic and delightful. After a few dozen of them, you start wishing for a slingshot to drive them off the screen.
Pavlova unfortunately fulfills this trope in her first few scenes and it’s pretty painful to watch. While she moves with all the grace one could expect from a dancer, one wishes that she would stop being quite so excited about seaweed. Her movements lead me to think that she was moderating her performance for the stage and not the screen. On the screen, the performer doesn’t need to worry about whether they can see her in the cheap seats.
Fortunately, things calm down a bit when Fenella finds a fella. Alphonso (Douglas Gerrard) is the son of the local despot and he decides to mingle with the common people along with his brother, Conde (Jack Holt). Alphonso and Fenella are immediately attracted to one another but he only remembers he is engaged to the posh Elvira (Edna Maison) after a night of love with Fenella.
Masaniello is enraged that a nobleman broke his sister’s heart and the oppressive taxation makes the peasantry amiable to his talk of revolution. Meanwhile, Alphonso’s dad orders Fenella imprisoned lest she interfere with Alphonso’s marriage to the prudish Elvira.
So, poor Fenella is locked away with the rats and to celebrate the wedding, the government raises the tax on fruit, the staple food of the commoners. I am sure that nothing will come of this.
Will Masaniello get his revolution? Will Fenella break jail? Will Elvira discover that Alphonso has been stepping out? You’ll have to see The Dumb Girl of Portici to find out.
The first question everyone is going to ask about this film is this: How is Pavlova. Well, I think her performance gets off to a rough start when she is called on to be whimsical but improves drastically as the romance blooms and the revolution brews. She runs around in terror, flirts charmingly and performs a daring jailbreak. In one of the few closeups of the film, Pavlova’s expression tells us all we need to know about her attraction to Alphonso.
That’s probably a good thing because Douglas Gerrard isn’t the most charismatic leading men to come along. Rupert Julian, meanwhile, leaves no scenery unchewed. Only Jack Holt, who is often given to overacting, manages to be in any way dynamic. Edna Maison fares far better as Alphonso’s ticked off bride. Truly, the ladies carry this picture.
Here’s one weird observation: I am usually pretty understanding about variations in makeup because silent stars generally applied their own to some extent but this film’s look is all over the place. The guys were duded up like Keystone Cops, particularly Julian, and the women all opted for a more natural look with makeup as close to minimal as they could get. It’s the first time I have seen this particular phenomenon.
When discussing Weber’s films from this period, there is always a question of exactly how much her husband and co-director, Phillips Smalley, contributed. I can’t pretend to have a definitive answer except to say that Weber was generally acknowledged to be the dominant partner in the collaboration, contemporary references to the film tended to name Weber solo far more often than Weber/Smalley and Smalley was never named solo that I have seen.
One major positive of the picture is the way it allows the revolution to slow boil and come off as a natural outcome of oppression. Too many American features that deal with revolution toss out platitudes and a few references to despotism without actually letting things build. Weber’s slow burn approach pays off once the revolution bursts onto the screen.
The nobles, realizing that the little uprising has turned into something considerably nastier, attempt to defend themselves but their preparations are almost comically inadequate. They barricade with light furniture, hide under tables and run to and fro even as the angry mob is smashing through the gates.
Weber obviously reveled in the imagery of smoke and flame and noblemen’s heads on pikes in all the expected grotesque beauty. The mob is really a mob with hoards of extras rampaging through the sets and generally causing mayhem. The money is on the screen, in short.
I am not sure if it was included in the original opera but Weber goes in a rather Erich von Stroheim direction just before the revolution. Or, considering that this film predates The Heart of Humanity by two years, Erich went in a Lois Weber direction. In The Dumb Girl of Portici, a guard attempts to assault a female prisoner but when she fights him off, he smashes her baby against the wall and kills him. This is incredibly shocking and is similar in tone to The Heart of Humanity’s infamous rape scene that involved von Stroheim throwing a baby out of a second floor window. I’m not saying Weber invented stylized infanticide but her embrace of the tacky and morbid with the tasteful is much more often associated with her male contemporaries.
The scenes of violence are not marked by aggressive editing but rather cleverly choreographed extras and tasteful pans and dolly shots taking in the action and then pulling back to reveal the scope of the melee. It’s rather effective and just as exciting as flashier camerawork. Kudos to credited cinematographers Dal Clawson Al Siegler and R. W. Walter.
(Spoilers) The fact that everyone dies should come as no surprise to either students of history or fans of opera but it seems that Universal drew the line at spending money on the opera’s original ending—Fenella leaping into an erupting Mount Vesuvius! (Or just the lava. The point is, molten rock, which costs money and is in short supply in Chicago, Illinois.) Instead we get a kind of Pagliacci-like wave of stabbings. (“’Tain’t very sanitary” as Spike Jones would put it.) The picture ends with Fenella dancing her way upward on celestial clouds, which works better than it has a right to.
Pavlova drove a hard bargain for Universal, asking for $50,000 cash up front, which Moving Picture World estimated came to about $1.11 per second of work or $10,000 per week during the five week shoot, which put her in Charlie Chaplin territory as a highly-paid movie star.
The total fee comes to something like $1.1 million in modern dollars but keep in mind that a studio programmer during this period could be easily made for $50,000. Geraldine Farrar appeared in Joan the Woman the same year and it cost $300,000 with a full castle siege and more armor than you can shake a stick at, if that helps put the size of Pavlova’s fee in perspective. Plus, she wasn’t under contract, she was paid up front, which left her free to do as she liked no matter what happed with the picture.
Further, to accommodate her performance schedule, the film had to be shot in Chicago. Universal took advantage of the existing Field Columbian Museum to add some fancy production values for a relatively small cost. They claimed the final budget for the picture was $250,000.
The Dumb Girl of Portici is a mixed bag. The male cast members, aside from Holt, are notably underwhelming and Pavlova takes some time to warm up. However, the revolt scene is one of the more dynamic sequences of 1910s film and certainly allows Weber to lay claim to that rarest of titles: a female director of epics. It’s a shame she didn’t make more of them because she more than proved her mettle with this picture.
Where can I see it?
Released on DVD and Bluray by Milestone. The reconstruction is based on a 35mm print from the Library of Congress with a 16mm print from the New York Public Library filling the gaps. It features a tasteful chamber score by John Sweeney based on Auber’s opera. This high-quality release is much appreciated.
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