Lois Weber's 1916 'The Dumb Girl of Portici' is a thrilling epic
By Diane Carson
Celebrating its one-hundred-year anniversary in a restored version, The Dumb Girl of Portici is silent filmmaking at its most impressive. Directors Lois Weber and her husband Phillips Smalley turn a story of doomed love into a thrilling, energetic production, thanks primarily to the famous Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova as title character Fenella who falls in love with the Duke d'Arcos.
Since Fenella is a humble, mute girl from a fishing village, the Duke's status dictates against him following his heart, pushing him to marry within his class in 17th century Naples. But after the Duke's seduction of Fenella, her furious brother Masaniello leads a brutal rebellion against the self-indulgent aristocracy levying unjust taxes to support their lavish lifestyle.
Stranded in New York because of WWI, Pavlova committed to the film, presenting an eloquent portrayal of Fenella. From the opening shots to the closing moments, Pavlova moves and dances exquisitely, both frolicking solo and within massive crowd scenes. Weber stages those celebrations of throngs of people and the revolt of the downtrodden with a visual flair with hundreds choreographed to move within as well as in and out of the set space. Though 1916 doesn't yet incorporate today's editing style, Weber does cut to medium shots and medium close-ups for emotional punctuation.
She knew the film business inside out, from at first acting, then writing, directing, and editing silent films. An extraordinary talent credited with technical innovations, Weber designed the lighting, cast the actors, then shot, developed and tinted the film. This restoration includes stunning, original tinting with especially striking red and blue tinted scenes. The new score by silent film composer John Sweeney reinforces and adds urgency to the action, all staged on extravagant sets. Details such as sculptures and jewelry comment implicitly on this world as much as the severed heads impaled on poles after the revolt in this masterfully executed, landmark epic.
The Midwest premiere of The Dumb Girl of Portici is at Webster University's Winifred Moore auditorium one night only, Sunday, December 4 at 7:30 p.m.