The Sunday Intertitle: The Ruritanian-Silestrian Border

This year’s Pordenone Festival of Silent Film has a Ruritanian theme — but in Italy, the name for it is, or was at the time of 1912’s SUI GRADINI DEL TRONO (ON THE STEPS OF THE THRONE), Silestria.

My ability to frame-grab from the Fest’s streaming site lasted one short film, a newsreel/actualité about Montenegro, and then I just get black screens, so I have to tell you there is for instance an intertitle (in Dutch) saying “HIS EXCELLENCY BACKINE, REGENT OF SILISTRIA,” and you’ll have to take my word for it, unless you want to buy a ticket, which I would recommend, but you’ll have to hurry, the film will be vanishing soon.

I did manage to get images from the newsreel —

The reference to Prince Danilo was explained by fest director Jay Weissberg in his intro — the connection with Maurice Chevalier’s character in THE MERRY WIDOW appears not to be coincidental — the real Danilo certainly took that view, because he sued MGM over his portrayal as a charming, happy-go-lucky playboy. We should all be so libelled.

SUI GRADINI is a fascinating artefact from the days of tableau staging, before America had even started making feature films. The performances are strikingly natural: sometimes the actors just seem to be chatting. Even the villains keep their Italianate gesticulations on the low-down. Director Ubaldo Maria del Colle, near the outset of a forty-year career and stuck with the one-shot-per-scene aesthetic, animates the frame with cunning background action (villains creeping about behind love scenes) to create dramatic irony in visual form. Segundo de Chomon’s purpose-built dolly has not trundled in this direction.

The plot is pure ZENDA, with switcheroos here and there.

The sets tend to the windowless, giving Silistria an air of low-budget claustrophobia, but the astonishing array of military headgear raises the production values considerably. A combination of Serbian and Hungarian influences, JW tells us. The sunlit exteriors add glamour.

When the hero is exiled to Paris, a performance by dancer/seductress Thais, surrounded by mirrors, prompts both a flurry of different colour filters, and a single axial cut to bring subject and camera closer together. A revolution!

Performances largely eschew the Keystone expositional mime, but there are moments of what the late Dudley Sutton referred to, in my presence, as “telegraphing” — the actor doesn’t just think, he makes his thoughts known, by expression or gesture, to the camera, tacitly acknowledging the absence of the fourth wall, the presence of a recording apparatus, an audience. Amusing moment when the doppelganger (Alberto Capozzi, louche in a bolero hat) of the prince (Alberto Capozzi, uptight in Stroheimian uniform) is first discovered: the villain steps back in amazement, hands raised, and the double glances at us, inviting us, his chums, to share his surprise at this odd character.

(End title from the Newsreel, with live-action logo-figure, a la Leo the Lion)

I’m not really into this period of film, unless we’re in the hands of a restless innovator or genius, but probably I just need to see more of it. So this was a nice opportunity.

PS. Best moment: in the hall of mirrors, Capozzi #1 bids farewell to Thais, and exists screen right. The shot continues a moment, and Capozzi #2 enters, screen left. The actor has switched hats and pasted on a couple of sideburns. Who needs special effects? (On closer examination, Thais freezes to permit a jump-cut — I’d loved this even more if it were purely a lightning costume change.)


4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: The Ruritanian-Silestrian Border”

  1. bensondonald Says:

    I’ll resist the opportunity to plug my self-published eBook, which is a comedic romantic Jazz Age adventure in Ruritania. Won’t even mention the title is “Her Temporary Prince”, or that it’s available cheap at Amazon and at … (sounds of a scuffle and a door slamming)

  2. Much more Ruritanian ruminations from Pordenone here, soon!

  3. bensondonald Says:

    I commend to your attention “Ruritania: A Cultural History” by Nicholas Daly. Can’t find my copy and I don’t recall if he addressed the Italian film, but he does have a lot of good stuff about the history of the book, its stage and screen life, and the whole genre it birthed.

  4. As JW pointed out in his intro, the sub-genre occasionally resurfaces — in Roman Holiday, and in The Princess Diaries.

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