The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916)
Directed by Lois Weber
At the time of its making, The Dumb Girl of Portici was the most expensive film that Universal had ever produced. It was also the largest film production ever directed by a woman, and one of ten features that the prolific, socially conscious filmmaker Weber made for the studio that year. This century-old, recently restored film embodies a beguilingly Hollywoodian paradox by using large sets and a cast of hundreds in the service of an epic 17th-century-set period drama about the struggles of poor and oppressed people. Weber even focuses in intimate fashion upon one person whose struggles are rendered with sensitivity, delicacy, and a touch of grace: Fenella, the deaf-mute Naples fisherlass of the title, who regards her impoverished beachside surroundings with an open face and an open heart, and who remains throughout the injustices surrounding her as what a title card calls “the lightest-hearted slip of thistledown girlhood in the world.”
Fenella is played by the Russian dancer Anna Pavlova, who had previously starred in a production of D.F.E. Auber’s opera of the same name and carried her work into her only film role. The plot surrounds Fenella’s doomed affections for the Spanish nobleman Alphonso (a sweetly moonish Douglas Gerrard), who is part of a wealthy force occupying her city, and the ways in which their love is ensnared in the crosshairs between brutal taxations placed by the occupiers upon the locals and the ensuing peasant rebellion led by Fenella’s brother Masaniello (a ferocious-yet-soulful Rupert Julian). Skullduggery and intrigue ensue as war is waged in fiery fashion. Yet the greatest spectacle the film affords is that of Pavlova, who had herself been displaced from her homeland by the outbreak of World War I, and whose dance numbers throughout the film take on emotive life outside the action. The short, scrawny Pavlova was acclaimed for innovating ballet by emphasizing the work involved in moving the body in addition to mastering fine points of technique. At some points in Dumb Girl, Fenella appears alone in abstract settings, and the incredible lengths to which Pavlova stretches her limbs express a freedom of spirit transcending specific time and place.
The Dumb Girl of Portici has been restored by the Library of Congress’s George Willeman and Valerie Cervantes, who worked from a 35mm BFI print and a 16mm print found at the New York Public Library. The gorgeously tinted DCP result is being distributed by Milestone Films in tandem with Lois Weber’s great 1916 film Shoes. A lovely new score composed by John Sweeney and grounded in Dumb Girl’s source opera accompanies the dancer’s movements gently. Aaron Cutler (December 16-18 at Anthology Film Archives; showtimes daily)