The Lion of St. Marcus: Venice 1949

The Lion of St. Marcus by Vittore Carpaccio, 1516.

As Europe was starting to recover slightly from World War II and the Cold War was heating up, the 10th Venice International Film Festival was held in 1949. It was the year that the oldest festival of the world coalesced into what it would become in the future, by introducing a new main prize: The Lion of St. Marcus, which would in a few years turn into the Golden Lion that will be awarded again at the end of this week during the 75th edition of the Venice Film Festival. Today at Frameland we take a closer look at a selection of the films vying for that very first Lion of St. Marcus at Venice 1949, including venerated classics, disappointing master filmmakers and obscure propaganda:

Jour de fête (1949)

Jacques Tati in Jour de fête

Jour de fête was the debut of Jacques Tati as a feature film actor and director, with which he immediately made his mark and won the Award for Best Screenplay at Venice 1949. The film contains both satire and slapstick humour, which became characteristic for Tati’s films.

A typical French village is getting ready for the Jour de fête, the day of the feast. An old woman and her goat observe the inhabitants of the village. Parents try to restrain their children, wives try to keep their husbands down. The brass band is getting ready, a fair is build up and there is plenty of wine. Last but not least, there is a cinema, that shows a film about the American mail delivery system.

The way they deliver mail in America is fantastic. American postmen have plains and helicopters and are trained to ignore every obstacle they come across. The American postman is a real hero, the opposite of the clumsy French postman François (played by Tati himself). The inhabitants start to poke fun at their postman, which stimulates François to do his job in the American way: fast and without fear.

And so, the postman ends up in the ditch. Trying to be modern, just like the Americans, wasn’t the best idea. An old lady comforts him: “Don’t think about the Americans. They can’t let the earth turn faster. And good news never comes too late.”

✏️ Lisa van der Waal

The Elusive Pimpernel (1949)

The Elusive Pimpernel

Neither Michael Powell nor David Niven wanted to make a film about the swashbuckling Scarlet Pimpernel. The proto-superhero, an English nobleman who smuggles French nobility away from the Terror of Revolutionary France, had begun his life in a series of early 20th Century novels by the Baroness Emma Orczy and had already been portrayed on film several times, most notably in a 1934 film starring Leslie Howard. However, that film’s producer, Alexander Korda, had Powell under contract and wanted him to make the film as did Niven’s boss, Samuel Goldwyn. Both director and actor were threatened with suspension and so the film was made. Powell was forced to cast Margaret Leighton as the female lead (a fine actress, terrific in John Ford’s 7 Women (1966) but totally wrong for the part of the Pimpernel’s seductive, flighty, and innocent French aristocrat wife) and was not allowed to make the film into the musical he wanted. In the end, final cut was taken away from him, people were sued and the film didn’t even get released in the US until 1954. But it did play at the Venice Film Festival in 1949, where it picked up no awards.

Nor should it have. Stuffy, overlong, and with a decided lack of action, the film offers little in the way of the odd genius of pretty much every other Powell & Pressburger film of the period. There are some fine individual Technicolor shots, especially location shooting at Mont St. Michel, but the studio-mandated editing is so choppy that the landscapes feel like part of another film entirely, wholly disconnected from the plot, which is itself mangled in the cutting (whole key action sequences are simply missing from the film, related instead in dialogue). And despite Niven’s best efforts to liven things up with both his foppish everyday persona and as the ultra-cool anti-Robin Hood hero, along with Cyril Cusack’s campily villainous Jacobin, everything is played too straight — all is lost under half-baked melodrama and sophomoric scheming. It’s a film that never should have happened and is best forgotten.

✏️ Sean Gilman

Portrait of Jennie (1948)

Portrait of Jennie

A beautiful cloud formation and stormy weather conditions at sea account for the cinematic highlight towards the ending of Portrait of Jennie. It is the metaphorical barrier Joseph Cotten has to overcome to find and save his inspiration, the beautiful Jennie. He plays Eben Adams, an unsuccessful and poor but talented painter in New York. When he meets a beautiful young girl in old fashioned clothes in the park, he later draws a sketch from memory. This drawing of Jennie catches the attention of an art dealer, who recognizes Adams’ talent. He then decides to paint a full portrait of Jennie.

While meeting Jennie several times, Adams notices how she grows faster than normal and tells stories from the past, as if she has lived a long time ago. Nevertheless, he falls in love with her and finds his inspiration to draw and paint like he never did before. Meanwhile he wants to find out who Jennie really is.

Joseph Cotten was awarded best actor in Venice for his performance, and he deserved it. His character overcomes a classic battle against himself, experiencing disappointment, finding love, losing love and eventually trying to save his love, though merely to save his inspiration. As a whole the film is a well done exercise in melodrama. However, the plot and background of Jennie turn out to be too predictable to account for enough suspense or surprise.

✏️ Hendrik de Vries

The Ballad of Berlin (1948)

The Ballad of Berlin

“Attention! Attention! Owners of a telecinema, here is a test signal. The film is not stereoscopic or in color. These are images from the Museum of Photography, shot 100 years ago in 1948. Please adjust your prism antennas. If you’re in a public cinema, take off your 3D glasses!”

By the time this opening assault has ended you’ve already forgotten the Carl Stalling-esque fanfare that accompanies the credits. When the nazis have shown up and a montage of the war has been rendered by watching a German alone in his apartment learning to not eat well, you’ll have forgotten the post-modern opening. This is a film that destroys itself every other scene, barely bothering to create when it can keep wearing its own dead skin. If we know Robert Stemmle, it’s likely as a prolific screenwriter of forgotten genre films. He wrote for Robert Siodmak, Hugo Fregonese, Julien Duvivier, Jacques Feyder and Frank Borzage. His own films as director have been forgotten. Looking at The Ballad of Berlin it’s not hard to understand why he’s been lost to history. What to make of a movie that tries to give us a sense of the post-war German identity without reckoning with the Shoah? The grammar is so staggering, so impressively new (I dare you not to thrill to the scene of a film crew shooting a musical while our hero searches in vain for a home after being discharged from the army, his suitcases in his hand). This is a romantic movie about a city returning to life, masquerading as a historical document, papering over the greatest tragedy in European history. It’s wild and it’s wrong, a peppy counterpoint to the footage of camps being liberated. Venice gave it a prize, history made sure no one was watching and swept it under the rug. Propaganda didn’t end with the war, and in the middle of this persuasive working class comedy that anticipates Tashlin and Sordi in its form, and nods at Riefenstahl in its content, you still feel the horror tugging on your arm.

✏️ Scout Tafoya

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949)

Kind Hearts and Coronets

My pick for the winner of the 1949 Venice film festival winner, Kind Hearts and Coronets is a tour de force of British black comedy. Directed by Robert Hamer and co-written by him along with John Dighton, the film is produced by Ealing studios. It stands out as one of their most brilliant productions during the golden years of the 1940s and 1950s.

Louis D’Ascoyne is ninth in line for the Dukedom of Ascoyne. His deceased mother had been rejected from the family after she married an Italian opera singer named Mazzini. Louis makes do with his lot after his mother’s death, working in a drapers shop to earn a living. One day, Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, first in line to the title, enters the shop. He turns his nose up at Louis, for whom this is the last straw in a series of family insults. It leads Louis to cogitate a Caligula-worthy plan to kill all those who precede him in line for the title one by one.

Of course, some of the murders turn out to be easier than others, Louis ruminates that, “it is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms”. The premise of this is a series of killings relating to their hobbies, photography, hot air balloons, etc. All eight of these ill-fated characters are played by the same actor, Alec Guinness. He portrays the characters with such skill that sometimes you forget he’s the one in the role, from a doddery old Reverend Lord Henry D’Ascoyne to an eccentric and pompous Lady Agatha D’Ascoyne.

Once he achieves his goal, Louis insists on being tried by his peers at the House of Lords. They are portrayed as extremely old, hard of hearing and basically altogether incompetent. Like Passport to Pimlico, another Ealing studios success, the film portrays the randomness and injustice of a British class system based on an aristocracy which is literally dying.

✏️ Colette de Castro

This List article was published in September 2018