‘The Dumb Girl of Portici’ – Lois Weber’s silent blockbuster on Criterion Channel

Anna Pavlova stars in the 1916 silent movie epic directed by Lois Weber

The first blockbuster helmed by a woman director in Hollywood, The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), based on the opera by Daniel Auber, presents the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova in her only feature film performance.

It was not uncommon to cast luminaries of stage, opera, and other performing arts in movies as they evolved from sideshow distractions and simplistic pageants to feature films tackling complex stories and weighty themes, for publicity value if nothing else. Pavlova, however, proved to be natural onscreen in the role of the innocent, mute peasant girl in an Italian fishing village in 17th century Naples, when the country was occupied by Spain and taxed by a corrupt aristocracy into a state of starvation and poverty.

Pavlova moves with a grace and impulsive energy that sets her apart from all the silent movie veterans in the cast, who deliver conventional performances. They wear their character like a costume with familiar theatrical movements and emotional expressions. The personality of Pavlova’s peasant girl Fenella radiates from within and powers her character. Future filmmaker Rupert Julian (who directed Lon Chaney in the original Phantom of the Opera) plays her brother, a fisherman who leads the peasant revolt against the oppressive rule, but it is Pavlova’s spark that sets off the rebellion.

Weber’s strengths, or at least her interests, were in serious drama with a social message that she brought home by humanizing the issues in intimate scenes. In Portici she delivers an epic production with vast sets, lavish portraits of aristocratic decadence, and fiery mobs roused into revolt, yet still keeps the story centered on Pavlova’s innocent free spirit under threat from the lust and greed of the rich who treat the poor like playthings. Her evocative imagery and the mix of intimate moments within the visual spectacle is an interesting contrast to the historical epics of D.W. Griffith and the reveals a talent that has been too long overlooked in the histories of American cinema.

For more on The Dumb Girl of Portici, read Daniel Eagan’s article at Film Comment.

Silent with musical score.

Streams for a limited time on Criterion Channel and streams free for a limited time Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems.

It’s part of the special collection “Directed by Lois Weber”

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Fandango, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
The Dumb Girl of Portici [Blu-ray]
The Dumb Girl of Portici [DVD]

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Long unavailable in any form, this silent movie landmark makes its home video debut on a 2-disc edition on DVD and Blu-ray in a new restoration from Milestone Films. As is the case with the overwhelming majority of silent films, there are no known original materials in existence so the restoration was reconstructed by Library of Congress from a 35mm nitrate reissue print at the British Film Institute and a 16mm print at the New York Public Library’s Performing Arts Library.

It is presented with tints and a dynamic musical score composed by John Sweeney and performed by a quartet that he anchors on piano. The second disc features the 52-minute ballet documentary The Immortal Swan (1935), an historical curiosity that pays tribute to Anna Pavlova with a little archival footage surrounded by ballet performances and personal remembrances, and archival newsreel and home movie footage featuring Pavlova.



Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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