Even for those with little knowledge of ballet, the name of early twentieth century Russian dancer Anna Pavlova evokes gauzy images of the grace and elegance of that most romantic of arts. But posed photographs and brief filmed excerpts of Pavlova dancing, however lovely, give little evidence of the charisma and artistry that earned her the reputation as one of the greatest ballerinas of all time. Pavlova appeared in only one feature-length film, The Dumb Girl of Portici, a drama based on Daniel Auber’s 1828 French opera about an Italian fisherman Tommaso Aniello, known as Masaniello, who led a revolt against Hapsburg Spain’s occupation of Naples in the 1600s. Although Pavlova only dances in a brief prologue and epilogue, the film gives audiences a sense of her magnetic presence.
Pavlova plays Masaniello’s young sister Fenella, described in an intertitle as “the lightest slip of thistledown girlhood,” who is seduced and abandoned by a Spanish aristocrat. The incident is the breaking point that incites revolution. Pavlova’s role is an acting one, not a dancing one—Fenella is a peasant, not a sprite. That means there’s nothing wispy or ethereal about her. Pavlova’s performance is earthy and robust. Her beauty, intensity, and modernity are on full display, even when she is not the focus of a scene. Because the character is mute, she expresses herself with movement. Director Lois Weber mostly photographs Pavlova full-length, showing the eloquence of her body, although that directorial choice may have been a fortuitous necessity, since the star, then thirty-four years old, was far from the “girlhood” of the intertitle.
Weber was as singular in films as Pavlova was in dance. A concert pianist turned actress, Weber had already made a name for herself as the first American woman to direct a film, in 1908. As her career progressed, she tackled provocative social issues such as poverty, drug addiction, and abortion. In a 1913 interview, Weber referred to her work almost as a sacred calling, according to her biographer Shelley Stamp: “Cinema, she said, was a ‘voiceless language,’ able to engage popular audiences in the era’s most contentious debates. Likening her films to a ‘daily newspaper’s editorial page,’ she aspired to ‘deliver a message to the world’ via celluloid.” But Pavlova and Weber’s professional affinities were not the primary reasons for their collaboration. Weber was assigned the film by Universal, the studio where she was under contract, and Pavlova needed the money.
Born in St. Petersburg and trained at the Imperial Ballet School, Pavlova had danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and with famous partners, traveling the world and becoming an international sensation before forming her own company in 1911. By mid-1915, Europe was at war, and Pavlova, deeply in debt, had decided to wait out the conflict in the safety of the United States. She scheduled a North American tour, teaming up with impresario Max Rabinoff’s Boston Opera Company. A combined troupe of about two hundred people—sixty musicians, three conductors, and seventy chorus members, as well as the dance company—set off on a nationwide tour. Pavlova needed to come up with $75,000 for her portion of the partnership, and the production costs for each stop came to $35,000. In order to raise the money, the star agreed to appear in a film that would earn her fifty percent of its profits, to be written and directed by Lois Weber.
By the time she directed The Dumb Girl of Portici, Weber was one of the most prolific filmmakers in the business. Dumb Girl was just one of ten films Weber directed in 1915. Universal studio head Carl Laemmle assigned her to the project and trusted her to develop it however she wanted. Unlike Weber’s earlier issue-oriented films set in modern times, Weber went full-on epic in style, expertly handling the scenes of crowds and chaos. The credits for the films Weber wrote and directed while she was married to Phillips Smalley, including Dumb Girl, list both Weber and Smalley as directors and Weber alone as writer. Despite official credits, film historians have concluded that Weber was the creative force behind the couple’s collaboration. After they divorced, in fact, Smalley was never again credited as director on any film. Reporters who visited the couple’s sets during the marriage noted that Smalley always deferred to Weber on decisions during production, and most articles at the time also referred to Weber as the producer and director of the film, without mentioning Smalley. According to Shelley Stamp: “Of all the women active in the first decades of moviemaking, Weber produced the most sustained and substantial body of work, writing and directing more than forty features and hundreds of shorts for close to thirty years.”
The Dumb Girl of Portici began filming in July 1915 in Chicago, where Pavlova was appearing at an outdoor theater designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Next door to the theater were the remnants of an old amusement park that had been erected for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, where the film company built a series of outdoor sets. Filming began in the morning, took a break while the star danced in the matinee, then resumed shooting until she had to leave for the evening show. It turned out to be an expensive choice; stormy weather rained out many of the scheduled shooting days. An article in the New York Herald detailing the plans for the production, deluxe travel arrangements for the great ballerina, and for the film’s release, make it clear that Dumb Girl was going to be a prestige (and expensive) production: “The work will be accompanied by full musical scores and full orchestras. The pictures will be exhibited in the biggest theatres throughout the country. From Chicago a special train will take the company to Universal City, near Los Angeles, Cal., with wigmakers, costume makers and shoemakers … On the trip Pavlova will have a private car for herself, two maids and a secretary, and in Universal City she will have a bungalow.”
After The Dumb Girl of Portici was completed in California, the film was released on a staggered schedule over the next two years. Reviews were mixed at best—Variety called Pavlova “not quite camera broken.” Still, it was apparently a success everywhere it was shown, stoking the mystery of why Pavlova never appeared in another movie, although press reports at the time said that she planned to dedicate the next two years to filmmaking. Perhaps she never had the time, since she continued to tour around the world almost until her death in 1931, shortly before her fiftieth birthday.
A century after it was made, the film was finally restored. New Yorker dance critic Joan Acocella was enthralled by the star’s presence. “Pavlova was only five feet tall, but here she seems long and tensile. She doesn’t just raise her arms; she stabs the air with them, and splays her fingers like prongs, or tendrils. She is a tendril, too—skinny, bendable—but wild.” Film critic Richard Brody praised “Weber’s bold and imaginative direction … [her] own imagination is inflamed by the passions it unleashes, and she delivers visual flourishes of a mighty inspiration.”
Even seeing the film in a scratchy, pre-restoration state, Acocella concluded, “Pavlova’s artistry is something that we are often asked to take on faith, something where you had to be there. Watching The Dumb Girl, you are there.”
Presented at SFSFF 2017 with live music by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius