Archive for Harry Earles

The Monday Intertitle: Baby Ways

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 30, 2013 by dcairns

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FACT: the Hal Roach studios’ intertitles were always made out of fabric in order to use up all the waste material from the trousers-ripping sequence in PUTTING PANTS ON PHILIP YOU’RE DARN TOOTIN’.

SAILORS, BEWARE! (not quite clear if sailors should beware or if we should beware sailors) is one of the movies that included both Laurel and Hardy without formally teaming them. It may have given somebody a clue that these two were good together though, because they do share quite a few scenes. Stan has all his familiar schtick including the screwed-up-face bawling, but can also be tough and assertive and articulate in a way that’s distinct from his later team-up character. Ollie is Ollie in terms of mannerisms, but he’s playing a guy who thinks he’s a ladies’ man — there’s no hint of Oliver Norville Hardy’s sexual timidity, which always lay in wait behind his mask of southern chivalry.

It can be quite weird seeing the boys in earlier roles, applying their repertoire of acting techniques to different situations. In NO MAN’S LAW, Ollie plays a villain who espies the heroine enjoying a nude dip (in water perhaps a tad clearer than anyone expected). He has to express rapacious lust — which he does by pulling his pants up an extra inch or two and briskly rotating them from side to side at the waistband, a gesture familiar from countless later two-reelers and usually prefiguring some act of slapstick vengeance on James Finlayson. It sits oddly here.

Returning to SAILORS, BEWARE! Roach larded this one with goodness — we have the voluptuous Anita Garvin as a con artist, with midget Harry Earles (FREAKS) as her sidekick, in baby girl drag — and yes, he does smoke a cigar a la Baby Herman. We also get Lupe Velez as Baroness Behr, which at least is anti-type-casting. There’s some funny stuff, and it gives you just a sense of the explosion of comic energy that was going to come when the two stars really paired up.

vlcsnap-2013-12-29-18h14m43s230Abjection!

Am curious to see more proto-L&H films — anybody got any recommendations?

The Monday Intertitle: Mrs O’Grady — Old Lady

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 16, 2013 by dcairns

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Two versions of THE UNHOLY THREE — I think I’d previously watched the talkie version, but zoned out a bit at the end — the key ideas had certainly lodged in my mind. And I’d convinced myself that I’d watched the silent but I hadn’t, else how could I have forgotten the giant chimp?

The original is a pretty perfect Tod Browning flick, with wild animal carnage, bizarre crime, ludicrous disguise and constant betrayal the order of the day. Plus an opening that serves up gat fat lady and Siamese twins in short order — plus this guy ~

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The ready acceptance of this flick by contemporary audiences explains why Browning thought he could get away with FREAKS. After all, when midget Harry Earles kicks a child in the face in Scene One, you’re laying out your stall pretty fast. In addition to Harry’s Tweedledee there’s Victor McLaglan, oddly unrecognizable in silent movie pancake makeup and lipstick as the brutal strong man Hercules, and of course Lon Chaney as transvestite ventriloquist Mr Echo.

The talkie, directed by Jack RED HEADED WOMAN Conway, is very faithful, but replaced McLaglan with burly Latvian Ivan Linov, who seems engaged in a contest with Earles regarding who can garble their lines most incomprehensibly.

Oddly, the silent version begins with a slightly decomposed MGM lion, staring proudly yet mutely, whereas in the talkie he roars — but no sound comes out.

The big question about doing a silent movie about ventriloquism is not so much “Why?” — since silent movies were all they had, the question hardly arises — as “How?” The solution devised by Browning and his colleagues is perfectly in keeping with the film’s comic book tone –

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Although an archetypal example of the Browning-Chaney-MGM school, the movie manages to prefigure Warner Bros pre-code crime flicks, the EC horror comic, and channel the pulp fiction weirdness of Cornell Woolrich. Without Chaney, this grotesque and carnivalesque approach to melodrama could not survive long at the studio — while Universal made out like bandits with horror movies in the ’30s, MGM made one attempt, FREAKS, and then ran scared. Their other weirdie, KONGO, was a remake of a Chaney picture. Had Chaney lived, the whole studio might have had a different personality.

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In the talkie, Charles Gemora rampages in his gorilla costume, as if to say “We had to end the thing SOMEHOW” — but the original’s solution is much stranger, deploying a chimpanzee in miniature sets, with Harry Earles doubling for Chaney (easily spotted by his bulbous baby head ballooning from under his hat like a Salvador Dali flesh-swelling). I haven’t seen many giant chimp effects — there’s the memorable fellow in the Fairbanks/Walsh THIEF OF BAGDAD, outfitted in black satin hot pants by Mitchell Leisen. And there’s the odd solution taken by MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE, which has Gemora costumed up in longshot but cuts to close-ups of an anonymous chimp (I like to think it’s Cheeta) to enhance/destroy the illusion. And in KONGA (not to be confused with KONGO) Michael Gough’s special mad science causes an ordinary household chimp to expand into a man in a gorilla suit. It’s as plausible as anything else in that film.

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McLaglan, Earles, Chaney.

The remake lacks some of the brutality (the child’s face doesn’t gush blood) but has good dialogue co-written by co-star Elliott Nugent (a decent pre-code director himself) –

Lady responds to talking parrot: “Isn’t that a biblical quotation?”

Chaney as Mrs O’Grady: “Yes. You see, this bird used to belong to Aimee Semple McPherson.”

Nugent: “It’s wonderful how your grandmother can make those birds talk.”

Lila Lee: “Aw, she could make Coolidge talk.”

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We had fun suggesting stars for a remake, but few of our modern players can do surly/grotesque like Lon Snr. Maybe Pacino? But where would you find a dwarf small enough to star opposite him?

Buy it: The Unholy Three (1925)
Lon Chaney: The Warner Archive Classics Collection (He Who Gets Slapped / Mockery / The Monster / Mr. Wu / The Unholy Three / The Unholy 3)

The Sunday Intertitle: Gooble Gobble

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 25, 2009 by dcairns

We do love the quaint and curious use of intertitles in early talking pictures. And Tod Browning’s FREAKS is a particularly wild and off-kilter movie. It contains precisely ONE intertitle, a fairly unnecessary one from a storytelling point of view ~

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By refusing to repeat the device and make it into an integrated stylistic mannerism, the movie just throws it out there as yet another quirk in a film full of them: physical quirks, acting quirks, narrative quirks, dialogue quirks. The lone intertitle is like the film’s lone “supernatural” intervention (“How she got that way we’ll never know. Some say a jealous lover -” HUH? “Others, that it was the Code of the freaks” Sure, but HOW? “Others, the storm…” WHAWHOWHAWHUH???), an unsettling disruption in a film that makes uneasiness an aesthetic.

Viewing the movie again with students at the beginning of this month, I was struck by how underrated it’s been. It has a solid cult reputation which doesn’t show any signs of slipping, and which would be justifiable even if the film itself weren’t particularly well made. But it’s probably Browning’s most elegant and intelligent work, with, for instance, some amazingly powerful compositions ~

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Not only is this shot beautiful in itself (for sheer architecture I’ll take it over the last shot of THE SEARCHERS), it demonstrates conclusively that all stars of films in a 1:1.33 ratio should be shaped like Harry and Daisy Earles.

Early stuff I read about FREAKS suggested that it was a clunky, awkward film, but although it’s been much hacked-about (censored or at least heavily pruned), it’s full of strong visual ideas and sequences. For an early-ish talkie, it’s far from static. Much of the camera movement centres on the character played by Johnny Eck, the Man With Half a Body. Browning was smart enough to realize that the particular condition suffered by Eck (real name Echkardt, making him also the Man with Half a Name) was one that necessitated showing him in motion. Otherwise he would look like a special effect, like Cleopatra the Chicken Lady. We simply wouldn’t believe what we were seeing.

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The visual high points of the film are the above-mentioned Wedding Feast, and the climax. The feast features not only a commanding sound mix, with the circus performers’ chanting running under the dialogue, building to a crescendo, but effective use of angles looking directly at the singing sideshow people, while they look right back at us. Browning as Ozu. Some of these shots are linked by fast pans, although sadly insensitive editing has slashed many of these while leaving trailing fragments  of a few frames. Another great shot is the one where Angelo Rossitto, seemingly the leader of the troupe, walks across the banquet table from one side to another, carrying the loving cup for the guests to drink from. As he does so, the camera also crosses the table, but in the opposite direction. It’s a strange effect I’ve noted, that when a character’s movement pulls the camera but in a different direction, so that they pass “like ships in the night,” the effect tends to make the character seem more powerful.

vlcsnap-361781As far as seems to be known, the character on the table has no actual medical malformity. She’s NORMAL.

(An exception — in THRONE OF BLOOD, as Mifune backs away from his traitorous men, the camera advances towards them. Having at first been looking past Mifune as the men, it’s now looking AT Mifune WITH the men — the camera has literally changed sides. And when the camera goes over to the enemy, you know you’re in trouble.)

vlcsnap-362472Prince Randian — prince of WHERE???

The main factor that accounts for FREAKS’ devaluing, I think, is the performances, particularly the handling of dialogue. The primitive quality of sound recording technology in 1932 conspires with the thick accents of many of the stars, and the uncertain delivery of some of them, to make FREAKS a strange film in ways not directly connected to its subject. Of course, the variety of accents results partly from Browning’s decision to cast the most astonishing people he could get. If they happened to be from Germany (Harry & Daisy, real-life siblings and part of a troupe called the Doll Family), Austria (Josephine Joseph) or British Guiana (Prince Randian, who has neither arms and legs and wriggles around in a big sock, and whose sole line, the mysterious “Can you do anything with your eyebrow?” really does require the DVD subtitles to understand), then so be it.

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In fact, by setting the story in France (for no obvious narrative reason) and populating the non-freak roles with an ear-defying jumble of accents, Browning makes a virtue of necessity, capitalizing on the punchy sensation induced by his characters’ varied physical appearances. FREAKS is a film that keeps you off-balance, unable to believe what you’re seeing or hearing. As acrobat and strongman, Olga Baclanova and Henry Victor’s respective Russian and German accents, debilitatingly thick, can also be accounted for by the fact that they’d been silent stars (see Olga in Sternberg’s DOCKS OF NEW YORK), but I prefer to see their casting as a deliberate assault on the audience.

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That climactic storm scene also shows Browning in top form, testing our affection for the freaks, built up during the story, by casting them as avenging demons, and allowing them to mirror the insult slung at them earlier by Cleo — “Dirty, slimy freaks!” They crawl through the mud like angry earthworms to get even with their enemies. Prince Randian clutches a blade between his teeth like a pirate, although what he intends to do with it should he catch up with his prey is unimaginable (but we’ve seen him light a cigarette with his mouth, so anything’s possible — maybe he can do something with his eyebrow…).  Notably, in this scene Henry Victor transforms from possibly the world’s most grating ham — explosively bombastic and stilted, pointlessly loud and obnoxious even in his posture — into a very effective physical player, his body contorting to expressionist effect, his panic real and convincing. His sheer terror is the sole foreshadowing of the supernatural conclusion.

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It’s been suggested that Hercules was to have been glimpsed again in the penultimate scene, singing in a high voice, the strongman rendered castrato by the freaks. It’s also been suggested that a car crash that seriously injured Tod Browning earlier in his life (I’m not sure when — was he already a filmmaker, or still a circus performer himself, a contortionist and somnambulist billed as The Living Hypnotic Corpse?), may have left him in the same unfortunate condition.

Poetically, both these Kenneth Angeresque rumours somehow feel like they ought to be true.

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