Archive for Limelight

The Monday Intertitle: Broken Hearts and Flap Shoes

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on September 23, 2013 by dcairns


The intertitle is brilliantly insane, and only enhanced by the fact that Nil Asther in this movie shares a character name with Chico Marx (no stranger to a life of self-indulgence). “Cut down on the eccentric piano playing and get a better hat and everything will be fine!”

As in my favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1924), Lon Chaney’s LAUGH, CLOWN, LAUGH (1928) — reportedly his favourite of his own movies — features a scene where Chaney, in clown costume, argues with a member of the nobility over the hand of a woman. It’s a surprisingly uncommon theme in drama. It also has him in a quasi-incestuous relationship, a regular item in Chaney’s lexicon of emotional masochism — here he’s in love with his ward, teenage Loretta Young.


Chaney, I submit, was wrong — HWGS is a much better film than LCL, which stinks of MGM “class” — but that’s not to say the later film is devoid of interest. Chaney, fifteen-year-old Loretta Young and Nils Asther make an intriguing romantic triangle, and the ending doesn’t leave any of the melodrama on the table. “Devastating” would be a fair description. But as attempts to inflate anecdotes to feature-length go (in this case it’s the one about the famous clown — usually Grock, sometimes Grimaldi, occasionally Pagliacci — who visits a doctor complaining of misery) it feels a little overstretched in places — even with substantial footage missing. Would that material have helped or hindered?

The ending (spoiler alert: it’s the ending) –

I think Chaney has been looking at Barrymore for those hand movements. Or is it the other way around?

The director is Irishman Herbert Brenon, who also did PETER PAN. He handles it well, but was reportedly a bully — Chaney took to hanging about the set even when he wasn’t needed for a scene, just to look out for Young.

You will also note that Chaplin stole practically the whole of LIMELIGHT from this movie — clown — in love with his ward — ballerina — stage fall — tragic death in clown makeup — fade out.

This regular Shadowplay feature may well be dominated by Chaney movies until Halloween — any objections?

First Meeting

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on March 29, 2011 by dcairns

This amazing publicity still comes from Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s great book Hollywood, which accompanied their beyond-amazing TV series of the same name. I think that book was the first serious film book I ever owned.

Screen left — Chaplin mans the camera. Screen right — Keaton wields a sign reading “OK” and prepares to deliver a “KO”.

Just think, if Chaplin had started the motor and exposed just a few frames of film, that would technically constitute a whole other Chaplin-Keaton collaboration, years before LIMELIGHT.

I wonder who originated the (unjustified) rumour that Chaplin cut this scene to favour himself and omit Buster’s funniest gags? (It’s a brilliant sequence, but let’s face it, it does not show signs of having been savagely truncated. At all.)  Also, I wonder if Chaplin came up with all the stuff himself, or, as seems likely, Keaton contributed ideas — he was only hired as an actor, but both men were adept collaborators who had used gag men at their studios… This leads to a further question about Chaplin’s collaborations with his actors in general — one expects, working without a script, he was open to suggestions from them, and indeed he loved to hire experienced comedians for key roles in his films. The talkie THE GREAT DICTATOR gives more work to vaudevillians than to veterans of the silent age, but still finds a spot for Chester Conklin. We know CC often directed actors by performing their roles for them (as does Polanski), which argues for a more controlling approach, but still, I wonder…

Bowery Boy

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 5, 2008 by dcairns

I was in Glasgow — city of the stars! — last Thursday to meet with T.V.’s Ford Kiernan (comedy shows Chewin’ The Fat and Still Game), talking about possible writing and directing work (highly speculative at this stage) and just generally getting to know him. We discussed our fondness for Keaton, Chaplin and Laurel & Hardy, and Ford told me you can see Buster breaking character at the end of LIMELIGHT, which I must go and check RIGHT NOW.

(Just looked. Have no idea what he means. Is this some DVD extra I don’t have? Apparently when Claire Bloom dances through the frame at the end of the big pull-back, you can see Keaton saying, “Right, she’s gone,” but you can’t, not in my version.)

Anyhow, I had to get the story of Ford’s appearance in Scorsese’s GANGS OF NEW YORK, which I’d been hearing accounts of for ages. I wanted to get it from the man himself, and share it with you.

There was a lot of casting in Scotland — my friend, Shirley Clarke retrospective curator Niall Fulton was up for a part, and Gary Lewis of course ended up in a plum role. Ford was auditioning for the part of P.T. Barnum, who had a big meaty speech. He hired a scooter and zoomed around the Glasgow University campus, rehearsing his lines until he had it down COLD.

“Now, there’s a part I play on Chewin’ The Fat, ‘Ronald Villiers, the world’s worst actor’. I went into audition and turned into that character. Couldn’t remember ANYTHING.”

Here’s Ford as Ronald (40 secs in):

Despondent, Ford went away and regrouped. Getting a friend to aim a camcorder at him, he created his own audition tape in a “Noo Yawk” accent. “Say, Marty, what’s the story? Who’s ass have ya gotta kiss to get a part in dis movie?” Scorsese liked the tape and Ford was now cast as the Black Joke fire brigade chief.

“It was just a cough and a spit, but I got four days in Rome out of it. For my scene, we had two mobs armed with cabbages, a burning building kept alight by a hundred tonnes of propane, and Jim Broadbent and me exchanging lines. Now, I’d just come off seventeen weeks on MY show, where I’m kind of at the centre of it…”

The scene starts, the cabbages are hurled, and Ford dries. “The camera wasn’t even on me, it was over-the-shoulder on Broadbent, but I lost it and just went ‘Cut.'”

Everything stops. Scorsese puts his hand on the A.D.’s shoulder and the A.D. leads him through the throng to Ford, “marching like Roman soldiers,” and Scorsese says, very softly, “First half was good. Second half was shit. And don’t say ‘cut’ again.”

The scene got done, and afterwards Ford was able to chat with Scorsese and learned that he was basically playing Wallace Beery in Raoul Walsh’s THE BOWERY. Which is pretty cool.

Ford is part of that aspect of the film that WORKS — the vision of Old New York as a hellish den of vice and criminality. The background, essentially. The plot going on in the foreground doesn’t hang together because the protagonist has a goal but doesn’t pursue it, and DiCaprio and Diaz are the least interesting characters in the movie, which is a bit of a problem. I suspect it all goes back to the book its based on and Scorsese’s reasons for making the film. I guess the vengeance thing is there to provide a spine which can hold together all the fascinating fragments of Scorsese’s hallucinatory history, but really what he’d have preferred is a non-plot like SATYRICON’s. Sadly, you can’t mix the two.


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