This. I have some involvement, I am delighted to report. I can say no more.
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It seemed timely to feature this intertitle from the early Doug Fairbanks starrer FLIRTING WITH FATE, an uncredited adaptation of Jules Verne’s The Tribulations of a Chinese Man from China. (The title card refers to struggling artist Augie, played by Doug.) It’s an old story — a hapless loser hires an assassin (here, the artistically-monickered Automatic Joe) to end his misery, but then his luck changes, he wants to live, but he can’t find the gunman to call off the hit. Robert Siodmak made the story as LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER in Germany from a Billy Wilder script, again without crediting the source, and Philippe de Broca adapted it with credit, and with the inevitable Jean-Paul Belmondo in the lead. The appearance of this movie put paid to Richard Lester’s plan to cast Ringo in the story and use it for the Beatles’ second film, and so we got HELP! instead.
Doug’s version starts slow and hammy, but proceeds to some fine silliness once paranoia and the plot kick in –
This may be my favourite intertitle of the year. It refers to the fantasy sequences of Automatic Joe snuffing a series of stand-ins in visions that pop up before Doug’s mind’s eye, and are shared by us. This seems like fairly advanced film narrative for the period. As a result of these fantasy murders, Doug spends the middle of the film fleeing in terror from anything that’s around, including the correspondence-school detective who’s trying to protect him. A long sequence of two characters in false beards taking fright at each other and at any other bearded men, has a real feel of vaudeville on acid.
Automatic Joe (George Beranger) is guilt-stricken because he has accepted fifty bucks to snuff a man, and the fellow still breathes. I am besotted with this image, especially the deeply-scored wallpaper in the background.
This might be the best approach to Verne’s story idea — it seems like a superb plot motor, but filmmakers often seem to have some trouble figuring out what to do with it. It can essentially lead anywhere. Fairbanks, with writers Robert M Baker and Christy Cabanne, who also directed, serve up plenty of impressive acrobatics for Doug, but actually concentrate more on the story’s psychological side, using it as a study in comic suspense rather than a cue for adventure. Fairbanks, rather too flamboyant in the early “straight” scenes, becomes very amusing when he can athletically portray a mind in collapse, as in this image, which almost seems to reference William Blake’s Nebuchadnezzar ~
Doug attempts to be inconspicuous.
Dig the crazy cabaret-style music and sound effects of Friedrich Hollander!
So, in answer to the calls for something about Robert Siodmak… maybe we could look at one film a month, and make a Siodmak Year of it that way? The item under analysis this time is LOOKING FOR HIS MURDERER, or DER MANN, DER SEINEN MORDER SUCHT, which BabelFishes out as “The man, who looks for his murderer,” giving the lie to those who argue that German isn’t a good language for comedy. They managed to get the key word to come at the end of the sentence, after all, which German syntax often forbids.
We don’t think of Germany in the 30s as a thriving era for comedy, for some odd reason… But there was a lot of the stuff going on. Was it actually funny? And if so, how tainted does it become by what followed in the socio-political, that is to say human, arena?
We’ll come back to that. This movie was scripted by Billy Wilder, which is a more cheerful way to start looking at things, along with a gang of others including Robert’s idiot brother Curt. It’s based on a play, and the IMDb suggests an uncredited Jules Verne link, which is very intriguing. Here’s the plot:
Our hero is suicidal, so he hires a hitman to kill him (easily done in the economical freefall of Weimar Germany, I would think). He says he doesn’t want to know when or how it’ll happen. “Just surprise me,” or words to that effect (I was watching without benefit of subtitles, so anything I say should be regarded as dubious: as David Lynch would say, “I don’t speak the German”).
Then our hero meets a girl, or is reunited with his ex, or something, and realizes he doesn’t want to die after all. But he has no way of contacting the contract killer, who will strike at random some time in the next week…
It’s a superb first act set-up, the only problem being that you need to come up with a second and third act to match, which the assembled writers can’t quite do, but they certainly throw in plenty of interesting situations. I have no idea how much of the film’s nuances and humour I was missing, but with Wilder having a hand in the dialogue, I would imagine plenty. Visual pleasures include the noir look, which shows Siodmak as having a predisposition towards this style long before Hollywood pushed him into it (this movie was made in 1931, although the busy RS had already squeezed in three more movies since his first, the celebrated PEOPLE ON SUNDAY).
Our hero lives in a studio apartment, overlooking expressionistic and cat-haunted Berlin rooftops, created in the studio, and the funniest gag is when a character crashes through the window. Giant sheets of sugar-glass being either beyond the budget or else technically impossible at that time, the moment is represented by an off-screen SMASH sound, Laurel & Hardy style, but then we get the character staggering into shot with his head jammed through the Venetian blinds. He then struggles to extricate himself for, like, a really long time. Again, Laurel & Hardy style — a durational gag, in which something becomes funnier just by eating up footage in a normally unjustifiable way. I’m going to have to keep my eye open for other signs of the L&H influence on Siodmak, this might be a treasure trove!
Now, about this plot — it turns up again in LES TRIBULATIONS D’UN CHINOISE EN CHINE (THE TRIBULATIONS OF A CHINESE MAN FROM CHINA) — and now the Jules Verne influence becomes clear: he is the inventor of this first act zinger. Everybody adapting the story simply uses it as a springboard for whatever form of romp they wish to promulgate: in this case, Philippe de Broca and star Jean-Paul Belmondo serve up another action-packed comedy with Belmondo essaying the kind of stunts that would have Jackie Chan saying “What do you think I am, crazy?”
According to Richard Lester, the same plot thread was under consideration over at Beatles Central as the basis for a follow-up movie to A HARD DAY’S NIGHT (with Ringo as the despondent hitman-hirer). It had already been decided to make the Beatles “the recipients of a plot,” passive participants in some kind of farrago, since the first film had covered their working lives, and their private lives were off-limits (John suggested a film on that subject would resemble FELLINI SATYRICON). But the arrival of De Broca’s movie put the kibosh on that.
Siodmak’s leading man is Heinz Rühmann, Germany’s all-time most popular film star. A dapper little bespectacled fellow, he seems like an agreeable stand-in for Billy Wilder himself. It’s hard to know what to make of him as a person, though: this was a man who divorced his Jewish wife of 14 years because the Nazis told him to. On the other hand, he did smuggle her over to Sweden. On the other other hand, he then married a loyal Nazi and made a short film celebrating Goebbels’ birthday, in which he played Mrs Goebbels and all the little Goebbelses (you know, the ones she later poisoned to death? I’d like to see that film, I bet it’s hilarious). Rühmann was later present when his new wife was raped by Russian soldiers. In the end, I feel sorry for everybody in this story: the human race.
So, German comedy in the 30s… a healthy medium? In box-office terms, it seems to have been. The Germans have always enjoyed their own comedies, which make up a large proportion of their movies, but are rarely if ever exported. Since Lubitsch had departed for Hollywood long before the coming of sound (in that first exodus, named by the sardonic Mr. Wilder as “The exodus of the talented ones”), German comedy had lost any international ambitions. I have, however, seen a couple of Ophuls comedies from this era. THE MERRY HEIRS (1933) stars Rühmann again and gets its few laughs from a big dog gallumphing about and behaving like a person, et cetera. Ophuls took over the film at the last minute, and only manages to express his stylistic talents with some creative montage, which is an oddity coming from this master of mise-en-scene. THE BARTERED BRIDE (1932) is much more successful, but more as an operetta than as a laugh-getter. Ophuls swings his camera around with gay Teutonic abandon, even going handheld to follow antics in the fairground. It’s visually even more sophisticated and dazzling than the following year’s LIEBELEI, although that’s the only German movie where Ophuls really finds his true subject matter.
THE BARTERED BRIDE: the comedy bear costume is a sure winner.
I’ll end with a joke. This comes from a fine BBC documentary on comedy in the Third Reich — I wish I could remember the name of the comedian it concerns. This fellow had a habit of making fun of the Nazis, and he tended to get away with it too, but he frequently sailed close to the wind and risked censure or worse. On one occasion he was asked to report to SS Headquarters so they could inform him of their displeasure at something he’d said. He arrived at the front desk and was asked “Are you carrying any concealed weapons?”
“Why?” he replied innocently, “Am I likely to need them here?”