Archive for December, 2020

Vermithrax Laudative

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2020 by dcairns

DRAGONSLAYER is pretty good, should appeal to the Game of Thrones/LORD OF THE RINGS people. It’s better than bloody WILLOW or LADYHAWK. It’s interesting to me for the influences it displays, too.

Setting aside the very satisfying priest-frying, which stems from George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, there’s the death of a major character early on, falling out of close-up, then completing his tumble via stand-in) with a match cut that takes us into slomo — clearly a nifty SEVEN SAMURAI swipe. Matthew Robbins, like George Lucas, has learned his Kurosawa lessons well.

But let’s look at the main plot, which forms part of a strange, twisted trichobezoar of influences. Young Galen, the sorcerer’s apprentice, takes his slain master’s place, fraudulently presenting himself as the old man’s equal. He seems to score a success against the besieging dragon, but screws up and makes everything much worse. Then it’s up to him to make things right again. (Since he’s a white male and the hero, he repeatedly gets another chance, and another…)

An incredibly influential film, though you might not think it, is THE THREE AMIGOS, and not just for the title’s role in the Donald Trump impeachment trial. The movie is a comedy spin on THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which is itself a remake of Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (this gets more complicated). 3 AMIGOS has three movie stars being mistaken for real heroes by the people of a beseiged Mexican village, and hired to fight off bandits. They screw up, because they’re Hollywood phonies, as Chevy Chase might say, and then they have to put things right…

The guy in the right has been in more Polanski films than anyone

Is it possible that the earlier DRAGONSLAYER (not a hit) influenced THE THREE AMIGOS, perhaps by way of the shared Kurosawa influence? What about GALAXY QUEST, which is EXACTLY the same plot as THE THREE AMIGOS? What about A BUG’S LIFE, which is the same again? MYSTERY MEN is kind of similar too.

Fiona points out that DRAGONSLAYER has very strong female characters, by the way: the virgin who’s been disguised as a boy for her own protection is another SEVEN SAMURAI trope; the spunky princess meets a fate that probably cost the movie the STAR WARS crowd; and the dragon itself lives in a cave entered by a vaginal slit in the cliff face, and has a nest of eggs. Vermithrax Pejorative is a lady dragon. And a really good design! Not just her look, but her way of moving — she crawls like a bat.

A shame the climax is all matte lines, and nobody really being where they’re supposed to be. Thinking about it afterwards, I realized the deeper problem — apart from the sequence just not being exciting — is that it’s all about the execution of a perfect plan, in which the dragon is doomed and the hero once again doesn’t get to be heroic. Most of the time in this movie, its refusal to do the normal pseudo-mythic thing (real myths are much weirder than the Joseph Campbell/George Lucas versions) is thrilling, whereas here it’s flat.

But the political cynicism of the coda is pretty bracing.

DRAGONSLAYER stars Renfield; Simone; Supreme Being; Luro; Lord Halifax; Rory Poke; Diddler; Sarah Churchill; and Emperor Palpatine.

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2020 by dcairns

GENTLEMEN OF NERVE is another bloody Keystone racing film, crammed with busy comics — Mabel is off to the races with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) and Mr. Ambrose (Mack Swain) competing for her favours, Charlie is there too. Maybe this was due to a desire to play it safe after the expensive and extensive DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (which made a huge profit in the end so they needn’t have worried).

The idea of intercutting documentary footage of auto races with capering clowns is a weird one, but one that Keystone — and Chaplin — returned to remorselessly. The documentary dilutes the slapstick and the slapstick… well, it doesn’t harm the documentary because that’s just utterly boring. This one has a crazily long shot of a tyre being changed to set the scene. It’s against the clock, but Chaplin is not the kind of filmmaker who can create exciting suspense from a technical exercise involving non-characters. He just tripods it, panning about a foot one way, then back again. It’s not exactly THE WAGES OF FEAR, is it?

Big Phyllis Allen makes a pass at Chester and he’s tempted to ditch Mabel, which seems… strange. But maybe he likes them large. Mabel was miniscule.

Chaplin enters, introduced by title card as “Mr. Wow-Wow, a disturbing influence.” He’s smartly dressed in a long, loose jacket, but with bowler, moustache and cane, with which he immediately thwacks Swain’s capacious buttocks. So, he’s not quite the Tramp, just Chaplin using some Tramp signifiers. He tries to get into the racetrack without paying by walking backwards, hoping they’ll think he’s leaving. I like that bit.

Swain overacts pretty wildly in the early shorts, and seems weak compared even to Conklin. He doesn’t intimidate Charlie, so the David & Goliath thing that Eric Campbell would help cement isn’t functioning. Later, in THE GOLD RUSH, Swain is even bigger, acts better, and even as a friend to the Little Fellow, is a convincing THREAT. Big people are a menace even when they’re nice, is a lynchpin of the Chaplin worldview.

Forming an alliance, Wow-wow and Ambrose try to sneak into the stadium but Ambrose gets stuck halfway through an opening, leading to lengthy abuse. A woman with a soda seltzer appears, somewhat mysteriously, and Chaplin gets to spritz his first spritzee, Mack. He hasn’t thrown a single pie at Keystone, despite all the pastry abuse in his previous short, but at least he gets to spray.

Wow-Wow now lights a match on Mr. Walrus’s pant seat, amusing the fickle Mabel (well, she has just seen him flirting outrageously with Phyllis Allen). Walrus gets all up in Wow-Wow’s face, and thus gets his nose bitten. Chaplin hangs on there like a conger eel. Picks his teeth afterwards as if he’s actually bitten off actual substance from Conklin’s conk. Shades of brother Sydney’s cannibalistic atrocity.

Separated from the crowd by a fence, Wow-Wow taunts and thwacks the rowdy faces, a brutish bit of business in which nobody seems remotely appealing, the thugs behind the wire mesh or the arrogant and vicious cane-wielder. The later Charlie character is much closer to that seen in his previous couple of pictures, an inadvertently disturbing influence rather than just a nasty piece of work. Minutes later he’s singeing Mr. Ambrose’s nose with his cigarette and kicking him in the gut… it’s not charming and it’s not funny.

Chaplin well knew this stuff bore little relationship to comedy, but he felt duty-bound to give Sennett what he demanded, and this sadism may constitute a “running for cover” after the overrun of DOUGH & DYNAMITE. As Chaplin would write in a 1922 article, “The comic spirit meant to me at the beginning of my screen career, as it still means to many people, a series of “gags” and funny business of a not very high order–anything to capture a moment’s laughter or to stir the most elementary sense of the ridiculous. Now, this broad and slapstick kind of comedy, compounded mostly of boisterous spirits and physical violence, has about the same relation to humor as tickling a man on the soles of his feet with a wisp of straw.” He’s not wrong.

Wow-Wow meets another pretty girl and steals a sook of her Coke. Caught at it, he looks innocently skywards, like Harpo. Walrus is flirting with Phyllis again so Mabel walks out on him and collides with Wow-Wow (those bloody names! “Mabel” is bad enough). She sits on his hat and destroys it. The surrounding actors are laughing at all this business, which doesn’t make it any funnier.

Some byplay with a jalopy driver whose “racecar” sports an enormous front propellor. A very fine showcasing of the Chaplin cornering hop.

Conklin/Walrus whispers some kind of inappropriate suggestion to Phyllis and gets duffed up. This movie has more plot threads than Bleak House, but fortunately they all consist solely of idiots hitting each other so it’s easy to follow.

Conklin returns to Mabel and tries to claim her by force. Now we’re actually on Wow-Wow’s side as he delivers a punitive drubbing. Toothbrush versus Walrus in the World Series of Moustaches. Walrus collides with Ambrose and both get hauled off by a Kop. Wow-Wow and Mabel laugh delitedly, and it’s a rare instance of Chaplin expressing joy with his natural toothy grin and laugh. We end on lots of affectionate stuff with Mabel, one of the few co-stars Chaplin never got to first base with.

“I’m not your type, neither are you mine,” he says she told him.

Barbara Steele just told me she had lunch with Chaplin and Oona when she was 19. He was all excited because somebody had just let him have the use of a holiday home in St Tropez. I guess this would be around the time of A KING IN NEW YORK and he had some money trouble after leaving America I believe, so a free house would be great news.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish the Keystones this year, so that his December output would synch up with mine and I can start next year afresh with the Essanay films, but he’s making them faster than I can write about them (well, I started in the middle of my year and he started at the beginning of his). So I think I’ll run in to January — we have a whole feature film to contend with. But I’ll still get an Essanay done that month, and then it’s more or less one Chaplin per month for 2021. Join me!

Young man Charlie laughing goes all double-chinned, and suddenly we get a glimpse of old man Charlie to come…

A Festive Infestation

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 26, 2020 by dcairns

Terry Moore, like Brendan Fraser, seems to have preferred animated co-stars: MIGHTY JOE YOUNG or, as in our Christmas Eve viewing, THE GREAT RUPERT, who is a George Pal animated squirrel. Although he’s sometimes real. His Svengali in the movie is Jimmy Conlin, a kind of Gepetto figure, a former lion tamer (I would like to see that act) who has trained Rupert to near-human responsiveness and dressed him in a tam o’shanter and kilt. If Conlin is Gepetto, this verminous Pinocchio confusingly keeps changing from real to uncanny valley puppet and back again. “Kilted roadkill,” Fiona calls him.

As a special-effects film, it’s one of Pal’s few bad ideas: Rupert is called upon to nod attentively, cock his head, and very occasionally dance. The rest of the time he behaves like a well-trained squirrel. Maybe squirrels are insanely hard to train. I wouldn’t know, but neither would any child watching this. So the sense of wonder isn’t really engaged. Also, both incarnations of Rupert spend most of their time offscreen.

Still, there’s Jimmy Durante, a special effect in himself.

THE GREAT RUPERT stars Smiler Grogan; Marie Buckholder; John Truett; Duffy; Mildred Cassaway; Wormy; Walt Spoon; Maleficent’s Goon; Dr. Kluck; and Sandor (who also directs)