Archive for December, 2021

The Esther Blodgett Story

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 31, 2021 by dcairns

George Cukor’s mutilated musical masterpiece A STAR IS BORN is so gorgeous it makes it hard to choose anything to watch afterwards — such an excess of beauty is hard to top. In the end we went for a Japanese movie, since the aesthetics seemed a good match, but THE MYSTERY OF EDOGAWA RAMPO proved unsatisfying by comparison.

William Wellman “originated” the story of A STAR IS BORN for the Gaynor-March version, but he kind of stole it from Cukor’s earlier WHAT PRICE HOLLYWOOD, so it seems only fair for Cukor to steal it back. You can argue that it’s a story of male fragility by the very macho Wellman (whose actress wife gave up her career for him): Norman Maine is relentlessly humiliated by his wife’s success, and when he kills himself she responds with self-abnegation: “Mrs. Norman Maine.” But even in the earlier version, though the co-dependent dynamic is clear, the thing doesn’t play as misogynistic or even particularly chauvinistic. And Cukor’s writer, Moss Hart, resolves the one glitch in the earlier version, where Lionel Stander’s press agent suddenly becomes a louse for one scene in order to drive our anti-hero back to drink. As played by Jack Carson in the musical, his behaviour is consistent throughout: he’s merely kicking a man when he’s down, Standard Operational Procedure in the studio system.

Festive Charles Bickford

Fiona did find the film overly long, with too many numbers, but this wasn’t Cukor’s fault. In Gavin Lambert’s interview book GC reports that, even as the studio was fussing that the movie was too long, they were adding the “Born in a Trunk” number, making it longer. Cukor had insisted he could “sweat out” twenty minutes via small trims, but this wasn’t allowed: whole scenes of character development got the chop.

So the restoration, which puts those scenes back, some of them as sepia-tinted stills, some as out-of-sync combinations of different outtakes, is way longer than Cukor ever intended it. A truer restoration would keep “Born in a Trunk” as an extra feature, and the film might play better, but that wasn’t an option back in 1983 when the restoration was done. And then again, that sequence is maybe the most stunning in the film —

(Sadly, Cukor died the night before he was scheduled to view test shots of the restoration.)

Stunning performances from James Mason and Judy Garland, as you’d expect, but more surprising, Cukor gets people like Jack Carson, Tommy Noonan and Grady Sutton to drop or modulate their usual schtick and approach sideways the portrayal of recognisable humans. It’s amazing to watch: like the moment in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS when Cary Guffey’s toys come to life.

Lambert praises this shot:

Cukor tells him it was essential, since there WAS NO BEACH HOUSE. Just a studio set and a beach location. Artful use of reflections helps sell the illusion. The sound design is also stunning here: as Judy sings, Mason heads into the surf. We expect her voice to grow more distant but remain audible: boldly, the filmmakers allow it to diminish until its being completely drowned by the waves, just cutting through a little in between each roar. Tremendously effective, and, like so much else in the film, atypical of the period.

I was interested in how tended to Cukor keep the various film director characters out of shot. The chap barking instructions to Mason from a boat is cut off at the neck. Garland’s auteurs are shadowy backviews. And then suddenly one of them is seen full-frontal, so I wondered if I were reading too much into Cukor’s stated tendency to “shoot the money.” But then there’s the movie-within-the-movie number with clusters of literally faceless suits, so I’m inclined to think there WAS a deeper plan.

A STAR IS BORN stars Dorothy Gale; Prof. Humbert Humbert; Wally Fay; Black MacDonald; Gus Esmond Jr.; Walt Spoon; Dr. Bulfinch; Sweetface; Coroner Wilbur Strong; Detective Dickens; The Dear One; Coffer; Big Bertha; Johnny Portugal; Wainscoat; and Og Oggilby.

With one mighty chop

Posted in FILM with tags on December 30, 2021 by dcairns

I do believe that if I’d been an adult movie-lover in the seventies, even with all the great cinema on display, I might have believed I was witnessing the demise of the art form. The New Hollywood had a decadence about it, and anyway, the big box office hits were often things like THE TOWERING INFERNO. And then there was the invasion of Italian westerns (most of them no match for Leone) and Hong Kong martial arts movies advertised like THIS —

I don’t know his work, but I have seen films di rected by Carl Dre yer, Bernard o Bert o lucci, and Otto Pre minger.

Oh yes, lows is always a question. I like how they’ve identified the basic staples of entertainment here: carry out force, feeling of pressure, moveable sight, question of lows. If a movie can deliver all four of those, you’ve got a good night out on your hands.

The first action hero with his own flavour of chewing gum.


Gold Fever

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 29, 2021 by dcairns

Charlie and Big Jim arrive at their cabin again after “a long, tedious journey” — not “arduous,” noted Fiona — which Chaplin wisely declines to show us. They arrive spectacularly provisioned, so we know there are to be no starvation jokes, and since baddie Black Larssen has got himself crevassed out of the picture, we are left to wonder from which direction jeopardy will strike. We’re also wondering about the suspended romance with Georgia — Charlie believes she loves him, she believes nothing of the sort, and the revolting Jack is still hanging around like a bad and chubby smell.

But the Yukon is a place of danger — a storm blows the cabin loose from whatever foundations it had, and leaves it teetering on a cliff edge. Where did this idea come from? We know that all subsequent iterations of it got it from here — the building undermine by coastal erosion in DON’T MAKE WAVES, and the car parked on the brink in Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em — but those adaptations each use more logical explanations for their peril. Chaplin COULD have had a cliff collapse leave his dwelling in this precarious situation, but opts instead for a scenario of near-WIZARD OF OZ-level improbability. Which makes me wonder how on earth he came up with it. It’s hard to follow the thought process… “What if the storm blows the cabin around during the night?” Such a proposition seems more likely to inspire a response of “That wouldn’t happen,” rather than one of “And then…?” This is why it’s important not to reject stupid-sounding ideas out of hand, but to explore them and see if they lead somewhere useful.

Having done so, he milks it for everything it’s worth: Charlie, hungover from the tippling that got him through the strenuous unpacking process, puts the floor’s groaning movement down to his excesses, so there’s a protracted bit of dramatic irony where he’s unaware of the danger, but we are.

I will admit that the sonorized version, with VO, has some decent lines in this sequence, and Chaplin’s clipped delivery adds tension as he acts for both himself and Big Jim. When they discuss crossing to the far side of the room to see how far it’ll go over, that creates a lovely “Oh no!” moment for the audience. But generally the wordless version, with Timothy Brok recreating Chaplin’s score, is much to be preferred.

For the only time in his career, Charlie turns into a puppet, when he hangs from the door of the cabin over the snowy void. And this seems apt. It’s a lovely lesson in screen direction (the one thing Chaplin acknowledged learning from Henry “Pathe” Lehrman) — if you exit screen left you must enter the next shot from screen right — so that a life-sized Chaplin walks out the cabin door and a tiny puppet with loose string joints emerges from the miniature cabin exterior — and we BELIEVE IT. Also, there seems something apt about Chaplin as puppet. He’s made himself into one in the bread roll dance, come to think of it. And this is, in a way, a reprise of the film’s original cabin gag, when the howling wind blasting through one door jetted him out the opposite one.

The cabin, it seems, is a classic liminal space, a bit of civilisation plonked down in the icy wilderness and prone to becoming unplonked. It is inherently unstable, a place where, as the Red Queen would have it, you have to run just as fast as you can to stay in place, and if you want to get anywhere you have to run twice as fast again. While previously it was atmospheric pressure shoving Charlie through this door, now it’s gravity, grown mysteriously capricious. Carrollian physics prevail here.

The cabin tried to warn us: on first welcoming Charlie in to its warm and well-provisioned interior, it spat snow at him through a knothole. It has creakingly leaned to and fro in the gale, rhombohedronizing itself back and forth as if limbering up to become a Fu Manchu infernal device.

And it is, let’s not forget, a place of madness: after Charlie has transformed shoe-leather and laces into a delicious meal by sheer force of pantomime, he himself is turned into a chicken, all unwilling. Thing lose their shapes in what Daniel Riccuito calls Chaplin’s clapboard universe.

Fiona asked if Harold Lloyd had started hanging off buildings yet — he had! So possibly Chaplin was looking to compete, but without breaking his neck. Terror as an accelerant for comedy again. And done without cinematic hype: a more dramatically inclined director would have been unable to resist a POV shot through the back door, the mountainous horizon line tilting vertiginously UP, the gorge rising to devour us… Chaplin settles for the model shot and a set built to rock (no fake Star Trek camera-rocking here, he must have real gravity to work against).

Speed is a weapon — by what can only be considered the most ludicrous of coincidences, the bobsledding house has brought Big Jim to his mountain of gold, previously discovered then lost to concussion. And a good thing to, for the cabin was supposed to be the landmark that helped him locate his loot, a function it can hardly perform while sliding around nocturnally, a rickety land yacht.

Chaplin stops this seeming like a disgusting convenience by having Jim strike his motherload at the worst possible moment, while Charlie is still indoors, sliding towards extinction. Jim, who we know to be forgetful, comes over all amnesiac again once the light of gold is in his eyes. With the best possible action-movie climax, Charlie ends by leaping free of the cabin AS IT FALLS, a stunning effects shot.

(The puppet figure is delightful, and every bit as convincing as we need it to be — in a “just suppose” way — but in a way it’s a shame it punctures the illusion, since the other effects put together by Rollie Totheroh and Charles D. Hall are absolutely successful — as a child, it didn’t even occur to me that Chaplin hadn’t really dropped Tom Murray on a bit of collapsing cliff, or really filmed a low angle of crumbling ice (Totheroh knew to shoot his miniatures in slow motion, something other Hollywood pictures hadn’t, apparently, figured out yet).

There follows a strange lacuna which absolutely works, but maybe shouldn’t: Big Jim and Charlie are millionaires, sailing home. What about Georgia? She’s on the boat too, for unknown reasons, and unaware of Charlie’s good fortune. Charlie has, we can only presume, looked for her but found her gone. But we’re not told this or encouraged to think too much about it.

Big Jim is something of a rough diamond, but is evidently going to enjoy being rich, while Charlie is now outwardly the gentleman he always was inwardly. Fiona laughed heartily when he took of his fur-lined coat to reveal another fur coat underneath. The dainty music Chaplin had used to score the boot-eating scene is now employed, almost irony-free, to accompany the boys entering their shipboard cabin (like the log cabin, a domicile that slides about from place to place).

There’s a bit of plotting here that’s as neat as the car-door slam in CITY LIGHTS that convinces the blind girl that Charlie is rich: photographers documenting Charlie’s rags to riches story require him to dress up in his old prospecting outfit. Georgia will encounter him, thus attired, and mistake him for a stowaway she’s heard about. Critics tend to focus on the improbability of them meeting like this, but we can be generous and note the felicity of the idea: Georgia has never really shown us that she loves Charlie, and she can’t very well turn around and convince us of her romantic feelings if she knows him to be a millionaire. She has to think him impoverished, a failure. Apparently that thing with Jack didn’t work out too good and she’s been thinking about how sweet he was. It’s really a perfect bit of plotting, and I’d love to know when Charlie thought of it: if he had it up his sleeve all along, it would make sense that he kept Georgia from showing any real affection for Charlie until this point. If he had to come up with it on the spot, having created this narrative problem, it’s an impressively ingenious solution.

Charlie, ironically, doesn’t realise that Georgia is expressing a change of heart, or anyhow a belated moment of realisation — he still believes she wrote him a love note back at the dance hall.

One of Chaplin’s least happy alterations to THE GOLD RUSH was to its ending, where Charlie and Georgia go into a clinch and refuse to break it for the photographer’s benefit, a bit of meta larking which for some reason struck him the wrong way in 1942. It seems perfect to me. Had the Tramp retired at this point, it would have served as a nice call-back to his picture-wrecking activities in his first screen appearance, KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE.

Fortunately for us, Chaplin had further ideas for the Little Fellow…

The Chaplin Odyssey will continue in 2022.