Archive for the Dance Category

The Story of the Moral

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on October 9, 2021 by dcairns

Ellen Richter seems like a good subject for further study — I intend to check out on of her travel-adventure films (Reise-und-Abenteuerfilme), the only one available to me, DER FLUG UM DEN ERDBALL (THE FLIGHT AROUND THE WORLD, 1925). Richter produced her own films and her husband, Willi Wolff, directed them. Pordenone director Jay Weissberg speculated that she’s not better-known because she didn’t work with the big-name German directors, and so few of her films were preserved, but added the fact thats she was Jewish, and she and Wolff got out of the Fatherland in 1933 (emigrating to America but not making any more films there) — it seems to me possible that the Nazis actively tried to destroy her work, the way they went after Dietrich’s. (Langlois rescued the negative of THE BLUE ANGEL, allowing some forgettable travelogue to be cremated in its place, with the connivance of an S.S. man who was a big Marlene fan.)

Pordenone chose a different genre for streaming, MORAL, a sophisticated comedy with a musical theatre/smalltown theme. Guest-starring the Tiller Girls, a British variety act very popular in Germany, MORAL is intermittently very amusing and looks great. Wolff delivers some nimble touches — there’s a flurry of shocked reaction shots like a THIN MAN denouement, and a relay of embarrassed walks, where one character runs into another and reverses course, and the other guy, retreating in likewise embarrassment, runs into a third and the whole thing repeats. Quite fresh.

(My late friend Lawrie Knight directed the Tiller Girls, in a later incarnation. Not sure what the film was for. Day one went well, but on day two the girls were all bruised around the backside area. “What caused it?” I asked, naively. “Fucking!” Lawrie chortled. Some fortunate make-up artist had his work cut out for him.)

THE BLUE ANGEL, or rather its source novel, Henirich Mann’s Professor Unrat, seems to be in the mix here, as schoolboys pass around a postcard of Richter’s mildly saucy act under the (blue) nose of their despotic schoolteacher. Or maybe that was just something that happened so regularly in Germany that it was bound to make it into several media representations by sheer ubiquity.

You can see, perhaps, why Richter didn’t get into Hollywood movies — I don’t know what her English was like but her face is strong-featured, her build sturdy. But her ironic smile and her scintillating wardrobe exert charm.

I also watched a discussion about FILIBUS, a film which seems to cast a spell over all who see it. I didn’t learn all that much, except about the historical confusion as to who the star is and the mystery around who made it and whether it may have been a serial at one time. But my own enchantment with the film was confirmed by others who felt similarly, including the restoration team led by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi.

Charlie’s Day Out

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2021 by dcairns

Legend has it that MGM changed the title of its 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation from HEAT to LOVE, because a prospective marquee reading “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Heat” would have been comical, bit “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love” would be commercially appealing. With that in mind, the title card “Charlie Chaplin in A Day’s Pleasure with Edna Purviance” may be thought unfortunate.

“Music by Charlie Chaplin” — the fact that it doesn’t say “Charles” makes me wonder if these titles are director-approved. The rambunctiousness of the score may be explained by the fact that the person Chaplin is humming the tunes to is Eric Rogers, of Carry On film fame, rather than the more artful David Raksin. The tunes are as catchy but the tone is different depending on the personality of the notator-orchestrator.

The premise of this one was later used by Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and no doubt a gaggle of others. A family outing. Edna, tow Charlie mini-mes, and the man himself emerge in turn from a respectable Los Angeles bungalow. It’s a very L&H style sunblasted suburban sprawl setting. The idea of Chaplin kids dressed as smaller versions of the man himself had been tried out in a deleted scene from SHOULDER ARMS, which may be an early clue that inspiration is a bit dry.

In fact, this film was begun as CHARLIE’S PICNIC, a follow-up to SUNNYSIDE, which was shut down after the same creative problems caused production to grind to a halt. Then Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, started THE KID, and inspiration once more began flowing freely. But partway through shooting that film, Chaplin realised it was going to be bigger and more complex than anything he’d attempted before, and he had First National breathing down his neck. So he dug out the shelved footage from the picnic film and very quickly, by his standards, shot material to complete it. Although the mental logjam apparently triggered by his miserable marriage had broken, working at this speed had never really suited Chaplin and he’d gotten used to the luxury of time. So A DAY’S PLEASURE bears the signs of haste.

Charlie is swathed in a greatcoat, marking the character as more settled and respectable than usual. He cranks the boneshaker into violent motion, but the motor keeps dying just as he steps onto the running board. I suspect the presence of hefty stagehands shaking the vehicle from the lee side.

The jalopy is abandoned almost as soon as it appears, as this is to be a boat ride. Maybe some memory of the outing to Southampton Charlie experienced with Hannah and Syd when a boy. Standard fat lady humour: when a big woman misses the boat and ends up stretched between it and the dock, Charlie, also late, is able to use her as a human bridge. Then, when she’s dangling from the starboard, he tries pulling her aboard with a dangerously spikey looking boathook. Mercifully, the victim appears to be a large man in drag (Tom Wood? The fat peoples’ credits on Chaplin films at the IMDb are very confusing). David Robinson suggests she’s a woman, Babe London.

The rocking boat allows Rollie Totheroh to get his camera gimbal out again, but a dance floor sequence on deck produces no real gags. The black jazz quartet accompanying the hectic jig escapes too much racial mockery until the intertitle “Three minds with but a single thought” gratuitously ruins things, and also gets the number of musicians wrong. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin would later say, but when the comic muse is AWOL, low-hanging (strange) fruit is duly plucked.

The inevitable mal de mer business ticked off, Charlie entangles himself in a complex deckchair which resolutely fails to come alive the way ONE A.M.s Murphy bed had. And the violent rocking of the camera really gets in the way here. Chaplin is going through the motions in an unsuitable sitcom scenario about bourgeoise family problems, something he has no feeling for nor experience of. Still, it’s only a two-reeler and I’ve never seen it before so at least it’s short and new.

Through convoluted means, Charlie, so seasick he’s coming off as inebriated, collapses across the lap of another stout lady, and is covered with a blanket by an attendant. When the woman’s husband arrives with refreshments, Charlie’s waving hand, emerging from under the blanket, is mistaken for the woman’s. A dim echo of the brilliant alien hands routine from A DOG’S LIFE. It’s unconvincing spatially: I would have thought the bodies and limbs could have been arranged to make it work better. For a better example of the same kind of thing, see Lorelei Lee and Mr. Spofford in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, arranged around a porthole. (“Quit it.”)

This leads to a fight with the husband (burly ex-boxer Tom Wilson, rather a colourless antagonist), interrupted by seasickness — as the husband leans over the side, Chaplin rains kicks and punches on his upthrust buttocks. A coward at heart, Charlie always waxes belligerent when his opponent is handicapped in any way. One of his less attractive qualities — which always seem to emerge when he’s feeling hurried or uninspired.

Still, he disembarks victorious. Which is a problem for me, because the loose structuring device of these kind of comedies is “a series of disasters/frustrations/mishaps”. Certainly the film tries to evoke that notion with the next bit of action, introduced flatly as “The hold-up at the crossroads.” Actually it’s the most inventive sequence.

Charlie manages to upset a traffic cop, tiny, obstreperous Loyal Underwood and his womenfolk, a haulage firm, Henry Bergman as two separate men, Toraichi Kono his chauffeur in real life (Mrs Kono apparently objected to his earlier appearance in THE ADVENTURER, feeling that acting was beneath a respectable driver’s dignity, but here he is again), and a couple of tar-spreaders and their vat, which is quite literally upset.

When Charlie and Bergman (in his second guise, as a second cop or kop) both get their feet stuck in the tar while arguing, the film actually threatens to become amusing. Charlie leans forwards at a super-Hulot ankle-straining angle, then pulls himself erect by the seat of his pants, a good piece of comedy physics.

Leaving his flap-shoes and both kops hopelessly sunk in bitumen, Charlie escapes using a policeman’s cap as stepping stone, making the film’s title, and the final intertitle “The end of a perfect day,” oddly UN-ironic.

Chaplin was still stuck in a disappointing marriage, and partway through production became father to Norman Spencer Chaplin, born incomplete — mostly missing his brain. The child died after a few days.

Victims of such birth defects are not usually viable, though I was once told by a nurse that the custom is to starve them so they die as quickly as possible. Glen David Gold gets quite a bit of high drama out of this tragedy in his novel Sunnyside, concluding with the horrific moment at the funeral when Chaplin sees that the mortician has arranged his son’s features into a grotesque SMILE in the tiny coffin. True.

Are we having fun yet?

Chaplin managed only two shorts in 1920, neither of them up to his exacting standards. ADP was released in December, and he didn’t manage to get another film in cinemas all through the following year. But when THE KID appeared in February 1921 (this is its centenary!) any suspicions of creative bankruptcy would be utterly dispelled.

It’s masterpiece time.

Louise Brooks’ History of the World Part I

Posted in Dance, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on August 21, 2021 by dcairns

Caught up with THE CHAPERONE, which glosses on the true tale of Louise Brooks’ first experiences in New York, accompanied by a Kansan hausfrau. A weirdly flat experience — sexless and lacking drama. This is weird because it has a teenage Louise Brooks in it, the narrative takes in child abuse, emotional neglect, adoption, all kinds of fraught stuff, but everybody is always making nice.

We’re dealing with Julian Fellowes, High Tory writer of GOSFORD PARK and Downton Abbey, adapting a book by Laura Moriarty, and with a director from Fellowes’ TV show. I never watched that thing. I liked GP a lot, but I think it benefitted from Altman’s wry disgust at the world being depicted, and from the actors’ improvisations. A BBC Scotland bod who had employed Fellowes on an earlier TV show remarked that they felt sure the best lines were made up on the set, but then that same person was reportedly unable to start work each morning until an assistant turned on their computer, so who knows?

What surprised me was that Fellowes would short-circuit every opportunity for drama by letting one character or another calm things down. I know we don’t want a David Mamet story populated entirely by ranting psychos, but as Alexander Mackendrick put it, “Sympathy is the enemy of drama.” The whole art seems to be to create a fictive world where sympathy can exist, but to always position it where it doesn’t defuse the excitement.

Nice to see Elizabeth McGovern in a leading role, the TV show having restored her to the limelight. Haley Lu Richardson has a near-impossible task, and the appearance of a flurry of clips of the real Brooks cruelly points up the contrast. I would settle for less physical resemblance (HLR is only passably similar in appearance) in favour of more edge — but the script is so lacking in spikiness and spiciness, the direction so anemic, the music such thin soup, ladled over everything, it’s hard to see how any real Brooksian quality could have survived. So without blaming the star we can say she was either wrongfully thrust into an unsuitable role or else undercut by everything around her.

I’m always happy to see McGovern and Campbell Scott, but again, probably not the actors who would set things on fire. Is it possible to die of niceness? At least Downton Abbey has Maggie Smith being catty.

The dialogue is poor, with “Horse feathers,” the sole bit of twenties idiom. Someone actually says, “This is 1922.” I guess the biographical distortions are a minor matter, but Brooks’ childhood sexual abuse is disgracefully softened, and her experience after the onscreen events summed up in a title card: “after some difficult times as a shopgirl in New York she reinvented herself as a writer…” Fellowes’ distaste for shopgirling is hilarious, and presumably his distaste for hooking is so great he can’t bring himself to mention it, and we’re trying to hone messy reality into a redemptive arc here…

The problem, probably, is that even if you got some energy going, this is a story mainly covering Brooks’ early studies as a dancer, and skips over everything she’s celebrated for. Plus she’s not even the main character. The solution to these problems is to not make the film.

THE CHAPERONE stars Cora Crawley, Countess of Grantham; Claire Benoit; Saul Ausländer; Lady Macbeth; Robert Benchley; Martha Jefferson; Eowyn; Munkustrap; and Nervous Man.