Archive for the Dance Category

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.

Pickups

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 30, 2021 by dcairns

I’d heard something or other about THE COTTON CLUB ENCORE, Francis Ford Coppola’s re-edit of his embattled 1984 production, but it was Meredith Brody in Bologna I guess two years back who said it was much more interesting and worthwhile than all the various tinkered versions of APOCALYPSE NOW, and this planted a seed. I wanted to see it. Finally I bought a copy.

I always rather liked the original — it was the first Coppola I was old enough to see at the movies, I guess.

I can’t be sure of my memories of it, but I think it actually played better shorter. Coppola thinks the new cut plays shorter despite being longer, because the story’s clearer. But clarity isn’t everything. Sometimes puzzlement is more engaging. And anyway I’m not convinced this version is any clearer. Still, I’m glad to have seen it because it has more musical numbers.

Coppola got embroiled in the film in the first place because producer Robert Evans couldn’t figure out how to pull off a movie about the Club with Richard Gere, who refused to play a gangster, would only play a musician, the problem being that no white musicians played the Club. I hate to say it, but Coppola didn’t really solve that problem. Gere glides around the outskirts of the story, vanishing to Hollywood to become a star offscreen, romancing a gangster’s moll, and the movie offers us no reason to care about these characters, cute though they are, well though they wear Milena Canonero’s clothes. In 1984 I probably wasn’t aware that this plotline was a Methuselah-old pulp standard, one which Tarantino would feel the need to explode in PULP FICTION with the Travolta-Thurman story.

I did notice, though, that Gregory Hines and Lonette McKee’s love story (now promoted to the cover image/poster) was actually ABOUT something, and connected to the Cotton Club, even if it didn’t quite have all the moving parts a story needs to have. The Hines character’s relationship with his brother (real-life sibling Maurice Hines) added some complication.

Gere’s character also has a brother, played by Nic Cage — whose storyline which does manage to involve the club, and ends dramatically. But we never learn Gere’s reaction to the conclusion of that yarn, which shows just how uninterested in him the film is.

Bob Hoskins and Fred Gwynne (who Coppola hired over Evan’s furious objections: “No Munsters!”) improvised a great scene, the standout in the film, and had Coppola been on top form or able to work with some freedom, they could and should have been invited to improvise a half dozen more. Those guys should have been in more movies together.

The other best non-musical scene is with Laurence Fishburne, though his character’s arguing that he doesn’t have any choice but to be a gangster because society is racist… well, his character seems to believe it, and he argues it with panache. It’s good when characters can give a good account of themselves.

In building a musical that isn’t a musical (no bursting into song except during performance scenes) that connects to the social events of the time, Coppola seems to have taken CABARET as his model — understandably, since the Bob Fosse beat him to a Best Director Oscar in 1973. My dim memory tells me that the balance of songs and story in CABARET is much more successful, the two seem genuinely planned to go together whereas ENCORE has some songs which, lovely though they are, just happen. The strongest deja vu moment was when Fishburne and his gang beat up a nasty Club employee — it felt weirdly like the Nazis beating up the bouncer. A strange connection to make.

Coppola films some of the dancing extremely well, and other bits he hacks up into closeups of feet and stuff. Even aged seventeen I knew that was wrong. And there are lots of MONTAGES, usually a sure sign of a film in trouble. They’re very pretty, but they’re period pastiche filmmaking designed to glue together a disjointed narrative.

It’s a shame to feature mob boss Dutch Schultz so prominently and not include his last words (“A boy has never wept nor dashed a thousand kim…”) but in fairness its difficult to see how the authors could have worked them in meaningfully. Intercut them with Cab Calloway’s scat singing?

The elusive onstage/offstage conversion does finally happen, though, right before the end creds (which are beautiful, a bunch of spare montage elements) — Coppola intercuts a stage number with “real” action at Grand Central Station and blends the two into something really magical. Coppola’s best endings are usually based on cross-cutting, aren’t they?

THE COTTON CLUB stars Zack Mayo; Josephus; Ellen Aim; Louise Little; Lou Landsky; Sam Starr; H.I. McDunnough; Louis B. Mayer; Herman Munster; Specialty Dancer – ‘Beale Street Blues’ (uncredited); Delores Dodge; Billy Bump/Billie Bump; Jimmy Jump; R.M. Renfield; Kane; Momo; Baby Houseman; Joe – the Hustler; Gloria Capulet; 1st Sgt. Braxton Rutledge; Dicky Speck; Gus Fring; Grandpa Booker; Mary Corleone; and Stokely Carmichael.