Archive for the MUSIC Category

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: Fictionized

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 18, 2021 by dcairns

Errol Flynn movies are highly intertitular. After enjoying THE DAWN PATROL so much, and particularly the Flynn-Niven byplay in biplanes, we ran THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD (Fiona wasn’t sure she’d ever seen the whole thing, shock horror), THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON and THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE. Nothing came up to the satisfaction of Goulding’s flying saga, but ROBIN HOOD is of course huge fun.

Scattered impressions: Eugene Pallette really can’t swordfight. He just waves his longsword about, but struggles to do that at anything like an impressive speed. I think his problem is he’s trying to mimic the anachronistic rapier-work displayed by Flynn et al. The film is full of undercranking but he’s the one who needs it. Also: Flynn and Rathbone had a fight arranger for their fantastic duel. Pallette just seems to have been shovelled into a cassock and left to fend for himself.

The music! The sets! The film is only half Curtiz (William Keighley had it taken away from him for being too slow and not dramatic enough — Curtiz came on and was even slower but much more dramatic). The closeup of Rathbone dead! The Curtiz sadism always finds an outlet.

CHARGE is described in an opening title as “fictionized” and the same curious word is used by Hal Wallis in memos (Inside Warner Bros. (1935-1951), Rudy Behlmer) so I guess maybe he coined it. It actual makes more sense than “fictionalised” maybe. Anyway what he means is it’s a ludicrous farrago, but Curtiz is still prowl-tracking through sets with lots of intervening props and characters that glide past between us and the action, a 3D filmmaker avant la lettre.

The “British fort” is wonderfully hilarious. Utter phallocracy. It was clearly felt that a British fort in India should have an Indian aspect, a sense of minaret to it, despite the fact that colonialism is rendered visual in the way the coloniser builds in his own style structures in the land of the colonised. So this Flash Gordon fairytale palace is based on nothing, it’s as unreal as the light sources from below designed only to cast dramatic shadows on walls, a real Curtiz trope visible in both these Flynn movies he directed.

The fictionized end battle is unbelievably massive. Lots of horses, both full and empty. In some wide shots they seem to be tripping the horses with pits (the Italian method, more humane) but mostly they’re using the crueller Running W tripwire approach and lots of horses were maimed and killed. Niven and other cast members complained. It’s all right up there on the screen. The BBFC has a history of censoring such scenes but if they started on this one I don’t know what’d be left, the Valley of Death as a shredded string of blipverts and ellisions.

Incredible decision to cast Flynn and De Havilland and have her in love with his brother, the nonexistent Patric Knowles. And with Niven standing around with nothing to do! There’s a memo about casting proper posh Brits in the posh roles, and beware because naturally Curtiz can’t tell cockney from Received Pronunciation, and then we have E.E. Clive (“‘E’s invisibule, that’s wot’s the matter with ‘im!”) as a diplomat. He’s talking respectably, but diplomats are about nine shades posher than mere respectable, they’re so posh you can barely understand them.

I wish I’d seen this and BOOTS when I was younger and more into silly fun. But BOOTS would probably still have outraged me because its mangling of history is more pernicious (though one wonders at Hollywood’s man-crush on the British Empire. I guess we were an important market). Yet, despite its glorifying Custer, not a good man, the movie is quite sympathetic to the Indians for a work of that time.

Anthony Quinn as Crazy Horse!

Plenty of forthright rambunctiousness for director Raoul Walsh to get his teeth into. The crazy disregard for fact resolves into a much more coherent story than CHARGE, even though they’re stringing things out across Custer’s entire career from West Point to Little Bighorn. As with CHARGE, the trick is to disguise a strategic blunder as a cunning plan, and remould horrific defeat as stunning victory. Using Tennyson but altering the entire significance of the battle is a striking bit of Hollywood chicanery, besides which BOOTS’ repurposing of Custer’s Last Stand as a diversionary move to save another unit pales, seems almost respectable.

This one has a proper and really good romantic relationship (marriage!) for Errol and Olivia. And really good use of Arthur Kennedy, the Anti-Flynn.

Flynn’s historical, or historized, films, are crowded with intertitles. It’s as if Warners felt the use of this old-timey narrative technique would bestow a suitably archaic feeling to the action.

THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD stars George Armstrong Custer; Melanie Hamilton – Their Cousin; Sherlock Holmes; Dr. Jack Griffin; Dr. Frank Mannering; Alexander Bullock; Mr. Pike; Gerald; Theseus – Duke of Athens; Minnie; Albert Miggles; Colonel Weed; Mr. LeBrand; Greystoke’s Nephew; King Charles II; Man in 1780 Sequence (uncredited); The Burgomaster; Crunch; Dr. John Lanyon; Loana; Old Tramp; Louise Finch; and Trigger.

THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Will Scarlett; Lord Willoughby; Dr. Watson; Battling Burrows; Sir Charles Lytton the notorious Phantom; Dr. Cream; Lt. ‘Queen’s Own’ Butler; Chingachgook; Bertha Van Cleve; Constable Jaffers; Chief Sitting Bull; Princess Baba; Monsieur Taffy; and Dr. John Lanyon.

THEY DIED WITH THEIR BOOTS ON stars Robin Hood; Maid Marian; Jackson Bentley; Grandpa Joad; Sheriff Hartwell; Paul Gauguin; Professor Siletsky; Carson Drew; Oliver Larrabee; Kasper Gurman; Arvide Abernathy; Queenie; Augustus Brandon; Alan Winters in Photo (uncredited); Babe Dooley; Wolf Larsen; Mrs Stark – Jim’s Grandmother; Mr. Cope in Fantasy Sequence; Porthos; Detective Dickens; Inez Laranetta; Duffy; and Cueball.

White Jazz

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 6, 2021 by dcairns

We came to William Dieterle’s SYNCOPATION with a mixture of curiosity and trepidation, partly explained by the fact that we’d recently watched the same director’s THE LIFE OF EMILE ZOLA (not quite as turgid as we’d feared, but mis-structured and turgid ENOUGH). This one is a history of jazz, and the unspoken question on our lips was how white it was going to be. The earlier KING OF JAZZ, magnificent two-strip abomination that it is, has precisely one mention of Africa, and then, at its climax, shows jazz being the product of America’s melting pot, with ingredients inclusing Dutch clog dancers and Scottish pipe bands, but absolutely no Black folks.

SYNCOPATION, for all the limitations of a 1942 RKO production, is much better than that! It’s totally in the mode of THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER in terms of expressionist flavouring. TDADW was building on CITIZEN KANE’s innovations and so here we have a big screen-filling title appearing in total silence. And the credits are just a list of names of people who collaborated on the picture, “in front of” and “behind the camera!: communism!

And then we’re in Africa. The drums, of course, are beating. White traders arrive. They open a treasure chest. It’s full of — dramatic orchestral stab — MANACLES.

And now this is happening. It’s bold, I tell you.

The dissolve emphasises the compositional similarity: the box frame, the imprisoned people with their arms wrapped around their knees echo the shape of the manacles. The conditions in this ship are BETTER than in reality they would have been, but the shot is built to create an impression of horrible confinement.

J. Roy Hunt (I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE) shot it and John Sturges cut it.

The dots are joined: we see not only where the slaves are going but what they’re going to do there. This is no Roots and that aspect of the film is now over, but I give Dieterle and writers Philip “the front” Yordan, Frank Cavett and Valentine Davies serious props for their opening.

This promising start must be betrayed as soon as possible, so the film introduces New Orleans blueblood Adolphe Menjou and his daughter. But there are two major Black characters, little trumpeter Rex Tearbone and his mother (Jessica Grayson), maid to Menjou, effective mother to his daughter. The object is to show jazz — Black people’s “trouble music” — being passed on to white musicians.

It’s somewhat to the film’s credit that the black characters stay on past the first act (and that Menjou gets essentially nothing to do), but disappointing that they’re eventually written out. And Tearbone, who grows up (from a child whose name seems not to have been recorded, despite the IMDB listing about ninety cast members) into Todd Duncan (the original stage Porgy), which means he starts out younger than the other principles and winds up older but never mind, gets no romance or particular ambitions of his own, once his mother consents to allow him his jazz career. He’s something of a Magic Negro figure… but not completely.

The little rich girl is Bonita Granville and the boy from the wrong side of the tracks is Jackie Cooper. And they’re both very sweet: she can move her shoulders skillfully to suggest piano playing (a real art) and he seems actually to be able to blow the trumpet. And the movie absolutely trashes Paul Whiteman (here Ted Browning, so his name isn’t as hideously apt as the real-life model), not quite as mercilessly as BLUES IN THE NIGHT lambasts Kay Kyser, but close. Being forced to play the same notes night after night gives Cooper a JAZZ BREAKDOWN.

The movie doesn’t have any villains, is bravely trying to string its story through the history of jazz from Dixie to swing, and it only sort-of HAS a story to string. It’s able to climax with a wholly non-diegetic performance by a jazz supergroup of Gene Krupa, Joe Venuti, Jack Jenney, Harry James, Benny Goodman and Charlie Barnet, “selected from the leaders of The Saturday Evening Post poll.” They’re all white, of course. I guess if you ask the readers of The Saturday Evening Post… but then someone at RKO has selected these guys, and we’re not allowed to know what criteria they used.

It is nice that one of the folks carrying on the baton of jazz is a girl, though the idea of Bonita having an actual career is rejected by Menjou and we hear no more of that. But she joins in on piano for the last-but-one number.

So… the movie is charming, the music is good, it excels unexpectedly in a few places, falls down predictably and grotesquely in others, and manages to stay engaging despite unresolved narrative and characters — the story of jazz, mistold and bowdlerised though it is, really is what holds it together, more than the thin but likeable characters. A whole different form of Hollywood movie, and it actually works.

Except at the box office, perhaps. Dieterle’s next employer was MGM and his next film was a hagiography of impeached president Andrew Johnson. Which I suppose I’ll have to watch.

SYNCOPATION stars Walter Burns; Perry White; Nancy Drew; Marshal Curley Wilcox; Joe Doakes; Mayor Cotton; Jimmy ‘Fergie’ Ferguson; Daniel Stone; Sheriff Bledsoe; Mr. Tuerck; and Charles Foster Kane III.