Grand Theft Jalopy

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on April 14, 2021 by dcairns

American women’s fashions in the 1910s were horrible, weren’t they? The pullover Edna Purviance wears in THE CHAMPION is the only thing she ever looked good in, that I can think of. In A JITNEY ELOPEMENT her frilly blouse makes her look like some kind of fancy pillow.

Still, she is Charlie’s darling, and when her father plans to wed her to some motheaten count, he personates said count (making him TRULY motheaten) to abscond with her. Leo White is the real count, of course — the fact that he looks like one may have been what suggested the film to Chaplin in the first place. His Little Fellow character would spend quite a lot of time personating dignitaries, starting with THE MASQUERADER, continuing through THE COUNT, and ending of course with his taking the place of the Phooey of Tomainia.

The name “Count Chloride de Lime” is moderately funny. Charlie trying to lord it up is amusing, but feels like it happens too soon in the story: we need to see him being himself a little more before we’re ready for this. Of course, we know what Charlie’s like as himself from other films, so the movie is maybe presuming on that familiarity, a sign of Chaplin’s increasing awareness of his success. I think the fact that he was so prolific in the early part of his year with Essanay (where he never felt quite at home) also suggests that he was trying to fulfill his contractual obligation as soon as he could, so he could be free to seek an even more rewarding deal elsewhere. So his sense that the Chaplin craze would be burned out within a year may have already been modified.

Edna’s dad performs a foul bit of expository mime for our benefit, pointing at Charlie then at his ring finger — yes, yes, we already know you want the Count to marry Edna, what do you think you’re playing at? I though Chaplin had eliminated this kind of laborious rigmarole when he left Keystone…

One way AJE improves on THE MASQUERADER is its simplicity. Whereas Keystone pics heap on plot wrinkles and complications, rarely resolving them with anything more satisfying than a tumble into standing water, the Essanay films allow Chaplin breathing room to play out simple situations. The set-up isn’t elaborate but the mucking about is.

Fun with bread! Charlie hasn’t got the idea of stealing the dance of the rolls from Fatty Arbuckle yet, but there’s a lovely bit where he distractedly tries to cut a slice from a loaf, slicing around in a long spiral rather than cutting through it, until he’s made a baked accordion of it. Best gag so far. Of course, in Charlie’s hands the loaf actually becomes a musical instrument.

Edna’s father is a very trusting man: he doesn’t wonder while Count Chloride is dressed like a tramp, nor why Edna is suddenly so keen on the fellow.

When a spoonful of beans is deposited on Charlie’s plate when he’s not looking, his surprise at finding it there is followed by a look skywards, as if it were birdshit — a gag repeated with a better choice of foodstuff in MODERN TIMES’ prison scene.

At 9:36 I think I can see Chaplin looking right at the camera and maybe saying “OK” or something. I don’t think he’s saying “cut” but I get the sense he’s breaking character.

Then a jalopy shows up, with Leo White in it. Leo seems to be the replacement for Ben Turpin as co-comedian. As Chaplin gained in confidence he would be less inclined to let anyone else be too funny, at least until the features. He was looking for a new Conklin at this point. White is obviously a different type from Chester and Ben, but he’s useful because of his toffee-nosed elegance. Charlie actually has the same air of gentility, but in his case it’s ironic. Leo is suavity in its natural colours.

This moment ought to create suspense, though there’s nothing formally to identify Leo as the Count. An intertitle could have cleared up any ambiguity, but Chaplin seems to be relying on the fact that Leo White couldn’t be called anything other than Count Chloride de Lime.

Charlie eats hot soup and blasts steam/smoke out his nostrils, a nifty special effect presumably achieved with the aid of a cigarette.

Upon Count Chloride presenting his card, Charlie is towed, naughty-boy, into the hall by his earlobe, where he fatalistically presents his behind for the customary boot. Which is delivered more in anger than sorrow. Charlie tips his hat meekly… then kicks his no-long-father-in-law-to-be in the guts, propelling him into the next set. By the time the old fellow has returned to the scene via the conventional Henry “Pathe” Lehrmann match cut on movement, Charlie has gone, which isn’t like him at all. I suspect missing footage. People never normally effect an exit in a Chaplin film without you getting to see it. The intertitle reading “Get out!” seems to have been spliced in to take care of this lacuna, but whether by Chaplin himself or later hands, I cannot say.

Edna receives the Count’s rather Italianate effusions with coldness, shaking her hand as if to cast off filthy droplets after he kisses it (but note: she shakes the wrong hand).

Edna, Pops and the Count go for an outing, and the deteriorated film stock gives this section a fogbound, Scottish look. Dank and dreary. It looks like David Hamilton’s been at the lens with his petroleum jelly. Pops, exhorting Edna to make nice with her creepy suitor, mimes another boot up the arse, but pulls his kick because leading ladies must not be treated so.

Edna’s revulsion at Leo’s advances is well-played, one of the few times Chaplin lets her be funny. Then she’s laughing at the holes in his trousers — he literally IS moth-eaten. Not clear why Edna’s dad is so keen on the match, the fiance being without finance. I guess he just likes titles.

Chaplin brings the film to a stop while he rolls a cigarette. This is done largely without gags, at great length and with huge detail and precision… then the fag paper unwraps and the whole thing disintegrates in his face. Textbook.

Defeated — and glancing at us with embarrassment — “Did they notice anything?” — he simply eats a handful of tobacco. The following action, however, when he lights up an ordinary ciggie, is pure filler.

Now Charlie confronts Leo, and we get an ornate bout of squabbling and low-level slapstick abuse. Fast, inventive, adroit. Ending with Leo’s silk hat rammed down over his eyes and the man himself ejected by boot into Edna’s oblivious father. Great and protracted tumbling over a log bench. (The varieties of park furniture in this era seem endless.

Enter two cops, a moustache and a face-puller, both equally thick. They try to follow Charlie but he fools them by walking backwards. The constabulary are played by the same clowns who were dad’s butlers, Lloyd Bacon and Paddy McGuire.

Rough-and-tumble with Edna as Charlie tries to spoon with her on a branch. The leading ladies post-Keystone were rarely subjected to such bruising ordeals. I think it’s a mark of comic respect when they get to fall over.

Charlie now fights Leo, Edna’s dad, the two cops (felled with two handy bricks, of the kind you always find lying around in parks) and a big cop, the inevitable Bud Jamison. There follows a vaguely Griffith-style chase, unusual for Chaplin. Lots of skidding, though. Then the couple steal a jalopy, though whether it’s actually a jitney (hire-cab) is unclear to me. Charlie unscrews the radiator cap and drops a coin in to make it go.

The “bad guys” (the forces of order) steal a car of their own, beating up the owner in their zeal. We drive past a huge windmill, a moment of sightseeing and majestic scale highly untypical of Chaplin at this time. Something about the giant rotating arms seems to confuse the drivers, who throw their vehicles into meaningless spins, like spiders on LSD. At one point, a missing-frames jump cut makes a car vanish before our eyes, apported to Meliesville.

Chaplin doesn’t seem inspired to come up with any proper gags in this scenario, but he tries out traveling shots taken alongside his car, dynamic depth compositions with the autos passing a whisker’s breadth from the camera, and various other visual strategies that didn’t normally interest him.

Charlie stops to load up with bricks, then has engine trouble. His pursuers, mere seconds behind in the preceding shot, never arrive in this one. Fixing the motor, he cocks his snook at them, drives off, and then we see the enemy trailing behind him by the exact same margin they were at before.

The bricks come in handy, knocking Bud from his seat into the road. We pause for a jalopy duel in a really interesting neighbourhood. Apparently this is San Francisco, and when you know that, the vertical structures make a bit more sense, as does the foggy diffusion effect. Though it’s weird to see people building UP in a flat, open area of quasi-suburban sprawl.

Chaplin is often criticised for his lack of interest in scenic values, so enjoy the novelty while you can. It’s not clear to me that this fresh architecture adds anything really useful to his cinema, it’s just mildly interesting to see.

Finally, the pursuing car is nudged into the bay, and Edna laughs wickedly at what seems to be her father’s demise, then puckers up for a chaste kiss from her rescuer, interrupted by an abrupt cut to black.

Interesting to see Chaplin try the kind of car chase associated more with Keystone but which he didn’t really do when he was there. He missed the chance to be the first one to go up and down those wretched hills, though.

Holiday Affray

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2021 by dcairns

Also over Easter we rewatched the original and one true TOTAL RECALL, quite a messianic film if you think about it. True, Arnold Schwarzenegger rides to Mars not on a donkey, but wearing a robotic fat lady costume, and he kills a lot of people, but he also saves the mutants and terraforms the planet, which I’m sure Jesus would have done had he thought of it.

Paul Verhoeven threatened for years to make a Jesus film, which would at least have been interesting. I imagine his Christ would have been more human than most, but maybe I’m wrong. The closest he got was ROBOCOP, where Peter Weller rises from the dead, walks on water (seriously — check out his final confrontation with Ronny Cox), and stabs a guy in the throat. At least two of those things get done by Christ in The New Testament.

Verhoeven, Mel Gibson and John Woo are the unholy trinity of Christian mayhem merchants.

This oxygen volcano has a certain Maria Montez nostalgia value, but feels like something the leads should be dancing around in SHOWGIRLS.

Saint Paul’s other big unmade film also had a Middle East setting, his crusades film, planned in the wake of the Gulf War — Schwarzenegger as Schwarzkopf.

But back to Mars. Dan O’Bannon and Ron Shussett, ALIEN’s originators, adapt a Philip K. Dick story. The project passed from David Cronenberg to Fred Schepisi and back to Cronenberg and then somehow to Verhoeven, changing company in from De Laurentiis Entertainment Group (which folded) to Carolco in the process. Verhoeven, discussing the extreme violence, said that gore in movies meant nothing to him since he grew up in WWII and so bodies blown to pieces in the streets. O’Bannon, responding in another interview, said that was all well and good, Verhoeven was “psychotically desensitized,” but he should remember that he was making films for audiences who are not.

We kind of are, though. But Cronenberg himself said that movie violence desensitizes us to more movie violence, but no amount of fake punch-ups will lessen the impact of a real punch, given, received or witnessed. Which is true. Though I think movies can get us into trouble by creating the impression that certain activities will be fun if we try them. The reality is often disappointing.

Anyway, apart from the graphic and OTT carnage, there’s also Rob Bottin’s spectacular asphyxiation effects, achieved with fake heads, bulging eyes, protruding tongues… I find these repellent but hilarious. While the faux Arnie head which emerges from the fat lady is unconvincing (they hold on it too long in a static medium close-up), the gagging stars would be totally compelling if they weren’t so extreme.

A difference of reaction: Fiona is really freaked out by them, which she puts down to her panic disorder, a condition which gives you the feeling you can’t breathe. Whereas I find them amusing — though the horrific/absurd confusion OUGHT to be disturbing. And I have asthma, which means I periodically really CAN’T breathe.

I’m always struck by how the film, despite the talents involved, the money lavished, and the nasty fun provided, isn’t very good-looking. Mars looks kinda awful, right from the get-go. There’s so much wrong with the very first effects shot…

Firstly, it fails to establish the domed cities, which we need to know about. The sets consequently always seem really small, I think because there’s little to tie the buildings in with the domes. We need wide shots of miniatures that show lots tiny buildings inside domes, and these little buildings would then be seen full-sized with the actors moving about them, and THEN we’d feel a sense of scale.

It’s crazy the way everything is tucked underneath the horizon line. Feels like an attempt to make things easy to matte together.

And the yellow construction cranes are popping too much. The fact that there’s work going on is something we don’t need to know about yet, the domed cities should be the priority.

Verhoeven’s skill with blocking is something only intermittently present in his work, flashing up unexpectedly in scenes that don’t always deserve it. Though the staging of the fights is pretty good, making the slow-moving AS seem like an effective scrapper, it’s only with the first long dialogue scene with Rachel Ticotin that we get a nice lesson in old-school staging:

As a prospective Cronenberg picture, it’s intriguing to see how the layered plot twists or “mind fucks” would connect with his first person films — VIDEODROME, NAKED LUNCH, XISTENZ, SPIDER — where we’re led up a subjective garden path away from consensus reality. Rather than going deeper into delusion, TOTAL RECALL progressively strips away the false scenarios our lunk hero is ensnared within.

Of course, it’s all happening in Rekall, Inc, and Arnie’s dream should end with a big reveal showing him “a drooling vegetable,” as Verhoeven vividly put it (and with relish) in the chair, his memory implant having malfunctioned and fried his brain (the term “schizoid embolism,” a conflation of the psychological and neurological, is a trashy bit of ersatz science Cronenberg would probably have improved upon). But, in a big action picture starring the number-one box-office star, this was unthinkable. So Verhoeven says he ended the picture on a fade to white to give the audience a subtle feeling that something was up…

Cleoplatters

Posted in Fashion, FILM with tags , , on April 12, 2021 by dcairns

My late friend Lawrie Knight’s stories usually check out.

His first film job was on CAESAR AND CLEOPATRA, an epic mess. “We shipped sand to Egypt!” he said, full of wonderment. “During wartime!”

Lawrie was shipped there too, manning a radio from a tent to try to coordinate the battle scenes. “We killed so many people!” he chortled. Years later, he met a man in a London street who greeted him as an old friend, revealed a missing ear, and asked “When are we going to make another film? I’ve still got one ear!”

Lawrie claimed, as I recall, that the local extras ate the sandals they were issued with to play Roman or Egyptian soldiers. Soft leather was indeed eaten on long sea voyages when the food ran out, so it can be done. But Marjorie Deans’ lovely making-of book, Meeting at the Sphinx, has a different version: according to her, the soldiers’ shields were made from papier mache, and it was these that ended up being devoured, three hundred of them. A more substantial meal for each poorly-paid extra. Tasty, too: Dean supplies the detail that the shields were varnished with a kind of fish-paste which made them mouth-wateringly delicious.

Deans’ story has more convincing detail, and was told nearer the time…

It’s possible that both stories are true, and only natural modesty prevented the background artists from consuming their entire wardrobe, denuding themselves. It’s not certain that Deans was on location, but she may have been closer to the action than Lawrie, in his tent, so her story may be more accurate. Or Lawrie may have muddled the story a bit in the ensuing decades. Or I may be misquoting him — maybe his story was about the shields, and he said something else about sandals in another context. It was a while ago.

At any rate, I feel that we can be sure that somebody ate something they shouldn’t have on the location shoot for this film.