Viktor/Viktoria/Victor/Victoria

Posted in Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2021 by dcairns

Victor Saville’s film FIRST A GIRL is the middle film in the cycle begun by Reinhardt Schünzel’s VIKTOR UND VIKTORIA and concluded, as of this date, by Blake Edwards’ film VICTOR VICTORIA and musical play, Victor/Victoria. Though dealing with male/female impersonation (a woman pretending to be a male impersonator), all iterations of the story seem as much gay as trans.

It’s very interesting that these films, made before our modern attitudes semi-coalesced, should seem so modern and forward-thinking. The Schünzel original was a spoof of the English music hall, with its omnipresent drag artistes, but an affectionate one. The character played by Sonny Hale in Saville’s film, reads as Obviously Gay, even though (a) he’s played by the husband of Jessie Matthews, the female lead, and (b) an unconvincing hetero romance is contrived for him in the third act. The object of his affections is Anna Lee, who gets a sexy shower scene and seems the least ambiguous figure, but even she can’t wholly dismiss the whiff of acidulated queeniness Hale projects so ably.

Jessie Matthews is never not obviously a girl, even when clad in a tux, just as Renate Müller was always a girl in the original (Julie Andrews does suggest a Bowie-like androgyny), and the obvious artifice probably helped everyone feel comfortable, who might otherwise be inclined not to be (the original came out in Germany in 1933, an extraordinary thing). Griffith Jones is a bit dull as lead boy, but he’s handsome at a time when so many British leading men were scarred, stout or snaggle-toothed, and has an ambiguous quality that suits the part. The most daring aspect of the film is the hero who falls for a girl he believes to be a boy. You can see how a German film doing this might be poking fun at the British, but a British film doing it is quite close to playing the notion straight, as it were.

Matthews is a delight, gets several spectacular musical numbers, costumed by Coco Chanel, and while the plotting isn’t perfect — Lee has to step up to the role of villainess, then hurriedly step down — it’s simpler and more efficient than Edwards’ multivalent farce narrative. And it’s huge fun.

FIRST A GIRL stars Millie the Non-Stop Variety Girl; Freddie Rathbone; Bronwyn; Narcy; Wackford Squeers; and Miss Havisham.

Prom Prom Prom

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on April 29, 2021 by dcairns

The first character we meet in Chaplin’s BY THE SEA is Billy Armstrong, a somewhat bland clown who really needs his walrus moustache to project any character. He seems the equivalent of the later Albert Austin type. Funnily enough, when regular antagonist Bud Jamison appears, his painted eyebrows and top hat make him seem, with his burly, surly aspect, even more of a proto-Eric Campbell than before.

(Incidentally, David Robinson remarks that this film is a mere nine set-ups. I count more like sixteen, though many are mere variations in shot size. Robinson doesn’t make mistakes so I’m assuming restoration has rendered the film longer than the print he saw, or else he’s not counting slight push-ins.)

But long before we see Bud, Charlie has slipped on cinema’s first banana skin, at least so far as anyone has been able to trace. It’s his own banana skin, which is good. But it’s doubtful if the banana skin will ever have anything like the shock of the new that enabled it to get laughs. Buster Keaton experimented with NOT slipping on one, in THE HIGH SIGN, but seemed to be dissatisfied with the un-gag. In SHERLOCK JR. he has the villain not slip, and then Buster slips on his own banana skin, as if discovering the Chaplin variation all over again.

Chaplin’s banana bit is a standalone moment, easily excisable, and in fact pretty much ALL of the film is standalone bits. He first gets into a quarrel with Armstrong, both men having tied strings to their hats as a defense against the sea breeze, and their tangling inevitably leads to a punch-up.

Chaplin does manage a more sophisticated bit — having dazed Armstrong with repeated slaps, he forages for fleas in the punchy man’s thick hair (Armstrong is the same size and shape as Charlie, which seems wrong — both Conklin and Turpin had radically different aspects from the star despite being fellow short-arses). It’s mildly impressive that Chaplin manages to make us “see” the leaping insects, but even more impressive that, filming himself in a close medium shot with his stunned opponent, he makes us imagine other, unseen promenaders, whose pseudo-presence compels him to keep up a pretense of civility with his victim.

Charlie isn’t necessarily a tramp in this, but he’s devoid of any social ties — Armstrong has his “wifie” and his rags betoken poverty. When Charlie has a wife or job in the shorts, it always feels like a contrivance for the sake of the film, one from which Charlie will be free by the time we see him again. Some of these films have aspects of the sitcom, but the “sit” is ever-changing, the one constant being Charlie’s freedom to abscond to a whole new scenario at the end of the two reels. This, of course, was standard for all the silent clowns. In Charlie’s case it happens to support his status as eternally at least somewhat of a tramp.

Having rendered Armstrong vegetative, Charlie now does what he always does, uses the other fellow as a convenient object. He sits on him. When Edna passes, the unconscious victim becomes a prop for Charlie’s flirtation. He poses like a hunter with one foot on his kill. His smiles seem to suggest that his having pummeled this man into submission ought to excite the object of his desires. At the same time, he can’t touch the man’s (usually upthrust) arse. All very strange. Finally he leaves the fellow leaning insensate against a lifebelt stand, a grotesque parody of the crucifixion.

Kurt Vonnegut’s definition of slapstick — “grotesque situational poetry” — always seemed odd to me because it leaves out the funny part. But it has rarely seemed more accurate.

Charlie does some more flirting, going so far as to sidle into Edna’s shot. His cane gets out of control, flying around saucily, whacking Edna’s backside and then hitting Charlie in the face. It’s the jester’s bladder and stick all right. I’m almost sure that’s what it is.

Armstrong recovers somewhat — his movements are staggering, his eyes crossed — and attacks Charlie with the lifesaver. Edna moves away, meeting the dyspeptic Bud, hitherto a mere convenient cutaway, now apparently an acquaintance.

A cop — oh hell, I’m just going to call him a kop, what’s he going to do, arrest me? — shows up, but is laid flat by a blow from Armstrong aimed at Charlie. Glass jaws, these kops. Charlie and Billy bond over this shared love of police brutality. Armstrong may not have any special personality but I admit he does play with with Charlie. No doubt Chaplin could get a decent performance out of most people, by showing them what to do, but sustained interactive clowning takes real skill.

Charlie and Billy go for ice cream, Billy offering to pay, but apparently all that brain damage has made him forgetful, as the offer is rescinded the moment the ice cream seller asks money. An ice cream fight ensues, culminating in Billy biting Charlie’s arse — this may be one of the most arse-centric of all the Chaplin shorts, and they’re a pretty butt-obsessed lot.

Meanwhile, a slung bit of vanilla has splurched Bud, who now steps out of his own little sub-film and enters the plot. While he’s strangling Billy, Charlie renews his flirtation with Edna, who is Bud’s paramour evidently, from the way she’s been stroking his knee. He really is a diabolical little sex pest in this one. (In later films, he’s romantic but not overly sexual, except for his fit of nut-tightening madness in MODERN TIMES, which sees Charlie the Imp back in full swing).

A kop drags Billy off. Bud shoves the ice cream man to the ground, for no good reason other than malign temper and to show off that Snub Pollard, for it is he — though unrecognisable sans horseshoe moustache — can take a fall like a pro.

Driven off by a fuming Bud, Charlie has brief encounters with the rest of the cast, then espies Billy’s “wifie” (Margie Reiger) — I think her lips are calling “Billy!” — and of course has to make the moves on her.

His moves:

Billy escapes the clutches of kop Paddy McGuire and flees back to the beach.

Everybody winds up ganging up on Charlie on a bench, improbably positioned in the path of the tide. Charlie is using his bowler to play peekaboo so doesn’t notice the encroaching enemies. The natural solution, after a slow-burn realisation, is to upturn the bench and everyone on it.

Which is the end of the film. Well, it’s not any less satisfying than most Keystone climaxes, and BY THE SEA is maybe a little more together than most Keystones. It knows how to be simple. That may be all it knows, but that’s not nothing.

The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. Old Russian proverb.

Dynamation Emotion

Posted in FILM, Mythology, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 28, 2021 by dcairns

Yesterday was spent, much of it, at the Scottish Museum of Modern Art, strolling through the extensive Ray Harryhausen, Titan of Animation exhibition. Which was basically heaven. Of course I’m going to criticise it a but because I’m an ingrate, but —

The silhouettes are animated. A really nice effect.

I’d seen a few of Harryhausen’s models in the flesh (or fur and steel and latex) at various times. Once, at the late, lamented Lumiere Cinema at the Scottish National Museum, there was the magical moment when he produced a skeleton, complete with miniature travel coffin, and within an instant every child in the auditorium teleported down to the edge of the stage to get closer to it, each perhaps imagining that Ray would hand over the precious figurine for them to play with, or perhaps make a very short movie with.

And Berlin’s fantastic film museum had several of the creatures on display (we don’t call them monsters).

But this was much more extensive and just better. The addition of drawings and home movies elevated it.

I really wanted to see the planned WAR OF THE WORLDS. The tiny bit of test footage is mouth-watering. I suppose we’d have to trade it off — George Pal’s beautifully-mounted version couldn’t exist in the same version as Ray’s — but we’d have tripods and tentacled Martians and, I submit, it would be worth it.

The exhibition features several specially-made bits of animation which show sketches coming to life, and so on, and this is nice, but it really needed more video. I think galleries generally are not very good at dealing with film. I remember a Saul Bass exhibition in London which presented pan-and-scanned versions of all the widescreen title sequences, on tiny little screens.

Today, pan-and-scan is happily dead, but we have the opposite problem. So here’s a clip from KING KONG in 16:9 (and of course it’s the Empire State sequence, the most vertical thing in the film). That wasn’t a very promising start.

The Harryhausen films are much better presented, WHEN they’re presented. There just wasn’t enough — it was up to me, every room would have a screen showing reasonably long clips of each of the creatures represented by drawings or armatures or full figures in that room. Because when you see the Medusa, it’s absolutely wonderful but you want to see her MOVE too.

The solution, of course, was to dash home and watch one of the movies, which we did.

Maybe the Gallery had a philosophical question it never quite resolved about this exhibition. As a sketch artist, Harryhausen wasn’t good enough to merit a show in anybody’s national gallery, even though his drawings are delightful. But the sketches were a means to an end, and they were absolutely good enough to get him there. The puppets or figures or whatever you want to call them are marvelous, but they’re not intended to be consumed the same way as stationary statues. Again, they’re a means to an end.

Mighty Joe and friend.

The end, of course, is the film. And the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art doesn’t really do film. What the exhibition doesn’t QUITE do fully — even though it helpfully explains and illustrates stop motion animation and rear screen projection and glass paintings — is show the sequences alongside the ephemera (we get Ray’s copy of his chum Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and revealing behind-the-scenes photos, and so on) and the drawings and the models so that the REAL art — the art of animation, literally imbuing with life, is foremost in the spectator’s mind.

But this is high-flown quibbling. The exhibition is a carnival of wonders and we were very, very lucky to get to see it.