Archive for A Woman of Paris

Hynkel, Hynkel, Little Tsar

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 20, 2022 by dcairns

Skipping lightly over the meet-cute with Paulette and the second run-in with stormtroopers, where the barber is saved by the timely arrival of Schultz (who, of all people, ought to notice the barber’s curious resemblance to der fooey)m we return gratefully to the activities of the OTHER Chaplin.

The real Hitler’s life was governed by lassitude — he did, essentially, nothing, outside of his crap painting and his military service, even when faced with poverty. As leader of Germany, he likewise did as little as possible. So Chaplin’s dynamic, manic, busybusybusy Hynkel is more like a parody of a Hollywood studio boss — I wonder which? Long hours, ceaseless frenetic activity (all of it ego-boosting), different tasks chopped up into bite-sized portions, everyone waiting on his convenience. It’s definitely a Hollywood thing. Objectified flunkies (like DeMille’s chair-carrier), and making snap judgements on other people’s work, molesting his secretary. And the huge office. Harry Cohn had a giant office modelled on Mussolini’s. He spoke about visiting Mussolini (and his top director, Capra, kept a framed photo of Il Duce), with wonderment at the electric gizmo that allowed him to open the door from his desk when a visitor was leaving. “That son of a bitch!” Cohn told a visitor. And then opened the door with his own duplicate gizmo.

I love this sequence. The crazy outsized sets — one grand palatial lobby with stairway exists just so that Chaplin can trip while crossing it. It may appear elsewhere in the movie, but its sheer excessiveness in this sequence is a marvel — comparable to the moment in PLAYTIME where Hulot opens a door and startles a whole boardroom at a fancy table in a grand shiny set — which is never glimpsed again.

The spot gags are lovely — the bulletproof jumpsuit and the parachute hat (modelled by Sig Arno, Toto from THE PALM BEACH STORY and one of the few Germans in the film). The speed is impressive. The brutal blackness of the comedy very modern. With the operettafilm lavishness, the constant movement in and out of doors, the parodic grandeur, the sequence has hints of Lubitsch: the great Ernst touched base with Chaplin before via A WOMAN OF PARIS/THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, and would make his own, quite different anti-Nazi film a few years from now.

Fiona finds a relationship between the violent, fatal jokes here, and The Goon Show — a radio series which had its origins in shellshocked veteran Spike Milligan’s WWII experiences, and in the English tradition of absurdity. Chaplin’s music hall origins are no doubt an influence on his combining slapstick with sparse dialogue.

The sequence ends with some non-comic exposition — Garbitsch’s plan to borrow money from the banker Epstein. Hynkel’s “Let’s be big” is the only humour attempted. But Hynkel’s posing by the mirror, and the large bronze bust of him, result in a “doubling” effect perhaps intended to reflect upon the unremarked existence of a certain barber…

Sidenote: Henry Daniell, who plays Garbitsch, was a popular villain actor. Rarely anything else. But his first movie role was a lead, in the first, silent version of THE AWFUL TRUTH. He played the Cary Grant role.

Meaningful Beauty

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 21, 2021 by dcairns

Rounding off my WOMAN OF PARIS coverage as it seems important to get to THE GOLD RUSH for the holiday season. It’s a snowy, festive film.

I’ll tell you who’s good in AWOP — Nellie Bly Baker, the secretary at the Chaplin Studio, who plays a masseuse. Chaplin apparently knew she could mimic him well enough to do the role. He just cuts to her nearly impassive face as Edna is getting a rubdown and discussing her love life with friends. Silent condemnation from La Baker, her eyes deliberately unseeing. Marvelously understated — it’s only the regularity of the cutaways that makes her attitude very clear indeed.

So, although I don’t hugely love the movie, I’m massively impressed by the storytelling. Like the way a shirt cuff, dropped from a drawer, reveals to Carl Miller’s character the fact that Edna has a lover. A very Lubitschian conceit.

Again, against the elegance of the narration is the corniness of the story. Edna’s struggle to choose between love and luxury implies a sophistication that is belied by the third act melodrama: Miller at first seems set to murder Menjou, then shoots himself. His mother takes the gun and sets off to kill Edna. At this point, improbabilities have piled up past the point I can take them seriously. And then Edna and mom bury the hatchet and go off to do good works.

Chaplin, according to David Robinson, came to work one day all excited about his solution to the story: the two women would go work in a leper colony. This notion was greeted with revulsion by his team, and Chaplin stormed off, taking several days away from the studio. When he returned, the incident was never mentioned. So instead out heroine and her former foe are running an orphanage, still a sentimental solution but less grotesque. One wonders about entrusting Lydia Knott’s mom character with more kids, she didn’t do so well with her son.

Chaplin also planned a meeting between Menjou and Purviance’s characters, but had a happier inspiration in the end: they pass by, oblivious of one another, she hitching a ride on a cart with a band of musicians, he riding in a limo with a crony. The guys asks, apropos of nothing, “By the way, whatever happened to Marie St. Clair?” Menjou gives an indifferent shrug. And at that moment, illustrating neatly the idea of fate Chaplin hints at in the film’s sub-title, the paths cross.

But there’s more. Chaplin pays particular close attention to the musicians Edna is riding with, just as he had to Nellie Bly Baker earlier. The three distinct cutaways to the singer and accordionist carry some poetic meaning, just out of reach of the rational brain. They have nothing to do with anything that’s happening, and we don’t know what they’re singing. And I think it’s their irrelevance that makes them poetic. They’re life, and they’re going on without regard to the melodrama that has just fizzled out.

I would like to suggest that the strange, medievalesque pilgrim troupe that pass by at the end of Fellini’s IL BIDONE, and the strolling players who join paths with Masina at the end of his NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, derive directly from this moment. We know Fellini took a lot of inspiration from Chaplin.

The peculiar time-warped troupe of IL BIDONE provoked a battle between Fellini and his producer. An assistant was asked his opinion. He said they should keep them in the picture, as the scene had beauty. To his surprise, Fellini rejected this argument. No, he said. It had MEANINGFUL BEAUTY.

The Sunday Intertitle: The Wild Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2021 by dcairns

Maybe my favourite scene in A WOMAN OF PARIS is a scene none of the main characters is even in. It’s the party Edna is meaning to go to, and instead she ends up encountering her lost love. (He’s wearing a mourning armband, a narrative shorthand borrowed from THE IMMIGRANT, which was originally going to take place in the Latin Quarter also: here, the device is a little awkward because it begs the question, how long has Edna been in Paris?)

The thing about the party scene is, it’s FUNNY. In an elegantly smutty way. It shows what Chaplin could have done if he’d leaned into this kind of wit — instead, he opened a door for Lubitsch to go through. It also suggests, maybe, what he was up to with A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, the kind of thing he’d have liked it to be.

The establishing shot shows couples dancing while a pair of girls riding on men’s shoulders have a pillow fight. It’s curiously reminiscent of Joe Dante’s RECKLESS YOUTH. A girl (Bess Flowers) dressed only in a long bandage is placed on a dais, and a stout gentleman wraps one end of the gauze around his waist. Then he slowly rotates, and she rotates on her plinth, as the bandage winds round him and unwinds from her.

Chaplin packs this brief bit of business with amusing and characterful reactions: the very interested lady with the monocle; the guy rocking Fritz Rasp levels of loucheness who reacts with sudden real fury when his eyes are playfully covered at the moment of revelation. I suspect Chaplin may have heard of or witnessed such a scene during his Paris trip, but the details are all his invention.

And there’s a lovely pay-off: a chap who has slumped against a wall and fallen unconscious earlier, while Edna was being invited on the telephone, wakes up just in time to get an eyeful of the naked girl who has retreated behind a screen. So he passes out again.

It’s all deliciously naughty, but worked by indirection: we never see a naked form, but understand its impact from the responses it provokes. And that’s a very Lubitschian idea. As Billy Wilder put it, Lubitsch says “One plus one” and leaves it to the audience to provide the “equals two.” You can make the telling of the story funny purely by doing it indirectly — somehow the act of adding it up creates a sense of punchline for the audience. And we laugh partly through being pleased with ourselves.

Not that we’ve done anything clever here. Chaplin has. But he somehow flatters us by creating all the decadence through suggestion.

Just think: film history might have turned out quite differently if Edna had gone to the right address: A WOMAN OF PARIS would have been a naughty comedy about demi-mondaine hi-jinks, might have set the box office ablaze, and Chaplin might have escaped from the Tramp character before THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES.

I’m kind of glad Edna made the wrong turn — but also glad that Lubitsch was watching, ready to pounce.