Archive for Barbara Steele

The Sunday Intertitle: Mr. Wow-Wow goes to the Races, or, Drive, he didn’t say

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 27, 2020 by dcairns

GENTLEMEN OF NERVE is another bloody Keystone racing film, crammed with busy comics — Mabel is off to the races with Mr. Walrus (Chester Conklin) and Mr. Ambrose (Mack Swain) competing for her favours, Charlie is there too. Maybe this was due to a desire to play it safe after the expensive and extensive DOUGH AND DYNAMITE (which made a huge profit in the end so they needn’t have worried).

The idea of intercutting documentary footage of auto races with capering clowns is a weird one, but one that Keystone — and Chaplin — returned to remorselessly. The documentary dilutes the slapstick and the slapstick… well, it doesn’t harm the documentary because that’s just utterly boring. This one has a crazily long shot of a tyre being changed to set the scene. It’s against the clock, but Chaplin is not the kind of filmmaker who can create exciting suspense from a technical exercise involving non-characters. He just tripods it, panning about a foot one way, then back again. It’s not exactly THE WAGES OF FEAR, is it?

Big Phyllis Allen makes a pass at Chester and he’s tempted to ditch Mabel, which seems… strange. But maybe he likes them large. Mabel was miniscule.

Chaplin enters, introduced by title card as “Mr. Wow-Wow, a disturbing influence.” He’s smartly dressed in a long, loose jacket, but with bowler, moustache and cane, with which he immediately thwacks Swain’s capacious buttocks. So, he’s not quite the Tramp, just Chaplin using some Tramp signifiers. He tries to get into the racetrack without paying by walking backwards, hoping they’ll think he’s leaving. I like that bit.

Swain overacts pretty wildly in the early shorts, and seems weak compared even to Conklin. He doesn’t intimidate Charlie, so the David & Goliath thing that Eric Campbell would help cement isn’t functioning. Later, in THE GOLD RUSH, Swain is even bigger, acts better, and even as a friend to the Little Fellow, is a convincing THREAT. Big people are a menace even when they’re nice, is a lynchpin of the Chaplin worldview.

Forming an alliance, Wow-wow and Ambrose try to sneak into the stadium but Ambrose gets stuck halfway through an opening, leading to lengthy abuse. A woman with a soda seltzer appears, somewhat mysteriously, and Chaplin gets to spritz his first spritzee, Mack. He hasn’t thrown a single pie at Keystone, despite all the pastry abuse in his previous short, but at least he gets to spray.

Wow-Wow now lights a match on Mr. Walrus’s pant seat, amusing the fickle Mabel (well, she has just seen him flirting outrageously with Phyllis Allen). Walrus gets all up in Wow-Wow’s face, and thus gets his nose bitten. Chaplin hangs on there like a conger eel. Picks his teeth afterwards as if he’s actually bitten off actual substance from Conklin’s conk. Shades of brother Sydney’s cannibalistic atrocity.

Separated from the crowd by a fence, Wow-Wow taunts and thwacks the rowdy faces, a brutish bit of business in which nobody seems remotely appealing, the thugs behind the wire mesh or the arrogant and vicious cane-wielder. The later Charlie character is much closer to that seen in his previous couple of pictures, an inadvertently disturbing influence rather than just a nasty piece of work. Minutes later he’s singeing Mr. Ambrose’s nose with his cigarette and kicking him in the gut… it’s not charming and it’s not funny.

Chaplin well knew this stuff bore little relationship to comedy, but he felt duty-bound to give Sennett what he demanded, and this sadism may constitute a “running for cover” after the overrun of DOUGH & DYNAMITE. As Chaplin would write in a 1922 article, “The comic spirit meant to me at the beginning of my screen career, as it still means to many people, a series of “gags” and funny business of a not very high order–anything to capture a moment’s laughter or to stir the most elementary sense of the ridiculous. Now, this broad and slapstick kind of comedy, compounded mostly of boisterous spirits and physical violence, has about the same relation to humor as tickling a man on the soles of his feet with a wisp of straw.” He’s not wrong.

Wow-Wow meets another pretty girl and steals a sook of her Coke. Caught at it, he looks innocently skywards, like Harpo. Walrus is flirting with Phyllis again so Mabel walks out on him and collides with Wow-Wow (those bloody names! “Mabel” is bad enough). She sits on his hat and destroys it. The surrounding actors are laughing at all this business, which doesn’t make it any funnier.

Some byplay with a jalopy driver whose “racecar” sports an enormous front propellor. A very fine showcasing of the Chaplin cornering hop.

Conklin/Walrus whispers some kind of inappropriate suggestion to Phyllis and gets duffed up. This movie has more plot threads than Bleak House, but fortunately they all consist solely of idiots hitting each other so it’s easy to follow.

Conklin returns to Mabel and tries to claim her by force. Now we’re actually on Wow-Wow’s side as he delivers a punitive drubbing. Toothbrush versus Walrus in the World Series of Moustaches. Walrus collides with Ambrose and both get hauled off by a Kop. Wow-Wow and Mabel laugh delitedly, and it’s a rare instance of Chaplin expressing joy with his natural toothy grin and laugh. We end on lots of affectionate stuff with Mabel, one of the few co-stars Chaplin never got to first base with.

“I’m not your type, neither are you mine,” he says she told him.

Barbara Steele just told me she had lunch with Chaplin and Oona when she was 19. He was all excited because somebody had just let him have the use of a holiday home in St Tropez. I guess this would be around the time of A KING IN NEW YORK and he had some money trouble after leaving America I believe, so a free house would be great news.

Meanwhile, I’ve been trying to finish the Keystones this year, so that his December output would synch up with mine and I can start next year afresh with the Essanay films, but he’s making them faster than I can write about them (well, I started in the middle of my year and he started at the beginning of his). So I think I’ll run in to January — we have a whole feature film to contend with. But I’ll still get an Essanay done that month, and then it’s more or less one Chaplin per month for 2021. Join me!

Young man Charlie laughing goes all double-chinned, and suddenly we get a glimpse of old man Charlie to come…

Fellini Vs. Casanova

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 6, 2020 by dcairns

Thrilled to publish David Ehrenstein’s appreciation of FELLINI CASANOVA. I should note that I don’t yet have the Blu-ray, so my frame-grabs from the “Hollywood Classics” DVD are a touch hideous.

FELLINI CASANOVA

By David Ehrenstein

Across the course of his peerless career Federico Fellini has produced films both sweet and sour. The “Felliniesque” is cinema at its most bizarre and most moving — often simultaneously as in his primary masterpieces 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita. But sometimes they’re strikingly separate entities. Consider Fellini Casanova — just released as a beautifully produced Kino Lorber blu-ray, replete with a highly informative commentary track by critic Nick Pinkerton.

        Coming right on the heels of Amarcord — arguably the warmest and most convivial of all his works, this meditation on  the life and character of a man whose very name is synoymous with seduction is as cold as the ice featured in its finale. There the anti-hero is seen waltzing on ice skates on a frozen lake with the love of his life — not a woman but a meticulously crafted automaton. Beneath the smooth enamel mask of a face is an actual actress, Leda Lojodice, who goes through her paces so perfectly it’s barely possible to regard her as “real.” This matches Casanova himself as embodied by Donald Sutherland in a performance which, while expert, is a world away from the romantic anti-heroes so memorably embodied by Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini’s most famous films. Even Terence Stamp in the maestro’s other English-language work Toby Dammit (1968) is more simpatico.

        Outfitted with a prosthetic nose and chin Sutherland is the image of Giacomo Casanova. And Fellini Casanova is nothing but image, rather than individual. The project came to him as a “film de commande” of sorts in the Dino Di Laurentiis, the original producer (he left the project before pre-production got underway and was replaced by Alberto Grimaldi) thought a Fellini film about Casanova would fit perfectly into the then-current trend of sexually semi-explicit “art films” made by such greats as Nagisa Oshima and Pier Paolo Pasolini. But while Fellini’ films have been filled with beautiful women for Marcello to make love to (Anita Ekberg, Anouk Aimee, Barbara Steele and Nico to name just a few) he wasn’t playing the lead here. Sutherland operates from an emotional remove as Casanova — and so does Fellini.

        As Pinkerton explicats as he got into the project Fellini discovered that the “great lover” was someone he didn’t really like. While the youthful anti-heroes of Fellini Satyricon (1970) romped with all and sundry with great elan, Sutherland’s Casanova copulates as if he were drilling into concrete to lay a new pipe for Con Edison. While Margaret Clementi, Tina Aumont and Olympia Carlisi are more than lovely Fellini seems as  removed from them as his anti-hero. Perhaps this proceeds from the problems the film faced when a great number of reels were stolen from the lab during production and had to be reshot. The thieves were fascist thugs looking for Pasolini’s Salo, then in production as well. They thought it was going to expose their current activities. Instead it was a flashback to the Mussolini period. Fellini portrayed that time as curiously convivial in Amarcord. Perhaps Fellini Casanova would have had a lighter tone had this theft not taken place, necessitating his cancelling of a sequence that would have featured Barbara Steele. But what we have is far from cinematically unsatisfying. It’s a  full frontal attack on machismo and male vanity in every form. Fellini may not be able to feel for Casanova as a man but he does feel for the spectators, male and female, who long for this mythical figure of romance as a kind of “role model” however imperfect.

After this Fellini’s City of Women reunites him with Mastroianni and takes up the subject of feminism — a movement Fellini freely admits he cannot comprehend. He loved women and celebrated them throughout his career, but his love isn’t always reciprocal. And in this Fellini may have been closer to Casanova than he suspected. The films that follow, And the Ship Sails On, Ginger and Fred and Intervista are exercises in nostalgia and his last the sadly neglected The Voice of the Moon an exploration of the fantasy life of a”village idiot’ with a perfectly cst Roberto Benigni. It’s quite warm. But those of us who love Fellini may well prefer Casanova’s frozen cold “Replicant” pas de deux.

The Pan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on October 31, 2020 by dcairns

Don Siegel is one of the best sources for Anatole Litvak stories in his memoir, A Siegel Film.

There’s quite a lot about Siegel’s montages for BLUES IN THE NIGHT, which a big part of that film. In one yarn, both Litvak (producer as well as director) and Hal Wallis (production supervisor) expect to see the montages first. Siegel is simply going to project the rushes for both men, but he’s advised if he does that, one of them will feel compelled to nitpick and his beautiful work will be undone. So he books two screening rooms, prints two prints, and Wallis and Litvak happily watch separately, giving the montages the OK. Now read on:

Later, when Litvak was dubbing the picture, he told me that he was
worried about the title song, ‘Blues in the Night’.

ME: I wouldn’t worry about that. It’s the best blues I’ve ever heard. If I
were you, I’d worry about your picture, which is five per cent as
good as the song . . .
LITVAK: (Annoyed) You think you’re pretty good, don’t you Don?
ME: (Fresh as usual) You said some pretty nice things about the
montages.
LITVAK: True, but when you dolly into the poster you could have had
someone walk past the poster. And you should have started on
that person and ended on the poster. You must always have a
reason for your camera movement, be it a dolly or a pan.
And you know something, he was right. He taught me a lesson I used for
the rest of my life.

I’m not always certain how truthful Siegel’s stories are. His recounting of the circumstances in which Barbara Steele departed the production of FLAMING STAR disagrees with hers’, and while Barbara might equally well be distorting the facts, her version MAKES SENSE, portrays both of them IN CHARACTER, and of the two of them, he seems to be the one who might have motivation to rearrange the facts to make himself look better.

But the above anecdote rings true, partly because it describes just the kind of shot Litvak is always doing. For instance, CITY FOR CONQUEST begins with a train coming towards us — it passes — and the camera is led, in apparently panning after it, onto a sign that serves as establishing shot:

ACT OF LOVE pulls off a more elaborate variation. We start on a passing train, seen from above. That pulls the camera round in a leftward pan to a road, at eye level, along which a bus advances. Now the lens is gravitationally tugged into another leftward pan by the bus, and we land on a piece of expressive graffiti which serves as a different kind of establishing shot, a sociopolitical one:

It’s close to a 360 pan, but operating on two levels, down at the railway track and up at the road.

This example is arguably a little fancy, but Litvak’s lesson is a good one! You can use people and other moving objects such as vehicles to motivate the camera moves you want to do anyway.