Archive for Bernard Natan

Big in Japan

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2021 by dcairns

More on YOSHIWARA — Shadowplayer Phoebe Green has kindly translated the relevant section from Max Ophuls’ memoir, edited by his son Marcel, a book still infuriatingly unavailable in English. Thanks, Phoebe!

Of all my films, the most international was no doubt Yoshiwara, adapted from a Maurice Dekobra novel by English and German screenwriters, directed by me, shot in Paris with two French-speaking Japanese stars. The producer had cast Sessue Hayakawa in the lead.

“Does he speak French?” I asked warily.

“Good question – the subject never came up.”

That very day a telegram went to Tokyo. The answer came back forty-eight hours later. It was in three words: “À la perfection.”

Disembarking at Le Havre, Hayakawa had to face the usual pack of newspaper men and photographers. I myself confidently awaited him in Paris. To start off, we were going to lunch at Le Fouquet’s.

“You can speak French with him,” the producer whispered to me as he gave the actor a hearty handshake. “Go on …”

“Did you have a nice trip, Mr. Hayakawa?” I asked.

“Grrrrr …”

A strange growl emerged from the Japanese actor’s impassive mask. It was like ventriloquism. Alarmed, I turned to the producer who, under the table, nudged me encouragingly with his knee.

“I’d like to read you the script,” I began again. “Shall I come to your hotel?”

“Grrrrr …”

This time I understood: our leading man hadn’t the slightest notion of the language he was supposed to speak “perfectly.” In a week’s time, we would have to rewrite the script completely to reduce his speaking part to a minimum. Since we couldn’t in all decency condemn him to total silence, we found him a French teacher who made him learn and repeat, from morning to evening, his few remaining lines.

Pathé then had at its Francoeur studios a set decorator, a tiny Polish Jew, kept on despite his biblical age and advanced diabetes. Papa Fisch was our mascot: hired when the studios were first opened, he had painted backdrops back when old Natan himself was still performing.[1] On the first day of shooting, as Hayakawa gritted his way through his first line, Papa Fisch whispered to an electrician: “Fancy that! They say Japanese is a difficult language, but I understand practically everything!”

After this experience, I approached our female star, Michiko Tanaka, with great linguistic circumspection.

“I’m terribly sorry, but I don’t know any Japanese.  Shall we speak English, or French, or …”

“German, for heaven’s sake!” she exclaimed in the most authentic Viennese dialect. “I lived on the banks of the blue Danube for three years …”

I was to take a great deal of trouble to teach her at least the rudiments of French.[2]  Wasted effort: while we were shooting she discovered she was Japanese at heart and above all.  When the film was finished she married Hayakawa and left with him for Berlin.

[1] This shows how prevalent the (basically false) rumours about Bernard Natan were. —DC

[2] This couldn’t have been easy. At the time, M.O. still had a German accent you could cut with a knife. —Marcel Ophuls

Full of IT

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 30, 2021 by dcairns
Thomas Meighan

David Robinson reported that when he came to research his biography of Chaplin, he found Chaplin’s memoirs to be substantially accurate, his memory of events fairly reliable. But here’s a peculiar bit.

Chaplin talks, in My Autobiography, of the prominent figures who were around during his start in movies, including Elinor Glyn, the noted lady novelist. He cites a film called Her Moment (after wittily remarking that there was “a time-diminishing nature” to the trilogy of Three Weeks, His Hour and Her Moment) and describes a sensational scene:

The plot concerns a distinguished lady, played by Gloria Swanson, who is to marry a man she does not love. They are stationed in a tropical jungle. One day she goes horse-back riding alone, and, being interested in botany, gets off her horse to inspect a rare flower. As she bends over it, a deadly viper strikes and bites her right on the bosom. Gloria clutches her breast and screams, and is heard by the man she really loves, who happens, opportunely, to be passing close by. It is handsome Tommy Meighan. Quickly he appears through the bush.

“What has happened?”

She points to the poisonous reptile. “I have been bitten!”


She points to her bosom.

“That’s the deadliest viper of all!” says Tommy, meaning of course the snake. “Quick, something must be done! There is not a moment to spare!”

They are miles from a doctor, and the usual remedy of a tournequet — twisting a handkerchief around the affected part to stop blood circulating — is unthinkable. Suddenly he picks her up, tears at her shirt-waist, and bares her gleaming white shoulder, then turns her from the vulgar glare of the camera, bends over her and with his mouth extracts the poison, spitting it out as he does so. As a result of this suctorial operation she marries him.

Chaplin seems to be recounting this scene to show us how movies were in the old days. Corny and melodramatic. He seems to find it salaciously enjoyable as well as ridiculous, though.

Interestingly, Elinor Glyn never wrote a movie called HER MOMENT. There is a 1918 film of that name but the action is laid in Romania. Thomas Meighan never acted in an Elinor Glyn adaptation, but Gloria Swanson did, and the film was called THE GREAT MOMENT. It’s set in Nevada, but the hero, played by Milton Sills, does save Gloria from snakebite, though the IMDb is silent as to whether she is afflicted in the same spot the asp got Cleopatra.

So, as Robinson essentially predicted, Chaplin turns to be more accurate than at first appears.

The substitution of Thomas Meighan as leading man is suggestive, however. The next time this largely-forgotten strong, silent leading man is mentioned in My Autobiography is when Chaplin discovers his leading lady and girlfriend Edna Purviance almost in Meighan’s arms at a Hollywood party. They broke up more or less as a result of the resulting suspicion, though Chaplin kept Edna as co-star until 1923, tried to make her an independent star with A WOMAN OF PARIS and A WOMAN OF THE SEA, and kept her on salary for decades. I’ll try to spot her short appearances in MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT.

The IMDb also has her playing a small role in a Bernard Natan production in France in 1927, which doesn’t seem very likely. And yet: photographic evidence ~

So the placement of Meighan in a role he never played, where he steals the heroine away from a man she doesn’t love, is open to a Freudian reading if you’re that way inclined. And Chaplin comes out of this whole thing looking pretty classy, if odd.

Watch Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 3, 2020 by dcairns


We’re having a watch party and YOU are invited!

The film is NATAN and the party’s on Twitter at 11pm Irish-Scottish time.

@dcairns and @MrPaulDuane (directors) and @eoinmcd (editor) will be discussing the film as it unrolls on Vimeo, with @silentlondon attempting to impose some measure of order.

NATAN is here.