Archive for Billy Wilder

The Sunday Intertitle: Pilgrim Versus the World

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by dcairns

At four reels, THE PILGRIM isn’t quite a short and doesn’t seem quite a feature, but the IMDb classes it as one.

Excitingly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it, not all the way through.

Chaplin is recycling the escaped convict routine from THE ADVENTURER and having another go at the mistaken identity gag from THE IDLE CLASS — again anticipating THE GREAT DICTATOR.

Here, immediately, is what put me off the film on my previous attempt at viewing: this bloody song. Vocals are tricky in a silent movie score, because if people can sing, why can’t anybody talk, audibly I mean? And yet it can be done. I just don’t happen to like this particular song. It’s a case of Chaplin imposing words on his work, as he did in the revised version of THE GOLD RUSH. Billy Wilder’s dismissal of talking-picture Chaplin — “a child of nine making up lyrics for a Beethoven symphony” isn’t true, I don’t think, of Chaplin’s talkies, but it’s arguably true of this kind of thing. We don’t need words.

We immediately get them, though, and the singer going on while we try to read the wanted sign is distracting. The text here is a basic physical description of Charlie, though the addition “Extremely nervous” is an interesting one, and we learn he has blue eyes.

Like BARRY LYNDON later/earlier, Charlie effects a change of clothing by stealing the duds of a bather — we see the clergyman examining the discarded prison stripes with dismay, a nice bit of economical storytelling.

Charlie the chaplain manages to maintain his usual look surprisingly well — tight jacket and baggy trousers, big shoes. The hat and dog collar are the only noticeable change. So far so good. What comedy will he manage from the impersonation? Early priests in Chaplin’s films — in THE TRAMP and POLICE, are portrayed in a notably acerbic way: one has a rotten egg pressed into his psalm book, the other is a shameless crook and hustler. But in EASY STREET the church scenes are rather delicate and Chaplin seems on his best behaviour. What’s he going to be like here?

But Chaplin jumpstarts a whole new plot before we can find out. Elopers! A pursuing dad!

The chap is Sydney Chaplin, the girl and her father unidentified, despite a very sizable cast list available online. And the plot turns out to be just an excuse for mistaken intentions and running about. The course of true love doesn’t get smoothed out and Syd gets a boot up the bum from Dad. We can assume the girl had a lucky escape.

The bloody song starts again as Charlie is trying to choose a random destination. That song kills everything it plays over, a real shame when Chaplin’s accompanying music is otherwise so good. Trying to stab at a city name from the list, he jabs Henry Bergman in the butt. Well, in the waiting rooms of small-town railway stations, between traveling businessmen and members of the church, such action is not unknown.

Buying his ticket, Charlie still tries to hitch a ride on the underside of the train, before a conductor (Syd again!) corrects him. Charlie has never been in a compartment before.

Another notice is posted, this time announcing the arrival of the new minister, Philip Pim — Charlie, in his new identity. It goes neatly with the wanted poster earlier. The name is an echo of “pilgrim”, obvs.

Among those present, Mack Swain and Edna Purviance, who already harbours romantic imaginings about this new minister, saucy trout that she is.

Chaplin’s train approaches on Sunday, and we see him eating crackers next to Henry Bergman, and we get a look at the newspaper article about his escape, learning that in this film, Charlie, unusually, has a name, Lefty Lombard, and also a pseudonym, “Slippery Elm.” Chaplin was indeed left-handed, though at the workhouse they beat him until he became ambidextrous. Lefty’s escape, like those of John Goodman and William Forsythe in RAISING ARIZONA, and Tim Robbins in THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, has been sewer-based, and the paper writes of the prison guards’ “astonisment.” But the entire article does seem to have been written, it doesn’t suddenly devolve into Latin or rubbish about trade conferences. I would quite like that job, just as I would like to have been tasked with typing Jack Torrance’s novel in THE SHINING. My ideal job.

Charlie/Lombard/Pim is dismayed to find the tow sheriff and all the prominent citizens waiting to welcome him. Phyllis Allen gives herself a lovely bit of business, stepping back and colliding with the locomotive. She’s not even in focus, which makes it somehow even more delightfully throwaway.

Charlie filches a quart of whisky from Swain’s back pocket, which I guess establishes that Mack is a bit of a hypocrite. But Charlie loses the booze when they both slip on the sidewalk. They find themselves sitting in a puddle of hooch — mutual embarrassment, as each suspects the other of attributing the contraband to himself.

Charlie giving a service, and not knowing how, seems like the kind of business tailor-made for the talkies. What can Chaplin do with it,wordlessly?

The choir are a notable gang of grotesques, carved from walnut. There is awkward sitting-down-standing-up confusion. More good business with Phyllis and her itchy son. And there is quite a bit of comic value in Charlie having no idea what happens in a church or what is expected of a minister. Plus he has his eyes on the collection boxes.

The sermon — David and Goliath! A tour de force of mime, my favourite part being Charlie’s graphic insistence that David’s slingshot passes clean through Goliath’s massive skull. All done with gestures. Little Raymond Lee, the bully kid from THE KID, is wild about all this, and the equally explicit decapitation scene.

Charlie finishing the sermon as if he were, alternately, a victorious prizefighter, and a prima ballerina receiving an opening night ovation, is good too.

A fellow crook! But, despite his character having three names, the Inaccurate Movie Database doesn’t seem to know any of them. But Charlie does, and the presence of an old acquaintance strikes him as very inconvenient. This is Charles Reisner, the thug from THE KID, whose son, Dean or Dinky Riesner, who married Vampira, is also in the film. And no, I don’t know why they spell their surname differently.

Charlie, meanwhile, has been billeted with Edna and her widowed mother. Observing Edna’s shape through her shapeless dress, Charlie treats us to a downright sinister glance, comparable to his eerie look from the dock in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. Pure serial killer.

Visitors arrive. One is Dinky Dean, another is Syd again, in character actor guise:

Dinky recalled later in life that it took quite a bit of coaching to get him to hit people, especially Charlie, but his dad was the assistant director as well as acting, and between Chaplin and Reisner they persuaded him to cut loose and sock the great star repeatedly in the kisser. This business isn’t too amusing — I was waiting for Charlie to do something more in character with him being a convict than a minister — of course, this is probably the suspense Chaplin had in mind. I’m just frustrated he doesn’t do more to pay it off.

Finally, he does, kicking — gently — the recalcitrant tot onto his keister, or maybe he spells it kiester. It’s moderately gratifying, but Dinky rather spoils it with a grin directed past the camera, presumably at dad. I suppose Chaplin may have welcomed this as proof he hadn’t really harmed a small child.

Cute stuff in the kitchen with Edna. This is all very mild — it seems like Chaplin has decided he doesn’t want to give offence, the anti-clerical tendencies seen in his earlier films are in abeyance here. But let’s see…

Here’s an interesting thing: since, as I’ve observed, Chaplin had taken to using both his cameras to gather coverage, typically a wider and closer view of the same action, he was compelled, to create a second negative for foreign territories, to use alternate takes. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of the US and foreign (in this case, Russian) versions of THE PILGRIM. The camera angles are mostly the same, but the action is always subtly different.

TO BE CONTINUED

Dick O’Clock

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 12, 2021 by dcairns

“Terrible news,” said Billy Wilder. “Bob Rossen made a good picture.”

Frustratingly the anecdote doesn’t tell us which picture Wilder thought was good, but the line is funny enough that it could stand recycling, so maybe Wilder applied it whenever Rossen made something decent — ALL THE KING’S MEN, THE HUSTLER…

“This film has no story,” said Fiona, but in fact Rossen’s debut, JOHNNY O’CLOCK has a lot of plot, it’s just that it all plays out in dialogue, characters talking about people and events that are offscreen. Two murders take place before the climax, but we don’t see either happen.

But it’s entertaining. The talk is good. The people, Dick Powell and Thomas Gomez and Evelyn Keyes and Lee J. Cobb and Ellen Drew (unusually but effectively cast as a sexy bad girl) and Nina Foch, are all very flavourful. The bits players are colourful — people like Shimen Ruskin and a girl called Robin Raymond, who has an interesting scene. She plays a hatcheck girl. The previous hatcheck girl, who was touchingly sweet, is dead. RR plays her replacement, who is crass, vulgar and stupid. She plays it enthusiastically for laughs, and gets them, but the dramatic point of the scene is Johnny’s melancholy — he misses the previous girl. So it’s a scene that manages to head in two directions at once, and miraculously reaches both destinations.

Mostly it’s a kind of mash-up of elements that worked in other movies just beforehand, or else slightly later movies reworked the same stuff and made this one seem familiar, prewatched. If Dick Powell went through the wrong door he’d find himself in THE GLASS KEY or I WAKE UP SCREAMING.

I feel like the movie would work really well for the drunk or high viewer — the story often seems a tad cloudy and you could get into that. William Hurt watches a movie stoned in THE BIG CHILL and he says “I think the guy in that hat did something terrible,” and “Sometimes you just have to let art… flow over you.” I had a couple gin and tonics but I started too late to really disassociate from the wispy narrative.

I did get into a strange routine about Momo’s expensive cat treats, which are supposedly duck and raspberry flavour. “They have to catch a duck while it’s eating a raspberry. Then they get it in the duck press and compress it down until it’s just one tiny treat. When Momo eats them they expand to almost full size. He’s sturdily built, luckily. A flimsier cat would burst, and you’d just have a bunch of ducks and raspberries.”

Fiona here –

I was also involved in these musings, which were centered around Momo’s almost constant shouting.

The expensive treats are to placate him and shut him up. We’re terrible parents. I started with “I’d eat those cat treats.” The duck and raspberry combo sounded tempting. Then Mr Crayons launched into his baroque monologue about the creation of the treats.

We then strayed into another area of interest regarding the Shutting Upness. David suggested a special electronic chip like Snake Plissken wears in Escape From New York. Every time Momo attempted to enthusiastically vocalise through his big, fat mouth, the collar would shock him into quietude. Or blow his head off. It has to be said, sometimes the thought of Momo’s head exploding is a rather attractive one. We’re terrible parents.

To round things off, it’s my belief that the fact we have these strange conversations is the secret of why we’re still together after twenty seven years. That and being married by Norman Lloyd. When you’re married by Norman Lloyd, you STAY married.

JOHNNY O’CLOCK is one of the best films in the Columbia Noir 3 box set. I contributed an essay on THE DARK PAST.

Times Two

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on April 20, 2021 by dcairns

A mystery of the universe —

First, the Discovery. We watched Pabst’s film of Brect & Weill’s THE THREEPENNY OPERA for the first time — I’d only seen his French version — and laughed at the clever, tasteless joke where Meckie is accused of having carnal knowledge of underage twins. “They told me they were over thirty,” he protests. “Put together,” he’s told.

I suddenly flashed on the notion that Billy Wilder had adapted/stolen this gag for my favourite line in KISS ME, STUPID, Dino’s “The Beatles? I sing better ‘n’ all four of ’em put together! And I’m YOUNGER — than all four of ’em put together.”

The Mystery: This led us to rewatch KMS and to my dismay the line wasn’t there. Dino says “I sing better ‘n’ all three of them,” Felicia Farr says “There’s four of them!” and Dino quips “Haven’t you heard? One of ’em got his hair caught in his guitar and was electrocuted.”

I could be misremembering, but I don’t think I could misremember a joke that good. If it’s an alternative take, it’s pretty interesting because it comes as part of a master shot well over a minute long.

The History: I last watched the movie on VHS, in an atrocious pan-and-scan version. The movie loses all of Billy Wilder and Doane Harrison’s beautiful blocking and cutting, but none of its leering grotesquerie. So quite possibly the VHS came from a different source from the DVD. And I suppose it’s just possible that Wilder shot two versions, maybe for censorship reasons. Since this scene shows a putatively single man (Dino is basically playing himself, and was married irl) getting into bed with a married woman, so it’s arguably the most risque in the movie.

A Secondary Discovery: the movie begins in Vegas, with Dino finishing a run and making a run for it — the whole chorus line wants to spend the night with him and even this Italian galleon doesn’t feel up to THAT. Among the women he’s fleeing, we’re told, are “those German twins, Sylvie and Mizzi.” Which feels like Wilder & Diamond giving Brecht credit for the gag they (in my memory, at least) are going to adapt later. Same as when Ray Walston calls his piano student “a male Lolita” — acknowledgement to Nabokov who first recognised and exploited the comic potential of Climax, Nevada.

The Side-Observation: In THE LADYKILLERS, Peter Sellers voiced Mrs. Wilberforce’s parrots, as well as appearing as one of the crooks. KISS ME STUPID started production as a Sellers vehicle (after Jack Lemmon, Wilder’s favourite star and Felicia Farr’s real-life husband, proved unavailable) but was shut down by his heart attack. Wilder recast with Ray Walston. Now, it would’ve been great if he’d recorded Sellers voicing Sam the Parrot (“Bang-bang!”) and then Sellers could have haunted the soundtrack, a ghost in the machine. We listened very closely to that parrot. “Sounds like Ray Walston to me,” said Fiona.

So that’s THAT cleared up, at least.

But does anybody else remember hearing Brecht’s joke in this movie?