Archive for Billy Wilder

The Sunday Intertitle: What follows is history

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 8, 2023 by dcairns

To my delight, MONSIEUR VERDOUX has an intertitle. It’s very near the start, but it’s not at the VERY start, so it is decently INTER one sequence and another.

Here’s what happens:

TITLES. The movie’s true title would seem to be MONSIEUR VERDOUX A COMEDY OF MURDERS, but according to the convention that SUNRISE is not SUNRISE A SONG OF TWO HUMANS and NOSFERATU is not NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, except to distinguish it from Herzog’s NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE, which is not NOSFERATU THE VAMPYRE except to distinguish it from NOSFERATU A SYMPHONY OF HORROR, the subtitle is generally omitted.

The heavily-lawyered writer’s credit tells us, pedantically, that it’s “an original story written by” Charles Chaplin, but “based on an idea by” Orson Welles. So how original is it, if it’s based off of something else? I seem to recall CC needed some arm-bending to give OW a name-check at all, and he wants to be very clear that all Welles provided was one idea, and he had to come up with the story.

But even if Welles contributed only the one-liner “Chaplin as Bluebeard,” those three words contain most of the story, since the life story of for-profit serial killer Henri Désiré Landru (that “Désiré” is a hilarious bit of black comedy in itself), known popularly as “Bluebeard,” provides most of the story beats here.

On the other hand, Chaplin didn’t NEED to give Martha Raye a credit in advance of the main cast list, but he did it because he really liked her (she seems to have brought out his human side) and was impressed with what she brought to the movie. She’s this film’s Jack Oakie.

The titles proceed in a series of surprising cuts, only settling down to dissolves when we bring in the cast. They’re also unusually BLACK. And simple. Little drawings of floral tributes frame the text. Reminiscent of silent movies, in all three of these features.

We learn that good old Rollie (here the more formal “Roland” Totheroh) is back on solo camera duty, and yet again there’s an added name, Curt (here “Curtis”) Courant, credited with “Artistic Supervision”. So poor RT has another German looking over his shoulder, after Karl Struss on THE GREAT DICTATOR.

One Wallace Chewning is credited as “operative cameraman,” a hilariously fancy way of saying “camera operator.” You can really sense Chaplin’s less attractive qualities in that choice.

Chaplin’s music, this time arranged by Rudolph Schrager, is straight gaslight noir stuff, a surprising flavour from CC. Schrager, another emigre, alternated between film scoring and musical direction, stock music, all that stuff, and seems to have been equally at home in thrillers and musical comedies. And nothing in between, except this one.

Associated Director Wheeler Dryden — Chaplin’s OTHER half-brother; Assistant Director Robert Florey — already an established feature director, Florey was smart enough to take a demotion to learn at Chaplin’s side. It’s possible he was also on hand as an advisor on French customs. Then Chaplin’s Directed By credit. His name appears a mere four times in the titles, although he does credit himself with playing four roles, even though three of them are just aliases and he plays them all the same way.

Then we fade up on Verdoux’s grave and Chaplin’s in-character VO begins, reminding me that, three years before SUNSET BLVD, this movie is narrated by a dead man. Ironic, given Billy Wilder’s dismissive attitude to Chaplin’s talkies — and, given that SB is about silent pictures, the connection is unlikely to be accidental.

The music has warned us that there will be serious stuff, the subtitle has subverted it, and now Chaplin’s VOICE, of all things, defines the tone. “Good evening!” Verdoux will invite our sympathy, admit but sugar-coat his criminality, will be elegant and tasteful when discussing distasteful matters. KIND HEARTS AND CORONETS will adopt a similar approach and make much more of the contrast between spoken VO and depicted action, with an overt tonal clash averted by the avoidance of looking too closely at the grim details.

The tracking shot across the graveyard is very beautiful, in part because of the dark waving shadows produced by the trees. I’m inclined to credit Herr Courant. It’s actually a rather NEW idea — graveyards in horror movies are typically nocturnal studio sets. In other dramas, they might be locations in broad California sunlight. Sun but with strong shadows that don’t keep still is a lovely way of doing it, and might sum up the tone of the coming movie quite nicely.

“Only a person with undaunted optimism would embark on such a venture.”

What Chaplin does with his narration is a direct analog of what he did as a silent tramp: he transforms the conventionally sordid into something that makes an attempt at gentlemanly elegance. The attempt cannot succeed: you can still see the reality through the mask of delicacy, but the attempt matters, is everything. It embodies the spirit of UNDAUNTED OPTIMISM. Only a person animated by such optimism would attempt to convince a 1940s audience that his career of serial uxoricide should be considered purely as a commercial venture.

Intertitle! Behaving exactly like a silent movie one, but also like the program or playscript of a stage play:

Itchykoo

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on September 28, 2022 by dcairns

WELL — finished (I think — I hope) two of the three video essays I’ve been slaving over. The last one is the most complicated, but the end is in sight. Then I hope to be doing one for new company Radiance Films…

Currently too tired to plunge into BLONDE, which I’m very curious about, so instead we’re watching THE REAL DEAL, Marilyn in THE SEVEN YEAR ITCH. Not my fovourite Wilder or even my favourite Wilder & Monroe (obviously) but I wouldn’t be able to do SOME LIKE IT HOT justice in my depleted condition.

Can’t get around the problem of Tom Ewell looking like Skelton Knaggs’ withered twin, and I’m morally certain Walter Matthau, who Wilder really wanted, and who merely looks like Ben Gazzara’s deflated uncle, would have been funnier… but Ewell, it must be admitted, gets some good laughs, particularly when he staggers off out of the FROM HERE TO ETERNITY pastiche on zombie legs.

The film where you see more of Ewell’s skin than Monroe’s.

The in-jokery — Wilder collaborated with ETERNITY director Fred Zinnemann back in Berlin — is rampant, with an audacious name-check for former George Axelrod collaborator Charlie Lederer early on. Possibly a sign that both Wilder and Axelrod felt the film needed every extra gag it could get, since the censor was taking much of the sex out of it. But what the movie loses in schmutz it gains in schmaltz, or sweetness, as it’s known outside of that cynical old town Hollywood.

In the Ghetto

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 7, 2022 by dcairns

The Ghetto scenes are perhaps THE GREAT DICTATOR’s weaker inventions — it’s harder to mine comedy from nice people being nice, and the problem of how to depict the actual depredations of the Nazi state in a satire become more pressing. But they’re not terrible, or embarrassing, just occasionally uncomfortable.

Chaplin descends from the GHETTO sign using his new crane, and tracks through the environment (another T-junction naturally) as two Hynkel goons approach. Sliding past them he discovers a doorway to a courtyard and follows a civilian in.

The two main exposition guys, the gloomy Mr. Jaeckel (Maurice Moscovitch) and the perky Mr. Mann (Bernard Gorcey, yes, father of Leo) exchange reflections on Hynkel’s speech and the barber’s condition, without ever noting the curious resemblance between the two, and then Hannah, played by Paulette Goddard, artfully smudged, is introduced.

Chaplin and Goddard had separated by this point, but still apparently got along, so she gets to be the only repeat leading lady of the feature films.

The introduction — a potted biography by Jaeckel, followed by another crane shot, drifting upwards of its own accord to capture her exit from the house — is clumsy enough to recall Billy Wilder’s dismissal of Chaplin as a talking picture man: “like a child of eight writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth.” One can accept the statement as being somewhat just, some of the time, without it actually being a deal-breaker: yes, this dialogue is certainly clumsy, but it’s somewhat beside the point. The key stuff in the film is not dialogue-dependent, until we come to the end.

“The airy-airy-airy-airy-Aryans,” is not a good song. I suspect it was left to the actors to make it up on the day. But that’s fine. Why give the bastards a good song? Chaplin could, of course, have written “authentic” Tomainian lyrics, but the stormtroopers are not supposed to be entertaining. They do use humour as part of their malevolence, in the manner of bullies everywhere. But they’re not allowed to be funny, which is good.

Among those playing stormtroopers in this film are: Hank Mann, the main prize-fighter from CITY LIGHTS, a Chaplin collaborator since A FILM JOHNNIE, ie Chaplin’s first year in movies… this is his last Chaplin perf but he kept acting until 1961; Eddie Gribbon (Canvasback in the JOE PALOOKA films); Eddie Dunn (Detective Grimes in the FALCON films); George Lynn, who’s also in TO BE OR NOT TO BE.

The Lubitsch film reminds me: the Great Ernst said he was treating Nazis differently in his film than was customary. His Nazis are not smirking sadists, enjoying their work. They’ve been doing this for years, and they’re BORED of the incessant cruelty. It’s a very smart choice: Chaplin’s thugs have dated — you can understand him saying that if he’d known about the true conditions in Germany he couldn’t have made the film. Portraying them as thugs, bullies, gangsters, was the best solution most filmmakers could find to the problem of this unfamiliar variety of evil, making it comprehensible in some way to US audiences. But it diminishes the true evil.

Still, there’s something I like about Hollywood films with American actors playing Nazis — THE MORTAL STORM, for instance. Hynkel is specifically Tomainian — he has his own personal language, which besides him only Herring seems to speak. His hoods are just like everyone else, but worse.

What I’m getting at is that Nazism is a worse form of evil than any mere criminality, but as we’re increasingly seeing today it’s not necessarily specific to a race or nationality. Also, Lubitsch’s Nazis seem less inadequate as a dramatic depiction because they’re not trying to seem evil or vicious, just businesslike, banal, bored.