Archive for Blonde Venus

The Sunday Intertitle: A Gorilla in Every Port

Posted in Dance, FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2017 by dcairns

We were led to THE CHIMP by obscure means ~

Fiona got obsessed with Charles Gemora, Hollywood’s top gorilla impersonator, after seeing BLONDE VENUS with me, and discovered the existence of a documemtary, CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED. We paid to see it on Vimeo, and found it eye-opening indeed — though Gemora made the best gorilla costume in Hollywood, and performed in it with gusto (probably to the detriment of his health) there was much more to him than that.

CHARLIE GEMORA: UNCREDITED from Cloud Tank Creative on Vimeo.

The pint-sized Philippino came to America as an illegal immigrant, I guess you’d say, and his first job in Hollywood was as an extra in Lon Chaney’s HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Seeing him draw sketches of his fellow extras (who must have included future director Tay Garnett, whose experience here led to the title of his autobiography, Light Up Your Torches and Pull Up Your Tights — words to live by), the bosses put him to work sculpting gargoyles for the cathedral set, “on the basis that if you can draw, you can sculpt.” Gemora didn’t even have any training drawing, and had never sculpted in his puff.

But soon he’s carving massive figures for movies, as well as getting into the gorilla work and special make-up effects, particularly for those curious jobs where it’s hard to say is it a makeup or is it a costume? Monsters, freaks, aliens. COLOSSUS OF NEW YORK, I MARRIED A MONSTER FROM OUTER SPACE, WAR OF THE WORLDS. An interesting early one is Benjamin Christensen’s horror comedy SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN, in which Gemora plays ape, but may also have had a hand in the stunning, grotesque and ooky make-ups.

Thelma Todd (a frequent gemora screamer), “Sir Charles” himself, and director/wrangler Benjamin Christensen.

(I’m fascinated by this: Benjamin Christensen made HAXAN/WITCHCRAFT THROUGH THE AGES the same year as Chaney’s HUNCHBACK, pulling off the tricky feat of full-body make-up effects far more effectively than Chaney’s ambitious Quasimodo design, which relies on an improbably leonine mane of body hair to disguise the neck-join. No credit is given for the designer of HAXAN’s amazing demons and imps. But it’s possible Christensen, an actor himself — he plays Satan — was responsible. Making him the link to SEVEN FOOTPRINTS, though we can also imagine a Westmore or two being mixed in, with Gemora either helping out or watching and taking notes from inside his Ingagi suit.)

Gemora painted portraits of the stars (Stanwyck, Goddard) and forged Gainsboroughs for Mitchell Leisen’s KITTY. He played many of the monsters he designed, including the Martian in Pal’s WAR OF THE WORLDS. And he could play his apes straight (the affecting THE MONSTER AND THE GIRL; PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE) but, and this brings us to THE CHIMP, could be hilarious when required.

THE CHIMP is a very minor Laurel & Hardy short, which transforms into a major Charlie Gemora short when viewed through the correct filter. It reprises the previous year’s “smuggle an animal past the landlord” plotline from the superior LAUGHING GRAVY but replaces the lovable pup with Ethel the chimp, played by Gemora in gorilla suit and tutu. Gemora’s very human gestures (shrugs, pointing, ballet dancing) had Fiona in helpless hysterics. This element of pure phantasie is somehow unsuited to Stan & Ollie’s world, I feel, but once you start watching Gemora’s performance for its own sake, it’s a thing of beauty in its own right.

Jason Barnett’s documentary is great for all this background, shining a light on Gemora’s incredibly varied and mainly uncredited contributions to Hollywood cinema. The story is assembled in a somewhat pedestrian way, and the attempts to bring the still images to life with fancy rostrum work are often clumsy: since the many of the photos, drawings and documents have presumably come from Gemora’s archive, I wanted to SEE the archive and make-up kit put in front of a moving picture camera, explored in the round, clues in a detective story. Scans give us a clear look at the contents of the Gemora papers but rob them of their personality as artifacts.

Nevertheless, don’t let me put you off — the film is incredibly well-researched and doesn’t shrink from the mysteries of Gemora’s extensive career — we will not see a better film about this fascinating artist.

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Hot Mama

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , on November 28, 2017 by dcairns

I decided I needed another project, so over at The Chiseler, in no particular order, I’m going to review Josef Von Sternberg’ six films with Marlene Dietrich. One a month, starting now with BLONDE VENUS, the duo’s off-kilter ode to motherhood, because you have to start somewhere.

A sentence I forgot to include: Sternberg not only dressed his diva in a gorilla suit, he made sure it was a gorilla suit with a runny nose.

I quite like this contemporaneous cover version of the film’s best song, especially the incompetent oboe solo two minutes in. Jazz: delicious hot, disgusting cold.

The Chimp of the Perverse

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 31, 2012 by dcairns

Revisiting the works of the late Richard Franklin, which I remembered as being pretty good. They are! But alas he perhaps never quite achieved a totally satisfying film… still, agreeable oddity, a likable spirit, and some camera panache counts for plenty.

Franklin was an Australian Hitchcock fan who studied film in America alongside John Carpenter. He was certainly the right guy to make PSYCHO II, from a smart Tom Holland script. If you’re going to do such a criminal thing, at least do it with respect and humour.

After a couple of softcore exploiters he didn’t much like to talk about, Franklin made PATRICK, a comatose telekinetic kid thriller, then the enjoyable ROAD GAMES, which we also watched. After PSYCHO II and CLOAK AND DAGGER (haven’t seen it) came LINK, his psycho chimp thriller with Terence Stamp, made for the late unlamented Cannon Films —

What most of the best Franklin films, and most of the best weird Australian films, have in common, is a script by Everett De Roche. Check his credits — besides the Franklin films, he wrote HARLEQUIN (Robert Powell as a modern Rasputin) and LONG WEEKEND (when everything attacks!) and RAZORBACK (JAWS in the outback with a wild boar!). Apart from the Peter Weir and Rolf de Heer Festivals of Strangeness, he seems omnipresent.

LINK is set in the UK (locations on the Scottish borders) but de Roche’s script makes Terence Stamp’s nutty primatologist an honorary Ozzie, with his matey, classless, no-frills manner. It’s a great way to take the curse off the scenario’s more fantastical elements — have them explained by a casual (yet intense) ordinary (yet impossibly handsome) bloke. Stamp is blocked on his latest opus —

“I was gonna call it Out On A Limb but Shirley MacLaine beat me to it.”

It’s actually one of Stamp’s nicest performances, and nobody appreciated it because it was in a killer chimp film. If A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE had a homicidal ape in it, we’d never have heard of Marlon Brando.

Stamp is joined at his isolated clifftop manor by a young Elizabeth Shue, who’s better than the average girl-in-jeopardy, although the script doesn’t do her as many favours as it does Terry. There’s a blandness in the role, and a bit of 70’s bloke sexism — I’m surprised the actress didn’t mutiny when called upon to answer the question “Can you cook, clean?” with “Well, I’m a woman, so I guess I have some kind of genetic aptitude.” The role, and the film, ultimately devolves into a lot of running around, rather as HOLLOW MAN would years later.

But what we were really watching for was the APES, and here LINK satisfies fully, if bizarrely. At the time, there was a certain amount of critical incredulity about the idea of chimpanzees as horror movie menace. The world is a bit better informed now about the dangers of apes run wild — a chimp is pretty much the most dangerous escaped zoo animal you could hope to meet. Stamp tells a charming story over dinner about one ape who savagely dismembered his human owner to try and sell us on this idea. “What had he done to the chimp?” asks Shue. “Oh, nothing. The chimp was just glad to see him,” smiles Stamp.

This is one of the few primatology-based movies to show signs of real, intelligent research. All of which is nearly overshadowed by the bizarre casting of the titular ape, a chimp played by an orangutan in blackface. Presumably because no adult chimp of sufficient training was available, some poor orang has been given a close-cropped haircut and a dye-job, then dressed as a butler (his character is a former circus artiste). It’s the simian equivalent of Mickey Rooney in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S, an embarrassment to modern sensibilities. We were also shocked that none of the apes (three appear) were accorded a screen credit. I mean, that’s just good manners and good showbiz.

Whoever the anonymous ape is, he acquits himself well, aided by a few bits of prosthetic trickery, most of them well concealed. Unfortunately, orangs are pretty sluggish compared to chimps, so he’s not as adept at moving in a threatening way, but he sells the moments of sexual tension well, eyeing Shue’s body double with the sly lechery of a primeval George Sanders. It might seem like the movie’s most B-picture exploitation angle, but Link’s attraction to Elizabeth Shue (this is the same year as arthouse monkey-love epic MAX, MON AMOUR) is perfectly accurate in terms of simian behaviour. Captive apes often have crushes on humans. Lucy, raised as a human child, liked to relax with a glass of gin, a copy of Playgirl and a Hoover attachment.

Orangs, even in the wild, are known to be sexually rapacious. The name may mean “old man of the forest,” but it ought to be “dirty old man of the forest.” as Julia Roberts nearly learned to her cost.

“Pretty human!”

LINK is good fun — lots of problems, but only the score seems truly wrongheaded — Jerry Goldsmith has been encouraged to rip off his own GREMLINS theme, and it doesn’t work — although it gets better when he adds the timpani from Marlene Dietrich’s Hot Voodoo number in BLONDE VENUS, which Franklin quotes at the film’s start, in a bit of sub-Joe Dante pop culture referencing.