Archive for Carl Davis

Studio Bound

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 19, 2021 by dcairns

As he had at Keystone (A FILM JOHNNIE, THE MASQUERADER) and Essanay (HIS NEW JOB), Chaplin made a behind-the-scenes comedy at Mutual, called BEHIND THE SCREEN. David Robinson regards this one as CC treading water, but a mild Mutual film is still ahead of all Keystones and 90% of Essanays. It’s very enjoyable.

I watched my DVD with the Carl Davis score, and also the restoration paid for by Michel Hazanavicius.

Like so many of us, Edna wants to be in pictures. This seems to have been difficult to accomplish even in 1916.

We follow this plot point with a naked statue gag, a staple of Chaplin’s comedy. The usual idea is to make fun of the Little Fellow’s lecherous hypocrisy as he studies a work of art from a pseudo-aesthetic standpoint, in reality just checking out the knockers. He started doing this at Keystone, and was still at it in CITY LIGHTS. But here we see him prudishly remove a male statue whose stance makes it seem like he’s ogling a female one. I suddenly flashed on the familiarity of the gag, and realised Rossellini had swiped it for ROME: OPEN CITY.

I mean, it’s exactly the same gag, though it serves a slightly different character purpose. Surprisingly, it works for RR in his very different context, just as well as it worked for CC. It even helps that the serious neorealism makes an unexpected setting for visual comedy (but consider De Sica and Fellini’s frequent recourse to the Chaplinesque). Does this brazen theft make you think any the less of RR?

Charlie and Eric Campbell, by now a near-inseparable team, are actually called David & Goliath in this one, although probably those aren’t their given names and the intertitles are just being funny.

The other filmmaker to have been influenced by this one is Polanski, whose early short THE FAT AND THE LEAN has a similar central dynamic, the big lazy guy who dominates the small, industrious one. Charlie is a hopelessly incompetent property man, but at least he puts in the hours. We can see the filmmaker being much more careful about character sympathy, basing a lot of the action of Charlie being put-upon, so that his little revenges can be cheered as well as laughed at. In fact, the set-up here reverses that of THE PROPERTY MAN, where Charlie was props man and bully, kicking his ancient assistant in the face, and received some criticism for the nastiness of his character.

Raymond Durgnat: “One could summarise a proletarian Ten Commandments. Thou shalt not strive too hard, or jump through more hoops than you have to. Thou shalt not offer to take another person’s place, or help out unless you’re not paid to do it … blood transfusions aren’t paid for. Thou shalt not expect good treatment. Thou shalt always look for the catch, for what the other person gets out of it. Thou shalt contemplate defeat, but not change yourself to avoid it. Thou must become accustomed to always being outtalked and made to look a fool and put in the wrong … but Thou shall not be moved … Oh, and don’t be downhearted. Something like that.” (From here.)

There’s a running gag where Charlie fecklessly trips over and topples the camera tripod, on his way to or from one errand or the other. Fiona was horrified. She’s mindful of the equipment. It’s possible to read Charlie’s carelessness as a ruse, an attempt to get out of being given difficult work. If you’re proven to be incapably stupid, you don’t get the hard jobs, or you shouldn’t. Black audiences reportedly perceived Steppin Fetchit not as a racist caricature of shiftless imbecility, but as a smart Black man who had worked out that the pretense of listlessness and ignorance could protect him from being asked to do too much. Is my own incompetence at the endless paperwork my teaching job requires a subconscious defense? If so, (a) how would I know, if it’s subsconscious? and (b) it doesn’t work.

Chaplin also filmed another running gag, featured in Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin, but not included in the final short: a headsman’s axe toppled and misses the oblivious David/Charlie by inches. As with the impossible gags in THE FIREMAN, this was achieved by reversing the film so as not to risk severing either of cinema’s most celebrated Funny Feet.

Wrestling with big pillars provides some laughter. It’s a good situation where the suspense element means the longer it can be eked out, the better. Charlie had already done it with Ben Turpin in HIS NEW JOB, though. I feel for Henry Bergman as the long-suffering director — he has to absorb a lot of painful-looking abuse in this film, including Charlie standing on his ample bay window.

The other director (Lloyd Bacon) wears round shades, which puzzled Fiona until I reminded her about klieg eyes. Some filmmakers also carried a blue eyeglass which gave them a sense of how a scene would look in b&w — possibly the shades help with this also.

Carrying ten chairs slung over one arm, Charlie transforms, as both David Robinson and Fiona noticed, into a porcupine — or possibly a naval mine, as Fiona further reflected. Then he gives a scalp massage and hairdo to a bearskin rug. The first routine is just the nimble exploitation of a surprising physical possibility, with nothing in particular made of the bristling ball of chair legs — Tati would have had the thing somehow pay off, maybe by having the shape introduced into a movie setting where it could actually fulfill its newly suggested character. The second is funny just through the seriousness, concentration and precision Chaplin brings to it, as he gives the dead bear remnant a nice centre-parting.

The kick up the arse is still a constant — in THE PAWNSHOP it had become a form of communication in itself. Yet just one film from now a critic would complain that Charlie had dropped it and was set on becoming an ubermensch.

Another grim eating scene. PIES! and ONIONS! declare the intertitles, as Albert Austin munches raw spring onions and Charlie reels from the stench. Chaplin, having experienced real poverty and hunger, found food a constant inspiration. His underdog revenge here is to scrounge off Austin’s outsize chop, sandwiching the near end with two slices of bread (which are all he has in his lunchbox) so he can pursue a parasitic existence. Again, Austin’s great contribution is stillness, either gazing on with silent dismay or, as here, failing to notice Charlie’s gastronomic filching. Following the panto/Punch & Judy tradition of “It’s behind you!” this routine depends on the victim almost but not quite catching their foe at it. Chaplin’s finest treatment of the theme is played out with brother Syd in A DOG’S LIFE.

Meanwhile Big Eric consumes his weight in pies with Pantagruelian grotesquerie.

A strike breaks out, which, in its rapid progress towards outright terrorism, is a shameless steal from DOUGH AND DYNAMITE. As Eric/Goliath and Charlie/David both refuse to strike, and the campaigners try to blow up the studio, I have to say that Chaplin at this stage of his career does not seem markedly leftwing. This subplot, which barely impacts on Charlie at all, serves nevertheless as the film’s narrative spine, along with Edna’s occasional appearances.

Charlie is put in charge of trapdoor operations, which is a bad idea. Though in fairness, it’s not all his fault. Instructed to open the trap at the signal of a gunshot, he dutifully does so even when it’s obviously inappropriate. Is it time to mention Henri Bergson? Well, only if we don’t confuse him with Henry Bergman, who has a particularly uncomfortable-looking drop here.

The French philosopher Bergson theorised that comedy comes from people behaving in the inflexible manner of machines. Which doesn’t sound particularly funny in itself, and we can certainly come up with many examples that don’t tickle the ribs — Peter Weller’s performance as Robocop, robotics dancing, the Nuremberg rallies… But Chaplin, who gets so many of his effects by transposition, DOES do a lot of stuff where the line between the animate and the inert is crossed. Charlie is often the opposite of inflexible, though.

But here, Bergson’s ideas are followed. A gunshot means the trapdoor is to be activated, no matter who’s standing on it. And Charlie’s work with the lever is wonderful to behold. Each repositioning of the lever causes him to strike a fresh pose, and he obviously liked the effect because he does it all over again in MODERN TIMES when he runs amuck in the factory. As is quite common in Chaplin’s films, the two set-ups where the action is taking place have an ambiguous relation to one another: separate, but reasonably close; it’s not absolutely clear whether Charlie can see what’s happening over by the trap door, and if he can, whether the view is adequate.

It’s very dangerous to stage a stunt where anybody playing a significant role in it can’t see what’s going on, as you can learn by watching the BBC blow up Anthea Turner (she wasn’t seriously hurt, but SHIT).

In this case, things go wrong because the actor can’t get the gun to fire, even though it was working seconds ago. This is true to life. As every art dept. person knows, the one sure way to get a prop to stop working or fall apart is to hand it to an actor. As soon as it’s given to Eric, he gets it to fire, but nobody’s told him about it being a signal for the trapdoor, which he’s standing on. And Charlie just obeys the starting pistol like a good whippet.

Still, Charlie compounds the problem: having dropped Eric, he then traps his huge neck in the trapdoor, an uncomfortable image prefiguring Ollie’s cartoonish neck-stretching in WAY OUT WEST, which freaked me out as a kid.

Vicious fun with a whole series of unoffending characters being given the drop, including an actress. The leading man is increasingly battered and blackeyed. Henry Bergman’s fall is… ouch.

Pausing amid the mayhem to oil the lever, Charlie also oils himself, Tin Woodsman style, no doubt giving M. Bergson a warm glow of satisfaction.

Here’s Edna, disguising herself as a boy, which leads to some weirdly playful queerbaiting first from Charlie, who somehow finds Edna’s guitar-playing excessively feminine for a lad in dungarees, then from Eric, who catches Charlie and Edna kissing. (The romance element in this one is arbitrary and undercooked — it plays ALMOST as if Charlie is blackmailing Edna into amorous contact by threatening to expose her girlhood or girlishness — but it’s NOT that. It’s not anything else that holds up under examination either.)

Eric’s mincing and flouncing is rather a delight. He’s an incredibly graceful performer, which of course creates a humorous incongruity. Oliver Hardy’s poise is often noted, but Eric is usually just categorized as a suitable figure for Charlie to (sometimes literally) bounce off of, and his comic skill and elegance get short shrift.

David Robinson calls this scene the most overt screen treatment of homosexuality before 1950, which is debatable. I guess one character is imagining he’s seeing two young men kiss romantically. Mainstream movies didn’t show that sort of thing, although a case like WINGS is on the verge. But even excluding hardcore porn, which was being produced at this time and seems to have been surprisingly bisexual in its interests, we have things like DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS. It depends on how you define “overt” and whether you require anyone onscreen to actually be gay.

Chaplin on filmmaking always has some non-comedic interest too, as a portrait of cinematic practice in his time. Here, he makes fun of the practice of shooting multiple movies in the same space, which I don’t know that he’d ever had to deal with professionally, but which is rich material. He has a lot of fun with the slapstick pie fight (the longest and most elaborate until Laurel & Hardy’s ne plus ultra BATTLE OF THE CENTURY) breaking up the period movie next door. In a way it’s a forerunner of the western crashing into the Buddy Bizarre musical in BLAZING SADDLES.

The pie scene is introduced by this title —

The question has been asked, given the rarity of actual pie-fights in silent screen comedy, is this intertitle being ironic or perfectly straightfaced? I’d plump for the latter, since Chaplin often sought to get laughs with titles while using them for expositional/informational purposes at the same time. And I think pies had probably been used onstage before they got into films. The only pastry action in previous Chaplin films is DOUGH AND DYNAMITE and A NIGHT IN THE SHOW, I think. Here, Chaplin seems to introduce the idea of the pie fight as full-on battle.

Charlie and Eric approached to replace an actor who can’t throw and one who considers slapstick too highbrow — which again suggests that Chaplin is trying to put ironic quotes around his recourse to a tired old routine. Charlie is initially keen about throwing a pie at his boss, but rebels when it’s explained that he’s to miss. Once “Action!”is yelled, he abandons the unwritten script and starts pelting Eric with more pies than he previously consumed. Instead of a sling, David wields a mean custard cream.

The secret of reinvigorating hoary material may lie in rediscovering what made it work in the first place and attaining that effect through new additions. The first use of a pie as weapon must have had a deliciously shocking incongruousness — to think! a pie can become a weapon! Chaplin reconnects with the source of the comedy in a couple of ways. First, by inflating the number of pies thrown. Laurel & Hardy would top this in BATTLE OF THE CENTURY, and Blake Edwards would try in THE GREAT RACE, but found the upper limit had been reached.

But Charlie also heaps on incongruity by having Eric’s misses strike the period movie next door. Chaplin breaks not only the fourth wall in this movie, but also the first and third. The pies are not just transforming from food into ballistic weapons, a change which has ceased to startle and is perfectly normal in the context of a silent film studio, but they’re also traveling through time, appearing anachronistically and violating the laws of genre. It’s not certain if this constitutes what Chaplin called “the best idea I’ve ever had,” while requesting an extra two weeks’ shooting time, but it could be.

Meanwhile the dynamite plotters prepare to blow up the whole unnamed studio. Edna comes to the rescue with a handy claw hammer (Albert Austin is clonked on the noggin for the second time in two films running) but is overpowered by a second striker. Sheer chance causes Charlie to be punched into frame, triggering the trapdoor which swallows Eric, and positioning him to rescue Edna. But, rather than having him save the day, it’s more amusing to blow the studio up — a convincing jump cut blasts Eric to smithereens, and we get a final clinch. It’s not an entirely satisfactory narrative arc, but it has the right movie ingredients — villain vanquished, boy gets girl, property is destroyed.

And that, as they say, is entertainment.

The Sunday Intertitle: An Eleven Letter Word

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on February 3, 2019 by dcairns

What unmentionable word is John Gilbert mentioning here in THE BIG PARADE (1925)? Not BASTARDS, surely. Too many letters. I think it must be BUTTFUCKERS.

You have to remember, it was a different era.

I first knew of this movie through Brownlow & Gill’s Hollywood series, which I saw on first airing some thirty-nine years ago, so it’s pretty bad that it’s taken me this long to catch up with it (and worse that I open my analysis with a sodomy joke). Sometimes the makers of that legendary series would make a film look even better than it was, by careful extraction of the juiciest morsels, and that’s sort of true here. Nearly everything involving the pastoral love affair with Renee Adoree is either a drag, or frankly incredible (not her fault). And then there’s the repulsive Karl Dane as a comic relief buddy out of Nosferatu’s worst nightmares.

But the great bits are indeed great, elevating the whole proposition to well-deserved classic status.

Vidor writes in his book that he took care to always film the advancing US army traveling from screen left to screen right, because on a map, west is left and east is right. An army going from America to Europe and then advancing should have a rightward movement — this will seem subconsciously CORRECT to an audience and if you stick to it, all confusion can be avoided. It’s a beautiful, simple, almost dumb idea.

In fact, Vidor abandons it for his most celebrated sequence, the death march through the forest. I’m not sure why. Much of the scene is purely frontal, but for the really wide shots, the army is moving right to left — maybe because that creates slightly more tension in a western audience comfortable reading text from right to left.

Vidor specified that the scene should be scored with just a slow, solo drum beat — which he had used to choreograph it during filming, his soldiers marching and dying to the rhythm. Carl Davis, rescoring the movie for Thames Silents, can’t bring himself to go THAT stark and simple, but he does allow the steady, deadly percussion to dominate.

The most impressive thing, though, is how Vidor initially keeps Death in the background.

As the men march, we slowly become aware that there are bodies strewn here and there among the fallen leaves. Gilbert has to step over one, which brings them more sharply into our consciousness. Then — BANG! — an out-of-focus figure in the background throws up his rifle and drops.

You can just see him, on his knees by Karl Dane’s elbow on the right.

Then, in a closer shot on Tom O’Brien, another one goes (far right). The closer view makes the casualty seem even more incidental, somehow. Our protagonists seem unaware of what’s happening (an ambiguity of silent cinema: surely they’d hear the gunshots?). By putting the fatalities in the background and out of focus, Vidor somehow emphasises them by refusing to emphasise them. There’s a greater quality of “Look out!” since we can see what the men cannot.

There are a lot more great moments in the film. The POV that follows, tracking towards an enemy position… It feels like this may have influenced the execution scene in PATHS OF GLORY, the hit in the woods in MILLER’S CROSSING, the climax of THE WAY AHEAD…

THE BIG PARADE stars Count Vronsky, Nag Ping, Starbuck, Wolf Larsen and Stupid McDuff.

 

Nights at the Villa Deodati #4: Pull Every Remaining Lever

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 17, 2016 by dcairns

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Whenever I have a favourite line in a movie, it always turns out not to be in the movie at all. The intertitle “Heat! Sudden, intense heat!” which I swear I read when PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (Lon Chaney version) showed at Edinburgh Film Fest, with accompaniment by Carl Davis, does not appear in any copy of the film I’ve seen since. This is disappointing. I’m afraid to see THE ASPHYX again in case Robert Stephens doesn’t actually utter the words “Was the smudge trying to warn Clive of danger?” which I have always regarded as the apogee of mankind’s poetic achievement. Mind you, it would be pretty good if it turned out I was responsible for it myself.

And so to Roger Corman’s FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND, in which John Hurt does not actually say, as my brain told me he did, “Pull all remaining levers!” Instead, Raul Julia says “Pull every remaining lever!” which I feel is not quite as good.

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ROGER CORMAN’S F.U., as we must abbreviate it, is the mighty Roger Corman’s last directorial outing to date — it apparently came about when a studio did some audience testing and found that a lot of people would go and see something called ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN. So they approached the Great Man and asked him if he would care to make a film with that title. “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t,” he replied, with his characteristic old-school graciousness. But then somehow Brian Aldiss’s novel came into his possession and he saw a way to make things interesting, and so the film got made because of a title that tested well, and ended up with a different title.

(I wonder what other titles they tested? ROGER CORMAN’S FRANKENSTEIN seems really specific. Did they also tally the scores for GEORGE ROMERO’S MADAME BOVARY, PETER WEIR’S MABINOGION, HANS JURGEN SYBERBERG’S JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH?)

Aldiss, who also wrote the story that became the Spielberg-Kubrick A.I., seems to have intended his novel as a philosophical essay wrapped inside a sci-fi yarn, following on from his influential study of the genre, The Billion-Year Spree, in which he put forward a compelling case for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first true science fiction novel (as well as “the best book ever written by a teenager”). So, he folds Shelley’s life into the world of her creations, which perhaps made more sense on the page than it does in the movie — without a continual narration, John Hurt’s time-travelling scientist can’t share with us whether or not he’s puzzled by the fact that Frankenstein and his creature appear to be simultaneously characters in a novel and a real person (Raul Julia! Nick Brimble?). This makes Hurt a hard character to relate to — he has nobody really to talk to, although in fact his computerized car, who doesn’t have a name but whom I will call Lady Knight Rider, might have made a handy outlet for exposition.

It’s also kind of hard to relate to him as he’s building a super-weapon, although he seems to be aiming for sympathy when he says he wanted to invent a weapon that wouldn’t destroy the world. I’m not sure that proviso qualifies you for the Nobel Peace Prize, John.

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Corman wrote the script with F.X. Feeney (should’ve hired a proper writer, not a critic — oh wait, that would rule me out) but seems curiously disengaged from the whole experience. His Damascene moment on VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN, nineteen years earlier, in which he realised with a shock that he would far rather go to the beach than go to the set and complete another day’s filming, doesn’t seem to have worn off. The actors seem left to their own devices (or maybe confused by unfocussed direction?) and the filming is perfectly competent but never shows any excitement. The score by Carl Davis — see how this piece is folding in on itself like a time vortex?) — flattens things out further. Davis is a great silent accompanist, but seems unable to capture the mood of a scene, or opts for the least dramatic possible mood. The score might sound quite powerful in isolation, but laid over the film it seems to nullify.

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Nick Brimble is a really dreadful monster (on the wrong sense of the word “dreadful”), in a fairly dreadful makeup (those big extra thumbs! Did Frankenstein put his hands on the wrong wrists? The discs in his head!). His first line is “GIVE ME WHAT I WANT!”, a great piece of what I would call muffled exposition, in which a line sounds like it’s inserted for the audience’s benefit rather than something a character would say, but still doesn’t tell us anything helpful. The talented Nick Dudman did the makeup, but I’d say he’s tried to incorporate too many ideas. And half of them are very terrible ideas.

As for the Byron/Shelley menage, the movie doesn’t bother with Dr Polidori or Claire Clairmont (though GOTHIC’s C.C., Myriam Cyr, appears as a futuristic scientist), but gives us Jason Patric as Byron, Michael Hutchence as Shelley, and Bridget Fonda as Mary. Patric might have gotten away with his arch manner, but Hutchence has evidently decided that High Camp is the way forward for romantic poets, and assumes an unhelpful effete manner. These fops have nothing to do anyway, and neither in any real sense does Fonda, but she at least has a bit more screen time. She sounds rather American, as do half the bit players (the good ones — the Brits shipped in to the Italian locations are dreadful), but like the yanks in HAUNTED SUMMER she does have that zesty, unselfconscious quality that one admires in American acting.

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VAGINA BOREALIS

At the one hour mark, a Bride is created, using technology borrowed from BACK TO THE FUTURE — Hurt hooks Lady Knight Rider, who has Delorean style slide-up doors, to a Special Apparatus and waits for lightning to strike a church tower. All it needs is a bit of Huey Lewis. Somehow Hurt blasts the whole building into the future using a laser (Lady Knight Rider turns out to have a built-in laser) and the characters start killing each other for no reason.

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I would welcome a movie in which Raul Julia’s Disco Frankenstein meets Frank Langella’s Disco Dracula.

When I first saw this, there was a bit where Hurt expresses uncertainty about when this latest time warp has brought him, and I got very excited. Of course, I thought, they’ve been zapped into primordial times and the monster and his mate will become Adam and Eve, breeding and perhaps mating with neanderthals and thus father the human race! Frankenstein created us all! And himself! John Hurt: temporal ourobouros! FRANKENSTEIN UNBOUND.

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But no: it’s a wintry apocalyptic future. Hurt and the monster have a big fight in a bunker full of lasers, the monster rips his own arm off and hits Hurt with it, Hurt sticks a pipe in him, and then lasers him to death. Then he gets a Fu Manchu-style post-mortem monologue in which he mysteriously claims to be unbound. Hurt heads off for a frozen futuristic city, suggestive of LOGAN’S RUN or QUINTET or, come to think of it, A.I. No epic philosophical issues are implied at all. No learning. No hugging.

I would like Roger Corman to make something else, because I don’t really think his final F.U. is good enough. If he makes something else, I would like him to star in it himself, and just tell stories, in his wonderful purring voice, about his amazing career and the amazing people he’s known. It can be a very, very long film, if he likes.

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