Archive for Charles Chaplin

The (UK) Father’s Day Intertitle: Schulberg on Fitzgerald on Chaplin

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 21, 2020 by dcairns

I’m finally reading The Disenchanted, the 1950 novel by Budd Schulberg, a Penguin paperback I inherited from my old friend Lawrie Knight years ago. It’s falling to bits as I read it, adding a certain pathos to the already sad story.

The book has multiple cinematic-literary connections, both as a text and a crumbling physical object. Schulberg, the son of Paramount boss B.P. Schulberg, was a 25-year-old screenwriter working for Walter Wanger when he was assigned Scott Fitzgerald as writing partner. Their extremely unsuccessful attempts to collaborate form the subject of this book, which is stuffed with walk-ons by film biz personalities.

It also has a front cover illo by Len Deighton.

I’m enjoying it — though some have doubts, which I share, about whether Schulberg is entirely honest about the events he covers. Of course, he fictionalizes like crazy, as is his right: names are changed; Schulberg’s fictive avatar is described as “handsome,” which is hilarious when you see the author photo on the back where he looks like a bump on a tree; his mogul dad is eliminated to erase any hint of nepotism and make “Shep” seem like an independent success.

The more serious bit is about Budd/Shep’s failure to stop Fitzgerald/Halliday from drinking. Shep has apparently read everything by Halliday but doesn’t know he’s a struggling alcoholic — in this fictional reality there’s conveniently no equivalent of The Crack-Up.  The real Schulberg said he had no idea about Fitzgerald’s alcoholism and nobody warned him he was partly being paid to keep it under control. So practically the first thing he does is urge the author to have a drink. And he keeps doing so, all through the book. Schulberg has Halliday tell him this is necessary, now that he’s started back on the booze he can’t afford to dry out until the job is done. Retelling the story, as he did often, Schulberg would omit this vital exchange, so did it happen? Did he ply his hero with drink to get stories out of him? Because that’s the glowing subtext.

Schulberg seems like a bad choice for the role of nurse: he was a bit of a boozer himself, and he makes Shep one. Shep finds a drink useful to prepare him for all sorts of activities, like meeting his boss. Like a lot of mid-twentieth-century literature, it really gives you a sense of how socially omnipresent drink was.

Fitzgerald’s partner, Sheilah Graham, never forgave him for this book — and who can blame her? — but it’s actually very sympathetic — maybe it’s the real-life events she should have held the grudge over.

Anyway, here’s an extract — Halliday is a man who remains insightful and eloquent even when so sloshed he can barely speak coherently, and his thoughts on Chaplin, which I’d like to believe are really Fitzgerald’s, are wonderfully sharp.

“Know the secret of Charlie? Not a man at all. Sneaks up in attic, puts on father’s clothes, pants too big, shoes too big, wears all kinds of different clothes together, anything he happens to find lying around. Then he pretends he’s grown up. But it’s all a dream. Girl he falls in love with, ‘thereal, too beautiful, way little boys fall in love with grown-up women from a distance. Dances with ’em, makes love to ’em, gives ’em won’erful presents, all in a dream. ‘member City Lights. And that face on Charlie. From ridic’lous to sublime no cliché for Charlie. Real art, real tragedy, only tragedy I ever saw in movies. That face on Charlie. The pain. I c’n seen it right now. All his pictures, same idea, the dream’s a beautiful balloon, a kid’s balloon, and reality’s a sharp point on a fence. The balloon drifts over the forbidden garden, hits the point ‘n bursts — way all of us wake up right back where we were. Chaplin’s the only one saw the movie as the bes’ medium in the worl’ for dreams, the child being the father, the tramp being the millionaire, the homely little bum being the elegant Don Juan. […]

“‘member one picture little one-reeler, can’t even ‘member the name of it. Charlie’s a drink being dragged along, grabs a bush as he struggles, finds a daisy in his hand. Daisy changes mood entirely. Becomes a poet, a dreamer, an aesthete. So convincing it looks like impro – improvisation an’ when you think of Charlie as a child not even unrealistic, you know the way a little boy sees a toy boat an’ becomes a boat captain, picks up a gun an’ goes right into character as a soldier. See what I mean? Don’t think of Charlie as an adult acting like a child but as a child acting like a grown-up.

“Like The Gold Rush. […] If movies didn’t die so fast it’d be considered a permanent classic like Hamlet or Cyrano. Funny as hell on the surface and full of inner meanings an’ the idea, the Gold Rush, just when the whole country was rushing for gold. Money crazy. […]

“I’m no analyst, but I could analyse Chaplin from his comedies — that’s how true they are. […] Notice how there’s always a big brute of a man pushing Charlie around — prospector in Gold Rush, millionaire in City Lights, employer in Modern Times, always the same father image, switching suddenly from love to hatred of Charlie like the millionaire picks him up when he’s drunk takes him home lovingly tucks him in, then sobers up in the morning an’ throws him out. Conflict with the father, whether Charlie sees it or not. All Charlie’s pictures full of it. Psychiatrist c’d do a helluva book on Charlie’s movies. […] What’m I talking about?”

“The Chaplin movies.”

“…don’t switch from comedy to tragedy. No phony, mechanical change o’ pace. The funniest parts, the parts where you laugh the loudest, are tragic. That’s where the genius comes in…”

Good stuff, eh, even if Freudian interps always start to feel sterile and reductive after a while. Incidentally, if the one-reeler cited is genuine, I’d appreciate hearing from anyone who can identify it.

Forbidden Divas: Jungle Red

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 2, 2020 by dcairns

David Melville Wingrove returns with a Forbidden Divas piece about one of my favourites…

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FORBIDDEN DIVAS

JUNGLE RED

“I do not need wine to set my blood on fire.”

  • Paulette Goddard, Sins of Jezebel

Fans of bad movies cherish Bible epics for being the one entirely disreputable movie genre. To make the Best Bible Epic of All Time may not be an act of any special distinction. To put it bluntly, how much competition could there be? But to make the Worst Bible Epic of All Time is a truly spectacular achievement. The field is crowded and fiercely competitive and movies like The Prodigal (1955) and The Silver Chalice (1954) and Solomon and Sheba (1959) all have their fanatical adherents. But criticising these movies for their wooden acting, risible dialogue or lack of dramatic coherence is a bit like criticising a KFC Bargain Bucket for its lack of nutritional value. No product is a disaster simply because it does not do something it has never set out to do. To achieve a Platonic ideal of sheer and unadulterated awfulness, a Bible epic needs to be quite a lot worse than that.

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Sins of Jezebel (1953) is the work of one Reginald Le Borg, an auteur who made his name in the 40s with classics like Jungle Woman (1944) and The Mummy’s Ghost (1945). It stars the irresistible Paulette Goddard as the infamously wicked pagan queen who tried to turn Israel away from the One True God and supplant Him with the blood-soaked worship of Baal. There is something less than terrifying about Baal in this movie. His effigies resemble very early models for ET (1982) and his followers show their devotion by lifting their arms to heaven and indulging in some truly excruciating bouts of interpretive dance. It is hard to believe in depravity when we never see anything that looks the tiniest bit depraved. We hear a rumour early on that the queen “paints her nails with the blood of sacrificial victims.” We never do find out if she does that or not. But one must admit her nails are a commendably bright shade of red.

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Paulette Goddard was a movie star for the best part of two decades, but not even her closest friends ever pretended she could act. She was famous for her slightly hard-boiled glamour and her ineffably colourful off-screen love life. A fun-loving Jewish girl from Great Neck, Long Island (her real name was Marion Levy) she started off in the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. In the 30s, she made her way to Hollywood and wound up marrying Charlie Chaplin and co-starring in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). Her neighbour David O Selznick came perilously close to casting her as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939) – but only briefly, when he despaired of finding anyone better. Divorced from Chaplin, she went on to marry such showbiz intellectuals as Burgess Meredith and Erich Maria Remarque. Her alleged motto in life was never to sleep with a man until he gave her diamonds. She was said to carry a suitcase packed with diamonds on all her travels, to remind herself and others just how well this system worked.

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In short, Paulette Goddard embodied the kind of fragile and artificial movie glamour that made Lana Turner look like Meryl Streep. She got by in her better roles – as an 18th century adventuress in Kitty (1945) or a Gay 90s adventuress in An Ideal Husband (1947) – on a sort of wry and ironical amusement. She looked, as Oscar Wilde wrote, like “an édition de luxe of a wicked French novel.” It was no surprise that she became Andy Warhol’s favourite escort at parties in the 60s. She was, in essence, a Warhol Superstar before that term was even coined. But it was a very great surprise indeed that she gave a realistic, touching and genuinely heartfelt performance as an ageing beauty in an Italian film, The Time of Indifference (1964), just before she bowed out of movies for good.

So what of Paulette as the evil Queen Jezebel? Her Majesty has barely arrived in Judaea when she is cheating on her fiancé King Ahab with a hunky Hebrew general (George Nader). Her bridegroom passes out drunk on the wedding night, but not before she has made him promise to build a temple to the heathen god Baal. This lady is a hybrid of all the sinister dictator’s wives who have wielded a malevolent power from behind the throne. Eva Perón, Imelda Marcos, Elena Ceauşescu – only with deeper villainy and sharper fashion sense thrown in.  “What are you, a man or a piece of dirt?” she sneers when Ahab hesitates to massacre his recalcitrant subjects who refuse to worship Baal. Not even her favoured boy-toy escapes from her tyranny unscathed. He wrestles with his conscience when he is forced to put believers in the True God to death. “In peace or in battle, people get hurt,” he explains to his fellow Israelites. You can’t make an omelette, etc…

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What is truly fascinating about Sins of Jezebel is the fact it is an epic made on a ridiculously small budget. The soldiers wear helmets that look like kitchen pots spray-painted gold. The vases that adorn the royal chambers seem to have been stolen from somebody’s back garden in the San Fernando Valley. At every state banquet (there is not even the faintest hope of an orgy) the tables are laden with identical bowls of wax fruit. One might imagine these came from the studio’s front office – but the independent producers who made this movie were unlikely to have an office of any sort. To his credit, the resourceful Le Borg circumvents the lack of art direction through a strategic deployment of draperies. Every time Queen Jezebel seduces someone, the camera cuts away from the clinch to a swatch of brightly coloured fabric, rippling away. This effect reminds us eerily of the Kenneth Anger film Puce Moment (1949) and the whole production is redolent of one of those underground movies that drag queens in the 60s used to make in memory of Maria Montez.

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Yet however drastically its producers may have skimped, Sins of Jezebel still seems to run out of money well before the end. Long stretches of it are not seen, but narrated by a sententious middle-aged Sunday school teacher in a badly fitting suit. The more the war between Good and Evil heats up – and the number of warriors needed rises above a dozen – the more this narrator tends to take over. Watching him light the seven candles on a menorah – and put them out again, a scene or so later – is dramatically thrilling, I grant you. But the fall of Babylon in Intolerance (1916) or the parting of the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments (1956) it most definitely ain’t. It is the sheer lavish folly of Bible epics that audiences across the world respond to. So a Bible epic that fails even at that is a rare and precious object indeed.

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If this Queen Jezebel really does paint her nails with blood…that can only be because blood was cheaper than varnish.

David Melville

The Sunday Intertitle: Bounced

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on May 31, 2020 by dcairns

When I first saw complete Keystone comedies, as opposed to whirligig montages in silent movie documentaries, I was kind of appalled at how incoherent and unfunny they were. Sennett, it seemed, had an aversion to setting anything up, and the frames were packed with grandstanding comics competing for our attention. Sennett thought he had found the formula for comedy gold, but you can only call something a formula when it’s more than a list of ingredients — there should be measures, and a process.

Since then, I’ve found some redeeming qualities and some stand-out films, but my main objections remain…

I hadn’t realised, somehow, that Chaplin made so many films in his first year — over thirty. No wonder he complained about the pace. Allowing for the occasional holiday, a film a week might not be that much in the silent era, I guess, but as he gradually took over as his own director (pushing Mabel Normand out quite nastily), he wasn’t just performing, but coming up with stories and gags, too.

THE NEW JANITOR seems to be one of the best of his Keystones. There’s a plot. Suspense. Characters. And not everybody’s a clown. Although Al St. John can’t help himself, the others play it straight. Even an attempt by the baddie to mouth off at the audience, melodrama-fashion, is raggedly cut off by Chaplin’s — or Sennett’s — impatient scissors.

There’s even pathos — when Charlie gets the sack, the gags don’t exactly stop, but they become, well, pathetic — gags about him being sad and put-upon, delivered more slowly. Chaplin seems to have conceived his character this time as a virtual Stepin Fetchit, shiftless, dopey and incompetent. A reminder that the British working class have their own strategies for irritating hell out of the boss.

This modest little movie makes it clearer than most of the 1914 films why Chaplin stood out. The public had been quite content with rambunctious chaos as a substitute for comic construction — but now it was offered something better.