Archive for Charles D Hall

The Stripey Hole

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 19, 2022 by dcairns

The prison sequence in MODERN TIMES contributes to the film’s episodic feeling. Nothing that’s planted here is used later. Chaplin could have had himself arrested and placed immediately into a van with Paulette, I think. But, on the other hand, placing our first glimpse of her “Gamin” before the prison term helps tie the different parts of the film together. And the prison sequence is very funny. I wonder if any of the ideas here came from CITY LIGHTS, where the Tramp has a spell inside which we never see (and quite rightly).

Cast into dungeons dark dank and donk — Charlie shares a cell with, of all people, Prince Barin from FLASH GORDON, made this same year. I knew if I kept blogging for a decade and a half things would start to make sense. (Paulette Goddard’s later work with QUIEN SABE?’s Damiano Damiani in LA NOIA is another charming connection, and I’ve already pointed out how FLASH recycles sets from FRANKENSTEIN designed by Charles D. Hall, who is also responsible for the production design in MODERN TIMES) Charlie is perturbed by Barin’s needlepoint. Having this big guy — a more naturalistic Eric Campbell — thread a needle in your direction is, from Charlie’s alarmed reaction, like gazing down the barrel of a gun.

Dissolve when the convicts go to dinner indicates to me that Chaplin has made a trim. I always liked the cheap gag of his meal being ladled into his plate while he’s otherwise occupied, and when he discovers the slop has apported in front of him, he looks upwards as if some passing seagull must be responsible. Silly and low and wonderful.

NOSE-POWDER! This is an excuse to have Charlie turn into a heroic berserker warrior, as he did in EASY STREET. It’s also a surprising post-code drug reference. How was it allowed? It’s true that Charlie doesn’t consciously take the drugs, and the drugs are being smuggled by bad guys. And Charlie uses the illicit substance as a condiment, rather than shooting up as he did (accidentally) in EASY STREET. But the seven-per-cent solution turning him into an unstoppable crimefighter seems like not the message Joe Breen was anxious to get out.

Anyway, I love the dramatic iris-in on the drug connection. A technique audiences of 1936 would not have been accustomed to seeing on their screens for close to a decade. The IMDb doesn’t seem to know who this guy is. I would like that information.

Love the dynamic pan to the salt cellar. Chaplin’s camera is already getting hyper. Now we get to see Charlie deliver a masterclass in what he imagines coke is like. It’s very moreish, apparently. In case we struggle to imagine how eating the stuff would work (oh, it would work, I think), Chaplin has himself wipe the stuff across his lower face so he can also inhale it.

Distracted by Prince Barin — under the influence, does Charlie see the guy abruptly clad in a breast plate and plumed helmet? — Charlie attempts to deliver a forkful of cocaine mush into his right ear. Like William Lee in NAKED LUNCH, reaching for a cigarette on the wrong side of his mouth, he has forgotten where his face is.

The ebullience Charlie now feels — showing Prince Barin where he can get off — does seem like plausible cokehead arrogance. Rotating mechanically on the spot when the convicts are sent back to their cells does not. It’s Harpo zaniness, and another illustration of Henri Bergson’s notion that comedy comes from people behaving like machines.

In a daze, Charlie accidentally escapes, and is panic-stricken when the call of a cuckoo brings him back to reality. An interesting use of sound — the bird does not appear.

JAILBREAK! One of the two gunmen is Frank Moran, with his “wrecked jeep of a face” (Manny Farber), a few years before he became a favourite player of Preston Sturges (“Psycho-lology!”)

Charlie thwarts the breakout with a dashing display of Peruvian courage, reacting to gunfights with flashing fists, as if he could deflect bullets with his cuffs like Wonder Woman (he won’t get magic cuffs until the end of the movie) and defeats his enemies by using an iron door as an offensive weapon. Charlie has been able to play the upright citizen, but only while coked out of his face, which I suppose makes it acceptable.

MODERN TIMES star Adenoid Hynkel; Lucretia Borgia; Fat Whiskered German Soldier / The Kaiser’s General / Bartender; Porthos; Mr. Whoozis; Norwegian Radio Listener (uncredited); The Millionaire’s Butler; Prince Barin; Cardinal Richelieu; Eggs; Frederick F. Trumble (uncredited); Tough Chauffeur;

The Tunnel of Terror

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 3, 2022 by dcairns

FLASH GORDON Chapter 2.

The superdramatic credits music segues into a ludicrous plangent saxophone as the recap title cards fade in — we’re not at the STAR WARS scrolling infodump phase yet.

Then we get the rehash of last episode’s cliffhanger, a good economical way to eat up some footage while orienting the latecomer.

Flash and Aura have accidentally been trapdoored and are falling towards almost certain mild peril, but the designers of Ming’s infernal devices have foreseen such snafus and installed a safety net, which interrupts their stylishly-shot plunge towards the inevitable enlarged iguanas. Oh for the days when death-traps came with safety features! In the modern world of airbags and such, ordinary transport has become crammed with lifesaving add-ons, but what of the lethal weapon or IED? Surely nailbombs could be fitted with nullifying magnets, imploding their shrapnel safely if a mistake has been made in the planting or detonation? Landmines should be fitted with bathroom scales so they only de-leg responsible adults. &c.

They’re way ahead on Mongo.

As a kid I wasn’t bothered by the implausibility of the net that catches F & A, either its existence or the speed with which it can be deployed (also a function of the sheer excessive Wonderland depth of the pit — but then, I guess you wouldn’t want to keep enlarged iguanas IMMEDIATELY under your palace linoleum). I just thought it was insanely cool and dramatic, which it is, plausibility aside.

(Perhaps every film should have an imaginary twin into which plausibility can be put aside: all movies need this. In Ken Loach’s solidly “realist” CARLA’S SONG, the bus-driver hero [and yes: more of these, please] is following the eponymous heroine through wartorn Nicaragua, but he’s told the village she’s now in is totally inaccessible — you can’t get there from here. But neither he nor anyone else asks or explains the obvious question — how in Fuck or Nicaragua did SHE get there?)

“They’re in the net, make prisoners of them both!” orders Ming, redundantly. Isn’t anyone in a net a defacto prisoner anyways? But if you’re an emperor you can say things like that with no pedantic critic to quibble.

Aura meanwhile explains that the enlarged iguanas should be properly known as the Dragons of Death — a bit of alliteration hinting at the chapter’s intended title until somebody realised there were more tunnels than dragons onscreen.

Aura, being an insider, knows all about The Secret Door, so she and Flash can attempt to elude their captors. Now we have some running about in caves/corridors, always good filler material in any serial, from here to Doctor Who. The corridors are artfully intertwined to avoid a spacetime continuum blow-out which would result if Flash met Buck Rogers going in the opposite direction.

Director Frederick Stephani, whose only canvas chair gig this was (but he wrote a bunch of stuff, contributing to this script and to the same studio’s DRACULA) now gets adventurous, essaying some Deutsch tilts, perhaps preparing us for the leftover FRANKENSTEIN sets which are waiting in the wings. He always tilts to the top left, rather than alternating, which I guess saves him having to commit himself to an ordering of shots (you generally want to go left-right-left to get that nice Eisensteinian crisscross effect in the cut).

Squeezed against a rockface with Aura, Flash crassly wonders about Dale’s fate (Sam J. Jones in the remake had similar difficulties compartmentalising his romantic interests). Larry “Buster” Crabbe speaks out the side of his mouth when stage-whispering (guards are searching a nearby Dutch angle) but, with adorable incompetence, it’s the WRONG side of his mouth. But hey, it favours the camera.

Bronson Caves, Bronson Canyon — no doubt the desolate, lizard-infested surface of Mongo was filmed a stone’s throw away. Anyway, FG had the biggest budget of any serial to date, so it’s not ALL stock shots and models and leftover sets. It’s an impressive location, even if, like Griffith Observatory in part 1, it’s more local than exotic.

Meanwhile, in Ming’s laboratory or “workshop”, Zarkov is put to work. I presume this is an old palace set from some Ruritanian operettafilm, with Kenneth Strickfaden electrics shipped in. An exciting combo.

Zarkov’s new status as Ming’s bitch is signalled by his costume change to a black onesie with thick medieval bdsm belt. None of us enjoys looking at Frank Shannon’s legs, though, so thank God for the medium shot. Zarkov seems for now quite ready to fall in line with his new master’s bidding, seduced by the opulent mad science facilities.

Dale, meanwhile, is rejecting her own costume change and refusing to settle into what is obviously a harem or seraglio. At last Jean Rogers gets to do some camp ham, jutting her little jaw as she asserts her stubborn earthwoman will. Because there’s a round mirror on the set, we leave the scene via a bubbling set of circular wipes. George Lucas was paying attention: when C-3PO is lifted to his feet, the wipe rises from bottom to top like an elevator. Of course Lucas’ other big influence, Kurosawa, had an early weakness for wipes too…

Aura leads Flash out of the caves to a discreetly parked rocketship, and Maestro Stephani throws in a Wagonwheel Joe / Sid Furie spy angle, shooting through an obscure stack of foreground rubble, perhaps foreshadowing some hidden assailant? Foreshadowing is usually an alien word in the movie serial, which thrives on the one-damn-thing-after-another sequential menace paradigm, where pausing to set something up is verboten. But the alternative explanation — that this is merely a stylistic flourish — is also rendered unlikely by the demands of short schedules and economy in all things. (Economy is actually a pretty good aesthetic.)

As in the comics and the 1980 movie, Aura is a near-unique point of moral ambiguity (but actually, there’s Vultan to come…) She saves Flash out of lust, and is determined to keep him from Dale. But she is a potential covert to the side of good. Her nymphomania does not condemn her, which is good, I suppose.

In movie serial logic, the fact that Flash and Dale are instantly in love is just taken as normal, though they spoof it in the remake. Whereas Aura’s hot pants are a character aberration. “You will never see Dale Arden again,” she monologues.

Flash finds a change of outfit in the rocketship’s closet. So now all three of our leads have been offered Mongoese fashions, with only Dale holding out. Obviously she’ll have to go with the tide eventually. Meanwhile, it will be a relief to get Larry “Buster” Crabbe out of those polo duds.

Dale’s refusal to become Ming’s bride and wear his togs results in the High Priest telling on her. “As High Priest, you know what to do,” intones MTM. “You mean… the dehumanizer?” quails the cleric, wondering how being ordained has led him to this end.

Ming specifies that the hypnotic spell should only last long enough for the marriage ceremony to be perfromed. Anything after that is legal, I guess. We’re only in episode 2 and we’re at the climax of the Hodges movie. Things move pretty fast around here.

Now a dude in cassock and silver slippers reports that “the gyro-ships of the Lion Men” are on the attack. He’s just seen it on a Zoom call. The Lion Men and their spinning top spacecraft are sadly absent from the later movie. I’m not sure if there’s any logical thread that says Lion Men should have giddy-making dreidelcraft. Also, I don’t know how practical these things are — maybe the centrifugal force is supposed to create gravity in space (which apparently wouldn’t work), but the things are only ever seen in Mongo’s atmosphere. A waste of energy, but then, that’s kind of the whole modus operandi here.

Seeing these invaders, Flash immediately takes off to start a dogfight or lionfight with them. Strange behaviour since (a) he’s a polo player, not a trained space pilot, and this isn’t even a earth-built rocketship and (b) he has no dog/lion in this race/fight. He has no reason to suppose these spinning tops are hostile, or that he should care if they are.

At the wheel of one ship is Thun, the lion man, disappointingly bereft of Bert Lahr makeup. But he does have the upsetting shorts that are de rigeur spacewear for Mongoites.

The ensuing battle royale does not strike me as inferior to anything in STAR WARS, and presumably cost about $1.98. Models on wires, miniature pyrotechnics, it’s all the same thing. The sound effects are of the firecracker variety, has anyone ever transposed Ben Burtt sound effects onto this sequence? I know he did a track for WINGS, and that worked fine.

I love how a felled gyroship plummets point-first, with a little candleflame atop it. A flambé spaceship. Whistling sound effect. Then Flash, great berk that he is, crashes his rocket into Thun’s, and they fall together, interpenetrated. “Try a Little Tenderness” does not play on the soundtrack, I don’t think it was written yet.

They smash into the ground diorama at lethal velocity, then EXPLODE, but it’s MUCH too early for a cliffhanger, so the occupants must simply shake off their certain death and stagger from the debris, dazed but grateful to benign providence. And still determined to kill one another. We’re probably only yards from where Capt. Kirk wrestled the Gorn. In days long gorn. Of futures past.

Like most of Flash’s enemies, Tun will end up a staunch ally. Flash has that effect. As with Jimmy Stewart, “People just seem to like him.” Clay people, hawkmen, lion men… Mike Hodges saw his film as a satire on American interventionism, but in this more innocent yarn, the fantasy of foreign entanglement is served without irony.

Thun knows a secret passage that leads to the Palace. Of course he does. It’s not nearly as ridiculous as the secret passage that saves Barbarella from the sacrificial birdbox. I mean, safety features in death traps is all very well, but having a fire exit in your infernal aviary is just silly.

Meanwhile, Dale is about to be dehumidified or whatever.

Thun’s secret passage turns out to be a huge medieval gate, heavily guarded, by some thug in Greco-Roman hand-me-downs. Flash strangles him into showing the way, and anyway, the door isn’t locked.

Dale’s hypnotic device is a strobing neon bendy straw which makes her sit up straight, wide-eyed, when it’s not even in the vicinity. Powerful stuff.

Ming wants to know if the god Tao (sp?) favours this marriage, so the High Priest cues stock footage of the Martian dance number from JUST IMAGINE, which Kenneth Anger also enjoyed. As a kid, I somehow knew that this shot didn’t belong here, that it was too big and lavish for its surroundings, and I despaired of ever learning where it originated. Happy days.

I STILL don’t know where all the stock music comes from, but there’s some Liszt, isn’t there, and some Franz Waxman?

The big anamatronic god is too impressive a guy to waste, so the serial obliges us to look at him for some time, waiting like Ming for some SIGN of approval or otherwise, which the archive material is not really equipped to give. They try piping in different bits of library music to keep it fresh.

Flash immediately locates Zarkov, which is not as silly as the different characters landing on the planet-sized Death Star in THE FORCE AWAKENS and at once bumping into one another. Flash learns that the worlds will not, after all, collide. “That’s fine!” he exclaims.

He then strangles the captive guard (again) into showing him the dance number. If movie serials have taught me one dangerous factoid, it’s that strangling always works, in any situation. This has ruled me out of a lot of teaching jobs. Fortunately art school is still OK with this.

Ming’s marriage will be conducted in “a secret chamber” but the low ranking guard knows exactly where it is and doesn’t even have to be restrangled into leading the way. But he won’t go in, because there’s a “huge beast” guarding the entrance. Good luck strangling a kaiju, Flash.

Sitting in his big conch, Ming gets the gratifying news that the god Tao has sanctioned his nuptials, something we don’t get to see despite having stared at the big guy for close to a reel. What did he do, give a thumbs-up, an OK sign, or just a giant animatronic wink?

Dale meanwhile gets a lovely makeover, and she only had to be dehumanized to make her accept it. There may be a Hollywood/western civilisation metaphor at work here.

The secret marriage chamber looks to me like a Charles D. Hall FRANKENSTEIN set, with new bric-a-brac ported in, including an Egyptian god doubtless left over from THE MUMMY. But it might all be from that one.

CLIFFHANGER — the huge beast shows up, a lovely rubber lizard costume with MASSIVE pincers. He can barely walk, whoever he is. Ray “Crash” Corrigan will later play an “orangopoid” so wouldn’t they just enlist him for additional lumbering here? We may never know, but anyhow —

TUNE IN NEXT WEEK

City Sounds

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 26, 2022 by dcairns

It’s my contention that CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES should not be considered silent films. Both have soundtracks. MODERN TIMES even has spoken dialogue, some of it (not much) synchronised to lip movements, but “part-talkie” doesn’t seem the correct term either. Chaplin has a crack at defining what he’s up to: “A COMEDY ROMANCE IN PANTOMIME” reads the first title after the main one (Chaplin gets his name on both). My point is that Chaplin, quite apart from his magnificent score (his first) uses sound in nearly every scene, apart from those where he uses the absence of it. We’re accustomed to talking about films without words as silent films, so that Tati’s movies get called “quasi-silent” when in fact they have an audiophonic richness much greater than typical movies of their time. Compare CITY LIGHTS to practically any other film of 1931 and you’d find it had more music, more sound effects, more creative use of those sound effects (if such a thing can be objectively measured), more everything except talk. So in rejecting the term “silent” I’m not just being pedantic (though I’m always happy to admit to that), I’m insisting on important qualities in the film being acknowledged.

(I see Carl Davis has managed to get his name into the credits, under “Restored for live performance.” I’m happy to see him credited at a live performance, but I don’t see what he’s doing on my DVD. I’d like to see the original titles as they appeared in 1931, thank you. From the credits we do have, more generous than usual, we learn that Chaplin actors Harry Crocker, Henry Berman and Albert Austin are ADs, Rollie Totheroh is joined on camera by Gordon Pollock, the great Charles D. Hall is on set design, and Arthur Johnson is responsible for musical arrangement.

After his Gershwin-inspired opening titles theme, Chaplin gives us the main title again, in lights this time (a curious repetition) and then the first audio joke: the parody of bad film recording, as Henry Bergman and others make their pompous speeches in front of the statue of peace and prosperity, currently a mere sheeted mass. Chaplin’s sound is always very carefully worked out — consider the agonizingly accurate indigestion noises in MODERN TIMES — and this buzzing, distorted saxophones perfectly capture and exaggerates the early weaknesses of sound on disc. And by modulating the tone upwards for the dowager’s speech, Chaplin gets a second laugh, sort of one of disbelief that he’s doing this.

(David Robinson notes that Bergman delivers a real speech, which he has lipread: Bergman effusively thanks Mrs. Filbernut, Mrs. Beedell-Bottom, Mrs. Putt, and the artist himself, Mr. Hugo Frothingham-Grimthorpe-Shafe-Shaferkee…)

Then the sheet rises to reveal Charlie, asleep in the lap of Peace, or possibly Prosperity. (Chaplin had considered starting the film with another dream sequence.) What follows is a classic routine in which Charlie tries to oblige the dignitaries by clearing off, but is hampered by the structure of the statuary, getting his pants speared by the upraised sword of Prosperity, or possibly Peace. Then the national anthem plays and he tries, helplessly, to remain erect for it. As with so much else in Chaplin, it’s a callback to childhood: the big important people are yelling at you to do something, and you’re trying, but your small and awkward body isn’t allowing it.

Charlie continually finds himself inadvertently giving offence, thumbing his nose on the upraised hand of Prosperity, or possibly Peace, then sitting on the face of Peace, or Prosperity, or Pete, or whoever the third figure is. An attitude made all the more vulgar by the fact that Charlie’s trouser seat has just been ventilated. (With surprising attention to continuity, the ventilated trousers will still be in play in the film’s last scene.)

So, in our first scene Chaplin has taken advantage of the soundtrack to reduce the concept of film dialogue to the ridiculous, and used the synchronized music in a way that wouldn’t have been reliably possible in a silent film, where you’re dependent on whoever’s accompanying the movie. He’d have had to include a shot of the sheet music if he’d wanted that exact cue.

AFTERNOON.

Charlie has a run in with some unpleasant kids, including future filmmaker Robert Parrish (FIRE DOWN BELOW), who will also return at the end. Great gags with Charlie’s glove, the fingers of which are detachable (soon, everyone will be wearing them). An obnoxious newsie pulls off one digit, and Charlie removes a second just to snap his fingers under the ruffian’s nose.

Then Charlie rounds the corner and studies some art. The set-up, playing with the assumption (which I take to be Chaplin’s sincere belief) that artistic nudes are just an excuse for lecherous ogling, we see Charlie studying an art deco odalisque, taking care to give equal consideration to a small equestrian study. An advantage of doing what I’ve been doing, watching all Chaplin’s film in order, is that I recognise this idea from WORK, made sixteen years and a lifetime before, but it’s now transformed. The nude is incidental to the joke here, which is about the suspense of Charlie nearly falling down an open street elevator.

This gag doesn’t utilise sound, only music. In fact, being unable to hear the elevator is essential for the joke to work. And by placing the camera in the shop window, Chaplin has a ready excuse for US not hearing anything.

Pay-off: Charlie demonstrates with the elevator operator when he realises he’s been on the brink of breaking his neck, but as the elevator rises, the operator’s eyes come level with his, then keep going. It is Tiny Ward, hulking strongman enemy last seen in SHOULDER ARMS.

It is, by this time in film history, quite unnecessary for Chaplin to introduce Charlie, but he does it anyway: in two scenes we have learned that he is a tramp, that he means well but displays a strange mixture of maladroitness and grace which gets him into trouble, that he is one of nature’s aristocrats despite his social stature, that he considers discretion the better part of valour. But these qualities are displayed not because we need to be shown them as characterisation, but because they’re funny. But characterisation is the essence of Chaplin’s comedy, so maybe you could reverse that proposition and it’d still be true.

There we go: a gentle start to this epic…