Archive for Charles Gemora

L’il Lil

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 26, 2019 by dcairns

We should have resisted, but Fiona and I remember when THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING WOMAN came out in 1981 (the reviews! such bitter fury!) and so when we decided to do a podcast on the theme of miniaturisation (coming soon!), we thought we’d check it out. Curiosity can be a terrible thing, especially if it’s the morbid kind.

This started life as a John Landis project but became a Joel Schumacher one after the budget was slashed (a result of MOMENT BY MOMENT underperforming in 1978 — but by this time, NINE TO FIVE had been a smash, so the FX work in the movie is excellent). You can sense Landis’s fingerprints in some of the gags, but the sensibility is all Schumacher. Although never not capable of turning out a sickening turkey, Schumacher *did* get more technically able, and FALLING DOWN is actually impressive, in an icky, fascistic kind of way. At this point, he’s a terrible choice of director, since he overcuts furiously between one misplaced camera angle and another, which would be bad under any circumstances but is ruinous in a movie where Tomlin (for no reason) plays multiple roles and we have to believe they’re all inhabiting the same space, and where Tomlin on miniature sets has to interact with Charles Grodin et al on full-scale ones. The necessary Kuleshov-cohesion is lacking.

Weirdly, though this is written by Tomlin’s regular TV writer, Jane Wagner (they married in 2013), it doesn’t provide her with funny stuff to do. The role of a conventional suburban housewife and mother seems beyond her, though in fact other movies prove this is not true. If making THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN into a WOMAN makes a comedy of it, presumably this should rely on the character’s attitude to events, since the events themselves (falling down the garbage dispose-all, or into a cupboard full of scary, talking, moving, pissing dolls) are sort of the same. Indeed, it’s when the film’s at its most nightmarish that it seems most effective.

I’ve never seen Tomlin be bad in anything, but she’s generally uncomfortable to watch here: accidentally sliding on a skateboard the relative size of a surfboard causes her to open and close her jaw like an automaton — YA! YA! YA! Nothing human about it. So strange, because Tomlin is usually magnificent and one can’t see her taking any crap from a director (if you haven’t seen the video of her blow-up with David O. Russell, go check it out). But I guess Schumacher’s misguided notes (he seems quite sweet in interviews) would have been kindly delivered and therefore far more insidious.

The film’s central home is designed in nauseating cartoon pastels, making it look unreal and dollhouse-like before anything happens, one of those “false good ideas” that can derail any movie with money to spend. Adding to that a ghastly soft-focus aesthetic (to make Tomlin prettier?) results in a really unpleasant feel, like smother in rose-tinted cellophane.

(Criticisms of Schumacher — the former windowdresser — often have a homophobic sound to them. BATMAN AND ROBIN caused one Ain’t It Cool News correspondent to express the desire to murder the director with a hunting knife to the rectum. If we admit the existence of some kind of “gay sensibility,” Schumacher presumably has it, but it has nothing to do with whether he is a good or bad director. Spoiler: he’s mostly bad.)

“When I go to see a film and it has diffusion, I immediately walk out.” — Nestor Almendros.

The excellent Grodin is miscast in a role that makes you expect villainy, which he’s so good at, but the film is too chicken to knock the nuclear family. There’s a vague attempt at “satire” but rather than firing off in all directions it tends to implode: lousy corporate products can be bad for you, we’re told, as we watch a lousy corporate product. Which doesn’t have the nerve to point out that irony.

Weirdly, the film improves in its second half, which brings villains Henry Gibson (Tomlin’s NASHVILLE co-star) and Bruce Glover into play, along with “Richard A. Baker” (Rick Baker — took me WAY too long to figure that out) as a signing gorilla (the obvious gag of him holding a tiny Tomlin in his hand never materialises). Baker is the funniest ape since Charles Gemora in THE CHIMP, and Mark Blankfield is VERY funny, in spite of rather than because of the material.

Lily’s funniest moment is some good pratfalling, but I have an uncomfortable feeling it could be a stuntwoman concealed within that outsize glove puppet.

A movie starring Blankfield and Rick Baker as a gorilla still seems like an excellent idea, if anyone wants to make it.

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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.

Elephants, at your age

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 22, 2016 by dcairns

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Continuing our journey through the films of the Marx Bros, while ignoring, as much as possible, the Marx Bros.

AT THE CIRCUS is rather good — I have historically undervalued it. It seems to be somehow slightly less memorable than A NIGHT AT THE OPERA and A DAY AT THE RACES, the first two MGM Marx vehicles, without being any weaker in entertainment terms. There are some very good quips, the slapstick (to which Buster Keaton contributed his gag-writing skills) is often hilarious, Groucho gets one splendid number (Lydia the Tattooed Lady) and a couple of terrific set-piece scenes.

As the movie opens, we have the usual agonizing Wait for Groucho, during which romantic pseudo-leads Kenny Baker and Florence Rice make googly eyes and sing a dull song. As is standard, she is slightly more appealing than him. Kenny Baker lacks his famous namesake’s charisma and novelty size, but he has a squeaky Mickey Mouse voice which some might enjoy, I guess.

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Then there’s the usual gruff businessman villain, a Scooby Doo stock figure without charisma, but James Burke does have some really good moments when he’s being attacked by a gorilla in the climax.

About that gorilla — Fiona pointed out that MGM are drawing upon their earlier hit(s), THE UNHOLY THREE. They don’t have a female impersonator hawking mute parrots, but they have a “midget” and a strongman and a mighty jungle beast.

Jerry Maren/Marenghi plays Little Professor Atom (watch his best scene here), looking like a ten-year-old boy if it were not for his dapper pencil mustache. The same year he would join the Lollipop Guild as a munchkin in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The scene in his room, with miniature furniture (Antic Hay!) and endless cigars emerging from Chico’s vest is one of the film’s highlights. One of those great scenes where Chico’s stupidity assumes almost diabolical proportions.

Jerry is still alive! Well, he was only 19 in 1939.

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Goliath the strongman is Nat Pendleton, one of Shadowplay‘s favourite heavies, typecast as surly ruffian types. Here he’s initially unrecognizable in a Harpoesque wig and twirly moustache — he at least looks more like a strongman than that sagging hambone in FREAKS. (Sad to see none of the FREAKS ensemble turning up here — Koo Koo would have fitted right into a Marx Bros pic. But there is an appearance by a seal who looks a little like Prince Randian.) Pendleton’s brand of grating menace makes him an ideal Marxian antagonist: Chico and Harpo get another standout scene as they attempt to search his room while he’s sleeping in it. This heavy is a heavy sleeper. This one fizzles out at the very end, but not before building to ridiculous excess.

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Gibraltar the ape is another Shadowplay fave, make-up artist and part-time gorilla impersonator Charles Gemora, last seen gluing eyelids to Marlon Brando a few days back. Gibraltar makes the climax of the film the triumph it is (along with Fritz Feld’s irascible conductor, complete with pointy beard for Groucho to mock). He seems not so much dangerous as high-spirited, having a rare old time terrifying people on the flying trapeze, behaving not so much like a jungle beast as like a short Philipino makeup artist who’s just put on a gorilla costume and is having the time of his life.

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Rounding out the team of baddies is vamp Peerless Pauline, played by husky-voiced Eve Arden, who has a nice human fly act with Groucho, walking on the ceiling. In the MGM films, Groucho’s horndoggery is dialled down, so he can only flirt with vamps and with Margaret Dumont. Somehow he’s always had a Spider Sense that allows him to detect who the leading lady, so he can restrain his wolfishness when she’s around. (LOVE HAPPY, dismal as it is, at least allows him to resume his moth-eaten lechery with Marilyn Monroe as letch-magnet.)

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In shameless and senseless emulation of A DAY AT THE RACES, this movie also features a big production number where a lot of black people appear from nowhere to put on a show. But I quite like the Swingali number — director Edward Buzzell throws in some Dutch tilts for added vigour. The lyric “Is he man or maestro?” harkens back to DUCK SOUP. And he’s more resourceful at filming harp solos, which makes the Harpo interlude about 8% less dull than usual.

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Then there’s Dumont, an essential part of the team — more important than the discarded Zeppo, it seems. Giant crane shot at her party — Rosalind Russell supposedly said you can’t do comedy on big sets but Mags makes a chump out of her here. Amidst all the cruelty, it seems a shame that, after her Mrs. Dewksbury has shed her pretensions and settled down to enjoy the big top entertainment (there’s more damn SINGING in this circus than I recall being usual under the big top), she still has to be fired out of a cannon and swung on the trapeze in her bloomers. Overkill! She’s already loosened up. How loose do you want her?

Great image of the orchestra drifting out to sea makes the film’s ending even better — maybe the best Marxian fadeout?

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What happens after that fadeout? First violin leads a mutiny against the conductor while the brass section resorts to cannibalism?