Archive for David Gill

The Sunday Intertitle: The China/Vinegar Syndrome

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on May 14, 2023 by dcairns

It’s a fraught business, speculating on the authenticity of intertitles, as we saw last week. I feel I’m on safer ground this time, but we’ll see.

Lobster pulled off the impossible when they restored the ending of HARD LUCK, a short Buster Keaton referred to as possessing the biggest laugh-getter of his career. Buster dives from a high board, misses the pool, and crashes through the earth, emerging years later with a Chinese family.

Accounts exist of how the stunt was performed, with Buster plunging into a carefully prepared hole, filled with sawdust and covered over with cardboard to simulate the poolside.

But sometimes between the twenties and the forties, the sequence went missing, evidently one of the few shorts not located in the safe James Mason found in the house he’d bought from Natalie Talmadge, Buster’s divorced wife (unless the house had an in-between owner, but I don’t think it did — by the thirties, the house was a white elephant, because nobody could afford it).

The gag was brought back to my attention at HippFest this year, when somebody remembered it as a rare example of Buster using animation (cf the elevator crashing through the roof in THE GOAT and the dinosaur in THREE AGES). This struck me as odd — Buster wouldn’t use special effects for anything he could possibly do physically, and anyway, we had the account in Rudi Blesh’s book.

Ace editor Stephen C. Horne and I pored over the shot, and he concluded that the figure of Buster which leaves the edge of the diving board is real… on its way down, however, it loses much of its form and flexibility. He becomes a sort of rigid brushstroke, arcing through the air. Yet the dusty impact looks detailed and real, if a little blurred.

Our conclusion was that the shot has been rather aggressively restored, to the extent of carving Buster’s outline from a vortex of nitrate decomposition. The immobile figures at poolside seem to have been cut and pasted from the start of the shot: they don’t follow Buster’s descent, which is what they’re supposed to be interested in. If we look at the following shots, showing Buster in Chinese attire, the damage is extreme, with the film warping and weaving like a belly dancer’s torso, so it seems plausible that extensive repairs were done on the dive itself.

I emailed Serge Bromberg at Lobster to ask about this, and he replied promptly, in the sense that he emailed me back without delay, but in another sense he didn’t reply — he didn’t answer my question about the extent of the restoration.

Regardless of how much creative reconstruction was done — and I can agree that making the shot readable had to be a priority — there’s something else that was done that I think was a mistake: the sequence has two rather suspect intertitles:

Since Buster prided himself on using as few titles as he possibly could, it seems inconceivable to me that he would have accepted these clunky and redundant statements. It SEEMS obvious to me that these were written when the film’s ending was lost, in order to make the film feel vaguely complete. Of course, as we’ve seen, judging the authenticity of title cards based on the style of writing is a dicey business. If these titles were also found on the ending Lobster recovered, that would be strong evidence for their authenticity. If they weren’t, why would Serge’s team have included them? Well, assuming the recovered ending came from a foreign print, it might not have had accurate intertitles to use as a basis.

But these lame bits of commentary smack of later authorship to me. One is a self-spoiling announcement preceding the jump, a lumbering kind of approach to screen narration that went out of fashion shortly after the Edison FRANKENSTEIN. You won’t find another example of that elsewhere in Keaton’s oeuvre. And the other, though slightly more credible, is unnecessary and weird, filling in for something visual that Keaton could have shown if he’d wanted. Again, there are no examples of Keaton using title card as a substitute for something too difficult to represent. One can imagine a title used instead of action for humorous purposes, but this one isn’t even trying to be funny.

The “He’s gone so far…” title seems less obnoxious, but I still think it’s doing more harm than good. The phrasing is awkward (a bad translation?) but also it forestalls the obvious inference that Buster is dead. The film starts with Buster trying to commit suicide so raising the possibility of his demise here is structurally useful. And Keaton, who ends COPS with his character’s gravestone, wasn’t someone to shy away from darkness. The transition from “He’s dead” to “He fell through the earth to China” is much funnier — because more sudden — than what we get when a title informs us that “He’s gone so far we can barely see him.” (Also: “we”? That’s rotten dialogue. Why would one member oif the group inform the others of what they can see?)

Couple of bits of info gathered online:

“HARD LUCK has been restored by Lobster Films in collaboration with Film Preservation Associates, from a 35mm safety dupe negative and a 24mm ozaphane Cinelux print in the Lobster films collection. Some short fragments were added from a nitrate print from the Cineteca Italiana, a 35mm safety fine grain from the Cinémathèque Française and a 9.5mm print from a private collector. Intertitles are reconstructed according to the font of the time, based on translation of original French cards.”

Well, “the font of the time” is likely a bit of a porky pie, according to Shadowplayer Alex Kirstukas’ analysis of MOONSHINE’s titles. Lobster seem to use approximately period-looking fonts rather than the real thing. And it seems ALL the source prints were foreign, so we’re not going to get the exact wording.

“First reconstructed in 1987 by Kevin Brownlow & David Gill.”

The 1987 cut.

This could be when the now-redundant titles crept in, I think, as Brownlow & Gill had the impossible task of reconstructing a film whose ending was missing. Adding these lines would make it appear that the film was over, sort of, and would represent the absent jump.

Ah-hah! YouTube holds the answer!

The title “From the Raymond Rohauer Archive” suggests the origin of the offending titles. Although the second now appears as “He is so far away you can hardly see him,” which at least is better than Lobster’s phrasing. It makes sense that Rohauer, who was famous for swapping titles in order to assert copyright, and not for his comic genius as a writer, would be the man responsible. And that Lobster, who seem to be a little unreliable with intertitles, would make the mistake of porting the Rohauer cards over. There would be no reason to mistrust their authenticity apart from the fact that they’re BAD.

What remains unknown is whether the Brownlow and Gill Photoplay restoration used the same titles.

Another weird thing is that the first version I could find on YouTube doesn’t have the first, particularly wrong title, but my Blu-ray from Masters of Cinema does. Somebody else had become suspicious… And here’s a 2001 version, also from Lobster, with more variant intertitles. You’d think, if authenticity had been achieved, it would be more stable.

The Sunday Intertitle: Will the real Charlie Chaplin…?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 13, 2022 by dcairns

Not taken with Charlie Chaplin: A Political Biography from Victorian Britain to Modern America by Richard Carr. Maybe the word “political” somehow makes it seem like it’s trying too hard. I picked up a copy from the library and looked up THE CIRCUS. “To modern tastes, it remains Chaplin’s most amusing film, however — the comedy that truly stands up to a twenty-first century-audience in both its inventiveness and execution.” Which tells me that Carr doesn’t much like Chaplin as a comedian or filmmaker and hasn’t bothered to watch the films with an audience, because if he had he’d see and hear them “standing up” rather admirably. It could just be he’s writing sloppily and doesn’t mean to imply that the other films don’t work anymore — certainly the word “remains” is a weak choice where I think the word “is” would better represent his intended meaning.

Not finding anything useful to my little pieces on THE CIRCUS (which is excellent, and maybe has Chaplin’s funniest scene, but isn’t his best or best-made feature in my view, not that that matters), I moved on to CITY LIGHTS, which has more “politics” maybe since it deals with the struggle to survive in the capitalist west, among other things.

Carr’s description of the film and its making are very decent summaries, though “it took time” is a rather unimpressive summary of the months of camera-writer’s-block that afflicted Chaplin when he tried to set up Virginia Cherrill’s mistaken belief in Charlie’s wealth. Brownlow & Gill’s Unknown Chaplin series does a magnificent job of this, but even if you couldn’t spare the time they lavish on the question, just saying that it took over a year to solve the problem would be more impressive.

“Whatever the politics, the film remains a classic from beginning to end.” There you go with “remains” again, though it’s slightly better here. Still, Carr’s book assembles maybe the most detailed record of Chaplin’s political thoughts and contacts, including his meetings with persons as diverse as Churchill and Gandhi, John Maynard Keynes and George Bernard Shaw. The problem is that I don’t think Chaplin’s politics are even the tenth most interesting thing about him.

Peter Ayckroyd’s straight biography Charlie Chaplin is actually quite fine, I think. Though we didn’t necessarily need another Chaplin bio after Robinson, Louvish, Baxter, and of course Chaplin himself. It’s still pretty enjoyable — Ayckroyd really knows his London, and the areas where he’s not so obviously an expert, the film history and the film analysis and appreciation, he actually does very well with. He seems to genuinely admire the films, in a way Carr can’t manage to suggest. “The details of their opening scene together, when Charlie purchases a flower before realising she is blind, too two years and 342 takes to assemble.” There you go, that wasn’t hard. Ayckroyd nails it, except for the inaccurate use of “opening” — it’s their first scene together, but it doesn’t open the film or anything else. I may not be a great critic but I’m a great pedant.

Also: “City Lights remained Chaplin’s own favourite among his films.” Bravo! A correct use of the r word.

Peter Middleton & James Spinney’s new film THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN is a pretty terrific documentary. It had big boots to fill. It is inferior to Kevin Brownlow’s documentaries with and without David Gill — Hollywood, Unseen Chaplin and The Tramp and the Dictator — because it doesn’t let the viewer see enough of Chaplin’s comedy to judge his genius. LET CHAPLIN HELP YOU! But, apart from some ill-judged reconstructions and some slightly doubtful chronology — saying Chaplin scored his films when describing his accomplishments in the twenties is an inaccuracy — it’s really very good indeed. Beautifully cut by Julian Quantrill, using a plethora of source materials in very creative ways. Beautifully narrated by Pearl Mackie. Beautifully scored by Robert Honstein.

It goes out of its way to be fair to Lita Grey, and it’s time someone did, though it may be going too far in the other direction. But she had a story and it’s worth at the very least asking, What if it’s true? If it’s true, Chaplin could be a sonnovabitch, and there’s no shortage of material to support that claim.

I was grateful to see some footage of Chaplin impersonator Charles Aplin for the first time (that I know of). And amused to learn Aplin’s defence when Chaplin sued him: “I’m not impersonating Chaplin, I’m impersonating (Chaplin impersonator) Bill Ritchie.” Unbelievable. I think if he’d claimed Billy West he might have come closer to convincing someone — West at least was a close facsimile of Chaplin. If you’re impersonating Ritchie, why do you look so much more like Chaplin than he does, and why did you tale the name Aplin? An interesting case — maybe the first time an actor sued to protect his rights, not to a film or story, but to a visual characterisation. Though Ford Sterling could presumably have sued Chaplin over MAKING A LIVING, in which the frock-coated interloper has clearly been tasked with playing a Sterling substitute.

And I suppose Kevin Brownlow could sue over being played by a lookalike in THE REAL CHARLIE CHAPLIN, except I’m sure he wouldn’t, he’s such a nice man and obviously they would have asked him.

When running through the previous Chaplin docs, I should mention the Biography Channel one which is better than the Richard Schickel one, which is also good. I have the Biography Channel one on VHS somewhere but don’t recall who made it. Kenneth Branagh narrated it, a service he also provides for Brownlow, but it didn’t have Brownlow’s name on it and it doesn’t appear on the Branagh IMDb page. A small mystery. (It’s not the one on YouTube, presented by Peter Graves of all people.)

I’m a prestidigitator who works in a world of legerdemain

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on September 21, 2021 by dcairns

— those were the words four-year-old Jackie Coogan used to introduce himself to Chaplin. David Robinson notes that, with Chaplin’s love of words (something we might not expect from a silent comedian), this was bound to endear him as well as impress him. It’s also a good job description of Chaplin, and his magic act in the following sequence from THE KID shows him a veritable Cagliostro.

“I must go now, but I’ll return,” says Edna, anticipating Chaplin’s VO in THE GOLD RUSH: “I am going, but when I return, I will come back again.”

Jackie’s illness is too sudden and unmotivated to work as pathos, at least to my eyes, but it gets us where we’re going: a doctor is called (a good bit from one Jules Hanft) and Charlie happens to admit to not being Jackie’s natural father. The doc, being an officious busybody as well as an idiot, reports the case. Charlie has shown him the note that says “Please love and care for this orphan child,” which does not say “Please put this child in an uncaring institution.”

This is raw stuff for Chaplin, of course, who had been in the workhouse as a boy when his mother became too mentally ill to care for her sons. Nestor Almendros filmed an interview with Chaplin late in his life, and when asked if he was happy, CC replied “Yes, of course, I’ve got money.” Almendros was appalled by this shallow and materialistic reply, but think about what’s behind it.

Chaplin now follows the DW Griffith rulebook: charity workers, social workers and the like are baddies, just like kops. (Something I was told at a party by a social worker: if a department has a particularly bad case, like a child who gets murdered by their stepdad while supposedly being monitored by social services, the department gets its budget cut — of course making further tragedies more likely, not less,)

Incidentally, the doctor gets to do something Chaplin’s supporting cast are rarely allowed to do, post-Keystone: he turns and appeals to the audience. I guess he’s that kind of guy. Charlie’s doing it too, so why not?

The doc blusters off, still complaining about everything in sight — he’s sat on the toilet-chair which broke, the place is filthy, the stairs nearly kill him. Look how tiny Charlie’s hands are. Now it’s September!

Now the two brutes from the orphan asylum turn up. Fantastic the way the one in charge won’t even talk to Charlie, relaying his questions (“Ask him where the kid is,” while Jackie is in plain view) through his doltish underling.

Things escalate fast — these guys, apart from their lack of human empathy, are incredibly bad at their jobs. Chaplin has learned, possibly from Griffith, how to amplify the emotion of a scene with a well-placed closer shot:

jackie saves the day for now, striking both intruders with a hammer and chasing them away. Appropriately enough, I think it’s a chasing hammer. I’m interested in the balance of comedy and drama in the next sequence, the point where Chaplin’s use of comedy and melodrama together reached the sublime. The hammer thumps are something we’ve seen in Chaplin comedies before — THE FATAL MALLET is almost entirely devoted to blows on the head — and it’s gratifying to see these guys receive them, but they’re not played particularly for laughs here. We’re too concerned with the drama to be ready to laugh, I think.

The orphanarium guys return with the film’s chief kop, Tom Wilson. Wilson’s never hugely funny, but that’s fine here, we want a bit of unleavened menace. The supervisor gets a bowl of flour smashed in his face — good, good — but again, it’s part of a dramatic struggle, not funny. Jackie is successfully abducted.

Coogan, interviewed by Brownlow & Gill, describes how his hysteria in this scene was produced simply by Chaplin talking to him, explaining the meaning of the scene, a kind of hypnosis. No child cruelty was involved, though one suspects Jack Coogan Sr. would have been on board if it had been.

That interview is one of the greatest things ever, though I sadly note that Jackie is NO LONGER CUTE. I’m impressed that the camera operator risks a zoom at a key moment, as an emotional intensifier.

Meanwhile, Charlie is struggling with the two heavies, looking straight at us — a little too much? Never mind. Chaplin’s cinema is inherently proscenium-like, our presence as audience is regularly implied, the fourth wall is not only broken, it’s dissolved, and the effect is whatever the opposite of verfremsdungseffekt might be,

The asylum guy gets two more blows on the head, and this is technically slapstick, in the midst of tragedy, so it plays a little oddly but not so it bothers us. Charlie escapes through a skylight and we now get an exciting rooftop chase as he clambers along the houses, actually preceding the child-catcher’s van down the street, before jumping in the back of it and duffing up the supervisor.

The IMDb lists Frank Campeau as the Welfare Officer (a better title than the ones I’ve been giving him) but Campeau, a character guy for Fairbanks and later in many westerns, seems to be a different man with a different man’s face, so I would like to know who this excellent baddie is.

Again, the W.O. getting kicked from the van and left in the dust is very satisfying, but doesn’t play as comedy, exactly. It’s a slightly amusing incident in a dramatic situation in a comic film.

The eventual embrace with Jackie is unbearably emotional. And then, as Coogan noted years later, Chaplin felt the need to top it off with a bit of humour, so he chases the driver away with a series of feints — now that we know it;s going to be alright, we can laugh freely, and it’s a terrific release. Charlie & Jackie then walk off, victorious.

BUT — in a genuinely clever bit of plotting, the doctor now shows Edna the note which Charlie showed him, and the third act is set in motion IMMEDIATELY.

I will write about this tomorrow.