Archive for Different from the Others

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.

‘A face you will never forget’ – But apparently have: Love Letters To Conrad Veidt.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 24, 2020 by dcairns

Conrad Veidt, breaking arms with one sweep of his eyelashes since 1893.

‘He was tall, lean, almost transparent. He had an extremely intellectual face. Above all, he was not handsome in the usual sense, only his eyes were beautiful and deeply sad. But he was interesting and whoever saw him would never forget his face.’ – Curt Riess

YouTube comment on The Thief Of Bagdad (1940).

‘First saw this on TV when I was about 5 years old. Still remember looking at Veidt and remarking: “He has pretty eyes.” My grandmother laughed and said, “She likes the villain. Should we be worried?”’

IMDB reviewer on A Woman’s Face (1941)

‘Even Conrad Veidt, Major Strasser from Casablanca is *sexy* here. I never would have thunk it. It’s a really revolting form of sexuality. Like the man who sells you heroin. Very bad.’

“That’s my fate. Always misunderstood.”

Conrad Veidt/Major Ellissen , F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933)

I’m Fiona Watson, Mrs. Shadowplay.

On August the 17th, Eureka/Masters Of Cinema will be releasing The Man Who Laughs (1928). David and I contributed a video essay on the making of Paul Leni’s late silent masterpiece, but during the research process, I became more and more intrigued by its star, Conrad Veidt. I’d always liked him, on a superficial level, but what I was now learning was leading me down a wormhole towards fixation. (I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 52.)

This happens on a regular basis. I become obsessed with a certain subject then study it until it squeaks. Sometimes the process lasts months, others, years. My last ‘thing’ was octopuses. Intelligent, emotional, playful invertebrates. What’s not to like?! I hope this one doesn’t last years, although I have a horrible suspicion it will. Or should that be delightful suspicion? I’m not sure which. Well, Connie always did embody duality.

The odds are there will only be a pile of Fiona ash left at its conclusion. Y’know, like the end of Hammer’s first Dracula, but with Peter Cushing subbed out for Conrad Veidt, who, instead of two candlesticks, is brandishing his weird charisma up to my face as my legs dissolve and retract into my trousers. It’s rather unseemly for a middle-aged woman to be falling in love with a long-dead German film star but here we are. (We know a song about that, don’t we children?)

One thing that struck me forcefully was that the final edit of our video essay, The Face Deceives, still leaned quite heavily towards him being a ‘horror’ star and inspiration for The Joker, two hoary old clichés I’m passionate about dispelling.

I was moaning down the phone one day to one of my BFF about this state of affairs, when she came up with a genius suggestion. (I only associate with geniuses.) Why didn’t I write down everything I wanted to say, that I hadn’t said, in an article, or articles, on Shadowplay? David was agreeable (ANYTHING to get me writing again after a long period of inertia) and I hope the result will be affectionate, informative, and amusing.

So, I’ll be reviewing the ‘sound’ career (no Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Man Who Laughs here) of Connie while taking a sneaky peek at him as a person, and how that personhood informed his artistry. I’m still relatively new to this fandom and I certainly don’t want to annoy anyone who’s been in this for the long haul.

Speaking of which, I’d like to thank one exceptional woman, Monique classique (her online alias), a collector of memorabilia and fan of CV from Romania. She’s generously allowing me to use scans from her extensive collection, all out of her desire to see Veidt’s profile raised in the public consciousness.

And now it’s time to play a guessing game to which we already know the answer. Which uniquely gifted actor straddled both the silent and sound eras, performing in three different languages, and during his second American period (the first was during the silent era), in the early 1940s, while under contract to MGM, was receiving more female fan mail than Clark Gable, but who has faded almost completely into obscurity apart from three films? One released in 1920, the second in 1928, and the final one in 1942.

Early in his stage career, a critic had written he had a face you could never forget. In the case of the 1928 release, his face was ‘stolen’, transposed onto a comic book villain, and has imprinted itself onto the public consciousness with such force it has become iconic. And yet his real face and his work, both artistic and humanitarian, have been obscured by this grotesque modification.

Hans Walter Conrad Veidt aka Cesare The Somnambulist (The Cabinet Of Dr. Caligari, 1920), aka Gwynplaine  (The Man Who Laughs, 1928) aka Major Strasser (Casablanca, 1942), has been reduced to a pub quiz question invoking horror movies, Gothic romances, and Nazis.

Major Strasser is a supporting role. It doesn’t give Connie much wiggle room to do anything really interesting. In fact he jokingly complained that he felt he was stealing money from Warner Brothers because he was just showing up every day and sliding into a Nazi uniform.

Ultimately it’s explained by poor availability of his sound films in English, German and French. You can’t appreciate how versatile he was until you’ve seen the complete set of movies, not all of them good I admit, although he brings his ‘ineffable Connieness’ as writer David Ehrenstein says, to each and every one of them. The British Period in particular is crucial.

TV/Film Programmers, restorers and distributers could all be lending a hand here, bloggers and website moderators/owners are picking up the slack, but it’s not enough. It’s seen as too niche. Who gives a shit about some freaky German actor?

Well, as a matter of fact, a surprising number of people. People who’ve accidentally brushed up against the intense Veidt phenomenon and been unable to shake it off. He liked to talk about “doping” an audience, and that’s honestly what it feels like. You’re in the grip of some strange addiction, and you might, if you’re lucky, just never go to rehab.

Being magnificently grubby and severe in The Last Company/Die Letzte Kompagnie (1930) (have him washed and brought to my tent)

Right. Let’s deal with this from the get-go so we can move on. Conrad Veidt was bisexual. It’s on the record, from a number of sources, and yet a surprising number of people who have written about him deny him his identity.

A commentator on a review Mr Crayons/The Husband wrote, about The Passing Of The Third Floor Back said, ‘Although his character is Christ-like, I was struck by intense sexuality bubbling beneath the surface in his performance. I had read previously that Veidt held a strong attraction for members of both sexes. After watching this film I could understand why.’

Yes, I know he was married more than once and had a daughter, but sexuality is on a spectrum, and he probably shifted about on that spectrum throughout his life, finally settling down in his last decade. Michael Powell described his third-time lucky pairing with half Jewish business woman Lily Prager as the happiest marriage he’d ever seen.

My First Contact with Veidt was a still in The Gifford (a legendary tome on this blog), seen at about the age of twelve. It was from The Student Of Prague (1926) and showed Balduin/Veidt attempting to attack his split-off mirror image/soul with a tree branch.

I never forgot it. There was something intensely dynamic about the body language. Even in non-moving form and without that marvellous face fully visible, he still had the ability to compel you to look. And not just look but remember.

As I said before, his films often examined duality. He played twins and people separated from their reflections/souls, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and The Devil and Jesus Christ; gender reversal also crops up, with Veidt taking on traditionally feminine emotional and dramatic aspects. Naturally, mirrors also play prominent visual parts. He’s constantly moving back and forth through the looking glass.

In reality, he deployed a small hand mirror on set to check his lighting, sometimes making suggestions to cinematographers. “I bet they loved that,” said David wryly. Although I think it was a different kind of self-awareness and technical knowledge to Marlene Dietrich, who was reputed to be able to FEEL whether her lighting was right.

Marlene was reaching for perfection of her screen image; Veidt, I imagine, was checking how the lighting affected his face, from one expression to the next.

When we, the audience, look into the mirror, it’s possible to see aspects of ourselves in Conrad Veidt, as he stares back at us with those luminous, fathomless eyes.  He’s many things to many people; an LGBT rights pioneer, a proto-feminist, a heroic Nazi fighter, a Visionary, an Idealist, a Progressive, an Expressionist nightmare made flesh, and a Sex Symbol. He contains multitudes.

No wonder so many people want to ‘claim’ him for different reasons. So why this versatile, mesmerizing actor has faded from contemporary consciousness is a complete mystery to me. If he’s remembered at all it’s either because of The Man Who Laughs/Joker connection or his uncanny, silent Weimar roles.

But he was much more than that. And the elements that make up his appeal are so timeless, that I’m frankly astonished he doesn’t have hundreds of millions of fans worshipping at little Connie shrines.

Sound Connie is not just worlds, but multiverses away from Silent Connie. Remarkably, he managed to reinvent himself and metamorphosise from floppy-haired stick insect contortionist to mature leading man/character actor relatively smoothly, although there was a “squeaking horror” moment, probably involving the part-talkie Bride Number 68 aka Land Without Women (1929), the first German sound film.

As audio recording was perfected, Connie perfected his own transition from pantomime to more naturalistic performing, while still retaining the tools from his silent era kit box.

Connie looks for his woman in Land Without Women/ Das Land ohne Frauen (1929), an activity you’d think he’d realise was a complete waste of time with a title like that.

He compressed his wild physicality down to the size of a pin-prick, losing the flailing but retaining the emotional power. He’s a bit like The Black Hole of Acting. Super dense. Weaker actors performing next to him are in danger of being sucked into his Event Horizon.

He can either be terrifyingly still or smoothly elegant in his movements, a choreographer dancing through a part while looking entirely natural and spontaneous; his long fingered hands gracefully arcing through the air; carefully touching objects; or in a signature gesture, cupping the head of the person his gaze is focused on.

His face is one of the most expressive ever to have graced the silver screen, giving us access to individual thoughts with micromovements of the muscles. I know he’s best known for his villains, but I have to say, I like him best when he’s doing things most male actors don’t dare do, and that is crack himself open to reveal deep tenderness and sorrow. (I recently re-watched Marlon Brando in Last Tango In Paris and was reminded of Veidt’s emotional openness)

At the other end of the spectrum he can be amazingly playful, funny, perverse, sensual and, yes, sexy.

And he never lost the astonishing power of his eyes to telegraph emotion. There’s a miraculous moment in Hollywood B picture, Nazi Agent (1942), which freely borrows from his earlier twin film, The Two Brothers/ Die Brüder Schellenberg (1926), where his eyes change from a shocked adult’s to a horrified child’s.

They could also flash from Crazy Kubrick Stare to Wounded Lovelorn Adolescent to Tortured Soul in a nanosecond, liquifying into the softest, tenderest, most vulnerable eyes the cinema has ever seen in a man.

He’s like a six foot three, walking, 1980s Rob Bottin special effect except less extreme and grotesque. There’s something not quite real about him, and simultaneously he’s painfully tangible. I told you he was Duality Personified.

His smile could look murderously insane, or boyishly sweet. A broad, beaming smile like a sunrise. But with gappy teeth (If sunrises can have teeth). He didn’t actually get them fixed until quite late in his short life, and oddly they just added to what the French call Jolie Laide, literally Beautiful Ugly. In some shots in A Woman’s Face he looks like Inspector Clouseau turning into a big cat.

This leads me to believe that sometime in the late 1920s he’d invented and perfected the art of non-digital morphing. Simply by rearranging his molecular structure he could take on the aspect of The Most Beautiful Man In The World or a Nightmarish, Etiolated, Fanged, Teutonic Anomaly.

The most beautiful man in the world.

Something else.

There are also occasional echoes of his adolescent clumsiness, before he’d trained that ludicrously lanky body to be graceful and controlled. He once said of himself, “As a young man of 19 and 20, I was too tall and too thin. I had no flesh on my bones. My legs were always getting in the way. As for my hands, they were a terrible and constant problem. They dangled out of my sleeves, which seemed always too short.”

He trips over a bin in Contraband/Blackout (1940) and nearly falls over again getting out of shot! Similarly, he goes shouting and stomping around in F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer (1933) like a giant teenager who doesn’t know his own strength, and in one scene keeps jocularly slapping his old mucker, Sunshine, on the back with his huge hands until I feared for tiny, insectoid Donald Calthrop’s life.

With Donald Calthorp in F.P.1. Calthorp is a probable witness to The Incident Of The Dreaded DeTrousering on the set of Rome Express. He’s in it too.

It’s all weirdly endearing. Where was director Karl Hartl? Oh sorry, he was simultaneously shooting the German AND French language versions. Well, you can’t be everywhere. Actually, I think the hilarious oddness of this performance can be put down, in part, to lax direction and being thrown into a multi-lingual production and not having enough time to prepare.

God knows what else was going on. He’s also surrounded by non English speakers which would mess with his focus. His English is much better in the earlier, UK shot Rome Express (1932).

He took a seat-of-the-pants, crazily ardent attitude to performing in English in the early 1930s, mostly refusing a dialogue coach so he wouldn’t become a “parrot”. Bear in mind that he didn’t seriously start learning English until he was in his thirties. The result was electrifying but chaotic. Some of his directors seem terrified of him (and I don’t blame them) so he gets away with murder. AND taking his trousers off.

In one memorable on set moment during Rome Express, when he was only supposed to be taking off his jacket, director Walter Forde turned round for a couple of seconds and when he turned back again the trousers had come off too! The DeTrousering can be explained by a) his natural playfulness, and b) his boredom and frustration with a very one-dimensional role. Something he later admitted to in a startlingly honest interview.

Conrad Veidt contemplates taking his trousers off.

Vocally, Veidt’s performance as Captain Ellissen in the Floating Farago, F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer, (an early sci-fi film that’s basically about an aircraft carrier), veers between painfully and heroically squeezing out his lines, yelling incoherently in Berlinglish and occasionally dialling everything down to a curious melancholy (it’s also a love triangle). Although I have to say, I adore the impish way he says, “Would you like to daaance?” to Claire Lannartze, part owner of the titular piece of buoyant architecture.

His best moments are when he confesses to that bitch Ms Lannartze that his latest flying expedition failed and he was so ashamed he couldn’t return home immediately.

His face, when she enters a room, is a lovely study in surprise and hopefulness, almost boyish, a complete revelation coming from this gargantuan Teutonic thing. And all done without dialogue.

Amusingly, a commentator on YouTube had this to say about F.P.1, ‘Aaaaw. How could she not choose Connie?!’ I suspect this is a huge part of his appeal. You really, really want him to get the girl and he so rarely does.

Here he is, being in ‘lurve’ again in the terrible The Men In Her Life (1941). Loretta Young seems to marry him out of pity and gratitude in this film, which is frankly unacceptable.

Moments later he’s even more ‘in lurve’. Honestly, I think if someone looked at me with this much adoration I’d just dissolve into a viscous puddle at his feet, a feeling I resent.

His vocal delivery would markedly improve over his years spent living and working in the UK, and he would ultimately take up British citizenship in 1939, so revolted was he by the Nazi regime. A few years earlier he was actually ‘detained’ by the Nazis while fulfilling a contractual obligation in Germany because he was planning to make the anti-anti Semitic Jew Süss/Power (1934) and refused to budge despite threats, humiliation and sleep deprivation being forced upon him (this guy was FEARLESS).

It took Michael Balcon to extract him from a potentially fatal situation. Later on Goebbels would call him up at his Hampstead home and try and sweet talk him into coming back to Germany, but again he dug his heels in and refused to give up the Jewish woman he loved. All of this would make a fabulous movie; the major difficulty being it would be impossible to cast because they broke the mold.


Here is a graphic representation of Conrad Veidt’s approach to performing in English in F.P.1 Doesn’t Answer:

(and RIP to the God-like Tim Brooke-Taylor)

After Tim Brooke-Taylor died, I looked all over the place for this precise shot but couldn’t find it, so I created this GIF(t) to the world. This shot from the title sequence of The Goodies (BBC/ITV 1970 – 82) is the one that never failed to make me laugh, despite the fact I’d seen it a million times.

It just seemed to sum up the Timbo essence, and in a strange way, the Connie essence too. That insane enthusiasm and commitment to their art. And the drag of course. Always the drag. (If you’ve read about Con’s Weimar fun and games, you’ll know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.) Oh Timbo. Oh Connie. *weeps with laughter and sadness*

I like to think Connie would have loved this wonderfully surreal comedy show. The mind melting ending of The Baddies 1972 sees all three Goodies in hand to hand combat with robot doppelgängers. Automata and doubles are two things that recur in the Veidt filmography.

I’ve also read a fan theory that Veidt might have made a great, Germanic Dr Who, especially in relation to his role as the Baron De Kempelen, “very peculiar gentleman” and builder of automata in The Chess Player/Le joueur d’échecs 1938. Refreshingly, he’s a goodie in this film, albeit a strange one.

 Being Strange but Good.

Seriously, had Veidt lived longer and gone back to the UK, he might have been eligible for some kind of honour for his outstanding financial and personal contribution to the war effort, although I don’t know where he would have stood as someone who was a naturalised citizen. (I also have no doubt that he would have embraced television had he lived longer than 50) Astonishingly, he gave the British Government all his life savings before departing for America in 1940 to promote and distribute Contraband. 

He was then advised that staying and working in the US would be more useful for propaganda purposes, but he continued to make ridiculously generous donations and fostered his British doctor’s son to keep him safe. Basically he was being paid to play Nazis and a large percentage of that pay was sent back to the UK.

It must have been heart-breaking for an actor of his ability to be so straight-jacketed. He was a fan of Paul Muni and Charles Laughton and could easily have been their equal given the right parts, but he ended up playing second banana to Red Skelton in Whistling In The Dark (1941).

Luckily he got a brief blaze of glory in George Cukor’s melodrama A Woman’s Face 1941, his best Second Hollywood Period role, as megalomaniac playboy Torsten Barring. “I’m Lucifer in a tuxedo!” he declared delightedly. Connie exudes a darkly perverse sexuality and menace and plays beautifully against Joan Crawford in what is undoubtedly one of her best performances. The result was that MGM’s publicity department was snowed under with unexpected fan mail.

The attention seemed to surprise and gratify him too, when interviewed about it he said that when he looked in the mirror he certainly didn’t see a young Romeo. In the same interview he kept the female journalist entertained by jumping out of his seat and doing an impression of himself as a fat, bandy-legged baby. ‘It was a treat!’ she exclaimed.

Not many people seem to be aware of his absurdist sense of humour. During an interview given during his Silent Hollywood era, he self deprecatingly described himself as having been an “extra” in WWI because he was invalided out. When people met him in real life, this aspect of his personality always took them by surprise.

In casual interviews he’s constantly leaping out of chairs, ending his sentences with exclamation marks, doing silly voices and making faces. All of the fun and playfulness in The Spy In Black (1939) and Contraband (1940) comes from his collaboration on the screenplays with Hungarian Emeric Pressburger, and Brits Michael Powell, and Valerie Hobson.

When Hobson started correcting his pronunciation during these script sessions, they decided to incorporate it into the films. “It’s not my fault. My screenwriter has an accent,” he would jokingly complain.

Another result of these group efforts was that Hobson, a whip-smart, leggy brunette (who probably reminded Veidt of his wife) wasn’t backward in coming forward with ideas in which her character bosses his character around. The result? They both loved the dramatic and romantic tension it created, and began sparring with each other creatively, leading to the marvellous chemistry they have on screen.

Being chastised by Valerie Hobson during an epic flirtation session. Hobson – “Doesn’t all this belong in an evening school for grown ups?” Veidt – “It IS evening. And I’m grown up.”

George Cukor, director of A Woman’s Face, said of him, “He always looked like the wickedest man in the world, yet he was really very gay and funny.” Odd things would happen frequently in his life, and he would habitually refer to them as The Incident Of The Dreaded Something.

It could refer to The Incident Of The Dreaded Bat, when a small specimen of the creature got loose in a hotel he was staying at, or The Incident Of The Dreaded Owl, when, in the middle of the night, he caught his wife and his daughter firing off cap guns at a noisy member of the Strigiformes order that was keeping them awake.

This phraseology smacks of The Goon Show.  Examples of Goon Show titles include ‘The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler of Bexhill-On-Sea’ and ‘The Saga Of The Internal Mountain’. “It’s not my fault. My screenwriter has an accent,” is so Spike Milliganesque I’m almost rendered speechless.

Perhaps the reason he felt so self-confessedly, instantly at home in the UK was not just the strong sense of national unity he’d observed and admired, but the sharing of the daft, often surreal British sense of humour, which admittedly didn’t reach its radio apex until after WW2 was over and he’d tragically left us. At any rate, Veidt had comedy muscles he never got to flex properly.

Witness his poncey but pithy Prince Metternich in The Congress Dances (1931); Captain Hardt, the sheep-impersonating U-boat commander with the kinky obsession with Hobson’s silk stockings in The Spy In Black. Every time he mentions them he gets sent to bed with his motorbike (The motorbike is explained away as “camouflage”, although how he got it in and out of the sub and onto a Scottish island is a mystery).

The “That’s not my coat,” moment in the marvellously silly Contraband (which he co-produced) while conspicuously NOT looking at said coat; Captain Andersen’s silk stocking fetish AGAIN; and finally, the wry “Tell me, have you ever been put in irons, Mrs Sorensen?” to lifejacket refusenik Valerie Hobson from the same film. We won’t even talk about the ‘bondage’ scene in the Nazi lair… But I can show it to you! (Please see this film. It has the most wonderfully modern sexual politics.)

Oh, how I wish we could have had at least two more films concerning the continuing adventures of Captain and, now, Mrs Andersen (Hobson – “And did you ever try being married? That can be quite a big adventure.”). I can imagine them running about, giving the bad guys/gals fits, pausing occasionally to quip, tie each other up, and sexily squabble over who the dominant and submissive partner is in the relationship. Feel free to make up your own scenarios for this lovely couple and write them in the comments section.

And the voice! It had a strange, unearthly, beauty that could range from a loud, metallic clang, to a mocking purr, to a harsh rasp, and finally to a light, soft, sibilant caress, that often shook with emotion. Director Berthold Viertel (The Passing Of The Third Floor Back, 1935) said he used it like a musical instrument, modulating it for different effects.

Self-conscious about his accent when speaking English, he would articulate the words slowly and softly when everyone else was yelling to the back of the stalls in the early to mid-1930s; British talkies were still toddling away from stage-bound techniques even at this stage. This attention to detail helped with the clarity of his enunciation. But he could also boom like a bass drum if required.

Sent from heaven itself. And guess where the other guy comes from.

One of my favorite stories about him polishing up his English was an interview in which he describes listening intently to the radio, despite being warned by friends and colleagues that traditional BBC radio presenters’ accents were ridiculously pompous.

I love the idea of him tuning in to the 1930’s version of Gardener’s Question Time in order to improve his diction. This was as late as The Thief Of Bagdad, so he was still working on his pronunciation in his mid to late forties. But he was never going to sound like Tommy Handley no matter how hard he listened to ITMA.

“It’s that man again!” (Observe the way he comes into the cabin looking like a naughty schoolboy)

Another Veidt hallmark was his ability to project humanity (and if not humanity then understanding) into the most abject or downright evil characters. He said, “Each new villainous role presented a challenge to me – could I make such an unreal character real? No human being is a villain just for villainy’s sake. Something beyond his control relentlessly drives him on.”

He also played all his roles German, whether the characters were Swedish, Danish, or representatives of paradise; in the same way that Sean Connery plays all his roles Scottish, it matters not one jot that he can’t do accents. His own accent is all part of the appeal.

Salty, Danish, Sea-dog Captain Andersen will brook no insubordination on his ship. Especially not from Valerie Hobson.

Since he claimed to be much more at ease in the presence of women than men, it would have been fascinating to see Veidt directed by a woman, say, Ida Lupino, his co-star in one of the two radio versions of A Woman’s Face.

He said, “I prefer to talk with females. I do. I find it quite as stimulating and distinctly more comfortable. When it is said that females cannot be geniuses, that is no longer so. When men say things like ‘I bet it is a woman driving’ if something is wrong with the car ahead – no, no. These are old, worn out prejudices, they do not belong in Today.”

This interview took place in 1941. As an aside, Veidt also appeared in what has to be one of the first pro-choice movies ever made, Kreuzzug des Weibes/ The Women’s Crusade (1926), as well as the first sympathetic portrayal of homosexuality, Anders als die Andern/ Different From The Others (1919).

Many of his roles embodied the idea of The Outsider or The Other, and even his villainous roles are shot through with pathos. He could be a tortured Romantic (no on could angst as beautifully as Connie), or a conflicted Man Of Duty; an Anti-Hero; occasionally a Real Hero; a BDSM Playboy; a lovelorn wizard, the list goes on. But one thing remains constant, his essential humanity.

You’re aware of the many layers of emotional complexity he added to his often underwritten roles. And Emotion is key. Once you start watching a Connie film, it’s almost impossible NOT to connect with him. He sends out such strong waves of feeling, you’d have to lack a pulse not to respond and empathise. He completely belongs to Today. And that’s his secret weapon.

He’s so ALIVE on screen. 77 years after his death, you could almost reach out and touch him. And that physical action would vary from slapping him, firing a gun at him, wrapping your arms round him to comfort him, throwing him off a train, kissing him, or just holding hands and loosing yourself in THOSE EYES.

Back where we started. But worth repeating.

Over the coming months, I’ll be peering into the Magic Crystal from The Thief Of Bagdad to examine the Veidt Mystique and reviewing every one of the sound films currently available in chronological order. Please join me in helping resurrect the reputation of one of the greatest screen actors the world has ever known but has only seen and heard incompletely. And don’t shoot me if you fall in love with him. I’m just the messenger.

Credits and thanks –

All watermarked photographs and screencaps.

Monique classique blogs about Connie here and here.

YouTube clips.

A Woman’s Face from Veronique Laurent.

Contraband from quixotandovideos

The Passing Of The Third Floor Back from ConnieVeidt.

The Thief Of Bagdad from Deniz Azad.




The Sunday Intertitle: Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on July 17, 2011 by dcairns


Known in English as THE ADVENTURES OF CAGLIOSTRO, it charts roughly the same narrative course as the Orson Welles BLACK MAGIC, despite being based upon a different novel. The conflicted attitude to the protagonist causes different but comparable problems in both films — Welles’ movie (partially directed by the Great Man himself) sets Cag up as a heroic revolutionary with a legitimate grudge, before transforming him into an out and out villain. Oswald’s portrays him as something of a scamp, but his slimy scheme to start the French Revolution a year early, motivated only by personal pique, renders him utterly unsympathetic, especially as he escapes the consequences and leaves Meery, his confederate, to take the rap —

Since my copy is a truncated English translation, I can’t tell if this is a shorthand version of a deleted scene, or just a lonely intertitler’s perverted fantasy.

Cagliostro is played by the unnaturally handsome Hans Stuwe, and expensive and imaginative production design (Lazare Meerson!) and striking expressionist photography result in a sumptuous visual spectacle, still dimly apparent in this shortened and fuzzy print. Oswald’s oeuvre, which includes the bold, sympathetic gay rights film DIFFERENT FROM THE OTHERS, and the epic LUCREZIA BORGIA, could do with restoration and reappraisal. He’s nothing if not resourceful, visually, taking particular pleasure in Cagliostro’s magic tricks.

German cinema’s first disco ball. It would not be the last.

A Wellesian flavour — see the title sequence of CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, soon to be re-released.

Cagliostro’s magic is a lot of balls…

…crystal balls, that is.