Archive for Ernst Lubitsch

The Sunday Intertitle: The Wild Party

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on December 19, 2021 by dcairns

Maybe my favourite scene in A WOMAN OF PARIS is a scene none of the main characters is even in. It’s the party Edna is meaning to go to, and instead she ends up encountering her lost love. (He’s wearing a mourning armband, a narrative shorthand borrowed from THE IMMIGRANT, which was originally going to take place in the Latin Quarter also: here, the device is a little awkward because it begs the question, how long has Edna been in Paris?)

The thing about the party scene is, it’s FUNNY. In an elegantly smutty way. It shows what Chaplin could have done if he’d leaned into this kind of wit — instead, he opened a door for Lubitsch to go through. It also suggests, maybe, what he was up to with A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, the kind of thing he’d have liked it to be.

The establishing shot shows couples dancing while a pair of girls riding on men’s shoulders have a pillow fight. It’s curiously reminiscent of Joe Dante’s RECKLESS YOUTH. A girl (Bess Flowers) dressed only in a long bandage is placed on a dais, and a stout gentleman wraps one end of the gauze around his waist. Then he slowly rotates, and she rotates on her plinth, as the bandage winds round him and unwinds from her.

Chaplin packs this brief bit of business with amusing and characterful reactions: the very interested lady with the monocle; the guy rocking Fritz Rasp levels of loucheness who reacts with sudden real fury when his eyes are playfully covered at the moment of revelation. I suspect Chaplin may have heard of or witnessed such a scene during his Paris trip, but the details are all his invention.

And there’s a lovely pay-off: a chap who has slumped against a wall and fallen unconscious earlier, while Edna was being invited on the telephone, wakes up just in time to get an eyeful of the naked girl who has retreated behind a screen. So he passes out again.

It’s all deliciously naughty, but worked by indirection: we never see a naked form, but understand its impact from the responses it provokes. And that’s a very Lubitschian idea. As Billy Wilder put it, Lubitsch says “One plus one” and leaves it to the audience to provide the “equals two.” You can make the telling of the story funny purely by doing it indirectly — somehow the act of adding it up creates a sense of punchline for the audience. And we laugh partly through being pleased with ourselves.

Not that we’ve done anything clever here. Chaplin has. But he somehow flatters us by creating all the decadence through suggestion.

Just think: film history might have turned out quite differently if Edna had gone to the right address: A WOMAN OF PARIS would have been a naughty comedy about demi-mondaine hi-jinks, might have set the box office ablaze, and Chaplin might have escaped from the Tramp character before THE GOLD RUSH, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES.

I’m kind of glad Edna made the wrong turn — but also glad that Lubitsch was watching, ready to pounce.

The Sunday Intertitle: To the Public

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on December 12, 2021 by dcairns

The Shadowplayhouse degenerated into the most terrible slum during the later half of lockdown and I can’t find my Chaplin dossier when I want it. But let’s start in on A WOMAN OF PARIS anyway, since THE GOLD RUSH is a festive film and so we’ll want to get to that one before New Year for sure.

I just bought The Complete Films of Charlie Chaplin for 50p from the All-You-Can-Eat bookstore because it was too cheap to pass up. But it’s not very interesting — all the three authors have done is compile lengthy plot synopses for each film along with contemporary reviews. Nothing is less interesting than plot synopses and contemporary reviews, though they can be of use. Well, they do provide a modicum of production information, so I learned that AWOP was originally titled PUBLIC OPINION and it was known by variants of this in various European territories. Which would chime nicely with Chaplin’s word to the wise at the start of the film:

Prior to this, the second-choice main title (which United Artists had encouraged Chaplin to accept) is subtitled A Drama of Fate, so that the audience will not be expecting pratfalls.

The contemporary reviews compiled by Gerald D. McDonald, Michael Conway, and Mark Ricci for their book suggest that the universal line was “Chaplin shows evidence he can be as great a director of drama as etc” without, however, really expressing the enthusiasm that THE KID, for example, had inspired.

Last time I watched this — twenty or so years ago! — it was with my late friend Lawrie, and we agreed that the sly sophistication of the first half gave way to some really silly melodrama in the second. Chaplin liked to think of himself as sophisticated but his genius was more primitive, raw and emotional. Theatre critic Eric Bentley has instead defended the film as an unabashed Victorian melodrama, and maybe we should keep that in mind as the implausible story unfolds.

Chaplin had it in mind to establish Edna Purviance as an independent star, something even he couldn’t pull off, as it turned out. She would make just two more films, A WOMAN OF THE SEA, produced by Chaplin and directed by his unruly protege Von Sternberg, which Chaplin shelved and apparently destroyed, and then EDUCATION DE PRINCE in France. Kept on the payroll for the rest of her life by a loyal Chaplin, she would make minute appearances as extras in MONSIEUR VERDOUX and LIMELIGHT, which I’ll attempt to spot when we come to them.

Another thing I’ll be watching for, in this film, is the possible influence on Lubitsch, who would pick up Chaplin’s leading man, Adolphe Menjou, and star him in THE MARRIAGE CIRCLE, his first really Lubitschian Hollywood film. Given that the film wasn’t a box office success, it’s hard to see why Lubitsch would take it as a sign that this kind of high-life observation could be embraced in America, but there are similarities between what Chaplin was exploring — character psychology as revealed in details of behaviour — and the famed Touch.

But today I’m stopping at the opening, a surprising set of dissolves that takes us ever closer to the window of a certain house in a village “somewhere in France” — it’s a formally unusual trope since it takes the standard establishing shot followed by closer view and exaggerates it into a series of distinct stages, and its effect is to encourage the viewer’s close attention.

OK, Charlie, I’m watching.

Lamp Post

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 9, 2020 by dcairns

Occluding lampshades are a favourite compositional device, and this one, from Curtis Bernhardt’s MGM noir HIGH WALL, is particularly interesting, though perhaps not wholly successful.

Being an MGM noir, it’s full of hedging and excuses, and that’s what stops it being great — it’s gorgeously shot, exciting and well cast — Robert Taylor even has some excellent moments, and the miscasting of Audrey Totter as a kind of Ingrid Bergman shrink complicates things and makes the story more intriguing. There’s a natural edge and intensity to Totter which makes you not quite trust her when she’s required to be sweet…

Anyway, this lamp. Herbert Marshall has to do a lot of WALKING in this film, and he manages it very well for the most part. But you can hear his wooden leg SQUEAK, which I’m amazed wasn’t fixed.

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Towards the climax, Marshall and Walker have to engage in a vigorous fight, falling all over the furniture in Marshall’s flat, and this was obviously too challenging for Marshall to perform himself, so Bernhardt has devised a ruse. Yes, this also falls into the genre of “How to conceal Herbert Marshall’s wooden leg,” a trope most famously illustrated in THE LITTLE FOXES where he briefly exits frame on the left, so that his identically-dressed stand-in can stagger up the stairs while our main focus is on Bette Davis:

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So, here’s the scene. Marshall has shut the door, thinking himself alone, but then he hears a noise, and a dramatic shadow in snap-brimmed fedora crosses his form — Bernhardt gets to do lots of Germanic lighting in this one, which often LOOKS more Warners than MGM.

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SLOWLY he turns… and Bernhardt tracks back, the camera movement synchronized to Herbert’s pivot… and Taylor’s shoulder, side of head and hat brim slide into view.

vlcsnap-2020-05-09-14h01m03s798It’s a terrific effect: it not only reveals the intruder in a dramatic and mysterious way, it makes Marshall shrink as he becomes more vulnerable, with Taylor’s positioning making him seem, in a way, gigantic.

And Bernhardt now maintains this shot for several lines of dialogue, resisting a reverse angle and showing the kind of nerve few directors have these days.

When he finally cuts, it’s to a closer view of Marshall, showing the calculation in his expression and cueing up a POV shot which tells us that he’s looking at his revolver, across the room and behind Taylor…

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Having shown us what’s on Marshall’s mind and allowed us to guess what his plan is, Bernhardt now lets us see him execute it. The fact that we can anticipate what he’s up to is obviously good for suspense, as we can ask ourselves if he’ll succeed.

Bernhardt cuts back to the earlier over-the-shoulder framing of the cornered Marshall and pulls back as Marshall advances, Taylor finally coming into clearer view as he turns to follow his opponent’s movement…

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But now the shot gets weird. Berndardt’s camera pulls back to what should be a flat two of Marshall and Taylor, but turns into a shot of a lamp and Taylor…

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It’s one of those clever-but-stupid ideas. Because there’s no good dramatic reason for us to be observing the action half-hidden by a lampshade.

But the clever bit is, while he’s still talking, and while we can still see a good bit of his body, Marshall does a quick shuffle and steps back out of frame, letting his stand-in replace him. This happens while we can still see part of him.

By the time we get this next composition, Marshall has been replaced by his pod person:

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The out-takes must have been hilarious (and swiftly burned), with Marshall colliding with his identically clad stunt-herbert, or the substitution not happening quickly enough, so that we see both Herberts at the same time, awkwardly weaving around one another…

But the trick is done imperceptibly in the movie, the only flaw being our puzzlement about why this lighting fixture suddenly has a featured role.

So now the fake Herbert can grab for the gun, the real Taylor can leap on him, the lamp can go flying (fulfilling, at last, a discernible dramatic function) and the two men can crash to the floor and tussle.

We even get a bold glimpse of the stunt-herbert’s face, with the filmmakers confident that we won’t notice that it’s not our star because there’s too much going on, it’s too quick, and anyway, we clearly saw that it was him at the start of this shot.

The other main fake Herbert bit I remember is in TROUBLE IN PARADISE, where Herbert springs out of frame, dashing for the stairs, and Lubitsch whip-pans IN THE WRONG DIRECTION, rotating almost 360 to catch the fake Herbert leaping up the staircase two steps at a time, convincing us that the star is an athletic biped but that his director is drunk…