Archive for Fellini

The Sunday Intertitle: Bloomer Wants to Kill Himself

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 9, 2022 by dcairns

Firstly — I’ve been remiss in not announcing that The Chiseler is back, at a new address, here. Add it to your bookmarks. Scroll down and you’ll find my piece on Segundo de Chomon.

Raymond François Émile Marie Pierre Frau AKA Raymond Dandy AKA AKA Kri Kri AKA Patachon AKA Bloomer — remarkable how many names these minor European silent clowns have — one for each territory, sometimes more — thwarted in love, wishes to make away with himself. Being a good citizen, he informs the police.

Originally from Senegal, Frau made his name(s) in Italy, a nation thronging with tumblers in the teens.

Luckily for us, this is not only a suicide comedy, it’s a behind-the-scenes movie, offering us yet another glimpse of the film industry in its baby-steps phase. “Bloomer is expected to work in the theatre. Potbelly goes to meet him.”

In reality, suicide has caused considerable trouble for filmmakers, particularly, it seems, in Italy, and the filmmakers have not always responded with sympathy. The first instinct is to worry about how to finish the movie. When gaunt-featured Canadian character player Al Muloch, one of the three hitmen at the start of THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY *and* ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, fatally defenestrated himself on location for the latter movie, Sergio Leone was heard yelling “Get his costume!” as the mortally injured actor was ambulanced away, still in his movie gear. On CITY OF WOMEN, Fellini’s slightly baffled response to feminism, former peplum idol Ettore Manni, playing the hypermacho Dr. Xavier Katzone, shot himself in the groin with his .44 Magnum one evening and bled to death. “At least it proves the film works,” mused Fellini, and rewrote the film’s ending to exclude his deceased thesp. Admittedly, we don’t know that Manni’s death was intentional. Maybe the gun went off while he was cleaning it. With his dick.

Bloomer/Patachon/Dandy/etc is discovered apparently dead from poisoning (this is hilarious so far) but then there’s some “he’s behind you!” panto poignancy as he filches a swig of booze while his friend Potbelly is setting up a long candle. The film looks set to play out mostly as a single set-up. Then he starts pranking his friend, which is oddly antic behaviour for a man bent on self-destruction.

It seems this is all a ploy to get revenge on Bloomer/Dandy/etc’s prospective father-in-law who’s refusing his daughter’s hand. Potbelly is persuaded to take the place of the corpse, though how this can be expected to convince given his physical mountainousness is anybody’s guess. Such are the ways of farce. “Bloomer is unrecognizable,” remarks a hopeful intertitle, as our man dons false pornstache and eyebrows. This development seems to be the only reason for the movie-making subplot. Frau/Dandy’s mastery of disguise must be alibied, or the whole thing will be unbelievable. We can’t have that.

GOOD ACTING from the boss of the Keystone Karabinieri and the unyielding Mr Pepper: their gestures are expressively Italianate without lapsing into the purely rhetorical or explanatory. At this time, Mack Sennett’s comics were still trying to illustrate the plot to the audience using hand-gestures and exaggerated lip movements. This favourable impression is slightly marred when Patachon/Dandy’s sweetheart throws a full-on fit of hysterics, but that seems to be what the plot requires. So far, our hero’s scheme is causing widespread distress and alarm. It must be working.

Looking somewhat like Fawlty Towers’ Manuel, Dandy/Bloomer arrives at the grieving household, personating his own (presumably non-existent) brother, and threatens to murder Mr Pepper. But, being a good sport, he’ll settle for twenty thousand lire/gilders/bucks — exactly the sum Pepper told him he needed to marry his daughter (do pay attention). There seem to be a number of crimes involved here — threats of violence, extortion, armed robbery, fraud — so it’s a good job the police are already involved.

However, under Italian comedy law, Mr. Pepper is now compelled to allow the marriage to go forth, as Kri Kri/Dandy/Frau/Patachon/Bloomer/Lazarus celebrates his resurrection by kissing his sweetheart and leaping into the arms of his mother-in-law-to-be with Harpo-ish enthusiasm.

Meaningful Beauty

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

Rounding off my WOMAN OF PARIS coverage as it seems important to get to THE GOLD RUSH for the holiday season. It’s a snowy, festive film.

I’ll tell you who’s good in AWOP — Nellie Bly Baker, the secretary at the Chaplin Studio, who plays a masseuse. Chaplin apparently knew she could mimic him well enough to do the role. He just cuts to her nearly impassive face as Edna is getting a rubdown and discussing her love life with friends. Silent condemnation from La Baker, her eyes deliberately unseeing. Marvelously understated — it’s only the regularity of the cutaways that makes her attitude very clear indeed.

So, although I don’t hugely love the movie, I’m massively impressed by the storytelling. Like the way a shirt cuff, dropped from a drawer, reveals to Carl Miller’s character the fact that Edna has a lover. A very Lubitschian conceit.

Again, against the elegance of the narration is the corniness of the story. Edna’s struggle to choose between love and luxury implies a sophistication that is belied by the third act melodrama: Miller at first seems set to murder Menjou, then shoots himself. His mother takes the gun and sets off to kill Edna. At this point, improbabilities have piled up past the point I can take them seriously. And then Edna and mom bury the hatchet and go off to do good works.

Chaplin, according to David Robinson, came to work one day all excited about his solution to the story: the two women would go work in a leper colony. This notion was greeted with revulsion by his team, and Chaplin stormed off, taking several days away from the studio. When he returned, the incident was never mentioned. So instead out heroine and her former foe are running an orphanage, still a sentimental solution but less grotesque. One wonders about entrusting Lydia Knott’s mom character with more kids, she didn’t do so well with her son.

Chaplin also planned a meeting between Menjou and Purviance’s characters, but had a happier inspiration in the end: they pass by, oblivious of one another, she hitching a ride on a cart with a band of musicians, he riding in a limo with a crony. The guys asks, apropos of nothing, “By the way, whatever happened to Marie St. Clair?” Menjou gives an indifferent shrug. And at that moment, illustrating neatly the idea of fate Chaplin hints at in the film’s sub-title, the paths cross.

But there’s more. Chaplin pays particular close attention to the musicians Edna is riding with, just as he had to Nellie Bly Baker earlier. The three distinct cutaways to the singer and accordionist carry some poetic meaning, just out of reach of the rational brain. They have nothing to do with anything that’s happening, and we don’t know what they’re singing. And I think it’s their irrelevance that makes them poetic. They’re life, and they’re going on without regard to the melodrama that has just fizzled out.

I would like to suggest that the strange, medievalesque pilgrim troupe that pass by at the end of Fellini’s IL BIDONE, and the strolling players who join paths with Masina at the end of his NIGHTS OF CABIRIA, derive directly from this moment. We know Fellini took a lot of inspiration from Chaplin.

The peculiar time-warped troupe of IL BIDONE provoked a battle between Fellini and his producer. An assistant was asked his opinion. He said they should keep them in the picture, as the scene had beauty. To his surprise, Fellini rejected this argument. No, he said. It had MEANINGFUL BEAUTY.

Man’s Beast Friend

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on July 19, 2021 by dcairns

On the subject of A DOG’S LIFE, Chaplin’s first film for First National, Walter Kerr (in The Silent Clowns) sagely notes ~

“The dirt floor of the vacant lot on which Charlie is discovered sleeping is now real dirt, hard, soiling, transparently uncomfortable. He will make nothing of this, or, rather, he will deflect attention from it with a gag without denying its presence. The board fence beside him is rickety, uneven at ground level, obviously no shelter from wind. The wind bothers him, a bit. He studies its cause. There is a small knothole in one board. He stuffs that with a piece of cloth and curls up to sleep again, reassured. The joke has had a double face: it is funny because closing off the least source of wind is preposterous in the circumstances; it also accentuates the circumstances. The comedy and a certain harshness of fact are being welded.

“When he goes to the tavern, The Green Lantern, the paint is peeling from the cement walls that frame its entrance, the sign promising Beer 5¢ is weathered almost to obliteration. The curbstone on which he sits is littered: there is garbage for him to probe in search of possible food. Compare the environment in which all of the spirited gagging takes place with that of the earlier Easy Street and the new texture becomes plain. Easy Street is a slum street, populated by bullies, drug addicts, impoverished women who must steal. But it is as clean as a drawing for a fairy tale. A Dog’s Life is not a picture of a place but a place. The “setting” as a thing closer to documentation is taking its place.”

Kerr’s observations are all the more astute because there’s no evidence he knew that the Chaplin unit had been joined by a new production designer, uncredited, in the person of Charles D. Hall. Hall would design every Chaplin film from here until MODERN TIMES, while running the design department at Universal for the last few of those years. He’s a giant of cinema, giving us not just the clockwork innards Chaplin will reel through, iconically, but Castle Dracula, Frankenstein’s laboratory, the Bauhaus Satanism of THE BLACK CAT.

Hall was a companion from the Fred Karno days, but by the time he starts working with Chaplin he already has absorbed cinema’s need for close-up detail, as described in Kerr’s examples. It’s not clear whether he absorbed this working on earlier films or simply had his own ideas, or followed Chaplin’s orders. But he certainly brings a new reality to the films. If you’re wondering if a designer would really be responsible for the quality of dirt on the set in 1917, you can read my short bio in this month’s Sight & Sound but also read Tom Charity on Richard Sylbert in the same issue: Sylbert dictated that, since CHINATOWN was about a drought, he didn’t want to see a single cloud. He designed the SKY.

We can compare directly Chaplin waking up in EASY STREET and in A DOG’S LIFE:

In addition to the detail, the new film begins with a slow tilt down from ramshackle buildings, a movement that adds depth and solidity.

The new film benefits especially from the realistic textures because its gags are mostly about SURVIVAL. The addition of a dog is sympathetic but also holds a mirror up to Charlie, as Jackie Coogan would. Scraps is introduced as “a thoroughbred mongrel,” a contradictory statement that also applies to Charlie, a natural aristocrat, an indigent lord of the manner.

Scraps is played by Mut. Chaplin had been experimentally buying dogs, then giving them away to good homes when he judged them insufficiently cinematic. A dachshund, a pomeranian and a poodle preceded the final mutt, Mut. Obviously a mongrel was the way to go, but Chaplin liked to find things out by trial and error.

Class warfare: in Chaplin, the underdog is permitted to mistreat the upper crust silk hat fellow, since this qualifies as revenge on the persecutor, but he can also rob the honest salesman: in EASY STREET, Charlie as constable helps a woman load up with purloined groceries from a stall, and there’s no thought to how the poor stall-keeper is to survive. In THE KID, breaking the windows of the honest poor is permissible (windows are expensive).

A kop! No longer with the silly tit helmet, but with a dignified cap and an unblinking stare. Played not by a clown but by a regular actor, Tom Wilson, previously of Griffith and Pickford productions. But he has to get down and slapsticky with the rest of them, as Charlie uses the gap beneath the fence to roll back and forth and play merry hell with the kopper’s ankles.

Charlie now visits the Employment Office. Despite his offscreen British origins, queuing is not a natural activity for him. An ad for a brewery job provokes a near-riot, and despite his greater speed, Charlie suffers the inevitable consequence of being the smallest jobseeker. The fat jobseeker is the inevitable Henry Bergman, in the first of his inevitable two roles.

That other Henry, Henry Jaglom, was horrified to learn that Chaplin used gag writers. This seems to be true, but unlike with Keaton it seems we’re not allowed to know who they were. Vincent Bryan & Maverick Tyrrel (cool name) are listed by the IMDb as co-screenwriters of the Mutual films, but on what factual basis I don’t know. Bryan was also a songwriter, responsible for”In My Merry Oldsmobile” (?) No co-writers are given for subsequent Chaplins until we get Orson Welles supplying the story for MONSIEUR VERDOUX. But Glen David Gold’s well-researched novel Sunnyside gives Chaplin a gaggle of gagmen. Albert Austin and Henry Bergman are said to have contributed ideas, and so I suspect the stock company could be said to serve as co-authors, like the actors in Mike Leigh films, but the man in charge serves as filter of all suggestions.

After being roundly defeated in the Job Centre — even the tiniest jobseekers somehow arrive at the service window before him — the problem is there are TWO –Charlie rescues Scraps from bigger dogs: the parallel with his own scrappy existence is clear. He at once becomes surrogate bitch to the pup, helping access the dregs of a milk bottle using Scraps’ own tail as a kind of milk-sop. Probably THE KID has a better origin story, with Charlie simply forced into partnership with a baby, much against his wishes. But this is fine, and sweet.

Attention to set detail is complimented by attention to extras once we relocate to the Green Lantern bar, a low dive full of low characters. Chaplin invents bits of business for the local colour. But he’s cutting ahead if the plot here — nothing happens in the bar/dance hall this time round. He just needed a cutaway.

Sydney! Chaplin’s half-brother last shared a screen with him in HIS PREHISTORIC PAST, Chaplin’s last Keystone film and Sydney’s first. Since then, Syd had made a number of shorts using his “Gussle” character, sometimes called a Chaplin impersonation but not really. Syd was less handsome than Charlie and his characters usually up the grotesquerie factor.There are at a couple of features where he bares his face and looks natural, but he retreats behind makeup and cookieduster again for THE BETTER ‘OLE, the better to resemble the Bruce Bairnsfather cartoon the film takes its title from.

I can only hate Syd as a human being, but he’s another comic who, not surprisingly, has fantastic timing with his brother. Like Conklin and Turpin. This is their probably their best bit together, but I’ll be watching out for his subsequent appearances.

The basis of this routine is Charlie and scraps stealing from Syd’s lunch counter. Scraps cleans up a string of sausages in time-honoured fashion. Charlie eats all the pies. It is incredible to see him cram those things into his skinny face. He’s like Paul Newman with the hardboiled eggs. I think they must have made nearly-empty pies, but then again, his face looks pretty full. Syd tries to catch him at it. This becomes very funny indeed, since by the diminishing number of pies and Charlie’s proximity to the dish, his guilt is transparent. But Syd is determined to catch him in flagrante. Circumstantial evidence is insufficient for this stickler. The variety of ways Charlie gets the better of him is dazzling, and a lot of it is played out in unbroken master shots so you can see the interplay in real time. There are cutaways to the dog and closeups, maybe so Chaplin can run off and be sick. But the bulk of the action is in wides of twenty seconds and a minute ten.

The arrival of that kop, whose sinister gaze Charlie meets just as he’s lifting another pie to his gob, breaks up the skit — Charlie flees and the kop gets hit with the colossal sausage intended for him.

Stuffed with meat, Charlie and Scraps enter the Green Lantern and the first thing that can be called plot occurs (I may be being over-strict, but I think the meeting with Edna is the first thing in the film that leads to something else).

Rejected from the joint for having a dog with him, Charlie stuffs Scraps down his baggy pants, which at last have a use. The dog is somewhat large for this role, which may have looked more realistic on paper. Special effects will be used to basically shrink him: once he’s inside, Charlie looks normal-ish, no longer bulging fantastically, but with a wagging tail protruding from his trousers. The seat was torn earlier, when Charlie rescued Scraps from the bigger dogs, so this is unusually logical.

Various barflies and one drummer are freaked out by Charlie’s tail. Mut seems very contented in those pants, whenever we cut to a medium-shot and we see his face.

Edna is a singer in this joint. She sings a sad song — cutaways of various plug uglies weeping into their beer. Henry Bergman, in his inevitable second inevitably drag appearance, cries clown tears, but instead of spurting like water pistols his eyes just dribble in cataracts down his big face upon the place beneath, where Charlie happens to be sitting.

You have to see this one with Chaplin’s score — I guess this is the earliest Chaplin film with his own music accompanying it. He couldn’t write music but he would whistle or hum it for a composer to transcribe. I gather sometimes what he whistled wasn”t entirely original, but his films are full of cute tunes, and Nino Rota’s collaboration with Fellini is impossible to imagine without C.C. Here, Edna’s lament is preceded and followed by a very vigorous and zaftig dancer, and the contrast in style and dignity is very funny.

Syd’s then-wife Minnie is credited as “Dance hall dramatic lady” on the IMDb. Does that make her the dancer? It’s a bit strange.

Fiona likes Edna’s incompetent flirting. It’s one of the few Edna roles where she gets to transform pathos — her bully of a boss demands she flirt with customers — with comedy — she’s so innocent she has no idea how to do it. She looks like she’s having a fit. Charlie, the customer she tries it on, is baffled until she provides an explanatory title card. Such visual cues would be useful in real life.

At attempt to dance with a dog in tow looks forward to the improvised dog leash belt in THE GOLD RUSH. It looks pretty uncomfortable. Charlie is just sitting down to a (leftover) half drink with Edna when the bartended unreasonably demands he buy something for her. He gives her the drink. The bartender starts to eject him so he grabs it back and downs it on his way out.

Charlie and Scraps get the bum’s rush. Meanwhile, a rich drunk is rolled for his bulging wallet. This tipsy walk-on clearly would be given to an experienced comic, but the IMDb offers no clue as to who it is and I don’t recognise him. There’s a nice “mercy shot” after he’s dragged offscreen by thugs and relieved of his loot — he staggers back into view, dazed but unperturbed, and staggers off back the way he came.

Kops chase robbers, and the purloined wad is buried where Scraps can easily find it, providing the ensuing complications of Reel #3 and Day #2 (or is it #3?) of this film.

TO BE CONTINUED