Archive for Fun in a Chinese Laundry

Attack of the Clonebaugh

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , on July 22, 2016 by dcairns

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So, I did a foolish thing. Following a conversation at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, I flashed on the fact that there had been no biography of Josef Von Sternberg. His magnificent autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, is too idiosyncratic to really count. I proposed the idea to a friend in publishing. And learned that, in fact, there had been a biography just a couple of years ago. Oops.

Of course it’s by John Baxter, who has practically monopolized the field of director bios. I checked it out — it’s not bad.

I was amused to learn that, while Sternberg was making army information films during WWI, his Germanic name apparently causing no problem at all, character actor Gustav Von Seyffertitz underwent a name change in order to be able to get work. What would Gustav Von Seyffertitz consider a reasonable, plausible pseudonym?

The name he went for, G. Butler Clonebaugh, is kind of memorable, I guess. Except that of the three film he used it on, it was spelled correctly just once, the other times manifesting as Clonbough and Clonblough. Which are both clearly far inferior names. Except that I can’t find any evidence that Clonebaugh even IS a name: it hasn’t been attached to anybody on the internet except Seyffertitz. Even the name Seyffertitz is more common.

Fun fact: You never see Gustav Von Seyffertitz and C. Aubrey Smith in the same shot. This is because of the superstitious fear shared by both men that if they met, their profiles would permanently interlock like the mosaic-creatures in an Escher print.

You can buy the Baxter bio: Von Sternberg (Screen Classics)

The Sunday Intertitle: All the Fun of the Fair

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , on April 7, 2013 by dcairns

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Finally saw something I’d been longing for — the surviving fragment of Josef Von Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH.

I love fragments, me. I love fragments maybe even more than I love complete films. And I can think of all kinds of modern movies that would be better as fragments. You could probably find a three-minute clip from AUSTRALIA that would make people think “My, what was that? I wonder if that was ever any good?” The intact movie doesn’t make anybody think that.

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Critic Dwight MacDonald called THE CASE OF LENA SMITH as “the most completely satisfying American film I have seen,” which you couldn’t, alas, say about the clip. But I can and do say “Isn’t that an uncredited Sig Rumann as the magician?” If so, even Alexander Horwath and Michael Omasta’s exhaustive volume on the lost film, Josef Von Sternberg: The Case of Lena Smith (Filmmuseum Synema Publikationen) doesn’t mention it. A Shadowplay first!

The sequence, set at Vienna’s famous Prater, scene of memorable events in LETTER FROM AN UNKNOWN WOMAN and THE THIRD MAN, is also fascinating as it recreates the setting of Sternberg’s own childhood, suggesting a more than usually personal production from this idiosyncratic and often autobiographical filmmaker. Here’s the relevant extract from his memoir, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, a sentence of John Collier-like length and ebullience.

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“Hundreds of shooting galleries, Punch and Judy and the inevitable Satan puppet, chalk-faced clowns in their dominoes, boats sliding from a high point down into water with a great splash, leather-faced dummies that groaned when slapped, pirouetting fleas, sword swallowers, tumbling midgets and men with skirts flaring from them, proving that not all females had lost their undergarments, a forest of balloons, tattooed athletes, muscle-bulging weightlifters, women who were sawed in half and apparently spent the rest of their lives truncated, trained dogs and elephants, tightropes that provided footing for a gourmet who feasted on a basketful of the local sausages with horse-radish that made my mouth water, graceful ballerinas, grunting knife-throwers with screaming targets whose hair flowed down to the hems of their nightgowns, hatchet-throwing Indians and phlegmatic squaws, double-headed calves, members of the fair sex, fat and bearded, with thighs that could pillow an army, magicians who poured jugs of flaming liquid down their throats, drum-thumping cannibals and their wiggling harems, a glass maze from which the delighted customers stumbled with black eyes and gashed heads, hypnotists who practiced levitation and passed hoops around the dormant females swaying five feet from where they ought to have been, and the central figure of a huge Chinese mandarin with drooping mustaches longer than the tail of a horse revolving on a merry-go-round to the tune of Ivanovici’s Donauwellen — what more could I have asked?”

Alas I’ve been forbidden from uploading the clip, which Waseda University seem to be anxious to keep as their own personal stuff (Bastards! Bastards!) and some of the nicest bits are distorting reflections of crowds, a la CABARET, which can’t really be reproduced here as still images since they just kind of melt into blurry inkwash smudges. They’re gorgeous in motion, take my word for it. Or better still, ram-raid Waseda University and steal the clip and put it up on the internet.*

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The female Johnny Eck! The heroine’s naughty blonde friend whispers a remark about her into the heroine’s ear — she looks scandalized at the suggestion. Of course — dramatic irony — it’s the virtuous heroine (goody-goody Esther Ralston) who will be seduced by the handsome soldier…

*It wouldn’t actually be cool to do the first part of this.

Three Silent Classics by Josef Von Sternberg (Underworld / Last Command / Docks of New York) (The Criterion Collection)

Lost and Gone

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 22, 2010 by dcairns

I sort of miscounted and the film preservation blogathon For the love of Film ends today, but I have a few mini-posts left. I shall issue them over the coming week, since I don’t have time to write other things to keep the blog going this week if I posted them all today. But this is the important one — trailers for lost movies. These little peripheral pieces are all that survives of the original films — or almost (see below).

I don’t know anything about IN THE DAYS OF DANIEL BOONE, but it looks pretty spiffy. What I call an epic!

THE SILENT FLYER also stars a bunch of no-name actors, at least for modern viewers, but it’s canine star is the biggest challenger to Rin Tin Tin, a handsome hound called Silver Streak, who starred in his own rival set of movies in parallel with Rinty’s career. The knock-off dog looks pretty good, although we don’t see him filling a canteen or unlacing his booties, as Rinty does in CLASH OF THE WOLVES. But the makers compensate for their Alsatian protagonist’s lack of versatility with a string of Thrilling Action Climaxes —

See! The Fistfight with a FatMan!

See! The sleighride to mayhem!

See! The rather nifty ice-yacht! Seriously, I want one. Wait, the blew it up? Aw nuts.

THE AMERICAN VENUS opens with a series of recommended vital statistics, proving that body fascism is not a new phenomenon, and that it even predates the other kind. It’s Louise Brooks’s first credited role, and this is all we have of it. Also Esther Ralston, who was very big, and who also starred in a Von Sternberg lost film, THE CASE OF LENA SMITH (a tiny fragment of this one survives). Maybe if these films survived, Esther would be a bigger name today.

I’ve seen a very funny interview with ER where she goes on at length about how Dorothy Arzner had her doing lots of “inappropriate” sexy stuff in TEN MODERN COMMANDMENTS. This in a documentary called THE SILENT FEMINISTS.

“Filmed on the same sweeping scale as BEAU GESTE –” the trailer for BEAU SABREUR wants to tell us that it’s basically exactly the same film, but can’t quite work up the courage. VERY early Gary Cooper, plus fellow Sternberg people William Powell (who had a clause placed in his contract after making THE LAST COMMAND, stipulating that he would never be asked to work with Josef Von S. again) and Evelyn Brent. The director is given as “John Waters,” but we shouldn’t expect to see Gary Cooper eating dog shit or William Powell getting raped by a crustacean. Different guy. Somehow Waters the 1st got sidelined into 2nd unit work later in life, contributing to DAVID COPPERFIELD, NINOTCHKA, THE BIG COUNTRY… Gary Cooper meanwhile went on to even greater stardom as a talking star, even taking the lead in a legit version of BEAU GESTE (directed by William Wellman, who made a star out of Coop by casting him in WINGS just a year before this missing minor masterwork).

Saving the best for last — THE PATRIOT is one of many lost Lubitsch films, including even a few Hollywood ones. But this one stars Emil Jannings! The trailer is fantastically useful and interesting, as well as heart-breaking, because it shows a more active and probing camera style, likely influenced by Murnau and THE LAST LAUGH, and unlike what we see in other Lubitsch films.

This is the movie that’s a weeny bit less lost than the others. Because there’s a good chance you’ve seen bits of it — as stock footage in Sternberg’s THE SCARLET EMPRESS. Sternberg writes that Lubitsch not only wasn’t aware of the swiped material, but in his capacity as Paramount boss (a job Uncle Lube didn’t last in for long), he castigated Sternberg for spending so much on these extravagant crowd scenes. Sternberg, perverse in all things, did not point out the source of the material. He also liked Lubitsch, but never told him this. (All this info comes from Sternberg’s magnificent autobio, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. You are free to disbelieve it.)

The one thing I’m left wondering though is whether the spectacular torture montage at the start of EMPRESS is original, or from THE PATRIOT, or from elsewhere? It’s an eye-popping sequence of explicit sadistic pornography, astonishing even by pre-code standards, and the temptation naturally is to attribute it to Sternberg, but I’m really not sure.

That’s Maria Riva, Dietrich’s real daughter, and biographer, playing her as a young girl (why does her accent change from American to German when she grows up? Futile to ask questions of this kind). and the harness she has to wear for a year is (a) part of the film’s continuous equine imagery, a sly reference to Catherine the Great’s rumoured demise in the throes of passion with a stallion, and (b) autobiography, as you can learn in Sternberg’s book. His arms were tied to his sides for a year, he says, to stop him scratching the flea bites on his scalp.

“Hear and see THE PATRIOT — and know how great a motion picture can be.”

But we CAN’T.

Donate here.

The Scarlet Empress [DVD] [1934] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

The Scarlet Empress [DVD] [1934] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC]

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