Archive for Fun in a Chinese Laundry

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]

Quote of the Day: an indifferent work

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2008 by dcairns

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I’m always evangelising for Josef Von Sternberg’s autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry, which I think is THE movie autobio, acting not only as a life story (probably it could be surpassed easily on this score) but as a Rosetta Stone to the filmmaker’s work. Since I enjoyed Sternberg’s writing so much, it’s odd that I hadn’t realised that there’s more out there:

JVS’s intro to the published script of DER BLAU ENGEL is a treat: concentrated Sternberg. Only a few pages, but packed with nutrition. Here’s the great man, rubbishing his own first talkie, THUNDERBOLT, made just before his German jaunt.

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“I had just finished my first sound film, and indifferent work featuring an actor whose temporary fame was sustained by a so-called silent film called UNDERWORLD. The entire cast was inferior, all of them unable to even echo my instructions. There was some good warbling in the death row where most of the action took place, but I looked forward with pleasure to making a sound film in Germany. I was not aware, of course, that Europe had only the most primitive method of adding sound to a quite elaborate camerawork which would cause me a lot of trouble. Incidentally, the silent films had never been silent — a piano tinkled, an organ moaned or an orchestra thundered out music that rarely helped the silent film.”

I like how he omits to name the actor (George Bancroft) out of “tact”, nor the director of the film which shot him to fame (Von Sternberg himself) out of “modesty”. His other inferior actors include the splendid Fay Wray. The reference to warbling on death row may confuse the unwary, but THUNDERBOLT does indeed feature a male voice choir harmonising by the death cell. “I thought I had that quartet broken up,” complains the warden, Tully Marshall, “but I no sooner get rid of one that they send me another.”

“Do you sing tenor?” a prisoner asks Bancroft. “Me? I kill tenors.”

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Sternberg is too harsh about this mad bastard of a film. Although my copy of this ultra-rare escapee from oblivion is almost inaudible and invisible, it’s noticeably a strange and memorable piece of work. George Bancroft is an unlikely leading man, it’s true, with his bulbous frame and face, and his oily dog of a hairdo; and his acting style is even stranger than his appearance. Dragging every word out so that you fear he might forget the second syllable of “Goodbye” before he’s finished painstakingly enunciating the first, he nevertheless exudes menace and a certain kind of dilatory gusto. Fay Wray is a little posh for a gangster’s moll, and it’s a shame the poor pic quality prevents us from seeing what Sternberg’s lighting is doing for her (being the palest cast member, she disappears into a white smear). Tully Marshall, memorably seedy as a moth-eaten count in my all-time favourite film, HE WHO GETS SLAPPED, is fantastically snarky and craven as the prison warden. Richard Arlen is fine.

Why is Richard Arlen imprisoned in Channel 4 television? His cell has the exact logo.

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In some respects the film plays like a remake of UNDERWORLD, with Bancroft as gangster Jim “Thunderbolt” Lang. (In UNDERWORLD he plays gangster Bull Weed. Two names not often found in one individual, as Sternberg said of “Maria Magdalene” Dietrich. George Bancroft may have had the manliest, ugliest character names of an actor! A selection: Blake Greeson; Mug; The Wolf; Cannonball Casey; Bert the Boxman; Lesher Skidmore; Brock Trumbull; Stag Bailey; Elmer Beebe; William Waldo; Dudley ‘Dud’ Garrett; Sheriff Claude Stagg; Major Burdle; Dr Clem Driscoll; Captain Ira “Hell-Ship” Morgan; Enoch Thurman; Two-Gun Nolan; Buck Lockwell; Dan Angus; Lem Tolliver; Windy Miller. Well, I suppose, looking like he does, he was unlikely to ever find himself called Alphonse Maria LeFanu.)

Sternberg starts off with one of his trademark sleazy dives, The Black Cat. It’s a pleasingly multi-racial establishment (uniquely so, for its era) with some superb extras:

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Amazing physical performance from the unnamed gum-chewing maitre’d lady.

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This guy has no head, just a sort of fat skull, crossed with a football. He’s awesome. His friend, who has plenty of dialogue, delivers it all from behind that structure, for some reason.

The soundscape within The Black Cat is… distinctive. The band plays louder than the actors’ can talk, and every now and then both are interrupted by a shrilly yodelling cackle, adding “atmosphere”. Impressionistically, it’s quite a lot like a real nightclub. I hate nightclubs, except in films.

The plot is by Jules Furthman, who would write several later Sternberg classics from MOROCCO to JET PILOT, with his brother Charles. Jules also worked regularly with Howard Hawks over the years, part of the obscure bond between Sternberg and hawks, two superficially quite dissimilar artists.

The plot: having resolved to kill his ex-girlfriend’s new beau, Thunderbolt is inadvertently betrayed by a stray dog, and sent to death row for his many crimes. He gets to take the dog with him, for added pathos. Resolving to carry out his revenge killing, “poisonal”, he arranges for the beau to be framed for a bank robbery. Then he clears the guy’s name. but this is all part of the most baroque, elaborate vengeance scheme ever, for when the guy steps up to the bars to shake his hand, he’s going to grab him by the throat and –

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– squee–ee–eeze…

Dialogue is by Herman Mankiewicz, of CITIZEN KANE fame. Herman once famously engineered his firing from an assignment by writing a scene where Rin Tin Tin the wonder dog carries a baby into a burning building, and here he seems hell-bent on getting fired again, writing staggeringly insane dialogue that attains a kind of crack-brained poetry. (“I was absolutely on the level until me twelfth birthday. And after that… nothing much happened until I was twenty-seven.”) Bancroft spends most of the film trying to guess his jailor’s name, and when he finally learns it — Aloysius – goes to the electric chair laughing merrily.

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