Archive for Fun in a Chinese Laundry

The Sunday Intertitle: George K. American

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on March 17, 2019 by dcairns

THE BOOB (1926) is a slice of Americana — a product only available in slices, it seems. You never see a whole, unsliced one, even in the work of Norman Rockwell.

We open on a swing, where a city slicker seduces a simple she-bumpkin. Director William Wellman fixes his camera to the swing, so he can frame the couple rock-steady while the bucolic scene behind them lurches seasickeningly up and down. Grand!

George K. Arthur had the damnedest career. I can’t make him out. He first appeared on my radar as star and putative backer of Josef Von Sternberg’s debut film, THE SALVATION HUNTERS. He offered JVS a budget of $$60,000 to make a film that would give him a starring role. Then, according to the director (and I’ve been unable to ascertain how honest the memoir Fun In a Chinese Laundry is, but I’ve pinpointed no definite lies), filming was begun using available locations and cheap talent, and GKA tearfully confessed that the 60K didn’t exist. Jo ploughed on regardless with his own savings, and the film made a name for him. (JVS had an indomitable, triumph-over-adversity side as well as a knack for making everyone hate him: part Horatio Alger, part Alger Hiss.)

It no doubt boosted George’s profile too, though he’d already played some big parts, going by the IMDb (he OUGHT to have had $60,000).

In THE BOOB, Englishman George (the son of a traveling salesman and a department store product demonstrator, so he may have had the right nature and nurture to pull the con on JVS) plays an American yokel, with much pasty-faced gurning. I’m reminded unpleasantly of El Brendel, though here the grimace supplants the smirk.

For the next ten years or so, GKA alternated between biggish supporting roles and uncredited bit parts. He departs Hollywood, or at least his credits die out, in 1935.

But GKA will resurface, in his native England, as producer for Wendy Toye’s excellent short films THE STRANGER LEFT NO CARD (1952) and ON THE TWELFTH DAY (1955), and also, uncredited, in the same capacity on Jack Clayton’s THE BESPOKE OVERCOAT (1955), thus kickstarting two more major cinematic careers, whatever his role in Von Sternberg’s origin story.

So I salute you, George K. Arthur! And your little dog, too.

Advertisements

Attack of the Clonebaugh

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

Gustav_von_Seyffertitz-528x715

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

vlcsnap-2013-04-06-11h01m50s7

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.

vlcsnap-2013-04-06-11h04m10s121

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.

vlcsnap-2013-04-06-11h06m22s160

“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.*

vlcsnap-2013-04-06-11h02m58s158

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)