Archive for Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

Charlie’s Day Out

Posted in Dance, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 2, 2021 by dcairns

Legend has it that MGM changed the title of its 1927 Anna Karenina adaptation from HEAT to LOVE, because a prospective marquee reading “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Heat” would have been comical, bit “John Gilbert and Greta Garbo in Love” would be commercially appealing. With that in mind, the title card “Charlie Chaplin in A Day’s Pleasure with Edna Purviance” may be thought unfortunate.

“Music by Charlie Chaplin” — the fact that it doesn’t say “Charles” makes me wonder if these titles are director-approved. The rambunctiousness of the score may be explained by the fact that the person Chaplin is humming the tunes to is Eric Rogers, of Carry On film fame, rather than the more artful David Raksin. The tunes are as catchy but the tone is different depending on the personality of the notator-orchestrator.

The premise of this one was later used by Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and no doubt a gaggle of others. A family outing. Edna, tow Charlie mini-mes, and the man himself emerge in turn from a respectable Los Angeles bungalow. It’s a very L&H style sunblasted suburban sprawl setting. The idea of Chaplin kids dressed as smaller versions of the man himself had been tried out in a deleted scene from SHOULDER ARMS, which may be an early clue that inspiration is a bit dry.

In fact, this film was begun as CHARLIE’S PICNIC, a follow-up to SUNNYSIDE, which was shut down after the same creative problems caused production to grind to a halt. Then Chaplin discovered Jackie Coogan, started THE KID, and inspiration once more began flowing freely. But partway through shooting that film, Chaplin realised it was going to be bigger and more complex than anything he’d attempted before, and he had First National breathing down his neck. So he dug out the shelved footage from the picnic film and very quickly, by his standards, shot material to complete it. Although the mental logjam apparently triggered by his miserable marriage had broken, working at this speed had never really suited Chaplin and he’d gotten used to the luxury of time. So A DAY’S PLEASURE bears the signs of haste.

Charlie is swathed in a greatcoat, marking the character as more settled and respectable than usual. He cranks the boneshaker into violent motion, but the motor keeps dying just as he steps onto the running board. I suspect the presence of hefty stagehands shaking the vehicle from the lee side.

The jalopy is abandoned almost as soon as it appears, as this is to be a boat ride. Maybe some memory of the outing to Southampton Charlie experienced with Hannah and Syd when a boy. Standard fat lady humour: when a big woman misses the boat and ends up stretched between it and the dock, Charlie, also late, is able to use her as a human bridge. Then, when she’s dangling from the starboard, he tries pulling her aboard with a dangerously spikey looking boathook. Mercifully, the victim appears to be a large man in drag (Tom Wood? The fat peoples’ credits on Chaplin films at the IMDb are very confusing). David Robinson suggests she’s a woman, Babe London.

The rocking boat allows Rollie Totheroh to get his camera gimbal out again, but a dance floor sequence on deck produces no real gags. The black jazz quartet accompanying the hectic jig escapes too much racial mockery until the intertitle “Three minds with but a single thought” gratuitously ruins things, and also gets the number of musicians wrong. “They have suffered too much ever to be funny to me,” Chaplin would later say, but when the comic muse is AWOL, low-hanging (strange) fruit is duly plucked.

The inevitable mal de mer business ticked off, Charlie entangles himself in a complex deckchair which resolutely fails to come alive the way ONE A.M.s Murphy bed had. And the violent rocking of the camera really gets in the way here. Chaplin is going through the motions in an unsuitable sitcom scenario about bourgeoise family problems, something he has no feeling for nor experience of. Still, it’s only a two-reeler and I’ve never seen it before so at least it’s short and new.

Through convoluted means, Charlie, so seasick he’s coming off as inebriated, collapses across the lap of another stout lady, and is covered with a blanket by an attendant. When the woman’s husband arrives with refreshments, Charlie’s waving hand, emerging from under the blanket, is mistaken for the woman’s. A dim echo of the brilliant alien hands routine from A DOG’S LIFE. It’s unconvincing spatially: I would have thought the bodies and limbs could have been arranged to make it work better. For a better example of the same kind of thing, see Lorelei Lee and Mr. Spofford in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES, arranged around a porthole. (“Quit it.”)

This leads to a fight with the husband (burly ex-boxer Tom Wilson, rather a colourless antagonist), interrupted by seasickness — as the husband leans over the side, Chaplin rains kicks and punches on his upthrust buttocks. A coward at heart, Charlie always waxes belligerent when his opponent is handicapped in any way. One of his less attractive qualities — which always seem to emerge when he’s feeling hurried or uninspired.

Still, he disembarks victorious. Which is a problem for me, because the loose structuring device of these kind of comedies is “a series of disasters/frustrations/mishaps”. Certainly the film tries to evoke that notion with the next bit of action, introduced flatly as “The hold-up at the crossroads.” Actually it’s the most inventive sequence.

Charlie manages to upset a traffic cop, tiny, obstreperous Loyal Underwood and his womenfolk, a haulage firm, Henry Bergman as two separate men, Toraichi Kono his chauffeur in real life (Mrs Kono apparently objected to his earlier appearance in THE ADVENTURER, feeling that acting was beneath a respectable driver’s dignity, but here he is again), and a couple of tar-spreaders and their vat, which is quite literally upset.

When Charlie and Bergman (in his second guise, as a second cop or kop) both get their feet stuck in the tar while arguing, the film actually threatens to become amusing. Charlie leans forwards at a super-Hulot ankle-straining angle, then pulls himself erect by the seat of his pants, a good piece of comedy physics.

Leaving his flap-shoes and both kops hopelessly sunk in bitumen, Charlie escapes using a policeman’s cap as stepping stone, making the film’s title, and the final intertitle “The end of a perfect day,” oddly UN-ironic.

Chaplin was still stuck in a disappointing marriage, and partway through production became father to Norman Spencer Chaplin, born incomplete — mostly missing his brain. The child died after a few days.

Victims of such birth defects are not usually viable, though I was once told by a nurse that the custom is to starve them so they die as quickly as possible. Glen David Gold gets quite a bit of high drama out of this tragedy in his novel Sunnyside, concluding with the horrific moment at the funeral when Chaplin sees that the mortician has arranged his son’s features into a grotesque SMILE in the tiny coffin. True.

Are we having fun yet?

Chaplin managed only two shorts in 1920, neither of them up to his exacting standards. ADP was released in December, and he didn’t manage to get another film in cinemas all through the following year. But when THE KID appeared in February 1921 (this is its centenary!) any suspicions of creative bankruptcy would be utterly dispelled.

It’s masterpiece time.

The Monroe Doctrine

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 30, 2017 by dcairns

I bought Conversations with Marilyn by J. Weatherby because it was 25p, and my Scottishness exerted itself (the inability to resist a bargain can wind up being expensive). Fiona was the one who read it, though. So I suggested we watch some accompanying films. I hadn’t seen HOW TO MARRY A MILLIONAIRE since I was a schoolboy, and one thing led to another and the other was GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES which I’ve seen a lot.

Both films are about snagging rich mates, and it’s soon apparent that Fox’s takes on this theme are a bit more sympathetic to their gold-diggers than MGM’s, which always have a tang of DIRE WARNING about them. While GENTLEMEN cheerfully inverts conventional thinking about propriety and ethics (in a playful rather than iconoclastic way), it’s less easy to parse MILLIONAIRE except as a fairy tale, where the moment Bacall abandons her dreams of marrying wealthy, it turns out her new husband is in fact as rich as Croesus, if Croesus had diversified into oil and cattle and real estate.

The girls all work in the Black Lodge.

I don’t remember ever finding MILLIONAIRE that funny. My best friend at school was a Marilyn obsessive and I sort of drifted along into that. Same with the Beatles. My personal interest was always film, though I didn’t notice that my enthusiasm for it was anything out of the ordinary until friends pointed it out. Anyway, HTMAM had Monroe and so it was good, but not that funny, and it went without saying that it would have been better with MORE Monroe. Funnily enough, my response to it is about the same thirty-four years later.

I suspect I hadn’t seen MILLIONAIRE in its true ‘Scope ratio, so that was illuminating. Jean Negulesco wasn’t particularly a comedy director, but he was a visual experimenter. He’s being pretty cautious with this new medium, but he manages a few nice things. You do feel the strain of filling all that space, though, hence the inspiration of reviving the old three-girls-on-the-make-in-Manhattan sub-genre from the ‘thirties. Just line them all up, with some subsidiary menfolk if you like, and the acreage is occupied. Or have them recline languorously, which Bacall is particularly good at.

And this is a good start to a scene.

Pulls back to this.

But the endless lolling isn’t good for LOLs — the necessary pace is sacrificed to the cumbersome equipment, and something seems generally off with the comedy timing. Bacall wasn’t often called on to be funny, but she’s very amusing in her Hawks films — but that’s very different from this. Betty Grable, I think, is the one who’s contributing most to the sense of awkward timing, or, if not awkward, at least ineffective. It is quite hard to put your finger on what’s wrong, but these gals don’t gel.

A schmoe called Fred.

The film also seems seriously undercast from the masculine side (so is GENTLEMEN, for that matter — and yes, Elliott Reid, I’m afraid I do mean you. You’re fine, but you’re up against serious female firepower). Cameron Mitchell seems better suited to investigating a faceless serial killer. Rory Calhoun always seemed he should be more interesting with a name like that. And David Wayne was very effective PLAYING a serial killer… but more on him shortly. Fred Williams Clark is along for comic bluster and glower, but plays all his scenes with Grable, igniting neither laughs nor chemistry. (Incidentally, who would win in a fight between Fred Williams and his son, Fred Williamson?)

And then there’s poor old William Powell, whose scenes harp endlessly on about his old age. (Leading to one nice line, though, as Bacall insists she prefers older men: “That old guy in THE AFRICAN QUEEN, I’m crazy about him!”) Fiona thought the film, and the mercenary Miss Persky, treated him very badly, toying with his emotions like that. Though not half as badly as Hollywood movies would treat many of their leading ladies once they neared his age.

Powell, of course, is by light years the most talented comedian in the film, which gives him no jokes or comedy business whatsoever. Just the sorrows of age.

Dream sequence. In a film about models, this model gets one of the biggest laughs.

Oh, and I’m forgetting Alexander D’Arcy, so good in THE AWFUL TRUTH, here sporting a natty eye-patch. So the film isn’t undercast at all, it has several superb light comedians, it just doesn’t use them for much of anything. And it gives the larger roles to the less appealing, less funny men.

Then there’s Monroe — I think as a kid I was slightly offended by the myopia jokes — I was a prudish little jerk. The conceit that she’s blind as a bat but won’t wear glasses gives her a huge advantage over her teammates — Bacall is meant to be the smart one, which is only an active attribute when she’s dealing with her female pals — if she were partnered with dumb males it could get some real play — Grable doesn’t seem to know what’s meant to be funny about her character, though there are plenty of dumb blonde jokes (Monroe recounts being led into Grable’s dressing room and given the distinct impression by management that she was the new upgrade of the soon-to-be obsolete pin-up, which made her feel VERY awkward).

Monroe scores virtually all the laughs, with material that’s dumber than the other leads have to work with, and then she meets David Wayne on a plane to Kansas City and the film actually catches fire for the duration. Wayne was a really good actor, and he tunes in to Monroe in a way nobody else has managed (maybe SHE’S the one sabotaging the others?) It’s fascinating, because you wouldn’t peg him as a loverboy (fifteen minutes in the sack with her and surely he’d look like the Straw Man of Oz after a run-in with the flying monkeys) nor as Monroe’s kind of performer. But magic is magic.

Nothing much new to say about GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES except that it feels much more benign than its widescreen companion, and that as video technology improves, the Technicolor just gets fiercer, which is why I now have the outline of Jane Russell’s lipstick seared into my retinae. I think the moment that did it is when she says “…but nobody chaperones the chaperone: that’s why I’m so right for this job.”

 

Mean, moody and magnificent

Posted in FILM with tags , on March 1, 2011 by dcairns

Also a good laugh. RIP Jane Russell.