Archive for Growing Up In Hollywood

The Sunday Intertitle: Somewhere

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 22, 2023 by dcairns

That’s right — we’re back to M. VERDOUX, and we’re about to meet him.

By Chaplin’s standards, showing up in scene 3 counts as a delayed entrance. The purpose of a delayed entrance, other than to set up the story in the most effective order, which sometimes forces a key character to come in late, is usually to build anticipation. Chaplin could rely on his audience to be anticipating his appearance anyway, but he helps them out — the titles speak of almost no one BUT Chaplin. Then he narrates the prologue in the cemetery. Then we have a scene with the awful Couvais family, who are talking of only two things — the absent Thelma Couvais, who we shall never meet, and the absent Verdoux, as yet unnamed.

Following the narrative style of the day, and of days before, Chaplin doesn’t go straight from his snapshot in scene 2 to the live action, as Welles might have done (KANE is full of associational transitions and omitted establishing shots. Chaplin gives us an exterior and a superimposed title, which again reads like a theatrical programme note. I like the “somewhere.” “A small villa in the South of France” would have done fine, but “somewhere” makes it mysterious. Verdoux is evidently up to no good if his location is “somewhere” rather than somewhere specific.

We meet our man cutting flowers — engaged in an act both romantic and murderous. Then the camera pans off him, all on its own accord, to observe the incinerator belching black smoke. Chabrol’s LANDRU makes a very dark running gag out of this smoke, which also has a Wellesian aspect — the penultimate image of KANE is rising smoke from the burning sled, which also has aspects of a cremation. (THE TRIAL also ends with a cloud of smoke.) Two neighbours, wheeled in for expositional duties, remark that the incinerator’s been going for three days.

Now Verdoux stops to avoid stepping on this critter. So we get the “wouldn’t hurt a fly” angle. David Bordwell, in his marvelous essay, notes that “Verdoux” translates as “sweet worm” or “gentle worm,” and the fuzzy specimen Verdoux rescues is the very embodiment of both those translations, even if it isn’t actually a worm by strict taxonomy. (What is it, cine-entomologists?)

Chaplin is admiring himself before the mirror (of course) when the doorbell rings. Of course, there’s a vanity, even a narcissism about Chaplin. The idea that confidence is attractive reaches, in certain celebrities, a grotesque point: if they love themselves so much, thinks the audience, maybe we should too? Is that the appeal of a certain preening former Prez?

Robert Parrish, future director and former child actor in CITY LIGHTS, tells a funny story about VERDOUX in his fun memoir Growing Up in Hollywood. Working as film editor by this time, he still associated with Chaplin via weekend tennis matches, and one day Chaplin asked him to look at five takes.

This story is dodgy, I think. Parrish describes the sequence consisting of Chaplin doing a little dance at the foot of some stairs, something that doesn’t happen in VERDOUX. It could be a deleted scene, but whenever Parrish describes a scene from a Chaplin film, as in his CITY LIGHTS reminiscences, it’s a scene that doesn’t exist, but has a generically Chaplinesque feel. I think it’s quite possible that Parrish was told a version of this tale, and assimilated it into his own stock of anecdotes. The gist of the story is too good not to be believed.

Anyway, Parrish says he watches the five takes and Chaplin asks him to pick the best. Parrish offers his opinion. Chaplin prefers another take. But what about the crewmember who wanders into shot in that take? asks Parrish.

“What are you looking at HIM for?”demands Chaplin.

Soap Gets in Your Eyes

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

Boyer Meets Girler

At the climax of Frank Borzage’s soaring romance HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT, a ship suspiciously like the Titanic collides with an iceberg and the passengers sing “Near-er, My God, To Thee.” When Borzage decides he wants to film specific extras singing and crying, there’s the chance for them to earn an extra two dollar fifty adjustment in their salaries ~

“[Second unit director] Ripley said, ‘How many of you can cry?’ We all held our hands up and he said he would try us out, one at a time. He started testing at the opposite end of the line. I was so nervous I ran out to the toilet. While I was there, I noticed the bar of Lux soap which was furnished to all studios in exchange for publicity photos of the stars using Lux. I scraped  my fingernails across the soap, lodging enough Lux under my nails to keep me crying for a week. When I got back to the set, Ripley and [dialogue director Joshua] Logan were having a rough time. They had found only three genuine criers. The rest were poking themselves in the eyes and thinking about their dead mothers, the Depression, the loss of the two-fifty adjustment, and any other sad thoughts that might bring on tears. When my turn came, I squeezed some soap into my eyes and burst into song — ‘E’en tho’ it be a cross, near-er to Thee — near-er my God to Thee, near-er to Thee…’The tears flowed, the cameras rolled, and Frank Borzage’s reputation as a sentimental director was intact.”

~ from Growing Up in Hollywood by Robert Parrish.

I always thought it kind of weird that this movie, which begins with some of the most fabulous romantic stuff in all of ’30s Hollywood cinema (a fairly romantic time and place even at its worst), should end as a kind of disaster movie. Apparently the film was being rewritten during the shooting, but that doesn’t explain anything much — the sinking ship was obviously always part of the plan. Maybe the last-minute rewrites prevented the five writers involved from establishing the clues that would have made such an ending inevitable as well as surprising (traditionally an ending is supposed to be both). True, Colin Clive (in one of his last roles) is established as an ocean liner magnate early on, but it doesn’t seem that important.

Would you sail in an ocean liner built by Doctor Frankenstein?

I must watch the film again though, because (a) I still think the first half is astonishingly good, with really dynamite work from Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer, two actors who are always good but prove to be exceptionally good together and (b) now that I know it’s coming, the sinking ship probably won’t bother me at all.

Borzage, the presiding genius, does manage a plot twist with his version of TITANIC that James Cameron would never have dared — the ship doesn’t sink! I admire very much the cheek of that.

Quote of the Day: Blackmail

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on May 31, 2008 by dcairns

No angel

*Many many people seem to be coming here for stuff on Mae West, which is nice. But I wrote a piece about her here that might be more what you’re after…

Mae West was being blackmailed. The special investigator for the Los Angeles district attorney’s office didn’t seem to be able to catch the blackmailer. One of the reasons for this was that he was the blackmailer.”

~ from Growing Up In Hollywood by Robert Parrish.

A literally incredible story from Parrish’s joyous autobio, recounting his Hollywood experiences as child player, extra, boy detective, editor and director. This chapter features not only West and the D.A.’s office, but Busby Berkeley, Al Jolson (who saves the day), and Warners’ studio cop Blaney Matthews:

“The year before he had been the chief investigator for the district attorney’s office and assigned to a drunk driving, hit-and-run manslaughter case. A famous, talented and, at that time, irreplaceable dance director [I think we know who] was the driver of the death car [I’ve always loved that expression, “death car”. It has an ominous sound, far more so than “death scooter”, for instance]. He was also in the middle of shooting one of Warner Brothers’ most expensive musicals. When the case came up, the special investigator, Blaney Matthews, said it wasn’t the dance director’s fault after all. The dance director was acquitted and went back to directing the Warner Brothers musical. Shortly after, Matthews resigned as chief investigator for the district attorney’s office and was appointed head of the Warner Brothers Studio police department. It was well known that the appointment was in recognition of the good sense and high integrity that he had shown in the matter of the dance director.”

Parrish’s (possibly tall) tale would make a great little movie, but I don’t know who would make it.

wheel of death